Memories and Hopes for the Museums

By Colleen O'Leary
May 21, 2014

Colleen O’Leary (Harvard Class of 2017) talks to Fiona Benenson (AB ’01) about her experiences at the Harvard Art Museums when she was a Harvard student.

Harvard freshman Colleen O’Leary is eagerly awaiting the opening of the new Harvard Art Museums. Curious about how the museums will become a part of her academic life, O’Leary recently sat down with Harvard alumna Fiona Benenson (AB ’01) to ask about her relationship with the museums when she was a History of Art and Architecture (HAA) student. O’Leary wanted to know about Benenson’s experience at the museums, what memories she cherished about her time there, and what she’s hoping for the new facility when it opens in November. She was also hoping to get some advice.

O’Leary: What are your favorite works that were on view when you were at Harvard?

Benenson: I loved Degas’s sculpture Little Dancer. I used to gaze at it for ages. There were very few [sculptures] that were actually cast in Degas’s lifetime or shortly thereafter, a period dominated by the impressionists. I was studying impressionism, so the sculpture was special for me.

I also remember spending a lot of time in front of a painting by Van Gogh of his beat-up working shoes [Three Pairs of Shoes, 1886–87]. I remember studying the painting, being struck by the contrast between the dinginess of the old shoes and the monetary value of the painting. I’m sure he did it only as a practice study!

O’Leary: I’ve had the opportunity to work in the Harvard Art Museums Archives this semester and have learned a lot about how museums work. Did you work at the Harvard Art Museums as a student as well?

Benenson: Yes, as a freshman I worked with Sandra Grindlay, curator of Harvard’s portrait collection. At that time, the museums didn’t have all its archives in digital format so we were putting this together, taking images of paintings, completing condition reports, and entering data. It was fun going down into the archives and seeing the inner workings of the museums. That experience is what led me to declare History of Art and Architecture as my concentration my sophomore year.

O’Leary: I’m sure you have some great stories and memories of the museums. What are some of your special moments?

Benenson: Well, clearly I’m very nostalgic for my time here; it was so wonderful! When I was a freshman I felt adrift until I fell in love with art and art history. And when you fall in love with a concentration it makes everything gel. To this day, I’m incredibly attached to the Fogg collection. (I studied modern and contemporary work, so I wasn’t at the [Arthur M.] Sackler Museum quite as much.) My senior year I had a tutorial with a senior faculty member, Jim Cuno, who was also director of the Harvard Art Museums. I got to help him with his plans to design a new art museum. The building was proposed for Memorial Drive, at the corner of Western Avenue. Renzo Piano was the architect on that project, too.

O’Leary: What did you learn about the museum design process?

Benenson: For a semester, I witnessed a planning process play out. Different voices have to be heard in designing a museum, and many questions are asked: Who is the audience? Is the museum open enough for the community? Is there a natural flow—not only a flow to the design of the building, but a flow to the artwork and the exhibition space? Does it make sense? It’s amazing that these projects end up coming together to completion, given the many viewpoints involved. In my case, the museum on Western Avenue wasn’t built. It was a fascinating project to be involved in for a semester, and it’s funny that it’s now being realized with a totally different idea. It’s great to be living in Boston for the opening.

O’Leary: Even though you were not involved in the current renovations, what do you hope has been incorporated into the new Harvard Art Museums, and what do you hope has stayed the same?

Benenson: The Calderwood Courtyard. Walking in was like walking onto the set of Romeo and Juliet. It was a private, tranquil, quiet, magical space. . . . Being in the courtyard is one of my favorite memories—it just quieted everything around me.

O’Leary: I’m really looking forward to using the collections in my class work. I’ve been told that before the galleries were closed in order to finalize the renovation and expansion project, there were about 100 professors from many different departments doing research projects based on the collections (a science professor brought his class to study and date the age of wood paneling on paintings, for example). What was it like to have access to objects for your courses?

Benenson: When I was a student, almost every course made use of actual, physical objects—it’s crucial for this degree. You have to know what the art looks like; what the brushstrokes look like, what the canvas looks like, what the proportions of the sculpture are. I remember when Visiting Professor Rob Storr asked us to sit in front of a Terry Winters work and copy it to see how long it would take. If you copy every line you’d be there for hours. So it was a humbling experience, and entirely dependent on being in front of the work.

O’Leary: I’ve heard that a special feature of the new museums is the Art Study Center, which will have three spaces for viewing works of art not on view from each of the museums: the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler. Did you have access like that when you were a student? What do you think the benefit will be for students of this generation?

Benenson: The benefit will be huge! A lot of people who’ve graduated college think back and say, I wish I’d known what was there, or I wish I would have directed my studies another way. I hope students have the perspective and the knowledge to take advantage of all of this while they’re actually here. I don’t necessarily think that I did. [The Art Study Center] will be an immense resource.

O’Leary: I have three more years here and am very interested in pursuing a concentration in HAA. Do you have any advice for me?

Benenson: I would say, do it and don’t look back. I would also say pay more attention to what’s going on in VES [Department of Visual and Environmental Studies]. Find out what those students are doing and what they’re interested in, because it all coheres. Keep tabs on those students and walk through the Carpenter Center.

To really know and love art and architecture, you just have to be there with the objects. You’re very lucky that the collections will be back on view.

Note: This is an edited transcript of the interview.