Tea Time at the Museums

Apr 21, 2015

House Teas are a long-standing tradition in many of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate residence halls. Hosted in House Masters’ residences at regular intervals throughout the year, these informal events serve as social gatherings and study breaks—an occasion for intellectual conversation and community-building, complete with delectable food, plenty of coffee, and, yes, tea.

So it represented an exciting departure from the ordinary this winter when the Harvard Art Museums kicked off a new series of monthly House Teas in the Aaron and Nettie G. Naumburg Room. Conceived as part of the museums’ initiatives to bring students to the museums, and implemented by the Student Board and their respective House communities, the teas have attracted intense interest.

“Some students were asking me to reserve a spot for them even before we knew the date or time of the tea,” said Julia Cohn ’15. Representing Adams House, Cohn is a Student Board member who helped plan the inaugural tea under the guidance of Erin Northington, the museums’ manager of student engagement programs. “For a lot of people, it was their first time in the museums,” Cohn said.

The House Teas are being held in alphabetical order by house name; Adams House’s tea took place in January, and Cabot and Currier Houses’ events were in the following two months. Each tea has a slightly different personality, with programming that varies depending on residents’ interests. All include introductions by museums staff, Student Board members, and House Masters.

During the tea for Adams House, Ethan Lasser, the Margaret S. Winthrop Associate Curator of American Art, led small groups in short talks about two works that are especially relevant to the house: John Singleton Copley’s John Adams (1783) and Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully’s John Quincy Adams (1825–30) (which had previously hung in Adams House).

“It really tapped into house pride and museums pride,” Cohn said. Because these works hang in the museums’ Level 2 arcade, they can be glimpsed from the Calderwood Courtyard below. “My hope is that any time people who attended the tea come through the courtyard, they look up and remember the half hour they spent learning about the portraits,” Cohn said.

At the teas for Cabot and Currier Houses, residents who are also student guides for the museums offered brief versions of the tours they give to the public. “It’s so fun to have the chance to give tours to fellow students,” said Elizabeth Wiener ’17, a student guide from Cabot House. “Being able to have a tour from their peers makes them more comfortable asking questions and engaging.”

House Masters (who usually host teas) and resident tutors have also been enthusiastic participants in these events. Adams House Masters Sean and Judy Palfrey attended the first tea. “People were very excited to be there,” Sean Palfrey said. “The students were hungry for an experience in the new museums, and [the Naumburg Room] was a beautiful, lovely place in which to introduce the students who were most interested.”

Currier House resident tutor Paul “Coz” Teplitz said he was glad to see students making use of the renovated museums, and in particular exploring the galleries on their own after the short tours. “Our guide was super engaged, and now the students are too. Look at those guys,” Teplitz said, gesturing across the Level 2 arcades at three Currier students having a discussion in front of Francesco Fracanzano’s The Drunken Silenus. “How great is that?”