Last Friday, The Art of Museum Viewing, a discussion organized by the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, brought together three minds from the art world—artist and Boston University professor Dan Ranalli, Harvard Art Museums director Thomas W. Lentz, and Boston Globe art critic Sebastian Smee—to discuss the role of art museums in contemporary culture.
Smee began the talk by describing his ideal museum visit: to sit and reflect on the works on view in a quiet setting. He asked whether it is still possible to do that in today’s museums.
Museums are trying to negotiate the line between the contemplative space that Smee hopes for and an actively engaging space for other audiences. In museums of the 21st century, there are many more elements in play, aside from the art itself, that can enhance or detract from the visitor experience. Technology that the museums provide and that visitors bring with them (such as mobile devices) are factors that influence the museum-going experience. How much do museums shape that experience, and how much do museums allow visitors to tailor it to their own needs and expectations? Art museums have developed into complex institutions over the past thirty years, noted Tom Lentz. “Audiences now talk back. It’s no longer a one-way relationship.”
With the Harvard Art Museums’ new facility set to open this November, the role of architecture in the museum experience featured prominently in the discussion—in particular, the balance between architectural innovation and the primary task of displaying art. “It’s important for architects to know that they are making spaces for works of art and for the people working in the museums,” said Ranalli.
Lentz talked about the open, transparent design of the Harvard Art Museums and how Renzo Piano has successfully achieved the goals that he’d shared with the architect at the start of the project: “to make our collections more accessible; put them to work for all students, faculty, and the community; and, most important, to do this with models and mechanisms to use the collections differently.”