Each September, on one special night, Harvard students have the museums all to themselves. Hosted after public hours, the Student Late Night is an evening of great food, music, and, of course, art.
Erin Northington, assistant director of student programs and campus initiatives, spearheads the organization of the event, which is a chance for students from across campus to acquaint (or reacquaint) themselves with the museums. One of the challenges of planning the Student Late Night, she said, is to acknowledge the museums’ academic mission while still creating an evening with broad appeal.
“How do you take the museums’ deeply rigorous and intellectual mission and apply it to this program, to make it something for everyone?” Northington said. It’s a question she considers at each step of the planning.
With ideas percolating as early as January, active planning typically begins in March. Northington and dozens of colleagues help conceptualize activities on all levels of the building. This year, that includes a custom Lightbox Gallery installation arranged by the Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology team and art-making activities in the Materials Lab. Students can also enter a lottery to rent original prints, including two that were acquired with the help of former Student Board members, through the popular Student Print Rental Program.
Northington ensures that the smallest details of the program come together perfectly, even down to the bite-size treats and festive mocktails inspired by the collections and current special exhibitions. She collaborates with campus partners to showcase how the work of the museums connects to the larger conversation on campus.
Among other highlights are the custom stickers based on the museums’ famous Forbes Pigment Collection, created collaboratively by the Division of Academic and Public Programs, the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (which manages the pigment collection), and the Design team.
“How do you take the museums’ deeply rigorous and intellectual mission and apply it to this program, to make it something for everyone?”
This year, in connection with the themes of the special exhibition Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement and Belonging in Contemporary Art, Northington has teamed up with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program at Harvard Law School to make students aware of resources available on campus for members of the Harvard community who have concerns about their immigration status. A goal each year is to emphasize how the museums welcome all students, regardless of background or experience.
Students, of course, play an important role in the thinking behind each year’s Late Night. Two of the museums’ Ho Family Student Guides—Paul Tamburro, a rising junior in Lowell House, and May Wang, a rising senior in Adams House—offer a unique perspective: as part of their Summer Humanities and Arts Research Program internship, they are writing a report on academic museums, based on findings from a student museum conference they attended last spring.
College museums “don’t want to be an event space with art on the walls,” Tamburro said, recalling a sentiment that was shared by other students at a recent conference. They also shouldn’t be intimidating spaces, he and Wang agreed. Instead, programs like the Student Late Night are about bringing students into the museums, introducing a sense of comfort and curiosity, and encouraging return visits.
While many students return to the museums after the Student Late Night to study in the courtyard or to spend more time in the galleries, some go even deeper, getting involved in the museums’ signature student programs.
It was at Tamburro’s first Late Night that he learned about the student guide program. While chatting with new friends, enjoying the galleries, and sampling the dessert, Tamburro met a senior who was involved with the program. His next Student Late Night solidified his decision to become a guide.
This is exactly the kind of experience that Northington, student organizers, and museum staff hope students will walk away with at the end of the night. “We love when students realize that they can make this space their own, whether by participating in our programs or simply becoming a frequent visitor,” she said.
Allyson Tompkins served as the Summer 2019 writing and editing intern in the Communications Division at the Harvard Art Museums.