Harvard Museums unveil resplendent renovations
By Mary McCleary | June 21, 2016, 8:09 EST
Housing one of the most captivating collections in Boston, the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture offer a distinctive repository of wonder, imagination, and exploration. Together with the college’s art museum, the six-museum consortium encompasses the largest university collection in the world. Recently, Executive Director Jane Pickering embarked on a number of renovations to showcase some of the 28 million objects and specimens.
Harvard has been acquiring items for research and teaching since 1672. As resources poured into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences over the centuries, eclectic objects of all shapes and sizes accumulated in the museums. For this reason, Pickering suggests academic institutions offer an experience that other museums simply cannot match.
“University museums have wonderful opportunities that other museums aren’t able to provide,” she explained. “Harvard keeps most of its vast collections on site, behind the scenes but in the same buildings in which the public museums are housed. It’s one of our best features, because researchers, professors, and students are actively working on understanding the specimens, and collaborate with the museum staff to interpret their research for the public.”
Many of these world-class scholars and experts provide lectures for visitors at the exhibits. They give a multi-dimensional view of the life, history and cultures of various peoples around the globe. Topics are studied and presented through the diverse holdings of the HMSC consortium, which includes the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, the Harvard Semitic Museum, the Harvard University Herbaria, the Mineralogical & Geological Museum, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The latter three are known collectively as the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
Pickering cited this integrative characteristic as an additional asset of the HMSC experience. “The advantage of having a group of museums in a university setting is that we can present exhibits that cross several disciplines,” she noted. “For instance, we had an exhibit on navigation. Because of our multi-departmental collections, we were able to present the topic from many different angles, including animal navigation, 18th and 19th century mariner exploration, remote island navigation, and other perspectives.”
“Ten years ago, people were concerned about the future of museums because so many of their items could be viewed online. But the result was quite the contrary. People saw items in the collections online, became intrigued, and wanted to see the original.”
— Jane Pickering, Executive Director of HMSC
As a zoologist, Pickering has a deep understanding and appreciation for the unique objects in the museums, such as the 42-foot-long Kronosaurus and the taxidermy collection located in the stunning Victorian, two-tiered Great Mammal Hall. Pickering began her career as a curator at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Subsequently, she became the director of the MIT museum, then Deputy Director of the Yale Peabody Museum, before finally taking the helm of HMSC in 2012.
Since her debut at Harvard, Pickering has made updating and renovating the museums’ celebrated collections a priority. For example, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Great Mammal Hall was restored to its original look and feel — except, that is, for the decidedly 21st century green materials, technologies, and scientific information on the species.
Pickering also oversaw the extensive restoration of the Glass Flowers exhibition, which is the signature gallery of the Natural History Museum. The display first opened in 1893 to house the famous collection of the Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, popularly called the “Glass Flowers.” Commissioned as a teaching resource in 1886 for what is now the Harvard University Herbaria, the 4,200, one-of-a-kind botanical masterpieces represent more than 830 plant species. The exquisite objects were created by the Dresden, Germany-based father and son glass artisans, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. The partnership between the university and the sculptors lasted for five decades. The Museum also houses the Blaschkas’ Sea Creatures in Glass, which are delicate glass models of jellyfish, anemone, and cephalopod invertebrates.
“We have people from around the world who come to see the Blaschka collection,” Pickering said. “The glass flowers were commissioned as a teaching tool by a Harvard botany professor, who wanted to educate his undergraduate students about plant life — which was difficult in the middle of Boston winters. So he collaborated with the artists to create something that would be in bloom, so to speak, for 365 days a year. It’s an example of combining art and science. The individual pieces are remarkably accurate.”
“The university is home to some of the brightest minds in the world, and the museums are a window for the community to see the work of the faculty and students, while also serving as a window for the academics to see the community.”
— Jane Pickering, Executive Director of HMSC
The museum made another significant addition with the new Marine Life exhibition. It features a floor-to-ceiling diorama that recreates marine life in New England’s coastal waters, with giant sea turtles, colorful fish, and vibrant plants. Pickering noted, “Rather than separating marine organisms according to their type or the place they live, the diorama presents them together in their environment. They are shown inside their ocean habitats, with typical plants, shellfish, and other common features. It’s an immersive experience. You feel like you’re part of the scene.”
The Marine Life exhibition also includes interactive displays and an ocean exploration theater, with a multimedia depiction of the surface and depths of the world’s oceans.
The New England Forests section is another fascinating multi-media exhibit. Visitors enter a picturesque room filled with replicas of local wildlife, trees and insects surrounded by photographic murals. The gentle sound of crickets adds to the tranquil ambiance.
While the Harvard museums exude an elusive aura of 19th century decorum, they nevertheless incorporate modern technology throughout the collections. Pickering remarked that the onset of digital technologies has not adversely affected museum attendance. “Ten years ago, people were concerned about the future of museums because so many of their items could be viewed online. But the result was quite the contrary. People saw items in the collections online, became intrigued, and wanted to see the original.”
She observed that, although young people expect supplemental online information and digital tools like mobile apps, they still appreciate coming to a dedicated space. “The allure of the authentic is still here,” Pickering said. “There is something about human nature that wants to see the real thing. Now we have over 250,000 visitors to the museums every year.”
The attendance numbers include 45,000 K-12 students visiting the museum each year. Pickering added that the taxidermy galleries are perennial favorites, especially since children are able to get up close and study the animals. The HMSC also collaborates with local libraries in sponsoring children’s programs and workshops.
Pickering emphasized that close ties between the Harvard museums and the public have been mutually beneficial. “The university is home to some of the brightest minds in the world, and the museums are a window for the community to see the work of the faculty and students, while also serving as a window for the academics to see the community,” she noted. “The engagement between the academic community and the wider community provides a wonderful opportunity to communicate the relevance and excitement of our current research. We do our best to be welcoming, and the visitor response has been very rewarding.”
The Harvard Museum of Natural History is located at 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, on the Harvard campus, a seven-minute walk from the Harvard Square Red Line MBTA station.
The museum is wheelchair accessible, and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 361 days/year. Admission: adults $12; seniors and students, $10; youth ages 3–18, $8; under 3 free. For information and directions, see the website or call 617.495.3045.