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Museum Hopping at Harvard.

Are you interested in minerals, masks, musical instruments or Matisse? Harvard University has museums for every taste, transporting you to other worlds without international travel. Lakota images of the contested West, paintings in vibrant hues portraying women, nymphs, and spirits from South Asia, and the arts of war adjacent to a clay ocarina exhibit accompanied by an appropriate other-worldly soundscape are the tip of the iceberg in the museums at Harvard, offering new ways to look at, listen to, and think about art and the stories they embody.

Cambridge, Massachusetts is a city which feels like a neighborhood. The local Laundromat has a chess set, the bar plays Jeopardy, and the dry cleaner specializes in tuxedos. On the Harvard University campus, the brainpower is palpable as I hear snippets of five languages spoken while strolling along a two-block stretch. But I am here to focus on the world-class museums, open to the public seven days a week.

While the major museums at Harvard are well worth visiting, there are also, lesser known, smaller galleries and library exhibits adding to the far-ranging mix. You can view video screens which have been painted on to create multi-media works (at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, dedicated to the synthesis of art, design, and education) in the only U.S. building by master architect Le Corbusier, learn about the psychedelic age and altered states in a well-curated exhibit at the Houghton Library (botanical prints of poppies, counter-cultural comic books from the '60s and '70s, and iconic film posters) or consider "Scale: A Matter of Perspective," aimed at understanding different relationships with everything from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to scientific instruments measuring aspects of the cosmos.

On my recent museum-hopping jaunt at Harvard reinforcing the value of diversity, I learn the science of anthropology is a relatively new discipline, with people asking, "What is anthropology?" during the 1890s. I discover relics from all corners of the world at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, one of the oldest ethnographic museums in the world (just ending its 150th year celebration), where I focus on patterns of cultures (broader than specific cultural traits) where elements (guardian spirits) and emotions contribute towards shared attitudes and values reflected in art and artifacts (Lakota cosmology and social structures revealed in drawings of the sacred four directions linked with animal spirits and colors) and I learn for the Lakota, eagles were messengers of the spirits. This collection of 1.4 million objects --only second in size to the Smithsonian anthropology collection--houses indigenous material culture as well as encouraging new cultural practices and evolving community relationships, bringing contemporary perspectives to our collective cultural heritage.


In some exhibits at both the Peabody and Harvard Art Museums--a stunning piece of architecture by Renzo Piano housing what were formally three art museums--I am attracted to pure decorative elements with a focus on geometric patterns. I am drawn to a piece of contemporary Arabic calligraphy (which appears abstract, but actually means "truth"), Ottoman tiles, Kurdish carpets, Minoan ceramics, a pierced Mogul sandstone screen from the 16th century, and fragments of meteorites with naturally embedded patterns.

Some of the art works with cursive forms are most impressive. Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, a 20th century Iranian artist's painting, "Ezterab," is filled with the flexibility of Arabic script, creating a visual language of cursive forms in a symbolic piece which the artist considers to be a suggestion of infinity. The script is not legible text, but rather a tool for a primarily abstract work, blurring the boundaries of form in that which is identifiable and unidentifiable. Viewing pieces like this one, it is less important to understand a specific literal meaning rather than absorbing the emotive quality of the art.

The three art museums (Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Sackler) have been joined together by architect Renzo Piano to comprise the Harvard Art Museums. But it is a dynamic installation in the multi-story, indoor courtyard which serves as a unifying element connecting the courtyard with the surrounding galleries. More than suspended triangles made of steel, the work, "Triangle Constellation," (2015) is at once a giant mobile and a musical instrument as well as collective experience by Mexican artist Carlos Amorales. The artist explains his installation of many oversized musical triangles where he aims to "create the visual idea of sound, a notion that can be realized so that the piece becomes performative as well." Although intrigued by the visual aspect, I yearn to hear the piece sounding and wonder if others have the same reaction.


The vast collection of minerals--smooth turquoise smithsonite from New Mexico, spiky orange crocoite from Tasmania, dazzling purple amethyst from Uruguay, and large specimens of sulfur from Sicily--are recommended for a viewing at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. As are the photographs exploring the microbial world in a drop (on view through January 2018), where human eyesight overlaps with another living world.

Have you ever considered the ecosystem within a single drop of water? The arresting images--in an exhibit by Roberto Kolter and Scott Chimileski --exploring the art and science of the microbial world are a surprise, since most of us rarely think about the inherent beauty inhabited by microbes (on the planet for 3 billion years). Bacteria, archaea, and fungi can be captured in an aesthetically pleasing way with cutting-edge technology. Looking at neon-hued images of bacterial cells in seemingly abstract patterns captured through a fluorescence microscope is a new experience. I find the signage at the "World in a Drop: Photographic Explorations of Microbial Life" exhibit is particularly informative. It explains red cells are algae and blue ones are fungi, but these different creatures live together in symbiosis. Staring at a delicate, lace-like lavender image of what I think might be an exotic fruit, I read about biofilm. "Biofilms are like cities of microbes. Like cities they develop and grow over time. Like cities they have architecture. Like cities they are built by the residents; and in these cities the residents are protected from numerous dangers they might encounter." This fascinating exhibit is at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, in the same building as the Peabody Museum.

While the vast mineral collection and microbial photographs are showcased in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the other museums also display pieces paying homage to the natural world, providing insight into man's relationship with nature. At the Peabody I view a gourd basket embellished with animal motifs, a paddle painted with fish decorations, a bird mask, the boldly hued painting "Stars, Planets, Bees, and Man Playing Flute with Corn Crop," along with baskets crafted from grasses to hold everything from seeds to gambling implements.

Among the nature oriented works at the Harvard Art Museums are 18th-century Japanese Landscape Screens (in Chinese ink on gold foil) depicting a rural fishing village free from spiritual pollution or a scene of cranes beneath a pine tree, Scholar Stones from China (representing mountains in traditional gardens, these eroded rocks have interesting patterns of perforations), and variety of paintings: a modernist, fauvist oil painting from 1909 titled, "The Trees" by French artist Andre Lhote with precise naturalism, Paul Cezanne's work, "Study of Trees" with paint applied in diagonal brushstrokes suggesting movement flickering across the surface, and bucolic landscapes by Henri Rousseau imbued with a sense of fantasy.


The refined arts of ancient China include surprising finds: elaborately decorated garment hooks, bronze pigment holders, and jade scoops. The ancient Bronze Ware from China contains pieces bearing inscriptions, considered to be the equivalent of historic texts. Bronze food and wine vessels were decorated with geometric shapes, mythical and animal ornaments (dragons, elephants, horses, birds, and ducks), while bronze mirrors with reflective surfaces feature cosmological designs, thought to ward off evil and aid in creating light inside tombs.

But utilitarian objects are not limited to Chinese artifacts. Ancestral Anasazi mugs of pottery, birch bark log carriers, fans, beaded jewelry, carved wooden combs, an Egyptian terra-cotta jar with a spiral decoration, Greek bowls for wine and water, feathered or grass hats, a fierce helmet made from a blow fish showcasing its spines and ivory clubs are among them. Some of the calligraphy on scrolls captures daily concerns at the time they were created. One records rice wages paid to sutra copyists and other workers. An adjacent scroll of the Lotus Sutra describes the enlightenment of the Dragon King's daughter.


Mexican Day of the Dead artifacts (with family altars dedicated to dead ancestors with flowers, food, incense, religious figurines, and photographs), Mayan Hieroglyphics carved in stone, myths of transformation often with zoomorphic attributes, sculptures and paintings of woman as divine from India, the Hindu god Krishna configured as a flute player (without the actual flute), ritual Chinese burial ware adorned with swirling clouds and mythical beasts (from one of the world's oldest civilizations) to appease the gods and ancestral spirits, and clay ocarinas performed for ritual dancing and ceremonies throughout Mexico and Central America are among the many symbolic objects used in rituals around the world. Some make sound as in necklaces of incised pelican bone flutes played at puberty ceremonies for Kuna girls of Panama, the conch shell as a signaling device, and the ocarina flutes of Meso-America, sometimes connecting with other worldly spirits.

Ocarinas are globular flutes, often made of clay which is baked, sometimes with designs incised or painted on them. Many of the decorations are inspired by the natural world, often calling upon a wide range of animals or anthropomorphic beings. Occasionally this type of flute--which is found in many shapes and sizes--depicts two different animals, depending on which side you view. Others were worn as amulet pendants for protection. The number of finger holes varies in each instrument. Many of these ocarinas exhibited at the Peabody Museum were unearthed from burial sites during archeological expeditions. The exhibit, with a lovely accompanying soundtrack, informs about ancient ocarinas as well as mentioning their current use in video games.

There is a striking juxtaposition of the harmonious "Ocarinas of the Americas: Music Made in Clay" exhibit with the adjoining gallery displaying "Arts of War: Artistry in Weapons Across Cultures." I can still hear the strains of the peaceful flutes as I view maces, clubs, daggers, and spears from assorted cultures. As much as I don't want to admit it, many of the weapons are indeed art objects. Decorating implements of war seems counter-intuitive. And yet many of the handcrafted items, which may act as status symbols, are adorned with the purpose of imbuing them with both beauty and power. Some are considered "Arts of Peace," such as the peace pipe-tomahawk of Red Cloud, a Sioux tribal leader from the mid-19th century and the wampum belt strung with pieces of purple, quahog clamshells, used as a handsome offering for inter-tribal diplomacy.

Whether viewing utilitarian objects that were part of everyday life centuries ago, symbolic and ritual artifacts, abstract pieces, items from the natural world and those paying homage to it, I come away from my inter-disciplinary voyage at Harvard with an awareness of incredible images not visible to the naked eye and a broader perspective of art around the globe, without having to deal with airport security lines. Visiting Harvard, a historic university which has graduated many world leaders and six U.S. presidents, leaves me refreshed and thankful for the vast array of fascinating exhibits available to the public.



Cambridge is best navigated by foot and I highly recommend staying at a nearby Bed & Breakfast such as the ideally located Irving House at Harvard (on a small street which has been home to poet e.e. cummings, chef Julia Child, and psychologist William James) or its sister property, the Victorian-era Harding House B & B, showcasing a rotating exhibit of local artists in their public areas. These quaint, comfortable, and convenient inns offer free parking lots and more than ample, self-serve breakfasts to fuel you up for a day of walking the historic neighborhood and visiting the many inspirational museums at Harvard.

Irving House at Harvard

Harding House B&B


Beat Brasserie is an underground oasis serving a changing menu of American and international fare in surprisingly tasty, small and large plates at a spacious venue on Harvard Square. Delicious falafels and the mouth-watering grilled shrimp are recommended. Check the schedule of local bands and acts like DJ Wonderlove (advertised as "deep soul, retro funk, music that gets your body and soul moving.")

Beat Brasserie

The Dali Restaurant and Tapas Bar serves both classic and innovative, regional Spanish cuisine. It features vegetarian specialties (excellent vegetable empanadas and baked goat cheese with tomato sauce) as well as favorite dishes of the artist Dali, such as a velvety garlic soup from the Pyrenees (Sopa de Ajo). The decor (tin ceilings, stained glass dragonfly light fixtures, and hand -painted tiles from Spain) is particularly inviting and the food is exceptionally good.

Dali Restaurant and Tapas Bar


Harvard Museums of Art

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology


Cambridge Office of Tourism

Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Iris Brooks is a well-published writer who revels in cultural journeys around the world to document endangered and undiscovered arts and culture as well as uncovering domestic finds closer to home. Working with artistic photographer Jon H. Davis, they place in-depth, thoughtful travel articles with dynamic photos from all of the continents in many publications. Learn more about Brooks and Davis at the Northern Lights Studio website, here.
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Title Annotation:LIFE; Harvard University
Author:Brooks, Iris
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Dec 1, 2017
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