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In early September, several reporters were invited to tour the new Harvard Art Museums building that has risen at 32 Quincy Street. The façade of the old Fogg museum still stands facing Sever Quadrangle. But the museum behind it, which is still very much under construction and will not reopen until the fall of 2014, has been reinvented at a cost previously estimated at $350 million.

“We are going to unleash the collection, put it to more imaginative uses within the context of a university,” Tom Lentz told his guests, all wearing hard hats and sturdy boots. Lentz, who is Cabot director of the Harvard Art Museums, then proceeded to show off the new building.

At the heart of the 204,000-square-foot project is the iconic Fogg courtyard, which has been preserved and enhanced. Where it used to appear that visitors could pass through the courtyard’s many archways (in fact, there were just three entrances), now the space functions as a true center, with 16 ways to enter and exit it on the first level. Natural light streams in from a glass roof above the fifth level, diffusing into the galleries and arcades, while the visitor’s eye is naturally drawn up to the additional galleries and working spaces of the museum’s upper stories.

Instead of a single main entrance to the museum, there are now two: the old one on Quincy Street; and a new, more welcoming one on the Prescott Street side, as Lentz explained. The entrances are aligned, allowing visitors to pass through what will now be public space, including the courtyard with its travertine arches, without having to enter the galleries (which requires an admission fee). A café and a museum shop will flank the courtyard, and a central staircase between the two entrances is flanked by elevators, three for passengers, and one for transporting works of art from the 8,000-square-foot on-site storage facility to the conservation lab on the fifth level and the art study centers on the fourth. Major mechanical systems have been located just above bedrock on the building’s lowest levels in order to maximize use of the site.

Among the new building’s most important mission-driven features are the reinstalled Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies (which will include separate lab spaces for paper, paintings, and objects) and the art-study centers on the fourth level, one for each of the constituent museums (the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Sackler) that are now joined under one roof. The study centers will allow “an experience that is fundamentally different from walking through galleries or sitting in a classroom,” said Lentz.

“At the heart of this museum,” he continued, “is the notion that through close observation and sustained reflection, wonderful things can happen with works of art. And that is what is really driving this project. We have this big powerful collection that has been vastly underutilized at Harvard, and so we want to unleash the potential of the collection and use it not simply for the people we have always worked with in the past, like the art history department or classics or the religion department, but all fields and disciplines.” Research conducted by the Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, he said, found that what happens in a study center, when students, faculty, and members of the public can see art up close, “is what we call ‘high-end cognition.’ It is the gold standard in terms of learning, because it is less mediated and more participatory.”

The building’s lower level offers a new 300-seat theater, a 100-seat lecture hall, and a 30-seat seminar room. On the first, second, and third levels, the new building adds more than 12,000 square feet of new gallery space—bringing the total to 43,000 square feet—some designed specifically for instructional use. Professors will curate the collections exhibited in these small galleries in association with courses.

Of particular interest on the second level are “winter gardens,” glass boxes on the north and south ends of the wings of the building that will hold non-light- sensitive works of art, such as sculpture. In addition to affording views into the building from the outside, these glass-walled gallery spaces will admit sidelight into the inner galleries. Movable exterior walls will be adjusted seasonally to control the effect of this illumination into and through the “gardens.”

The third-level galleries also feature a new University Collections space that will initially house African art from the Peabody Museum. “One of the things we are trying to do,” said Lentz, “is forge much stronger relations with other collection resources at Harvard, the Peabody in particular. This is important to us because it is an enormous and very important collection that dovetails neatly with our gaps. Historically, we have never collected pre-Columbian, African, Native American, or Oceanic art. The good news is Harvard has very powerful collections [in these areas] at the Peabody.” The new building will become, in a sense, “a portal for those collections.” “And,” he added, “an engine for collaboration across different fields and disciplines” throughout the University.