Museums and Collections
Where Science Meets Culture
When Jane Pickering, the new director of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (HMSC), saw King professor of Egyptology Peter Der Manuelian discussing issues of cultural repatriation with a group of freshmen at the Semitic Museum this fall, she knew the year-old museum consortium was on the right path.
“I thought, ‘This is the first step—we’ve actually got 15 freshmen into the Semitic Museum in their first semester,’” Pickering said in an interview with Harvard Magazine. “Before this type of program, they might not have gone in….It’s important to actually reach students and get them to visit the museums and become engaged.”
Exposing first-year students to these resources is just one initiative of the six-member HMSC, which includes the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (see “Seen at the Beach” from our July-August 2013 issue), the Mineralogical and Geological Museum, the Harvard Semitic Museum, the Harvard University Herbaria, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Another goal is collaborating to more effectively present collections that reflect the member units’ wide variety of research areas and faculty expertise. (The consortium also includes the existing Harvard Museum of Natural History—the public face of the Mineralogical and Geological Museum, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Museum of Comparative Zoology.)
Pickering said the museums are working hard to utilize their collections as teaching tools to pique the interest of undergraduates early in their studies. This semester, the HMSC started a series of freshman lunches designed to get students excited about lecture series and coming exhibitions, and held a joint open house with Career Services during which students got a behind-the-scenes tour of their choice of one of the six museums.
“We were looking to build a partnership that would have the museums collaborating to focus on public activities, exhibits, and programs that serves the public and also the Harvard community,” Pickering explained. “It would enable more interdisciplinary programs, programs that maybe individual museums wouldn't be able to do by themselves…. Working with others could achieve greater things.”
The process of forming the consortium began in 2012, led by a faculty group guided by Agassiz professor of biological oceanography James McCarthy, who is also acting curator of the malacology department in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The group worked closely with Pickering and the former interim director of the Natural History Museum, David Ellis, to put the organization together, set up its governance, and figure out how the new consortium would interact with other Harvard museums.
Proximity, Pickering said, was a factor that made the decision to form this collaboration an easy choice. “We’re honoring the traditions and strengths of the individual institutions,” she pointed out, “but then bringing things together and making them better than the sum of their parts. We want people to know about the different museums and their own styles and ways of doing things, but at the same time, [we’re] making those things better because other people can contribute. So we're not looking at a one-size-fits-all here. But that’s never true of museums—they’re always different.”
Introducing Pickering at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ monthly meeting on November 5, McCarthy spoke about the advanced programmatic outreach of the HMSC, and about better utilizing the museum’s combined 28 million objects as teaching tools. For example, a current HMSC exhibition, Thoreau's Maine Woods: A Journey in Photographs with Scot Miller, combines anthropology and natural history, featuring photographs of the places that Thoreau explored and wrote about, as well as historical information, a Penobscot Indian-made snowshoe owned by Thoreau, and specimens from Harvard's collections, including one-of-a-kind plant samples collected in northern Maine by Thoreau himself.
The HMSC’s guiding faculty group is in the process of putting the final touches on its strategic plan, Pickering reported, and one main goal is to examine programming possibilities for the Harvard community in general and for students in particular. She noted that programs like “Amazing Archaeology”—a collaboration between the Semitic and Peabody museums—and the “Summer Solstice” celebration held on the Science Center Plaza at the end of June, “really brought together” all the different museums and their collections. “We had astronomy students up on the roof of the Science Center looking at the heavens and the sun—[a] collaboration with the Scientific Instruments collection and their exhibit on time,” she recalled. “And then we had Aztec dancing and Mayflower cultural activities going on in the Plaza that was related to the Peabody collections, as well as people looking at how the Vikings would navigate using sun stones. It was really exciting because you could see how one topic—the Summer Solstice—could be approached from all these different angles.”
Pickering’s goal is ensuring that the new collaboration helps students remember all that the museums have to offer, even after they leave Harvard. “What I'm really hoping is that my successor in 20 or 30 years will hear from alumni, ‘I remember we visited and had a wonderful tour...,’ or ‘I remember that wonderful discussion, panel, or film,’” she said. “I hope they really appreciate and know about the resources that these museums have.”