A Hero with Vision

August 18, 2017
Jessica Levin Martinez, head of the museums’ Division of Academic and Public Programs and research curator of African art initiatives, was recognized during the 2017 Harvard Heroes Awards program this June. Photo: Channing Johnson.

When Jessica Levin Martinez was a student at Harvard, she felt a strong connection to the campus art museums. But she wasn’t sure others felt the same. 

“It seemed more for private conversation, more purely grounded in academic discourse,” she said.

Things have changed significantly since the three museums—the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sackler—were brought under one roof in a renovated and expanded facility in 2014. “Now you walk in and you have this transparency,” Martinez said. “You see people looking at a range of work from across time and cultures, you see classes being taught. It’s far more open and welcoming.”

Martinez, who has her bachelor’s and Ph.D. from Harvard, has been instrumental in that transformation. As director and head of the Division of Academic and Public Programs (DAPP) for the past five years, she has been leading a team focused on connecting the museums with Harvard students and faculty, as well as with the broader community. From guiding the staff who manage student programs, to partnering with faculty on course visits and University Gallery exhibitions, to planning programs for scholars and community members, Martinez has an expansive role at the museums.

She has recently added another title after her name: research curator of African art initiatives. This position calls upon Martinez to connect stunning objects in Harvard’s collections with faculty and students, local community members, and visitors from around the world.

“To say that Jessica’s plate is overflowing is a woeful understatement,” said Erin Northington, DAPP’s manager of student engagement programs. “And yet, you would never know it; she makes time for everyone.”

Martinez’s dedication and collaborative spirit haven’t gone unrecognized. This spring, after being nominated by 13 of her colleagues, Martinez was named a Harvard Hero—one of just 60 chosen in 2017 from across campus, representing less than 1 percent of eligible staff.

“Jessica is the engine that drives the museums forward,” her colleagues wrote on her nomination form, “and was instrumental in reimagining the possibilities of what a 21st-century museum can be for campus and community for our reopening. She leads with intelligence, creativity, energy, and warmth, and takes obvious joy in cheerleading and supporting the work of others.”

Though colleagues say Martinez’s plate is “overflowing,” she always finds time for students and other members of the Harvard community.
Though colleagues say Martinez’s plate is “overflowing,” she always finds time for students and other members of the Harvard community.

Innovative Thinker

Like many who work at the Harvard Art Museums, Martinez has a nontraditional perspective on what museums can and should be. Rather than being seen as rarefied “temples,” museums in her view should be accessible and open, encouraging interaction and engagement.

She keeps an unlikely model in mind: the Mesalands Community College’s Dinosaur Museum and Natural Science Laboratory in Tucumcari, New Mexico, which her family visits on annual trips to the region. However, it may be more akin to the Harvard Art Museums than one might think: just like the museums’ Art Study Center, Mesalands has a glass-walled study center dedicated to close looking at objects (fossils, in this case).

When Martinez and her family visit, they make a point of asking the graduate students who work there two simple questions, what are you working on, and can we see, too? It’s an extra step that Martinez believes should be more common—everywhere.

“It’s important to invite people into the workings of a museum and the research projects going on behind the scenes,” Martinez said. The reverse is true as well: visitor engagement benefits those working with the collections. “I see the museums as a teaching machine, where visitors and students can test their own ideas and investigate artists’ perspectives; this inquiry is what propels us forward.”

Risk-Taker, Role Model

Thinking outside the box—even entertaining a few “out there” ideas—is one of Martinez’s strengths as a leader and a mentor, said Northington.

“She has encouraged me to pursue creative ideas that haven’t been tried before—maybe they’ll work, maybe they won’t,” Northington said. “Either way, she provides the trust and support to go for it and to learn from that experience.”

When Martinez and Northington began working together, for instance, they sought ways to involve more students with the museums. They envisioned the Student Board, a small group of Harvard undergraduates who would serve as ambassadors on campus, advise museums staff on aspects of student life, and design events to engage Harvard students of all backgrounds. But they weren’t sure it would work. It was “a real departure from what had been done in the past,” Northington said. Before long, it proved so effective that other institutions began to regard the Student Board as an example to emulate.

“It’s important to invite people into the workings of a museum and the research projects going on behind the scenes.”

Martinez’s impact is felt on both a professional and a personal level among other members of her staff as well. Chris Molinski, the Rabb Curatorial Fellow in DAPP, said he looks up to Martinez as a model of a scholar, working parent, and friend. “She is a hero because of her remarkable attention to colleagues and her thoughtful way of building bridges and pushing us to do our best work,” Molinski said.

Molly Ryan, staff assistant for DAPP, added: “Most days she supports Harvard courses plus has upwards of three to five meetings, and sometimes they’re back-to-back. But people are always trying to steal a moment of Jessica’s time, which is a great tribute to her. And she shares it generously.”

Teacher and Collaborator

In her new role as research curator of African art initiatives, Martinez shares her scholarly expertise in a different way. Over the course of the 2016–17 academic year, she led a course for the museums’ 14 postdoctoral fellows, exposing them to new perspectives in curating and ultimately determining a plan for an installation in the museums’ African art gallery, planned for 2018.

Working side by side with Suzanne Blier, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies in Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture, the group decided to focus on African ceramics drawn mostly from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Martinez pushed the fellows to expand their horizons and to make “broad and creative connections between their specific expertise and this collection.”

Recently, Martinez also sat on a dissertation and a general exam committee, evaluating History of Art and Architecture students as they fulfilled a key requirement for their Ph.D. programs. One of those sessions took place within the museums’ Art Study Center.

It was something of a full-circle moment for Martinez, who as a student envied classmates who were able to get up close with works on paper in a dedicated study center in the Fogg Museum (called the Agnes Mongan Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs). Today, the Art Study Center—a space that Martinez herself helped conceptualize—allows for the close study of any object in the museums’ collections. For her, it was a way to draw a straight line from her time as a student to her role as a museum leader—and now, a Harvard Hero.

  • Martha Tedeschi, the museums’ Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, said a few words about Martinez during the Harvard Heroes awards ceremony. Tedeschi was among the 13 colleagues who nominated Martinez as a Harvard Hero. Photo: Channing Johnson.
    of Martha Tedeschi, the museums’ Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, said a few words about Martinez during the Harvard Heroes awards ceremony. Tedeschi was among the 13 colleagues who nominated Martinez as a Harvard Hero. Photo: Channing Johnson.
  • An audience of colleagues, family, and friends of Harvard Heroes packed Memorial Hall for the ceremony. Photo: Channing Johnson.
    of An audience of colleagues, family, and friends of Harvard Heroes packed Memorial Hall for the ceremony. Photo: Channing Johnson.