Just one call was issued in Spring 2014 for applications to join the Harvard Art Museums’ Student Board, a group that would encourage involvement in the museums among the university community. The response was overwhelming: more than 120 individuals applied for about 15 spots. Six sophomores were among those chosen, and they have remained on the board ever since.
Now, those six—Katharine Barton, Robert Fitzpatrick, Siddhartha Jena, Carter Stratton, Rachel Thompson, and James Thurm—are about to graduate. They will be missed.
“This diverse and interdisciplinary cohort has done so much—together and individually—to welcome their peers to the museums and deeply embed us in campus and student life,” said Erin Northington, manager of student engagement programs in the Division of Academic and Public Programs (DAPP). “They are our closest student partners, endlessly enthusiastic, and deeply thoughtful. It is not an exaggeration to say that we would not be where we are today on campus without their help.”
This inaugural group had a direct impact on programming, in both large and small ways. Besides introducing their fellow students to the renovated facility and encouraging them to engage with the collections, the Student Board has played a prominent role in shaping public programs.
Board members have been crucial in helping organize student events, and they regularly serve as consultants on an array of topics, from offering their opinions on items being considered for sale in the museums’ shop to suggesting gifts for important visitors to the museums. In addition, the board helped facilitate the relaunch of the museums’ print rental program, which allows students to borrow original prints and hang them in their dorm rooms.
Another initiative the board undertook was to invite students to take part in “takeovers” of the museums’ social media channels. Students have shared works of art and highlights from curators’ talks with their peers via Snapchat—an outlet the board helped pilot for the museums—as well as Instagram. “I think we’ve done a really good job of reaching students that way,” said Katharine Barton, of Currier House, a government concentrator with a minor in social anthropology.
Overall, “it’s been so rewarding to see the board’s recommendations come to fruition,” said Rachel Thompson, of Winthrop House, a social anthropology and comparative literature concentrator. She said her Student Board experience represents the first time she has felt “empowered in an art museum.”
Each of the graduating board members planned successful events for their peers, including the museums’ student opening in 2014 and the House Teas held in the Naumburg Room over the past three semesters. James Thurm said organizing the House Tea for his house, Kirkland, was his favorite activity as a board member.
“It was a lot of fun getting students in the house excited about the tea and the museums,” said Thurm, an art and architecture student in design studies. “Even if students don’t necessarily visit again after that, they now have a connection to the space.”
Others said they were proud to serve as the student voice at lectures, donor events, and public presentations. On one especially memorable occasion in 2015, some board members led middle-schoolers visiting from Brooklyn’s Mott Hall Bridges Academy on tours through the galleries.
“As young as the kids were, I saw some . . . who were visibly amazed that staring at art, analyzing it in the context of the artist, the era, the style, and even the materials used, was something they could do,” said Siddhartha Jena, of Eliot House, a chemistry and physics and mathematics concentrator with a secondary in molecular and cellular biology. “More than a few students asked me if this was something they could study in college, and their reactions when I told them [yes] were incredibly rewarding.”
For all that the graduating board members have given to the museums, each said they’ve also taken away important lessons. The diversity of the board—purposely achieved by DAPP, which selected one student per residential House and aimed for a mix of concentrations—has left a strong impression.
“So many times in brainstorming sessions, I heard ideas or suggestions that I would never have thought of,” said Robert Fitzpatrick, of Winthrop House, a history of art and architecture concentrator. “That is exactly the strength and purpose of the Student Board.”
To Carter Stratton, of Leverett House, a history concentrator with a secondary in the history of art and architecture, the experience was eye-opening. “I had worked at the Seattle Art Museum as a volunteer throughout high school and as an intern the summer after my freshman year of college,” she said, “but it wasn’t until our first board meeting in September 2014 that it really clicked that this was what I wanted to do with my life.” Stratton is seeking jobs within the art world, and may later pursue an advanced degree in art history.
As the Student Board moves ahead with new members and fresh challenges, the six seniors’ accomplishments have laid the groundwork for the continued integration of the museums into student life.
“These founding members of the Student Board have done spectacular work, and we are so grateful,” said Jessica Martinez, head of the Division of Academic and Public Programs. “What a legacy!”