“Get up close,” urged Spencer Glesby, a new student guide at the Harvard Art Museums and a Harvard College sophomore. “This is a really wonderful painting to immerse yourself in.”
A dozen individuals quietly approached and gazed at Gustav Klimt’s Pear Tree (1903/18). After the visitors shared their reactions, Glesby offered more context about the work, describing its composition and history, as well as a few personal thoughts on what makes the painting so great.
Glesby is one of 26 undergraduates in the museums’ student guide program who give 50-minute tours (free with admission) to visitors on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays throughout the academic year. While some tours are led by students studying art and art history (as is the case with Glesby), just as many are given by those with less expected concentrations, including computer science, astrophysics, and economics. As a result, many tours have strikingly original content encompassing a great variety of themes, such as the politics of erasure, representations of violence, and archetypes in art. (The student guide who created the latter tour has informally titled it “You’re So Vain: I Bet You Think This Art Is about You.”)
“It’s a unique opportunity for visitors,” said Samuel Shapiro, a Harvard College junior pursuing a joint concentration in the history of art and architecture and social anthropology. “You can be part of an astrophysicist’s tour on the theme of time or a computer scientist’s tour on the theme of problem solving.” Shapiro is a senior guide—an experienced tour leader who helps mentor others in the program. One of his tours is on “blankness” and the other is on “the museum wall.” He’s currently developing a third, about the relationship between collectors and museums.
To shape the tours, the guides look closely at four objects they select themselves—including one from each of the collections of the Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Arthur M. Sackler Museum. That means the tours cut across time and space to explore links between disparate works. Glesby’s tour, for example, investigates the theme of “the artist’s mark,” with stops featuring a Greek Neck Amphora (c. 490 BCE), Italian artist Paolo Finoglia’s 17th-century painting Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Austrian artist Klimt’s Pear Tree, and American artist Jenny Holzer’s new media work Untitled (C-4), from 1990. Each tour encourages dialogue, relying on active (though voluntary) audience participation, said Ariana Chaivaranon, a Harvard College junior with a concentration in visual and environmental studies and another of the senior guides. “It’s about asking visitors to do the heavy lifting of observing and then bringing those observations to contextualize their analysis of the work.”
“You can be part of an astrophysicist’s tour on the theme of time or a computer scientist’s tour on the theme of problem solving.”
Often, Shapiro added, discussion “will end up going in whatever direction visitors want.” One of his tours examines Scene from the Life of Thomas Becket (c. 1190–1205), a stained glass medallion from Canterbury Cathedral. “Depending on who’s on the tour, that stop could take a religious, iconographic direction or could go in a material direction, geared toward people interested in the process of making stained glass,” he said. “Some people are fascinated by the conservation process. The glass is lit by LED lights, so people want to know about the ethics of showing this work in a way that it was not originally seen.”
Before the students open their tours to the public, they must complete a rigorous training program. Led by David Odo, director of student programs and research curator for university collections initiatives in the museums’ Division of Academic and Public Programs, the program helps each guide prepare to discuss works from various angles and with content appropriate for all ages and interests.
“Student guides gain the skills they need to facilitate group conversations about works included on their tours.” Odo said. “At the same time, they learn how and when to share their knowledge and observations with visitors.” New guides spend the fall semester learning about individual objects, through research and by attending presentations from curators, conservators, and museums staff. As they develop their tours, they also receive instruction on public speaking skills.
Before new guides can lead groups, they give practice tours, some of which are open to peers, museums staff, curators, fellows, and others with deep knowledge of the objects. “It’s funny,” Chaivaranon said, “because in many ways, giving a practice tour is harder and more intimidating than giving a tour to the public.”
Yet the payoffs are significant. A number of student guides are interested in a career in the arts, making the practice invaluable. Many guides gain further experience by developing and giving additional tours to special visitors or groups by request (e.g., participants in international study programs). Later this spring, the student guides will host a conference to bring together other Boston-area college students involved in their own campus museums; the guides hope that the conference will initiate ongoing discussion about museums in student life.
In the meantime, visitors will find that taking a student-led tour (see our calendar for dates) of the Harvard Art Museums adds a completely new dimension to their experience, offering a fresh way to immerse themselves in the collections.