Signs of the Past

December 3, 2013
Message in a bottle, written by the builders of our 1927 facility. Photos: Courtesy Harvard Art Museums Archives.

Construction workers, like so many of the artists in our collections, have a long tradition of signing their work. The builders of our 1927 facility participated in this practice, as have the men and women who have helped us to renovate and expand the Harvard Art Museums.

In the midst of our building project, we discovered a corked bottle containing a message from 1926 that was nested in a ceiling within our historic facility. Written by a group of construction workers, this note listed the workers’ names, where they lived, who they worked for, and specified the date that they’d installed the ceiling. Dark fingerprints still streak the glass vessel—whether or not they belong to the workers who buried the time capsule more than 80 years ago or to the workers who discovered the vessel just a few years back, we don’t know.

What we do know is where more than 100 of our workers’ signatures are tucked away within our new facility. In summer 2012, we held a “topping off” ceremony (also referred to as “topping out”), where workers and project personnel were invited to sign a steel beam that was then hoisted to the north side of our building’s new roof, along with an evergreen tree and an American flag. Presiding over the ceremony was Claude LeBlanc, General Superintendent at SKANKSA USA Building, Inc. LeBlanc recently told us how builders have been participating in these ceremonies for centuries as a way to pay homage to nature and to celebrate getting to the end of a job safely.

Just like the workers who in 1926 rolled up their message and stuck it in a bottle, the workers who left their names on the Harvard Art Museums’ roof don’t expect anyone to see their signatures anytime soon. After the beam was installed on the perimeter of our facility’s 6th floor, it was covered in fireproofing material that will keep their identities hidden for many years to come.

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  • Summer 2012 topping-off ceremony at the Harvard Art Museums. Photos: Jim Moisson.
    of Summer 2012 topping-off ceremony at the Harvard Art Museums. Photos: Jim Moisson.
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