The Inside View

November 23, 2015
On Peter Atkinson’s popular architecture tour, visitors learn about the various spaces and programming of the museums. Photos: © Nic Lehoux.

Many people tour art museums to learn about the works on the walls, but at the Harvard Art Museums another type of guided visit has proven just as popular. An architecture tour, led by Peter Atkinson, director of facilities planning and management, has met or exceeded capacity nearly every time it’s been offered. As we head into the museums’ second year since reopening, the tour remains a can’t-miss experience for many visitors.

“I think people are excited to be inside this great building, and they’re just fascinated to learn more about it,” said Atkinson, who gives the 60-minute tour frequently, to everyone from architecture buffs to families to students.

The tour begins in the central Calderwood Courtyard, where Atkinson provides an introduction to the building and its history. From there, the group moves to spots on all six public floors, including the Lightbox Gallery, the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and the Art Study Center. Visitors hear a mix of information about the museums’ eight-year expansion and renovation, led by award-winning architect Renzo Piano, as well as details about our mission and programming.

Throughout the tour, Atkinson offers surprising takeaways—the fact that the Harvard Art Museums are the first museum in the United States to be lit exclusively by sustainable LED bulbs, for instance. Visitors are often impressed to hear that a wood scientist was consulted for the building’s expansion as well as to learn that Piano chose to use Alaskan Yellow Cedar on the exterior because it’s incredibly dense and water-resistant.

Atkinson brings visitors to one of the Winter Gardens, the glass galleries on Level 2 that provide visual respite from interior spaces and stunning views of the surrounding neighborhood. He points out how, from this gallery, it’s possible to see ID numbers on each piece of wood used on the exterior of the addition; if one slat needs to be replaced, the wood supplier can provide a new piece of the identical shape and size from the original stock. This meticulous attention to detail seems to resonate with many visitors, Atkinson said.

“One thing I’ve heard in response to the tours is, ‘You’ve given thought to every quarter inch of this place,’” Atkinson said. “I think the tours definitely reflect that.”

Keep an eye on our calendar for the next round of tours, starting this winter. 

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