Harvard Art Museums

Image © Andrea Jemolo

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA


Harvard's oldest museum, features European & American art from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Architecture Design: Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Genoa
Exhibit Design: wHY Architecture, Los Angeles-New York



The new Harvard Art Museums gather under one roof collections that had been dispersed among 3 separate museums, the Fogg (European, especially Renaissance), Busch-Reisinger (Germanic, especially Modernist), and Arthur M. Sackler (Asian and antiquities) Museums.

The building that had housed the Fogg was extensively and innovatively renovated to give due weight to the specific features of each museum’s collections, while at the same time emphasizing their common purpose. The project’s goal was to create a new container to conserve and exhibit a heritage of over 250,000 works, while simultaneously honoring the educational and research objectives of one of the leading centers of art historical learning in the world.

The exhibition design
The museum was created by raising the Fogg building’s large Calderwood Courtyard, whose 2 floors were built in 1927 in imitation of a Renaissance piazza, then replacing a wing added in the 1980s with over 40,000 ft2 of new exhibition and conservation space. Piano’s building design, with triple-tiered glass arcades and a new glass roof that floods the heart of the building with light, wonderfully combines the neoclassical style of the original building with the new architectural features.

Light is absolutely central to the whole concept behind the museum. The steel and glass dome was conceived as the source of vital energy that would invigorate the entire museum. Numerous open spaces with large windows help visitors find their bearings among the various sections of the museum and visually incorporate the surrounding area, including Le Corbusier’s only building in the United States, the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

A ramp from the street and between the 2 buildings also physically connects them. Continuity between the external environment and the interior galleries is further highlighted by the pale, extremely light Alaskan cedar used on the exterior of the museum’s new sections as well as in certain parts of the galleries visible through the exterior glass.

The display cases
Goppion created most of the permanent and temporary exhibition display cases: over 300 unique cases of various types, distinguished by their clean lines and extremely simple shapes and built to ensure the very highest conservation conditions. Working on the Harvard project enabled Goppion to further improve the efficiency of its display cases and to develop, fine tune, and patent two innovative opening systems. We hid all engineering components from view by concealing them in the thickness of the glass or setting them in the seams, thereby creating completely transparent cases that offer clear sight lines from any viewing position.

The Harvard vitrines, exemplars of the elegant simplicity of Italian design, blend seamlessly with the architectural space in which they are located, sharing the same pure lines, transparency, and luminosity. They are free of supplementary features, which, however admirable and skillfully made, would be superfluous to the case itself and might distract from the enjoyment of the works on display.