Feb 16, 2018

Exploring Art Museum Architecture in New England

By Wiebke Kartheus

Wiebke in front of Max Beckmann's Actors Triptych at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge

Researching architecture as a means to understand a nation’s culture is quite hard when an ocean separates you from the buildings you want to examine. Therefore, I will be always grateful for the opportunity Fulbright gave me to research US art museums as an institution and their most recent architecture on site and to collect all the data I need. Six months of this kind of focused PhD research will enhance my project in ways I could only imagine.

Choosing Boston to do this kind of research might seem counterintuitive to some compared to other cultural big shots such as New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Yet Boston’s unique combination of world class art institutions, a vital art scene, and top-notch architecture me to this city. I found an academic home at Northeastern University’s School of Architecture, whose faculty has enriched my outlook on architecture’s communication with the outside world tremendously. Together with the expertise harbored in other universities based in and around Boston such as Boston University, Tufts University, MIT, or Harvard University, the academic and art-related circumstances in Boston are really a dream come true for an architecture nerd like me.

Wiebke Kartheus in the parks of Wellesley College

Boston’s art museum scene especially is an invigorating surrounding that offers a plethora of art-related experiences and spaces that have been intertwined with the local community for over a century. In this way the local art museums not only enable a glimpse at the world’s art through the centuries but also use these art works to reflect on Boston’s past, present, and future. In this way art museums, every single one in its own way, provide a unique perspective on what art can be and mean in society.

Besides the Museum of Fine Arts, which ranks among the Top 5 art museums in the US, Boston is home to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, scene of one of the most scandalous art robberies in history, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, celebrated space for the ever-growing art of today. Furthermore, Boston and neighboring Cambridge and Wellesley are home to amazingly varied university art collections at Boston College, Harvard University, and Wellesley College. Before coming here I was not aware of the different dimensions and shapes art museums in the US can take on and I will put my experiences and observations to good use in analyzing and understanding the art museum as an institution in the US today. The combination of art museums with different foci presented me with a unique set of voices that created interesting artistic cues from which I could engage in wider discussions on all kinds of topics ranging from intercultural relations between the US and Japan, to performative interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg variations, to alternative forms of the concept of family.

Modern Art Galleries of the Yale Art Gallery, New Haven

Visiting these museums in person grants access to nuances in implementing and communicating these programs that are hard to catch from afar or through digital forms of mediation because the spaces designed to exhibit art facilitate a physical encounter that cannot be mimicked. In this way the buildings themselves contribute to the narrative the museums communicate to the outside world. Critically engaging in the way buildings inform and structure our experiences and our everyday life by manifesting and materializing ideas is one of the most important aspects of my project.

View of the Shapiro Family Courtyard and Dale Chihuly's Lime Green Icicle Tower at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston

During many conversations with a range of people during my time here—reaching from museum scholars to museum staff to art enthusiasts—about the mission and status of museums in the 21st century one aspect especially pronounced: educating the public through art, and, the belief that works of art provide insights to the human experience other means of knowledge mediation cannot. Conveniently, the public seems to be more interested than ever in exploring artworks, their aesthetic, and their meaning as increasing visitor and program participant numbers of the past decade suggest. (I look forward to critically engage with the questions of why and how.) But education is only one of the tasks museums take on, even though it gets by far the most attention on museums’ websites and programs: they’ve become economic and touristic factors for their local communities, they are crucial in negotiating and presenting local/national identities, they offer platforms for current artists to voice their opinions and perspectives on society, and, of course, they function as archives.

As a scholar who has been studying the US for the past decade, the focused lens of the art museum as an institution that, among other things, facilitates cultural exchange, teases out finer nuances of complex cultural and societal structures and enriches the outlook on art’s impact on reality, adding more layers and making it more dynamic and precise. Doing my studies in Boston and New England has most certainly broadened the scope of my project but more importantly has provided me with an understanding of US culture and economy that is more complex and nuanced than before.

Wiebke Kartheus is a 2017/2018 grantee of a Fulbright doctoral research stipend at Northeastern University in Boston. Here, the PhD student at the University of Göttingen conducts important research and fieldwork for her dissertation “Museum Studies as American Studies.” In her project, Wiebke analyzes most recent architectural expansions of US art museums to trace the relationship between architectural and institutional developments in late capitalism and to utilize the space and concept of the art museum to comprehend larger trends in 21st-century US culture. She received her MA in American studies from Leipzig University and her BA in World English studies, art history, and visual studies from Saarland University. Since 2016, Wiebke is also assistant editor for American Studies Journal, the peer-reviewed online publication in the field.

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