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For Many, Student Tour Guides are the Face of Art Museums

For many visitors, the face of the Harvard Art Museums is not that of a curator or a faculty member, but rather the face of the University’s youngest students.

Since re-opening in November 2014, the Museums have employed undergraduates from various academic disciplines to dig deeper into the the collections and lead heavily-researched tours of the artworks on display. The guide program is a key initiative in engaging College students in the Museums.

The tour Danielle Frostig ’18 led on Sunday morning focused on the theme of “Art in Time, and Time in Art” and included stops at a set of sculptures, a painting by Charles Bird King, a Dutch clock, a textile depicting the Hindu god Krishna, and a piece featured in the special exhibition on Australian aboriginal art.

Because of the Visitas weekend, the eight-person tour group consisted mainly of prospective freshmen. On a typical tour, general members of the public comprise the bulk of tour groups, guides said.

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Frostig encouraged individuals to share their opinions and interpretations of the various artworks. At the textile of Krishna, she asked, “What story do you think is being told here? And it’s not an easy, clear answer. I’ve heard everything.”

David Odo, the Museums’ director of student programs, oversees the program and said the Museums created his position in order to better engage students.

Prior to Odo’s arrival at the Museums in 2014, a smaller-scale version of the program was in place from 2008 to 2013, when students could access the collections off-site during the renovations of the facilities on Quincy Street.

“It was a great program, but more limited in scope,” Odo said. “When I was brought on board, I wanted to really expand it and create more opportunities for students, but also to take advantage of our new renovated and expanded spaces.”

There are 24 undergraduates currently involved in the tour program. Throughout the year, Odo said they work with him, conservators, curators, and each other during training sessions as they familiarize themselves with the artwork and conduct research. Roughly one semester of research and practice goes into the making of a tour.

Each tour centers around a theme the student guide chooses. The themes reflect the various academic interests of the guides, ranging from “Politics and Society” to “Problem Solving.”

Admitted student Maria Camasmie went on Frostig’s roughly 45-minute tour and said she appreciated that the tour had a particular topic of focus.

“I personally am someone who likes to explore on my own,” Camasmie said. “[The tour is] interesting because it’s thematic—different from all art tours I’ve taken.”

Student guide Jess A. Clay ’17 said he noticed that the program has shifted since its new launch in 2014 from having all of the tour guides share a theme—“Revolution”—to having each guide pursue their own theme.

“I think we've diversified our themes and content as we've settled in alongside the museum itself,” Clay said. “I think the program has become more eclectic as the guides have forged their own paths.”

—Staff writer Maria H. Park can be reached at maria.park@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Chirpark

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