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Harvard Art Museums Implement 'ReFrame' Initiative

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The Harvard Art Museums launched an initiative last fall to highlight previously “untold narratives” and promote greater representation among their exhibits.

The “ReFrame” initiative aims to bring previously unseen collections out of storage and reframe existing curations. Recent ReFrame installations include “Hyoso: The Art of Framing Japanese Paintings” and “Picturing the Lives of Women,” which highlights the struggles and achievements of women in China and around the world.

Soyoung Lee, chief curator at the Harvard Art Museums, said the idea for the initiative came from Makeda D. Best, curator of photography and interim head of the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at the museums. Lee said she and her staff evaluated opportunities for new portrayals of their collections.

“Each curator really went back to the collections that they know best and thought about, ‘What are some of the works that are not currently on view, that merit being highlighted, because of the potential for stories that they tell?’” she said. “‘What’s currently on view that we need to examine from a different perspective?’”

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Lee said she hopes the “intimate experiences” of the galleries will pique visitor interest.

“Like many museums, we are also thinking through and really thinking about presenting different ways to expand a visitor’s understanding of different artists, cultures, periods, and so forth,” she said.

The staff at the museums encountered difficulties in implementing the project, according to Lee.

“Initially, we thought it might be something of a three to five-year project that could potentially lead to a holistic kind of changes to all of our galleries,” she said. “We're still figuring out whether that’s feasible, in part because the logistics of wholescale changes to the entire museum is really, in some ways, unreal.”

“It's hard to put in place when you're operating at the same time,” she added.

The museums also faced challenges related to the Covid-19 pandemic, per Lee. The Harvard Art Museums closed abruptly in March 2020 and only reopened in September 2021.

“It’s extremely hard to actually plan and implement gallery changes when you’re not only closed, but because of the University’s guidance, much of our staff couldn’t be on site to do that work — to go into storage, bring out the art, gather around and talk about it, and also invite our students, faculty, and audience to speak with us,” she said.

In the long run, Lee said she hopes the initiative will help the museums diversify its galleries.

“Ultimately, ReFrame starting out as interventions, we think might be a three to five-year project or initiative, and help us in the long-term goal of making substantial changes in most of our galleries, in rethinking, actually, all of our galleries,” she said.

—Staff writer Jorge O. Guerra can be reached at jorge.guerra@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Davin W. Shi can be reached at davin.shi@thecrimson.com.

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