Art objects—and the spaces created with them—tell stories. To absorb what art can tell us, we have to give our storytellers the time they deserve.

To do this, Sightlines was created to serve as the intellectual context for our experiences with art and art spaces.  Let us take you through a conceptual sightline of Sightlines: a narrative-driven index of the concepts leading to the formulation of this multimedia tool in authored artistic spaces. When you slow down in the gallery with Sightlines, you access the inner stories of art objects and open yourself to new connections in art spaces; these connections in turn make us better global citizens in an expanding communicative world.

Sightlines is…

We live in a world of constant stimulation, from buzzing smartphones in our pockets to the stream of unending media we consume on ubiquitous monitors, from personal phones and laptops to public digital billboards. This high degree of fast-paced media saturation has conditioned our minds, altering the way we understand visual media. Technology has changed and will continue to change both the creation and reception of art.

 

"It is an activator and a catalyst of new human imagining."

   An artistic rendering of early human-computer cognition inspired from the Computer-Aided Design project at MIT, early 1960s.

 

An artistic rendering of early human-computer cognition inspired from the Computer-Aided Design project at MIT, early 1960s.

Imagine the invention of the computer mouse. Douglas Engelbart, 1960s. An essential component of our navigation of personal computers today, this invention was so brilliant for seeming simply intuitive, when it was in fact a highly conceptually designed object. In imagining innovative human-computer interfacing, Engelbart considered how the computer—and mouse by literal extension—could be a mediator of our multimedia processing. The computer does not replace our cognition or become the product of cognition itself. It is an activator and a catalyst of new human imagining.

In the same way, Sightlines is an inspirer and a sustainer of deeper, more fulfilling art experiences. We envision a future for the role of technology to enhance rather than compete with one’s experience with a work of art. What does it mean for technology to play a role in the gallery? Instead of assuming a relational difference between the digital and the analog, we propose that the two are derived from each other in a multimedia age. How we look at objects is permanently affected by the way we navigate our smartphones; how we interact with technology is informed by the materials of our devices and the content of our viewfinders. But how can merging the analog and the digital serve us in the art gallery?

How long do you spend in front of a work of art? 10, 30 seconds—perhaps a minute or two? We are very familiar with the minute-long stare at a famous art piece, perhaps peppered with furtive glances at the curator’s explanation on the nearest wall text. We read, we glance, read, glance, and move on. This in large part because museums have still not broken free from the “treasure house” model where we are told what to think about art objects, rather than participating in a conversation about how to think about them. What is given and what can be invented in the great halls of museum spaces is not as rigid as we might imagine.

“There is a sense that if you’ve seen something, you’ve seen it; that if you’ve looked at something, you’ve cognitively absorbed it. In fact, it takes a long time to be able to do that.”

Jennifer Roberts

Elizabeth Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University

 

To see is not necessarily to know a work of art. The act of “absorption,” as Professor Jennifer Roberts puts it, is not immediate. This makes sense to us—what great truths or extraordinary stories are immediately apparent, can be understood and processed instantaneously? The act of observation, especially when you add reading wall text, can seem sufficient to unlocking the internal energies of works of art. But uncovering the fascinating stories of art objects is just that, an act of cracking beyond the recognizable surface to what bubbles just beneath.

Every work, as Professor Jennifer Roberts also contends, contains a “native intelligence” embedded in its very making. An art piece is a treasure, but it is also a vessel of new intelligences. Their stories are not necessarily verbal and easily written on the adjoining wall. Art holds stories of its materiality, its history, its dimensionality, its function, its translation. And anybody, with enough patience, can read this native intelligence of art objects, activated by conversation and closer looking. Sightlines is that means of access, that mediator from the immediate to the resonant that takes a viewer from one art object’s story and links it to the greater gallery, to the greater building, to the greater globe.

“Architectural environments profoundly shape the viewing experience of art.”

Deborah Martin Kao

Chief Curator, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art; and Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, Harvard Art Museums

We have spent a lot of time in the new Harvard Art Museums. As students, visitors, and formally trained Student Guides, we have had the unique opportunity to learn how the extraordinary new space was constructed. During Student Guide training sessions, for example, we learned directly from Harvard’s conservators, architects, and curators, so that we would pass their insights to museum visitors through public tours. And now, these lessons directly inform Sightlines.

The new museum space was designed with interdisciplinary learning in mind. Its goal is to create a kind of immersive artistic experience. Chief Curator Deborah Martin Kao explains that “for the new Harvard Art Museums, Renzo Piano [lead architect] has created distinct teaching and learning spaces—as sublime as they are functional—to enhance the display and encourage deep, cross-cutting study of the extraordinary original works of art in the collections.” There’s a reason we have chosen Renzo Piano’s “Light Machine” as our feature image. The massive, sky lit atrium and courtyard space merges neoclassical and contemporary aesthetic, amplifies natural light, and casts it in rays across archways that afford peeks into the gallery spaces within. It is also a metaphor for Sightlines, a work that inspires the kinds of multi-dimensional connections that can be forged within and between works on exhibit. This app creates an architecture of our cognitive experience exploring art in art spaces.

 

“The galleries have been designed and planned by curators so that objects can interact in new ways; visitors can make visual, historical, material, and intellectual linkages among and across the distinct collection areas.”

from Open, Harvard Art Museums, pg. 73.


There are 1,586 works of art on view in the new Harvard Art Museums. This is out of 224,945 total works in storage. The careful assemblage of this space has a story in itself, constituted in the resonance of individual art pieces in concert. Sightlines seamlessly navigates us through these layers by tapping into “something that runs counter to our modern lives: an invitation to slow down and engage in the kind of thoughtful looking and thinking that works of art can uniquely produce” (Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director, Harvard Art Museums).

“The arts offer each of us a special kind of insight and connection to the world. They free us from what we thought we understood—what we thought was possible—and challenge us to reconsider our assumptions.”

Drew Gilpin Faust

President and Lincoln Professor of History, Harvard University

 

We believe museums should be spaces for not only quiet contemplation, but also energetic conversations, a site for forging new connections within art space and our greater communities. As a result, Sightlines is inspired by the goals the new Harvard Art Museums: create an interconnected web of stories about art that is contained in the museum collections. It is a tool that enables greater access to these stories by engaging the viewer with information not available in wall-text and object descriptions alone, challenging us to slow down with our technology to absorb art’s deeper materiality, context, and position in curated space. Sightlines is a digital construction of the questions posed when art is assembled in authored spaces, the interconnected web of ethical and philosophical propositions with which we confront art objects.

“Great art, like science and the humanities, can never remain as the possession of one individual, creator or collector… great art and all culture belongs to all humankind.”

Arthur M. Sackler

Benefactor of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum

“[A work] cuts across cultures by asking questions of us.”

Diana Eck, speaking on Krishna, Radha and the Gopis with a Young Prince (c. 1650)

Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies; Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society; and Lowell House Housemaster, Harvard University

When we learn a new way of thinking, we make ourselves better able to see the world around us openly, making us better global citizens connected with each other. We each have our own stories, ignited by art—when we tap into the stories that art works tell, they can become our own. And from here, art, new understanding, and storytelling proliferate: art’s energy reverberates across the gallery space, from the gallery space to the viewing public and to other museums, and from the viewing public and other museums to the rest of the world. Imagine a world where we connect all museumsa collection of works for all humankind.

 


On light...

In the Fall of 2014, the Sightlines team had put together a tour on the theme of light in the new Harvard Art Museums. The design and installation of the first works on view inspired the creation of this project.