Martha Tedeschi: Slow down and look

Martha TedeschiAs the director of the Harvard Art Museums settles into her position, she takes a moment to talk about art, education and meaningful encounters. 

By Samantha Neville '19

It became apparent very quickly from talking to the director of the Harvard Art Museums that art has always been a part of Matha Tedeschi’s life. Her parents gave her early exposure to art. Her mother was a watercolorist and book

Martha Tedeschi
Martha Tedeschi (Harvard Gazette)
conservator. Her father was a scholar, which gave the family the opportunity to travel to places such as Italy when Tedeschi was a child. In fact, a moment Tedeschi remembers distinctly from her time in Italy is seeing a Bible that fit inside a ring and that was used by persecuted heretical groups. It sounded like something out of a fantasy novel.

“That showed me how art and spirituality and politics are connected,” Tedeschi said.        

Apart from having the opportunity to see such unique objects, being in Italy also gave Tedeschi the opportunity to see art in context, for instance in low-lit churches.

“Often you’re experiencing it in dim lighting, sometimes with flickering candles, which is in fact the way the artists expected them to be seen, not in the harsh light of a contemporary gallery, but in this kind of flickering, incense-filled space,” Tedeschi said.

Learning about art from the perspective of her mother gave her the opportunity to understand the process of making art.

Tedeschi was deputy for art and research at the Art Institute of Chicago before coming to Harvard in 2016. One of the reasons she was interested in becoming the director at the Harvard post was to work with the next generation.

“I realized that this would be an opportunity for me to spend relatively more of my time really thinking about the museum as a place of learning and what we want to be teaching the next generation,” Tedeschi said.

After talking to her about becoming director, Tedeschi and I walked through the museum, which I began to see through Tedeschi’s eyes. As she walked me through the museum, she pointed out the three museums contained under the larger name: the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. The original is a replica of a 500-year-old Italian villa – a nice coincidence with Tedeschi’s childhood memory. During a renovation, the architect Renzo Piano redesigned the building to accommodate the three collections, and it re-opening in 2014.

We went up to the fifth floor, where the museum’s center for conservation is located. It’s a unique conservation centers in that the walls are made of glass so the public can look in at the conservation work being done.

“We want people to you know have a sense that behind the scenes there’s research going on, that we’re actively preserving cultural property and heritage and that what you see on the walls is only part of the story of what a museum does,” Tedeschi said.

"Summer Night" by Winslow Homer
Winslow Homer, "Summer Night," 1890. Oil on canvas. Paris, Musée d’Orsay Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski.
Tedeschi appreciates how easy it is to walk from artwork of one culture to artwork of another culture in the museum. She showed me Summer Night by Winslow Homer on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The work, which is on display through July 17, is positioned with other nocturne scenes such as those by James Whistler. We then walked over to the nearby Asian Art exhibits, and Tedeschi explained that Whistler and others had been inspired by Japanese art.

“I think one of the nice things about this building is that you can walk quickly from one culture into another, which allows your eye and your brain to make connections between different cultures,” she said.

Tedeschi then showed me portraits of President George Washington, Winnebago chieftain Little Elk and Emperor Napoleon – all leaders and all linked by the struggles of leadership. The context and proximity, of course, were the point.

“The museum can be one place where students can take a deep breath and maybe even just pick one work to look at that allows them to slow themselves down,” Tedeschi said. “Slow down your heartbeat. Look really carefully. Use the experience of looking as a way of slowing down your life and having a meaningful encounter that allows you to think.”

A gallery talk on Winslow Homer’s Summer Night will take place Jan. 30 at Harvard Art Museum, 32 Quincy St. in Cambridge. Read more about Martha Tedeschi in the Harvard Gazette