Massachusetts

Cambridge: Five Fascinating Harvard Museums to Discover

by Paul Stafford  |  Published May 4, 2016

Harvard University is routinely ranked as the best university in the world. Of the many factors that earn the prestigious Ivy League institution such an accolade, its museums are certainly one of the more important ones.

Necklace of bird pendants from Bolivia (Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology)

Necklace of bird pendants from Bolivia (Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology)

Students at Harvard University must wander around campus safe in the knowledge that they have some of the best research facilities in the world at their disposal. Not to mention having Harvard on their résumés. For everyone else the university represents the elite. However this kind of elite does not mean inaccessible or lofty, because the brilliant system of museums operated by Harvard act as a bridge between students and the public in the interests of opening up education and knowledge to the world.

Many of the museums in and around the Cambridge, Massachusetts campus (and some Harvard museums a little further afield) double up as research facilities. The diverse range covers many branches of the arts and sciences and while some museums may seem somewhat esoteric in nature, each one presents to the public knowledge and understanding at the forefront of global research in their respective fields. Here are some of the best from a phenomenal bunch.

Ledger drawing by unknown Indian warrior, probably Lakota, ca. 1865. Details from Half Moon ledger book. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Gift of Harriet J. Bradbury, 1930. (Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Ledger drawing by unknown Indian warrior, probably Lakota, ca. 1865. Details from Half Moon ledger book. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Gift of Harriet J. Bradbury, 1930. (Photo: President and Fellows of Harvard College)

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

One of the oldest anthropological museums in the Americas, the Peabody offers a remarkable insight into the lives of Native Americans and other indigenous cultures. Some of the permanent collections on display include Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West – a series of significant drawings by at least five Lakota Sioux warriors, found in a ledger on the battlefield in the aftermath of Little Big Horn. A Chicago Tribune reporter acquired the ledger from one of Custer’s men, and it later ended up at Harvard’s Houghton Library. The drawings offer an invaluable insight into Lakota warrior culture. Speaking of battles, Arts of War: Artistry in Weapons Across Cultures is an exhibition exploring the rationale behind creation of intricate and beautiful designs on weaponry, which is crafted with the express intent to extinguish life. Temporary exhibitions, such as In Fine Feather, showcasing the use of bird plumage to enrich clothing and other objects, also help showcase the vast depth of Peabody’s collection. Buying a ticket to the Peabody also means you have free entry to Harvard Museum of Natural History.

11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge

The Peabody is open from 9am-5pm seven days a week

Delicate glass flowers at Harvard Natural History Museum (Photo: Angela N. via Flickr)

Delicate glass flowers at Harvard Natural History Museum (Photo: Angela N. via Flickr)

Harvard Museum of Natural History

Celebrating the complexity and variety of life on Earth, Harvard’s Natural History museum is an elegy to the mammals, birds, plants and marine life native to the region. The cornucopia of flora and fauna from land and sea, both past and present is laid out over a number of exhibits. Among them, the Glass Flowers exhibit, reopening in May, displays roughly 3,000 hand-crafted glass flowers that are every bit as delicate and nuanced as their real-life counterparts. Newly opened Putnam Family Gallery plays host to Marine Life, an exhibition detailing the thrilling diversity of New England’s coastal waters. In addition there are sections displaying dinosaur fossils, birds of the world and evolutionary history to name just a few.

26 Oxford Street, Cambridge

Harvard Museum of Natural History is open from 9am-5pm seven days a week

A view of Harvard Pond (Photo: David Foster)

A view of Harvard Pond (Photo: David Foster)

Fisher Museum and the Harvard Forest

One of the best examples of Harvard’s active combination of research and education can be witnessed at Harvard Forest. Ongoing research, such as the comprehensive study of the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect responsible for the deaths of New England’s hemlock trees, takes place in this forest, through which a number of public trails run. The French Road trail, for example, is a 2.5 mile loop that passes a number of sites where active research is taking place. A map of roads and trails can be picked up at Fisher Museum, which houses 23 beautiful dioramas depicting the conservation and management history of forests in the region. The museum will be closed during the winter of 2016-2017 for renovation.

324 N Main St, Athol, MA 01331

The Fisher Museum is open 9am-4pm Mon-Fri, 12pm-4pm Sat & Sun (Weekends from May-Oct)  

Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts

Commissioning new work and exhibiting it alongside existing works of art and design is the ongoing mission statement of Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (CCVA). The center is a brilliant space – surprisingly the only Le Corbusier designed building in North America – where artists are nurtured in their work by encouraging engagement with outside audiences. Residence programs allow artists to exhibit their work, and performances, screenings and gatherings also provide platforms aimed at bringing people together to explore new creative avenues. Exhibitions at CCVA’s galleries change on a regular basis. Currently Fabricated, Normally, a group senior thesis exhibition, aims to collectively explore the dichotomy of modern culture. What is real? What is fabricated? It promises to be an engaging and thought-provoking experience.

24 Quincy Street, Cambridge

CCVA’s galleries are open 12pm-7pm Weds-Sun

The roof that united the three museums (Photo: Paul Geffen via Flickr)

The roof that united the three museums (Photo: Paul Geffen via Flickr)

Harvard Art Museums

Originally three separate museums that were recently combined under a single Renzo Piano roof, Harvard Art Museums cover a broad gamut of art history. The museums have long worked hard to increase the appreciation and understanding of art at home and abroad. It was only a matter of time until they were united. The Fogg Museum houses Western paintings, photography sculpture and drawings. Busch-Reisinger hones it focus on central and northern European art, with emphasis on German-speaking nations. Arthur M. Sackler Museum looks east, dedicating itself to art from Asia, and the Middle East plus regions of the Mediterranean. The six-year renovation provided more gallery space, allowing the museums to broaden their scope further still.

32 Quincy Street, Cambridge

Harvard Art Museums are open 10am-5pm seven days a week

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