The Harvard Art Museum (HAM) and Project Zero conducted a one-year collaborative research project to investigate the nature of visitor learning at HAM's two study centers, the Agnes Mongan Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs and the Study Room of the Busch-Reisinger Museum.

The Agnes Mongan Center specializes in works on paper from the collection of the Fogg Art Museum. The Study Room of the Busch-Reisinger Museum brings together works of all media, including sculpture and decorative arts as well as research materials on modern art and design. Both centers are open to the public. Through onsite observations and interviews with a wide range of study center users, this project seeks to identify, examine and articulate the special kinds of learning experiences offered by study centers.

More dynamic, participatory and self-directed than the museum galleries, the HAM study centers enable visitors to view a far greater variety of objects than appear on display in the galleries and to focus on works specific to their individual interests. The study centers provide visitors valuable opportunities to interact directly with objects, to set their own learning goals and chart their own path of inquiry, to ask questions, to make comparisons and to explore problems of interpretation. This increased accessibility to works in the collection expands the possibilities for close, intimate encounters with objects in their full complexity. It also invites greater interaction with museum staff and other visitors, fostering opportunities for critical thinking and looking that complement gallery experiences. The kinds of dynamic engagement with original works of art that can be experienced in the study centers not only form part of the history and mission of the Harvard Art Museum, but also serve as a model for the future of the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Sackler Museums.

Interestingly, despite the apparent power of study centers, there has been little systematic research on their educational benefits or potential. Nor is there research on how to extend the benefits of study center learning to a broader range of museum offerings. To address these knowledge gaps, the HAM-Project Zero research project had three goals:

  • Develop a clear and common language to describe study center learning and articulate the potentials of the study center environment.
  • Situate study center learning within the larger contexts of museum education, cognitive science, educational research and theory.
  • Build on existing study center research to provide HAM with a research-based perspective that can leverage the learning potential of all its education offerings.