HUBweek Change Maker: Soyoung Lee

Chief Curator, Harvard Art Museums

Soyoung Lee was recently appointed Chief Curator of the Harvard Art Museums, where she will oversee the institution’s curatorial departments, exhibition program, and collection of artworks. Previously, Lee was curator of Asian Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she organized a number of critically acclaimed exhibitions and was the Museum’s first curator of Korean art. In conversation with HUBweek’s Zoe Dobuler, Soyoung looked forward to her first full year on the job, sharing her thoughts on working in a teaching museum, the role of technology in the arts, and more.

Zoe Dobuler: What initially drew you to the field of art history, and to pursuing a museum career?

Soyoung Lee: Serendipity! I went to college thinking I’d study English Literature — I loved Shakespeare. The core requirements at Columbia College included a course called Art Humanities, which was basically Western art history 101, from Parthenon to Picasso. That class introduced me to art history as an academic discipline, one that I could major in. It was a revelation. As an undergraduate my training was fairly broad and skewed toward European art. In grad school I got serious about East Asian art and focused my training on cross-cultural interactions between Korea and Japan in the premodern period. I had assumed I’d remain in academia, become a professor; frankly as a student I knew little about the museum world as a career option. I was extremely fortunate to have landed at the Metropolitan Museum as an assistant curator. It’s a delight to work with objects, to communicate the stories around art through exhibitions.

ZD: Coming from the Met, what are you most looking forward to about working at an academic museum? What is unique about a teaching museum, as compared to its civic peer institutions?

SL: I’ve always loved teaching, so to be working at an art museum embedded in a major research and teaching university feels like coming full circle. I would very much like to take advantage of various opportunities to share my expertise and passion with the students. They might project a certain blasé attitude, because that’s cool, but I’ve found they’re actually really hungry for knowledge and practical experience. Their curiosity is inspiring. The potential and ability (indeed responsibility) to shape directly and intimately the minds and souls of the next generation are what make academic museums uniquely compelling. What’s additionally exciting for me about working at the Harvard Art Museums is being surrounded by the university’s truly incredible and vast network of intellectual capital. It’s rather awe-inspiring and humbling.

ZD: Are there certain objects or collections at the Harvard Art Museums that you are especially excited to work with?

SL: When I was a grad student and then a curator specializing in East Asian art, I was most familiar with the Asian collection of Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum. I still have tremendous affinity for East Asian Buddhist and ceramic arts. I’m fond of the light-filled gallery of Chinese Buddhist sculptures at Harvard Art Museums. Now as Chief Curator, I am looking forward to getting to know and work with the collections of all three museums that comprise the Harvard Art Museums (Fogg Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, Arthur M. Sackler Museum). I think it’s fantastic how in the new building the three distinct collections both retain their prior identities and are also presented in dialogue with one another. We have great strengths in modern art, an area I’m not necessarily an expert in but am excited to delve into more deeply. I am also eager to work alongside our curators to present contemporary art in thoughtful and imaginative ways.

ZD: What is the most memorable experience you have had in a museum, either as a visitor or a curator?

SL: I’ve been lucky to have had many memorable professional experiences. The exhibition “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom” (at The Met in 2013) holds a special place in my curatorial life. Samsung’s sponsorship enabled the inclusion of several innovative digital presentations — including showing a 3D reconstruction of a famous 8th-century Buddhist cave temple on a giant UHD screen. That cave temple was a key architectural achievement of the culture and period we were highlighting in the exhibition — but we couldn’t physically bring it to New York. So many visitors to that show told me how much they thought the digital presentations deepened their appreciation of the art, made them look more closely at the objects on display, and made them want to travel to Korea. That was immensely gratifying.

One of my most memorable experiences as a visitor was to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna a couple of years ago with my family during my kids’ spring break. The Breugel room is enchanting: from the madness of his Tower of Babel to the haunting beauty of the winter landscape in The Hunters in the Snow, I was mesmerized.

ZD: Speaking of technology, it is increasingly becoming a part of the museum-going experience — I recently went to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. and they had a Pepper robot greeter, and museums more and more are using interactive technologies to mediate and/or enhance the art-viewing experience. What is your take on these developments, and how do you foresee technology playing a role in your work at the Harvard Art Museums?

SL: Technology can be an incredible asset for museums in our mission. We can enrich our storytelling through digital tools in subtle or radical ways. The most obvious methods are the use of screens, whatever the size, in the galleries, whether for interactive encounters or for communicating complex ideas visually — in ways that sometimes transcend written words. There’s the visitor’s smartphone, through which we could deliver extra layers of understanding and wonder about art. There are probably other modes that we haven’t yet realized or invented yet. The challenge is making the right technology for the particular experience you want for your visitors. And to not be seduced by the shiny and new, the dazzle without substance. The Harvard Art Museums are deliberately pretty low-tech in our galleries (except for the Lightbox Gallery). I’m open to exploring and thinking outside the box about ways technology can help how we translate great art into transformative experiences.

ZD: What do you see as the role of the art museum in its community (be that the Harvard community or the wider Cambridge/Boston community)?

SL: I see the art museums as a whole, and the Harvard Art Museums specifically, as a place for finding joy and beauty, for learning and revelations, for quiet contemplation, for sharing ideas, for bringing together friends, families, whole communities. In addition to curatorial might and magic, as manifest in the art in the galleries, the Harvard Art Museums are a hub of amazing art conservation and scientific discoveries, of exhilarating student and public programs. I do think we are doing a fantastic job of enriching the Harvard community. I hope to further strengthen our connection to the Cambridge/Boston community. I’d also like to build upon the University’s global reputation to expand the Museums’ international reach and impact.

ZD: The theme for HUBweek 2018 was “We the Future.” What does that mean to you?

SL: I see the future as full of possibilities since it’s unknown, but it will inevitably reflect who we are now, where we’ve come from. We live in a globally connected world, and no doubt in the future the world will continue to grow smaller — in large part because of technology I’m sure. But how we connect in that future, what encourages us to seek one another (not just be forced to coexist or live in our bubbles with our technological devices of choice!) — that I think will be important. I hope there will always be space to experience the wonder of art. And to acquire a nuanced and visceral understanding of culture — one’s own and that of others, of the moment and of the past. Art museums collect, care for, and exhibit the present and the past so that the future can have meaningful connections to history.

The HUBweek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.

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