Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences launched a task force on visual culture and signage, FAS Dean Claudine Gay announced in an email to affiliates Tuesday.
In response to the recommendations of the University’s Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, Gay charged the new task force with developing principles and guidelines on how to “evolve the visual culture and imagery across the FAS”; conducting a survey of the current FAS visual landscape to determine opportunities for immediate changes; and instituting best practices for all FAS units to improve their visual culture.
“It is my sincere hope that this work will provide a stronger foundation for existing local efforts, as well as catalyze new, more systemic change across the FAS,” she added.
Arts and Humanities Dean Robin E. Kelsey, who is also a photography professor, will lead the 21-member task force, which includes several other art scholars, faculty, and administrators from across the University, according to Gay’s announcement. The newly appointed FAS associate dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Sheree Ohen, is one of the members.
The presidents and vice presidents of the Undergraduate Council and Graduate Student Council will also serve on the task force, according to Gay.
“How and where we memorialize individuals, events, and moments in our institutional history through imagery and symbols should reflect our core institutional commitments to truth, knowledge, and critical thinking,” Gay wrote. “At the same time, they should authentically represent the possibility inherent in our present moment and encourage the sense of welcome and belonging each of us needs to feel seen, heard, and be able to thrive.”
Issues of race in visual art have been contentious for Harvard affiliates in recent years.
In March, 2019, Tamara K. Lanier filed suit against Harvard alleging that the University unlawfully possesses and profits from historic photos of slaves she says are her ancestors.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in an April 2019 interview with The Crimson that Harvard’s possession of the images was not illegal, and that the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology displays them in order to illustrate the slaves’ humanity. Harvard affiliates, meanwhile, have called on the University to stop displaying, publishing, and selling the rights to the two images.
Days after Lanier filed suit against the University, Lowell House faculty deans David I. Laibson ’88 and Nina Zipser announced that the House would not display portraits of former University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, and his wife Anna Parker Lowell, citing the former University President’s racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic views.
Gay announced the task force’s formation Aug. 20 alongside a number of other diversity initiatives, including the resumption of a high-profile search for four faculty specializing in ethnic studies and the creation of Ohen’s position.