Art Hidden in Plain Sight

The Museum Without Walls app helps visitors learn about paintings, sculpture and other artworks located around the Tufts Medford/Somerville campus
Colassal AcornHead sculpture
"Colossal AcornHead, 2014," by Leslie Fry, outside of Eaton Hall, one of the 27 works of art highlighted by Museum Without Walls. Photo: Alonso Nichols
November 12, 2015


Each year some 50,000 prospective undergraduates and their families visit Tufts, learning who the best professors are and how to get to Davis Square. Amy Ingrid Schlegel, director of the university’s galleries and collections, hopes visitors will also discover the rich variety of artwork on the Medford/Somerville campus.

And now that’s much easier to do, thanks to Museum Without Walls, a digital self-guided tour to paintings, sculpture, photographs and public art dispersed around campus. The tour, which Schlegel initiated four years ago, is available on smartphones and on the web, and all 27 works currently featured on it are easily accessible, from a sculpture by Isamu Noguchi in Tisch Library to a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window in Goddard Chapel.

"Porpianong," wood and pigment sculpture by an unknown Senufo artist, Tisch Library. Photo: Alonso NicholsBy mixing words, video, audio and sometimes music, Museum Without Walls provides the kind of experience offered in Tufts classes, says Schlegel. Faced with a painting by Helen Frankenthaler, viewers are prompted to describe it. At a steel sculpture by Richard Hunt, the questions are, What do you think causes the dots? The drips? The color differences between sides or under arches?

“Essentially it’s prompting you with questions that ask you to look closely, and then look again,” says Schlegel. “It’s a way of stopping you, slowing you down and asking you to look at something very specific.”

"In Person," mural by Sophia Ainslie, G01, at 574 Boston Avenue. Photo: Alonso NicholsMany of the stops offer audio recordings made by the artists or people involved with the work.  For Colossal AcornHead, one of the most popular stops on the tour, artist Leslie Fry tells you she imagines the head is longing to be a real acorn and return to nature. At Goddard Chapel, Laura McDonald, the senior collection registrar, investigates whether the work listed as “artist unknown” was actually designed by Tiffany.

"Orange Shapes in Frame," by Helen Frankenthaler, in the lobby of Aidekman Arts Center. Photo: Alonso NicholsA more recent work, the seven-part mural In Person-574, was commissioned for the new Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex building at 574 Boston Ave., and painted by Sophia Ainslie, who earned her M.F.A. from Tufts in 2001.

Ainslie tells how she created the images for the work, which spans the building’s four-story stairwell, and viewers can compare those images with the original paintings on which they are based. Likewise, when gazing upon the sculpture of Jumbo outside Barnum Hall, viewers are asked to notice the similarities and differences between it and a photo of the real Jumbo taken at London Zoo in the 1880s.

"InVisible, 2015," by the Tufts/SMFA Flash Collective, outside of the Mayer Campus Center. Photo: Alonso NicholsOne of the outdoor works is a “billboard” at the Talbot Avenue side of the student center. Called InVisible, it was a collaborative effort between undergraduates from Tufts and from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, guided by visiting artist Avram Finkelstein. The students used photographs and text to explore the degrees of privilege, visibility and safety available to various groups.

The information in Museum Without Walls is geared to a general audience. “It focuses on process and materials, but it also provides other perspectives,” Schlegel says. “If the artist is living, we will always have the artist record his or her perspective; if the artist is deceased, we try to provide other kinds of context.” 

When Schlegel began the program, she had help from Philippa Pitts, G14, who designed the tour itineraries visitors can choose from, developed new content and researched the platforms for the site.

"Easter Lilies," stained glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany, in Goddard Chapel. Photo: Alonso NicholsSchlegel plans to keep Museum Without Walls evolving. She hopes faculty members will use it in courses and foresees a time when it will become more interactive. “We would like to try to generate more of a dialogue among users, to have viewers encounter a work and post something or tweet a comment that would be visible to anyone using the site,” she says. “Technology is changing so fast. We’ll see what’s out there next.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer for Tufts Now.