USU plans to make museum education more accessible with new facility

The new facility will be adjacent to the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum and will accommodate 40% more collection storage for the museum.

(Selina Christensen | Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art) During a visit to the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University, students explore art in the drawers of the Object Study Center.

The Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University has more than 5,000 objects in its collection — most of it American art, particularly from the West — but only room to show around 7% of them.

That will change soon, thanks to a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In the NEH’s 2022 list of grants, announced earlier in January and totaling $24.7 million, only two of the 208 recipients nationwide will receive the maximum amount of $750,000. One of them is the Harrison Museum. (The other is the PBS station that serves the Washington, D.C., area.)

The money will go toward construction of a new building adjacent to the Harrison Museum, said project director Katherine Lee-Koven — with an opening date anticipated for summer or fall 2025.

The project is expected to cost $6.3 million, and USU is receiving a $2.8 million private gift (the donor has not been named) that will more than fulfill NEH’s requirement that fundraising match the $750,000 grant.

(Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art) A concept rendering shows what the future Art Research & Education Center at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art could look like.

The Harrison has also received a $310,000 cultural capital facilities grant from the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. The grant was the highest dollar amount given by the division during this round of funding, and the first time Arts & Museums has given a facilities grant to an arts facility.

Lee-Koven, who is also executive director and chief curator for the Harrison Museum, and her team are still raising funds for the remainder of the building’s costs.

The facility is called the Wanlass Art Research & Education Center, though Lee-Koven said that name is a work in progress.

One goal for the building, Lee-Koven said, “is to support 21st century learning needs and spaces and resources that we think makes learning more engaged. … And the second is to accommodate our growing collection.”

The museum now takes up 23,000 square feet on four levels, not enough space for USU’s growing art collection and educational initiatives, said Lee-Koven said. The new building will include an open classroom space for USU students and K-12 classes, a library space specific to the Harrison’s collection, and equipment to be able to broadcast classes and other public programs.

“Museums fundamentally are about education and about learning,” said Lee-Koven, who previously led the Harrison’s 2018 expansion. “The way in which we learn and what we know about how we learn has evolved over time. … So knowing that, it’s a responsibility of all museums to think about how we present the materials that we collect, how we share them, how people can learn from them, and interpret them.”

The new facility will not include any new galleries. Instead, it will have a visible storage area — presenting a behind-the-scenes, more accessible look at how the museum store items.

“The visible storage concept is one where things are on racks or shelves, and compacted but with a glass so that you can see [and] get a sense of what museums do, how we care for objects, how we store objects, if we go to pull objects, where are we going to get that object… and to provide different ways of learning and engaging with the art,” Lee-Koven said.

The idea is that visitors can ask about certain objects, search the database, and open drawers to engage a more individualistic approach to learning. “You can have that experience be very personal to you and what you’re interested in,” Lee-Koven said.

That exploration is key to learning about art, Lee-Komen said.

“The beauty of art is that there’s no right or wrong answer,” she said. “It’s a safe space that anyone can bring their own personal experiences, their own knowledge, their own biases, their own anything into what they see [and] what they experience, and then ask questions of it.”