Where in the University does a 100-year-old tortilla, an early American plow, a carved Angolan spoon, or a student toga belong? And why does it belong there?
An offbeat new exhibit, drawing on material collected at Harvard over the centuries, aims to answer those questions, challenging viewers to explore the notion of how Western thought categorizes a wide array of objects, and what can be gleaned from those classifications.
“Tangible Things,” curated by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, 300th Anniversary University Professor, and Ivan Gaskell, Margaret S. Winthrop Curator and senior lecturer on history, highlights and questions the modern Western intellectual categories that distinguish art from artifact, specimen from tool, and the historical from the anthropological. The exhibition features nearly 200 objects culled from across the University.
“We have all of these interesting objects, and we wanted to get people thinking about what kinds of questions they would ask when they were brought together. Why is something art versus an artifact? And how are those distinctions defined?” said Sarah Carter, a Harvard lecturer on history and literature, who coordinated the show.
In a clever twist, “Tangible Things” is one part museum exhibit and one part treasure hunt. The core of the exhibition is in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments’ Special Exhibitions Gallery. There, visitors are introduced to material categorized as art, history, archaeology and anthropology, science and medicine, books and manuscripts, and natural history, as well as items that don’t fit into an easily defined category. Those items, say the show’s organizers, challenge viewers to classify a seemingly random assortment of objects according to Western scholarly conventions.
Visitors are then invited to take part in a University-wide scavenger hunt to discover the many objects that were carefully inserted into exhibitions in seven of Harvard’s public museums. As visitors fan out to discover these wandering items, the show’s organizers hope the observers will begin to understand that the meanings of things and the categories of knowledge and knowing based on those things are not as static or as natural as they may appear.
The material mysteries can be found through May 29 at the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Houghton Library, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Schlesinger Library, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the Semitic Museum.
The exhibit also serves as the foundation for the innovative General Education course “Tangible Things: Harvard Collections in World History,” taught this spring by Ulrich and Gaskell.
“Although many of us routinely use museum collections in teaching, I believe this is the first attempt to build a course around the history of Harvard’s collections,” said Ulrich. “They are amazing, and we are very excited about opening up this world to undergraduates.”
The exhibition is sponsored by the Harvard Arts Initiative, Harvard College Program in General Education, the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost at Harvard University, and the Harvard Art Museums’ Gurel Student Exhibition Fund.