Harvard College Dean Evelynn Hammonds (from left) opened the discussion “Teaching with Collections” by reporting that more than 100 members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences make Harvard’s collections a centerpiece of courses in areas as disparate as visual and environmental studies, expository writing, the history of science, and stem cell research. Other speakers included Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Peter Galison, Jeffrey Hamburger, and Farish Jenkins (not pictured).

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Objects of instruction

7 min read

Faculty members discuss use of Harvard’s collections in teaching and learning

The 12th century volume of commentaries on the epistles of St. Paul held in Harvard’s Houghton Library gives students in Professor Jeffrey Hamburger’s freshman seminar “Picturing Prayer in the Middle Ages” insight into the minds of medieval religious scholars. What’s really valuable to Hamburger as a teacher, however, is the bookmark.

“It’s precisely the type of hands-on object that can draw students into these books and the whole world that is literally opened up by them,” he said. “A medieval bookmark that not only marks your place in the book on a page-to-page basis, but also allows you to pinpoint the line on which you left off reading or, perhaps more important, left off copying. That lets us know that it’s not the book or the folio — originally these books were not paginated or collated — but the opening that is the governing semantic unit both for the maker and for the reader.”

Hamburger’s remarks were delivered at Harvard Hall on April 1 as part of “Teaching with Collections,” a discussion of the University’s oft-underappreciated treasures and their use in the classroom. The session, which featured presentations by four other members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), was hosted by Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds. It was part of the Conversations @ FAS series, which explores topics of broad interest related to the University’s teaching and research mission.

Hammonds, the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies, opened the discussion by reporting that more than 100 members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) make Harvard’s collections a centerpiece of courses in areas as disparate as visual and environmental studies, expository writing, the history of science, and stem cell research. She said that she hoped the day’s presentations would foster increased use of Harvard’s collected objects.

Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor and director of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, said that there have been collections at Harvard almost as long as there has been a Harvard. The University began to collect scientific instruments, for instance, in the 17th century. When the early collection was lost in a fire, Harvard enlisted Benjamin Franklin to begin a new one, which he did while working in Paris for the establishment of the United States. Among the items he sent back to Harvard was a late 18th century model of the solar system.

“In true enlightenment fashion, you can look inside and see the clockwork mechanism, and understand its rational motion,” Galison said.

Galison presented slides of some of the 20,000 objects his group has cataloged, including the control panel for one of the first atomic cyclotrons, which was installed at Harvard in the 1930s and then moved to Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project. He reported that courses in the History of Science Department now integrate the curation of exhibits like these into their curriculum. Galison pointed to an exhibition on the history of the scientific fact recently created by College students, and one on patent models assembled by graduate students and FAS faculty.

“This type of activity is not only expanding the genre of sources, used in academic inquiry,” he said, “but also expanding equally the idioms through which we can express ourselves.”

Hamburger, the Kuno Francke Professor of German Art and Culture, centered his presentation on the study of the codex. He said that the 12th century manuscript of Pauline commentaries is only one of more than 3,500 medieval manuscripts housed at Houghton Library. He called this collection the largest in North America and comparable to those in the great universities of Europe.

By taking his students into Houghton, Hamburger said that he can “bring material to life in a way that no classroom presentation could ever possibly do.” But the library’s resources — as well as those at the Law, Medical, and Business Schools — are often underused, he said. Few people know, for instance, that HBS’ Baker Library | Bloomberg Center holds a substantial number of manuscripts of the Medici family, principal patrons of the Italian Renaissance. Hamburger advocated for the digitization of such resources to ensure their use by scholars around the world.

While Hamburger and Galison focused on the rare and the remarkable in Harvard’s collections, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the 300th Anniversary University Professor, and Ivan Gaskell, Margaret S. Winthrop Curator in the Harvard Art Museums and senior lecturer on history, extolled the virtues of the mundane and the everyday: a toothbrush, a chair, a piece of clothing. “My adventure has been to move into the realm of material objects and use them to study ordinary people in ordinary life,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich, the developer of the popular General Education course and exhibition “Tangible Things,” stood at the front of the classroom and pulled a quilt out of an old bookcase. The quilt, which was made in Missouri during the 1920s, was designed with dark blue hexagons. She said that she had students research the source of the design, which led them back hundreds of years to a study of Islamic decorative art, its migration through Europe and then to America. An examination of the cloth and its manufacture in the American South took students through the history of slavery.

Ulrich said that she wanted her students to work with artifacts to “break them out of their narrowness” and help them make connections between unrelated things like a quilt made in Missouri and an Islamic tile.

“You see cultural contact and exchange in ways that you cannot see in books and writing,” she said. “Students get really excited when you put them in touch with real stuff.”

The final presentation took the audience from the inanimate to the animal. Farish Jenkins, professor of biology, curator of vertebrate paleontology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, talked about the importance of Harvard’s collection of zoological specimens in teaching students about the natural world. As an example, he used a photo of the skeleton of a young boa constrictor in a short lesson on the predatory habits of snakes.

A snake’s prey is often several times bigger than its head. To illustrate, he projected a gruesome picture of a snake swallowing a frog, then referred back to the boa skeleton to show that the animal’s neck goes all the way down to its tail. Jenkins pointed to special vertebrae along the snake’s body that help it to digest its food.

“You can’t teach about this any other way than by putting the skeleton right in front of a student,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to get students to look at, touch, understand, and know many species of animals. The ultimate goal is to get them to love those animals.”