Harvard’s Philosophy Chamber Collection — Rediscovered and reunited after almost two centuries

John Singleton Copley, Nicholas Boylston, 1773. Oil on canvas. Harvard University Portrait Collection, H20. Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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This spring, the Harvard Art Museums will present “The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820,” a special exhibition that brings together many long-forgotten icons of American culture. It will present new findings on this unique space — equal parts laboratory, picture gallery, and lecture hall—that stood at the center of artistic and intellectual life at Harvard and in New England for more than 50 years.

Celebrated at the time as one of the grandest spaces in America, the original Philosophy Chamber and its adjacent rooms housed an extraordinary collection of paintings, portraits, and prints; mineral, plant, and animal specimens; scientific instruments; indigenous American artifacts; and relics from the ancient world—all of which was used regularly for lectures, discussions, and demonstrations. Highlights include: portraits by John Singleton Copley, Stephen Sewall’s 1768 mural-sized copy of the Native American inscription on the famous Dighton Rock in Massachusetts, and a grand orrery (a model of the solar system) created by Joseph Pope between 1776 and 1787. Many of the objects in the exhibition have not been shown publicly since the collection was dispersed almost 200 years ago.

The reassembled Philosophy Chamber invites visitors to examine the role that images and objects play in building, organizing, and transmitting knowledge; and as a historical study, it deepens our understanding not only of Harvard’s past, but also the history of early American art and culture.