Introduction

Have you ever wondered about how museum, library, and other kinds of historical or scientific collections all come together? Or how and why curators, historians, archivists, and preservationists do what they do?

In Tangible Things, you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people. This course will draw on some of the most fascinating items housed at Harvard University, highlighting several to give you a sense of the power of learning through tangible things.

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By “stepping onto” the storied campus, you and your fellow learners can explore Harvard’s astonishing array of tangible things—books and manuscripts, art works, scientific specimens, ethnographic artifacts, and historical relics of all sorts. The University not only owns a Gutenberg bible, but it also houses in its collections Turkish sun dials, a Chinese crystal ball, a divination basket from Angola, and nineteenth-century “spirit writing” chalked on a child-sized slate. Tucked away in storage cabinets or hidden in closets and the backrooms of its museums and libraries are Henry David Thoreau’s pencil, a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, and chemicals captured from a Confederate ship. The Art Museums not only care for masterpieces of Renaissance painting but also for a silver-encrusted cup made from a coconut. The Natural History Museum not only preserves dinosaur bones and a fish robot but an intact Mexican tortilla more than a century old.

In the first section of the course, we will consider how a statue, a fish, and a gingham gown have contributed to Harvard’s history, and you will learn the value of stopping to look at the things around you.

In the next section, we will explore some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce, and define culture.

Finally, we will consider methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking about nature, time, and ordinary work.

Along the way, you will discover new ways of looking at, organizing, and interpreting tangible things in your own environment.

HarvardX pursues the science of learning. By registering as an online learner in an HX course, you will also participate in research about learning. Read our research statement to learn more.

 

Meet The Faculty

Laurel Thatcher  Ulrich

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is the author of Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Early New England, 1650-1750 (1982) and A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812(1990) which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1991 and became the basis of a PBS documentary. In The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Making of an American Myth (2001), she has incorporated museum-based research as well as more traditional archival work. Her most recent book is Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007). Her major fields of interest are early American social history, women's history, and material culture.

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