What you'll learn

  • Understanding of museum curation approaches
  • The basics of historical analysis and interpretation
  • A sense of the work that historians, curators, and collectors perform
  • Strong critical thinking and analytical skills
  • How things that seem to belong to different disciplines actually can “talk” to one another
  • How close looking at even a single object can push beyond academic and disciplinary boundaries

Course description

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 fascinating items housed at Harvard University, highlighting several to give you a sense of the power of learning through tangible things.

By “stepping onto” the storied campus, you and your fellow learners can explore Harvard’s astonishing array of tangible things—books and manuscripts, artworks, 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 sundials, 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 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. Through these objects, 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 everyday work.

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

Instructors

  • Curator and Director of Research, Chipstone Foundation
  • David P. Wheatland Curator Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University
  • Professor of Cultural History and Museum Studies, Bard Graduate Center at Harvard University
  • 300th Anniversary University Professor, Emerita, Harvard University

Associated Schools

  • Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences

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