Specifically, consider one specimen of this mineral kept by Harvard’s Mineralogical and Geological Museum. This particular rock belonged to John White Webster, a Harvard chemistry professor from 1824 to 1849. Webster kept this rock and other mineral specimens in a large tea chest. His collection was valuable enough for the persistently cash-strapped professor to put it up as collateral on two separate personal loans.
In 1849 authorities found something else in Webster’s chest: the dismembered torso of Dr. George Parkman, one of Webster’s creditors. The discovery led to a sensational trial that unnerved the Boston Brahmin circles in which both men moved, featured Judge Lemuel Shaw’s legally historic instructions to the jury in which he defined “manslaughter,” “murder,” and “reasonable doubt,” among others, and ended in Webster’s conviction on circumstantial evidence. Webster’s life ended at the end of a hangman’s rope in August 1850, but his collection of rocks remains.
This piece of vesuvianite holds interest not just for its relative rarity and the specifics of its chemical composition but for the stories attached to it. In one direction, it leads us to Mount Vesuvius — scourge of Pompeii, site of one of history’s earliest famous natural disasters, and namesake of this particular mineral — and in the other direction, to a tabloid-worthy, antebellum society murder that ended in the execution of a Harvard professor and left a lasting mark on legal precedent.
The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s recent “University as Collector” conference was, in part, an object lesson. Scholars and archivists from across the university gathered to consider a tiny handful of the millions of artifacts and specimens in the school’s collections, with an eye towards “reanimating various objects in Harvard’s possession,” said Julie Buckler, director of the humanities program in Radcliffe’s Academic Ventures Initiative and a co-organizer of the event.
The university as archivist is a notion as old as universities themselves, yet this role is rarely what we talk about when we talk about college today. It’s far away from concerns over tuition, admissions, student loans — and in many ways runs in direct opposition to those other issues. So how does a modern institution both provide an affordable education and serve as an ever-expanding repository of cultural artifacts?
It’s a question that has become increasingly fraught on some campuses. Archive materials themselves can be valuable holdings, but university archivists around the country suggest that their maintenance — paying caretakers, building appropriate facilities, even paying the utility bills — is chronically underfunded.
“We’re always battling for funding, but we do what we can,” said Thomas Fruscian, the university archivist at Rutgers, which is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.
Most schools have, at the very least, interesting holdings on their own institutional history, and a few are still building their archives. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, has spent millions in recent years on the papers of Nobel laureates Gabriel Garcia Marquez and J.M. Coetzee.
Yet thanks to its age, resources, and pure vastness, Harvard is leading the international conversation on how to ensure archives stay relevant.
The purpose of the Radcliffe gathering was not just to revel in the sheer mass of the Harvard collections, but to consider how those collections might be put to more and better uses. “There’s a real transformation going on in pedagogy, especially in undergraduate pedagogy,” Buckler said. “There is really is a potential for profound intertwining of research and teaching.”
Over a decade ago, in her undergraduate course “Tangible Things,” Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich asked students to consider what objects know. Her work on this course eventually culminated in a 2011 exhibition, as well as an online public course and a companion book out this year, all three also called “Tangible Things.”
“To trace an original use or significance is to account for only one period in the life of a thing,” Ulrich and her coauthors write. All objects have at least one life beyond their original use or significance.
To complicate that life in one section of the exhibit, the curators threw together dozens of artifacts that wouldn’t normally be found together in a traditional museum: Samuel Johnson’s teapot, a tapeworm from the bowel of a Boston socialite, a cross-section of the first trans-Atlantic cable, a 114-year-old tortilla.
The tortilla is interesting as an artifact largely because someone (identified on its tag as “J.N. Rose”) in 1897 thought it was interesting enough to collect in the first place. It isn’t even the oldest tortilla in Harvard’s holdings. Another ethnobotanist collected a jar of them in 1878.
So fine. A once-exotic foodstuff is now so prevalent it’s as banal as the cheeseburger. A small number of examples of this foodstuff found their way by chance to an institution big enough and rich enough to preserve them, even after the institution’s dining hall began serving them in bulk. As a result, we have a link, not only to the way tortillas looked in Mexico more than a century ago, but insight into what our own forebears found worthy of investigation and preservation. That’s interesting.
But what about the 12,000 or so people who logged on to Ulrich’s online course? How do those students around the world without access to a brittle tortilla, take advantage of those collections? It’s not just about these things, Ulrich says, but about finding the stories in things.
“We’re really teaching method,” Ulrich said. “We’re not teaching content. [In the online videos] they see the stuff we’re exploring. We model it and then have them do it.” She described one student who “wrote the most amazing analysis of his ballpoint pen.”
In many ways, modern archivists are building on a strong foundation of public interest. “People like history when it is presented in a compelling fashion,” said Christopher Prom, an assistant archivist and professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Social media is the epicenter of quirk, which helps explain why many of the collections reach new eyes on Twitter and Tumblr. But turning likes into knowledge can be a big lift. “The challenge is to get people beyond the fun stuff to the deeper insights you can get when you really dive into the archives,” Prom added.
Space on social media is limitless, but storage and display space is quite finite.
For an exhibit he’s calling “From the Philosophy Chamber: Harvard’s Lost Collection, 1766-1831,” Harvard Art Museums curator Ethan Lasser is working to assemble as many of the objects as he can that wandered in and out of two rooms at Harvard called “the Apparatus Chamber” and “the University Museum.” (Leave it to Harvard to give highfalutin names to a pair of closets.)
Located on either side of the “Philosophy Chamber” — which served as the school’s main classroom and meeting room — these closets held portraits by John Singleton Copley, microscope slides, and busts of Nero, Demosthenes, and John Adams.
“In 1769 [Harvard] got a gift of a mummified hand,” Lasser said. “Probably fake. But it becomes the basis for this quote-unquote museum. [It] basically becomes a repository for everything from taxidermy specimens to ancient mosaics.”
Despite their permanence, archives are surprisingly fluid. “Things were moving all the time,” Lasser said. “Not only were things moving from those two rooms onto the tables and lecturers’ plinths and podiums in the larger room — the philosophy chamber — but things were also moving outside of the room, going on expeditions.”
But Harvard was growing beyond the small collection of buildings it comprised in the 1760s and so, in 1831, the school’s library absorbed the Philosophy Chamber and its glorified closets. Most of the objects in the University Museum and Apparatus Chamber were dispatched with little fanfare and even less record-keeping. In his preparation for the exhibit — scheduled to open in May 2017 — Lasser has found about a quarter of the objects once housed in those rooms.
One of the Key services of libraries and archives is saving the mundane. Consider a copy of “The History of Woman Suffrage,” edited by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, and bearing a heartfelt inscription from Anthony, in 1902, when she was 82 years old. As historian Susan Ware pointed out, the book itself is a not-particularly-valuable edition, and one of several copies held by the Arthur and Marian Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. But, the inscription wasn’t discovered until sometime in the 1990s, when it would have been older than Anthony was when she made it, during the massive process of bar coding every item for Harvard’s digital card catalog.
“We don’t, anymore, weed out anything from the collections once they’ve been acquired,” said John Overholt, curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Harvard’s rare-book Houghton Library (and himself a prolific tweeter of interesting items). “Just because you have two copies of a book, it does not mean that one of them is redundant.”
Stumble in here, though, and you’re put in mind of the old University Museum. As you gaze upon a bust of T.E. Lawrence, near a Daniel Chester French sculpture of Emerson, you might take one step too many backwards and put your elbow through the box holding T.S. Eliot’s Panama hat, or Charles Dickens’s letter opener and wax seal. It’s all there, if you know where to look.
Sebastian Stockman is a lecturer in English at Northeastern University. Follow him on Twitter @substockman.