At a current Harvard exhibition, viewers can peer at vials of human teeth from the 19th century. They can ponder a dried flounder, fresh caught in 1793. They can see the nose cone of a Cold War missile, an 1880 clothes wringer, a jar of 150-year-old Brazilian coffee beans, and a brass-framed octant made in London before the Civil War.
“A Case for Curiosity,” on view through next March in Harvard’s Science Center 371, was curated by students in this semester’s course USW30, “Tangible Things: Harvard Collections in World History.” First offered in 2011, the course signals a fresh, deep interest at Harvard in using artifacts to teach the humanities. Historian and co-instructor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich calls such artifacts “portals,” colorful tunnels into a past traditionally accessible only through the close study of texts.
In April, Ulrich was the keynote speaker at “University as Collector,” a conference sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and its Academic Ventures arm. She asked, “What happens when we take our curiosity to the curious things around us?” New fields of study open, said Ulrich, who presented a favorite example involving a Mexican tortilla acquired in 1896. Finding this artifact in a Harvard collection led her to economic botany collections of 70 or more years ago; to the origins of high-fructose corn syrup; and even to the history of Fritos corn chips. Unexpectedly, said Ulrich, “It was a transformative experience for me.”
Artifacts can help to uncover vanished eras. They offer insights into the economy, family life, gender norms, preferred food, and more. With close study, artifacts also can help students to understand the literature and history that emerged from such quotidian contexts.
Objects are lenses for seeing the past, said Jennifer L. Roberts, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities. In old maps, for instance, “other forms of knowledge may be lurking,” she said at the Radcliffe conference, including insights into long-gone “craft, engineering, and material science.”
Such objects can also illuminate the recent past, said Joseph Pellegrino University Professor Peter Galison at the conference. In a video presentation, he showed a control panel from a Harvard cyclotron (1935–2002). Its myriad of tiny screens, toggles, and switches now seem straight out of a “Doctor Who” episode. But the panel is actually a record of what were once “the most advanced technologies in high-energy physics,” said Galison, director of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.
At Harvard, using objects to study the humanities is a relatively recent development. Not so with science. Starting in the late 17th century, physics and astronomy were taught by means of “scientific apparatus,” beginning with a telescope donated to Harvard in 1672. Learning through objects also came naturally to art history, which began in earnest at Harvard in 1875.
But it wasn’t until the 1980s that object-based learning began in the humanities. Richard Wendorf, then head librarian at Houghton Library, encouraged faculty to use the library’s classroom spaces. “That’s been happening gradually,” said Leslie Morris, the Houghton’s curator of modern books and manuscripts. But in the past five years there has been “an explosion” of interest, she said. In 2014, there were 428 class sessions at Houghton.
Momentum is building for more objects-based learning. This semester, the FAS sponsored three panels on “active learning,” including an April 1 session on “Teaching with Collections.” Ulrich, Galison, and others took part in “Museum Conversations” on April 27, co-sponsored by the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, a consortium whose mission champions the pedagogical value of objects. The reception was at the Harvard Semitic Museum, a University pioneer in teaching the humanities through objects and object making. (“It’s what we do,” said director Peter Der Manuelian.) On May 5, Ulrich brought her “scholarship of things” message to the Harvard Ed Portal.
This year, a new two-semester humanities course, “Colloquium: Essential Works,” included hands-on library visits. “It was the perfect last class,” said social studies concentrator Emily Rubenstein ’15, who joined classmates at the library in late April, where they examined books and manuscripts, including a Shakespeare first folio, letters of Virginia Woolf, and a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
In an era of reading on Kindles and laptops, the visit provided “a stronger connection to the book itself,” said Rubenstein. “It’s tangible.”