Tangible Things

Tangible ThingsSpring Semester 2011

"Why do precisely these objects which we behold make a world?"

    – Henry David Thoreau

TANGIBLE THINGS brought together roughly two hundred objects, natural and artificial, drawn from Harvard’s massive collections.  The exhibit, which was housed in the second floor Special Exhibitions Galleryof the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments Collection and at other sites around the university, was open to the public and to Harvard students all through spring semester 2011.  Based on research conducted by our students over the preceding eight years, it was an effort to energize Harvard’s extraordinary collections in new ways and prompt fundamental questions about knowledge claims in relation to them.

The adventure began in the Science Center. Around the periphery of the second floor gallery were objects displayed according to categories used at Harvard and elsewhere since the nineteenth century, categories that were instrumental in creating the disciplinary boundaries that still define many of our undergraduate concentrations and that still structure many of the world’s museums.

Tangible Things in the Special Exhibitions GalleryIn the middle of the gallery, we placed a cache of seemingly inscrutable things and invited viewers to consider where they might belong.  Might some fit comfortably into more than one category?  Did others seem to have no place?

Visitors were invited to explore other exhibition spaces on campus looking for “guest objects” we placed there. For example, they may have happened upon an artwork from the Harvard Art Museums in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, an object from the General Artemas Ward House Museum in the Semitic Museum, or a small group of artifacts from the Schlesinger Library in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.  Some juxtapositions appeared harmonious. Others seemed to transgress cultural norms and expectations.  All invited new questions and new ways of thinking about Harvard, its collections, and the world.

"Tangible Things" in the Media

These are just a few of their quirkiest things,” The Boston Globe, 3/6/2011

Putting things in their place,” Harvard Gazette, 3/3/2011

“‘Tangible Things’ Refuses to be Classified, Categorized,” The Harvard Crimson, 2/8/2011