Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You

Discover new ways of looking at, organizing, and interpreting tangible things in your own environment.

About The Course

*Note - This is an Archived course*

This is a past/archived course. At this time, you can only explore this course in a self-paced fashion. Certain features of this course may not be active, but many people enjoy watching the videos and working with the materials. Make sure to check for reruns of this course. 

People make history through the things they gather, create, collect, exhibit, exchange, throw away, or ignore. Over four centuries, Harvard University has amassed an 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, it also cares for 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 for a silver-encrusted cup made from a coconut. The Natural History museums not only preserve dinosaur bones and a fish robot but an intact Mexican tortilla more than a century old.

By learning how and why such things got here, you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people. While this course will not draw on all of these items, it will highlight several to give students a sense of the power of learning through tangible things.

In the first section we will consider how a statue, a fish, and a gingham gown have contributed to Harvard’s history, and you will learn the importance 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 ways 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.

Recommended Background

None.