Harvard’s Philosophy Chamber Collection—Rediscovered and Reunited after Almost Two Centuries

  • CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts
  • /
  • March 30, 2017

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Prepared by Charles Willson Peale, Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), 1786 – 1827. Museum of Comparative Zoology, Ornithology Department, Harvard University, 67846. Photo: Jeremiah Trimble; Courtesy of the Museum of Comparative Zoology; © President and Fellows of Harvard College .
John Singleton Copley, Nicholas Boylston , 1773. Oil on canvas . Harvard University Portrait Collection, H20 . Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

This spring, the Harvard Art Museums will present The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820, a special exhibition that brings together many long-forgotten icons of American culture. It will present new findings on this unique space—equal parts laboratory, picture gallery, and lecture hall—that stood at the center of artistic and intellectual life at Harvard and in New England for more than 50 years.

Celebrated at the time as one of the grandest spaces in America, the original Philosophy Chamber and its adjacent rooms housed an extraordinary collection of paintings, portraits, and prints; mineral, plant, and animal specimens; scientific instruments; indigenous American artifacts; and relics from the ancient world—all of which was used regularly for lectures, discussions, and demonstrations. Highlights include: full-length portraits by John Singleton Copley, Native Hawaiian feather work, carving by indigenous artists of the Northwest Coast, Stephen Sewall’s 1768 mural-sized copy of the Native American inscription on the famous Dighton Rock in southeastern Massachusetts, and the elaborately ornamented grand orrery (a model of the solar system) created by Joseph Pope between 1776 and 1787. Many of the objects in the exhibition have not been shown publicly since the collection was dispersed almost 200 years ago.

Wedgwood Pottery , The Dipping of Achilles , late 18th century. White jasperware body with blue glaze . Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.1176 . Photo: Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

The reassembled Philosophy Chamber invites visitors to examine the role that images and objects play in building, organizing, and transmitting knowledge; and as a historical study, it deepens our understanding not only of Harvard’s past, but also the history of early American art and culture.

The exhibition presents more than 70 objects from the earliest days of Harvard’s collecting, shown together with a small group of objects with 18th-century American provenances that closely match the description of original pieces in the collection that have been lost or destroyed, or that survive but are too fragile for display. In addition, the show includes period representations of other teaching cabinets to contextualize the material on display. The exhibition’s accompanying catalogue expands on the research into the chamber’s collection, history, and uses, presenting information on the approximately 200 objects that have been tracked thus far—just one-fifth of the original collection once housed in Harvard Hall.

The exhibition and catalogue provide a 360-degree view of early American history through the examination of the artwork displayed in the Philosophy Chamber, the instruments and specimens handled by the students and faculty who met there, and the cultural artifacts dispatched to the college by foreign envoys and the nation’s first merchant explorers. The project considers what the convergence of these objects in a New World college can tell us about the transfer of knowledge, burgeoning trade, the role of collections, and New England’s emerging self-identity in the mid-18th to early 19th century.

The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820 is on display May 19 through December 31, 2017 in the Special Exhibitions Gallery at the Harvard Art Museums.

The exhibition then travels to The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, where it will be on view March 23 through June 24, 2018.

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