Tangible Things Making History through Objects

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 3/11/2015
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press

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In a world obsessed with the virtual, tangible things are once again making history. Tangible Things invites readers to look closely at the things around them, ordinary things like the food on their plate and extraordinary things like the transit of planets across the sky. It argues that almost any material thing, when examined closely, can be a link between present and past.

The authors of this book pulled an astonishing array of materials out of storage--from a pencil manufactured by Henry David Thoreau to a bracelet made from iridescent beetles--in a wide range of Harvard University collections to mount an innovative exhibition alongside a new general education course. The exhibition challenged the rigid distinctions between history, anthropology, science, and the arts. It showed that object-centered inquiry inevitably leads to a questioning of categories within and beyond history.

Tangible Things is both an introduction to the range and scope of Harvard's remarkable collections and an invitation to reassess collections of all sorts, including those that reside in the bottom drawers or attics of people's houses. It interrogates the nineteenth-century categories that still divide art museums from science museums and historical collections from anthropological displays and that assume history is made only from written documents. Although it builds on a larger discussion among specialists, it makes its arguments through case studies, hoping to simultaneously entertain and inspire. The twenty case studies take us from the Galapagos Islands to India and from a third-century Egyptian papyrus fragment to a board game based on the twentieth-century comic strip "Dagwood and Blondie." A companion website catalogs the more than two hundred objects in the original exhibition and suggests ways in which the principles outlined in the book might change the way people understand the tangible things that surround them.

Author Biography

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich taught for fifteen years at University of New Hampshire before moving to Harvard in 1995. She is the author of many books and articles on early American history including A Midwife's Tale, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1991, and The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth.

Sarah Anne Carter is the curator of the Chipstone Foundation and the Chipstone Fellow in Material Culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was previously a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University. Her research has been supported by several national grants, and she has published essays in The History of Photography, The History of Childhood and Youth, and The Museum History Journal.

Ivan Gaskell held positions at the Warburg Institute, Cambridge University, and Harvard before moving to the Bard Graduate Center in 2012. His work on material culture addresses intersections among history, art history, anthropology, and philosophy. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of eleven books, and has contributed to numerous journals and edited volumes in history, art history, and philosophy.

Sara J. Schechner is the David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University, where is she is part of the history of science department and has taught museum studies. She recently received the Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize (2008) of the History of Science Society for a career of innovative and diverse object-based teaching. She lives in a historic house on the National Register and has an archaeological site in her back yard.

Samantha van Gerbig is curatorial technician of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Thinking with Things

Chapter 1: Things in Place
1. Natural History
Say it with Flowers: An Orchid Specimen and a Watercolor Drawing
2. Archaeology and Anthropology
A Surface Find in the Semitic Museum: A Roman Four-Handled Glass Jar
3. Books and Manuscripts
Plato from the Sharp-Nosed Trash
4. Art
Set in Stone: A Limestone Mold for Casting Openwork Ornaments
5. Science and Medicine
Political Chemistry
6. History
A Knockabout Dress

Chapter 2: Things Unplaced
Memorandums of a Cottage
An Enchanted Galapagos Tortoise Shell Marked "Ship Abigail"
Pointing Fingers: A Carved Spoon, Human Hand
An Errant Tortilla
Exotic Opulence: An Iridescent Beetle Ornament
Tracking Blondie: Blondie Goes to Leisureland

Chapter 3: Things Out of Place
A Palette and the Psychology of Vision
A Blue Bird
Plows and Swords: The Artemas Ward Plow in the Semitic Museum
Nature or Culture? A Carved Helmeted Hornbill Skull

Chapter 4: Things in Stories-Stories in Things
Objects as Portals
The Message
Transits of Venus
Changing Stories about American Indians

Appendix: Glossary of Harvard Collections
Photo Essay: Unexpected Discoveries: the Joy of Object Photography

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