Harvard Exhibit Moves 'Tangible Things' Out Of Place

Download Audio

Ivan Gaskell, the Margret S. Winthrop curator at Harvard and senior history lecturer, and Laurel Ulrich, the 300th anniversary university professor in the history department, are an unlikely pair of pranksters, but that's basically what they are.

"What we have done is to introduce a number of objects from other collections at Harvard into the displays of museums in which these things don't really... fit," Gaskell said.

When you've been around for 400 years, you start to accumulate quite an array of stuff.

Such is the case with Harvard, which, among its dozens of libraries and museums, lays claim to a beguiling array of oddities and curiosities from around the world. Many are neatly categorized into the art museum, or the mineral museum, or the rare books library.

A new exhibit, "Tangible Things," which is aimed at challenging how artifacts are sorted and displayed, breaks down those traditional categories and tries to show the various connections in the Harvard collection. Gaskell and Ulrich curated the exhibit.

The two curators took me to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, where they've snuck a few random, weird things into the permanent collection.

As I walked through aisles of glass cases, scanning for anything that looked out of place, Gaskell introduced me to his little game.

"We're in the hall of minerals, and there are a couple of guest objects in here that will be surprises," Gaskell said.

Finally, after a little help from my guides, I stopped in front of a case in the hall of minerals.

"It looks like it's a rock, but I'm guessing it's not quite a rock," I said.


"I think people realize that there can be a positive side to subversion.”

Ivan Gaskell, co-curator of 'Tangible Things'

"This is a bladder stone," Gaskell said. "This came out of a poor man's bladder in 1809."

I stared in disbelief. It was the size of a fist.

"Yeah, it's like an avocado," Gaskell said.

"He didn't survive, actually," Ullrich added.

I was dumbfounded and horrified by this thing that is normally tucked away inside Harvard's Countway Library of Medicine, but I started to see what Gaskell and Ulrich are up to in bringing it away from its normal home. The stone is beautiful. Presented in cross-section, you can see it's made of hundreds of concentric layers.

"It's made of the same kind of minerals as many of the specimens around it," Ulrich said.

But, it didn't come from the earth, so, is it a rock? I never would have considered the distinction if I hadn't been presented with it. That's what this exhibit is all about.

Walking with the exhibit's creators, I obviously had some help finding the mismatched things. Other visitors can use a special little treasure map (PDF) that Gaskell and Ulrich have produced. It's still a bit of a scavenger hunt, but at least you know where to look.

Moving away from the fist-sized avocado of a bladder stone, Gaskell helped me find the next treasure on our treasure hunt.

Between a piece of graphite and a piece of something else, I stood in front of what looked like a writing implement of some kind.

"A pencil!" Gaskell said excitedly.

A pencil?

"A pencil made by a very famous person — Henry David Thoreau," Ulrich confirmed. "He actually created an innovative way of improving pencils by mixing graphite with clay to get a more consistent mark on the page."

Thoreau's pencil normally lives in Harvard's Houghton Library, but they've brought it here to put it next to a giant piece of graphite from Sri Lanka, which looks a bit like a moon rock.

"We don't usually think about what's inside a pencil and what we're writing with when we use one," Gaskell explained, "and so, to see a great chunk of graphite, which is the raw material for the core of a pencil, can take you by surprise."

We stepped out of the Natural History Museum and headed for another museum. In all, eight curators across campus have allowed Gaskell and Ulrich to come in and muck up their collections.

"We've had a lot of kindness, and I think people realize that there can be a positive side to subversion," Gaskell said.

As we rounded the corner to the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, which houses a large collection of Native American objects, Gaskell showed me around.

"I hope we do allow a kind of creative confusion to come out of this. A confusion that can be resolved, in part, by reflection, by viewers looking at these things, thinking for themselves, as a result of looking closely."

Ivan Gaskell

"This is the Pacific Hall, and it's a wonderful, old-fashioned gallery, with cases from the late 19th century and lots of objects from the Pacific world," Gaskell said.

Beautiful things, like ornately carved canoes and shields, a number of which brought here by Boston's 19th century maritime merchants, lined the walls. Of course, there was one thing that didn't quite belong.

In a glass case, I found a beige dress with red fringe. It looked like it belonged to a little Sioux or Apache girl. Except it didn't.

"We discovered as we were looking for possible artifacts to move out of place that the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America had some costumes from a camp in Squam Lake in New Hampshire," Ulrich said. "These were used from the 1930s through the 1950s."

Yep, the dress was a fake, worn by a little girl at camp.

"And they really were dressing up as Indians, and they took Indian names, and they had a council fire in the evenings," Ulrich said.

It's a pretty provocative move, stashing something like this among a bunch of authentic artifacts. But historians are starting to get interested in idealized Western representations of Native American culture from this period.

"Interestingly enough, some American Indians — Charles Eastman, for example, who was Sioux — actually helped to organize the Camp Fire Girls," Ulrich said. "It was a way of trying to inculcate a more positive image of the Native American past than what people were getting."

But, the dress is a fake. Couldn't someone walk through this gallery and look at it and confuse it for something genuine?

"I hope we do allow a kind of creative confusion to come out of this," Gaskell said. "A confusion that can be resolved, in part, by reflection, by viewers looking at these things, thinking for themselves, as a result of looking closely."

And I'll tell you. I may have never looked so closely at stuff in a museum in my life.

"Tangible Things" runs at eight locations across Harvard through the spring semester.

Correction: The broadcast version of this story said the faux Native American dress was worn by a Camp Fire Girl. In fact, the dress was worn by a girl attending camp at Singing Eagle Lodge, on Squam Lake, N.H., which was not affiliated with the Camp Fire Girls.

This segment aired on February 2, 2011.


More from Radio Boston

Listen Live