A walk back in time

Harvard Hall"The Philosophy Chamber" exhibition at Harvard Art Museums offers artifacts and lessons about the college's great teaching history.  

By Emily Vides 

I don't remember how old I was, only that I was older than I should have been, when I realized that natural philosophers were actually mathematicians, physicists, astronomers and scientists, and not just "thinkers." It was one of those moments when you exclaim, "Oh!" and all of a sudden the world as you know it makes a little more sense. Like finally linking two separate sides of a jigsaw puzzle together with the one piece you were missing and seeing how the two sides of the picture are related.

Walking through The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820, the new exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums opening May 19 and running through December 31, offered me another one of those "Oh!" moments, though this one had to do with the history of learning, and learning at Harvard in the 18th century. I realized that I never thought too much about how people taught and learned 200 years ago. I pictured anatomical theaters with cadavers procured under suspicious circumstances and young men in funny hats sitting around in a room with dark wood furniture and parchment and quills. This, as you will see when you go to the exhibition, was not the case. 

Electricity-generating machine; OrreryDominating the first room of the exhibit are two objects that could be any number of things: a giant spinning wheel? A strange 18th century exercise bike? A model of an improbable observatory? These large apparatus are, in fact, an orrery – the Grand Orrery made by Joseph Pope – and a machine to generate electricity (pictured, on the left). The orrery no longer functions, but you can imagine its gears turning and the six known planets at the time (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) revolving around the miniature sun. Theses pieces were important infrastructure that Harvard's teaching cabinet used for lectures, demonstrations and discussions in the Philosophy Chamber in Harvard Hall where students learned about natural philosophy, otherwise known as "the workings of nature."  

The books and apparatus in the original Harvard Hall were all destroyed in a fire in 1764. The collection of teaching objects was reassembled in consultation with Benjamin Franklin (who is honored on the Pope orrery) and by gifts from Harvard alumni as they spread out across the globe. These generous donors to the collection sent objects from native cultures around the world and show what was deemed interesting enough to include in anthopological studies.

In order to understand the importance of the objects in the Philosophy Chamber, I suggest you attend a Gallery Talk (12:30-1 p.m. May 19, 23 and 30). But even if you can't make it to one this May, take a stroll through the exhibit and back in time.