Touted as the first attempt to “collect the social experience of the world as material for university teaching,” Harvard’s Social Museum was established as the cornerstone of the University’s new Department of Social Ethics. The Social Museum’s surviving collection, placed on permanent deposit at the Fogg Museum in 2002, comprises over 4,500 photographs—by professionals, amateurs, and documentarians such as Lewis Wickes Hine and Francis Benjamin Johnston—and nearly 1,500 graphic illustrations. These specimens of social science were obsessively classified by reform topic and didactically installed to encourage comparison of social conditions and institutions in the United States and abroad as a means to understand “social evolution” and to affect “social progress.”
This exhibition of over 100 images presents the Social Museum as a compelling case study of the early institutional use of photography as a social document, the systematization of exhibition display by reform organizations, and the role such institutions played in the formation of the modern research university. Organized by Deborah Martin Kao, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, and Michelle Lamunière, Charles C. Cunningham Sr. Assistant Curator of Photography.
Research Tool: A searchable database of more than 6,000 Progressive Era photographs and graphic illustrations that survive from the collection of the Social Museum of Harvard University is available at harvardartmuseums.org/socialmuseum.