Established as the cornerstone of the Department of Social Ethics, the Social Museum opened its doors in 1907. The museum shared space with the Department of Philosophy in Harvard University’s newly constructed Emerson Hall. The building contained two rooms for museum displays, the Social Ethics Library, a workroom, a study for Francis Greenwood Peabody, and a 216-seat lecture room. Although established predominantly for the use of Harvard students, the Social Museum collection was accessible to the public. On November 7, 1909, the Boston Globe reported that the museum was open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5pm and until 1pm on Saturday; library materials could be borrowed with special permission. By 1920 the Social Museum and the Social Ethics Library held more than thirteen thousand photographs, charts, maps, and books. The Social Museum ceased operation when its host department was absorbed into the Department of Sociology in the 1930s.
Social Museum founder Francis Greenwood Peabody (1847–1936) believed that the “social question” was the most important one of his time. “Behind all the extraordinary achievements of modern civilization, its transformation of business methods, its miracles of scientiﬁc discovery, its mighty combination of political forces,” he wrote in Jesus Christ and the Social Question (1900), “there lies at the heart of the present time a burdening sense of mal-adjustment which creates what we call the social question . Peabody, who taught social ethics for more than thirty years, wanted his students to comprehend the gravity of this question and to apply themselves to ﬁnding an answer.
Education in the emerging social science disciplines provided students with the tools to observe and judge the social problems of the day and to participate in their alleviation in a meaningful way. Peabody enthusiastically embraced the prevalent scientiﬁc method, and he intended the Social Museum’s pictorial evidence to assist his students in their study of social ethics, just as laboratory data supported the study of chemistry or biology. Through a similar, rational comparison of specimens, other Harvard museums served the ﬁelds of anthropology, art history, and natural history. It is therefore ﬁtting that the extant Social Museum collection now resides at the Harvard Art Museums alongside the plaster casts of major sculptures and architectural stonework that constituted the early collection of the Germanic Museum (now the Busch-Reisinger Museum), a primary inspiration for Peabody.
1. Francis Greenwood Peabody, Jesus Christ and the Social Question: An Examination of the Teaching of Jesus in Its Relation to Some of the Problems of Modern Social Life (New York: Macmillan, 1900), 2.