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Materials Lab Workshop: Optical Devices in Science and Art in Early Modern Times

W. & S. Jones, “Slide detail,” Jones’s Most Improved and Solar Compound Microscope, c. 1798. Brass, glass, and mahogany, with slides of paper and organic materials. Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University, 1184, TL41679.6. Photo: Courtesy of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments.


Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy Street
Cambridge MA

Developments in optics in the 17th through the early 19th centuries enabled scientists and artists to extend their sense of sight and make visible wondrous things that the naked eye had never seen before. The telescope revealed a universe teeming with worlds, while the microscope showed every drop of water to be crammed full of beings and things. New projection equipment such as magic lanterns and solar microscopes threw images on walls to amuse and educate people. The camera obscura and camera lucida offered artists such as Vermeer and Ingres new methods for copying and scaling scenes.

Sara Schechner, the David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, which is part of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, will guide participants in a closer look at optical instruments exhibited in The Philosophy Chamber. She’ll describe how they were employed for art, science, and entertainment and will discuss how the quality of lenses, mirrors, and glass had an impact on how artists executed their work. Participants will then join Francesca Bewer, research curator for conservation and technical studies programs, and Schechner in the Materials Lab to construct their own camera obscura and try their hand at drawing with it.

Following the hands-on part of the workshop, participants are welcome to join Schechner for a behind-the-scenes visit to the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments to examine select optical devices and the exhibition Scale: A Matter of Perspective.

This program is presented in conjunction with the special exhibition The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820, on view through December 31, 2017.

The event will be held in the Materials Lab, Lower Level.

$15 materials fee. Registration is required and payment must be made in advance. Please email or stop by the museums’ admissions desk to register. Space is limited to 15 participants. Minimum age of 14.

Co-sponsored by Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University and the Harvard Art Museums.

Support for this workshop has been provided by the Henry Luce Foundation Fund for the American Art Department.

Major support for the exhibition has been provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.