Between 1766 and 1820, Harvard College assembled an extraordinary collection of paintings, portraits, and prints; mineral, plant, and animal specimens; scientific instruments; Native American artifacts; and relics from the ancient world. These objects were displayed in a set of three rooms adjacent to the college library in Harvard Hall, a large brick building that still stands at the center of campus today. The largest of these spaces, the Philosophy Chamber, was an ornately decorated room named for the discipline of natural philosophy, a cornerstone of the Enlightenment-era curriculum that wove together astronomy, mathematics, physics, and other sciences in an attempt to explain natural objects and physical phenomena. The collection and the chamber played a vital role in teaching and research at Harvard, while also serving as the center of artistic and intellectual life in the greater New England region for over 50 years. Artists, scientists, students, and advocates of American Independence—including George Washington—came to the Philosophy Chamber to discover, discuss, and disseminate new knowledge. Students attended lectures and demonstrations there, and visitors from around the globe flocked to the space to see works by some of the Atlantic World’s greatest artists and artisans, including John Singleton Copley and John Trumbull. While the collection survived the Revolutionary War thanks to a temporary relocation (along with all of Harvard College) to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1775, an expansion of the college library in 1820 ultimately led to the dispersal of the collection to various university departments and local museums. The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820 reunites many of these original objects, showcasing a range of works that have been hidden away for nearly two centuries.
The exhibition features more than 100 works displayed in four thematic sections, including a loose reconstruction of the Philosophy Chamber itself. Included are full-length portraits by John Singleton Copley; exceptional examples of Native Hawaiian feather work and carving by indigenous artists of the Northwest Coast; a dazzling, large-scale orrery (a model of the solar system) by Joseph Pope; mezzotints after the work of expatriate American artists; and Stephen Sewall’s mural-sized copy of the Wampanoag inscription on the landmark known as Dighton Rock, an 11-foot boulder located in Berkley, Massachusetts. The objects are drawn from a number of private, academic, and public collections in the United States and the United Kingdom, including from the following collections at Harvard University: the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard Art Museums, the Harvard Map Collection, Harvard University Archives, Houghton Library, the Mineralogical and Geological Museum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, and the Warren Anatomical Museum.
An illustrated catalogue with essays by a mix of curators, professors, conservators, conservation scientists, and doctoral candidates has been published in conjunction with the exhibition. The publication advances new understandings of early American art history, and serves as a rich resource for any reader interested in the art and culture of the Atlantic World.
Organized by the Harvard Art Museums. Curated by Ethan W. Lasser, the Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Curator of American Art and Head of the Division of European and American Art at the Harvard Art Museums.
The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820 will travel to The Hunterian, at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, where it will be on view March 23 to June 24, 2018.
This project is supported in part by major grants from the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Henry Luce Foundation.
The exhibition and catalogue were also supported in part by the following endowed funds: the Bolton Fund for American Art, Gift of the Payne Fund; the Henry Luce Foundation Fund for the American Art Department; the William Amory Fund; and the Andrew W. Mellon Publication Funds, including the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund.
Share your experience on social media: #PhilosophyChamber
Explore the Philosophy Chamber through our online Digital Tool featuring an audio podcast, additional information about the works on display, reactions from visitors to the chamber during its active years, and excerpts from the faculty lectures and student debates that once enlivened the room.
Learn more about the exhibition in our series of short videos, available on YouTube.
DJ /rupture (a.k.a. Jace Clayton, Harvard ’97) created a Spotify playlist that sonically explores themes found in the Philosophy Chamber exhibition.
Information about events related to the exhibition, including lectures, a symposium, gallery talks, and Materials Lab Workshops, can be found in our calendar.