CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — A vast and encompassing view of the world contained in a room so small that it was referred to as a chamber — such was the hope and hubris of the 18th-century Enlightenment figures in America.
The tiny room was called the Philosophy Chamber, and it attracted some of the most inventive minds in the United States, when our country was in its formative years, feeling out its independence and still searching for its own narrative. George Washington visited, Benjamin Franklin helped secure its contents, John Hancock donated the flocked wallpaper, and John Singleton Copley painted august portraits for its walls. At once a laboratory, art gallery, and lecture hall, its main purpose was to serve the students of Harvard College.
This wee chamber thrived from 1766 to 1820 and then all but disappeared, until recent years. Ethan Lasser, a curator at the Harvard Art Museums, kept encountering references to a teaching cabinet at the school while researching something else entirely, the whereabouts of a lost portrait.
What he discovered instead was evidence of a lost museum, a place that was the heart of intellectual life in New England for more than half a century.
Now, for the first time since the Philosophy Chamber was disbanded and its formal portraits, scientific instruments, natural specimens, and indigenous objects scattered to Harvard’s collections and other Boston-area institutions, the room has been effectively recreated. An exhibition reunites many of its original objects and replicates some of its attributes, such as the deep magenta wallpaper.
The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet 1766–1820, now on view at the Harvard Art Museums, recovers a unique chapter in American intellectual history. It also confronts us with questions resonant to our time about the very nature of knowledge: How is knowledge produced and shared? How is it wielded to liberate or oppress? How much of the world, in all of its richness, can we truly apprehend?
The Philosophy Chamber was set up to reconcile the moral, political, and religious underpinnings of Harvard’s curriculum with the still nascent sciences in a holistic way. It existed at a time when books and objects were on par with each other pedagogically, and when art and science were seen as inherent to one another.
Harvard students back then would have looked to ancient Western civilizations, memorizing and reciting Greek and Roman texts, while also utilizing art and scientific instruments for their studies in the chamber. In the years before specialization divided academia into disciplines, all students at Harvard were novice philosophers and scientists. The world was freshly open in other ways, too. The first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, the Columbia, returned to Boston during this time with treasures and tales that found their way into the teaching cabinet.
The ideas that surfaced in this rich and tactile atmosphere, from a 21st-century vantage point, at least, were audacious and at times deeply problematic.
Consider, for instance, the six ink and pencil drawings of skulls by Harvard professor and naturalist William Dandridge Peck. Five of them show human skulls and one an ape’s, each with a label such as “Georgian,” “Negro (Guinea),” or “Groenlander.” The early-19th-century drawings themselves and Peck’s lecture notes refer to the “facial angles” of the skulls, terminology used, in addition to skin color, to create a disturbing hierarchy of races. The compositions are troubling. The African and ape skulls are likened visually, the only two shown in full profile, while the other four are drawn in three-quarter pose. In other words, the African man was shown as less than human or closer to nature. Peck presumably presented arguments about a hierarchy of races to his students using these drawings.
That this kind of blatant racist agenda existed at Harvard at the time is not surprising, though it’s worth asking why it took more than two centuries for the drawings to be exhumed and presented in this context. Debates about the morality of slavery persisted on campus, despite significant support for abolition in Massachusetts. Slavery became illegal in the state in 1783, but some of Harvard’s benefactors were products of slave-based economies in the South and abroad.
And what of the four small paintings by Italian-born artist Agostino Brunias? What could be amiss in his idyllic and erotic island scenes of women conversing and bathing amid palm trees, pink clouds, and overflowing baskets of fruit? Well, Brunias was idealizing slave societies, the sugar colonies of the Caribbean. Some of his primary patrons were British and American plantation owners, which makes the white male peeping Tom, who ogles the women from behind a tree in one of the paintings, even more disturbing. Small labels pasted to the backs of Brunias’s paintings describing the women as “French Mulatresses” or “Mulatress and Negro Woman” are stark evidence of what scholars now call the “scientific racism” of the era.
The Philosophy Chamber’s collection was hardly the product of careful, systematic acquisition, as would be typical in museums and libraries today. Instead, an urgent call went out after a fire burned Harvard’s original library to the ground in 1764, destroying the vast majority of its holdings. Wealthy alumni, amateur naturalists, entrepreneurial merchants, and others dispatched books, instruments, and objects to Cambridge from across the globe. Collectively, these gifts represented a network of mostly white men who acquired or traded for such items based on their fascination with, and often exploitation of, people unlike themselves.
Of the 1,000 or so original objects in the chamber, about 200 have been located by Lasser, head of the division of European and American art at the Harvard Art Museums, and his team. Some 70 of those are part of the exhibition, while items collected in a similar fashion have been chosen as stand-ins for others that were lost or too fragile for display.
In a profound act of cultural erasure, many of these objects were stripped of the particulars of their making and history once they entered the global trade of “rare curiosities,” as the exhibit calls it. Basic information about the creators, materials, and cultures was disregarded in favor of the tales of adventure that brought them to America. In the current exhibit, some of the indigenous objects are intentionally presented without fully correcting the record, with only scant information, as would have been the case in the chamber. This seems strange, even problematic, at first. Yet it’s meaningful to experience these items at they would have been viewed in the cabinet, without the kind of context we’ve come to expect. We are left to wonder about the impossibly petite Qing dynasty shoes made of silk and wood for Cantonese ladies’ bound feet; a native Hawaiian crested helmet fashioned from bright orange feathers; a stone Cherokee pipe bowl; and a native Tubuaian headdress made of wood, coconut fiber, parrot feathers, shells, and human hair.
Indeed, one of the great contributions of this exhibition is the reproachful realities it brings to light, the academic roots of racism. The curators do not shy away from what they’ve uncovered in the primary didactics for the show or its scholarly catalogue. The exhibit may, in fact, feed the reckoning now occurring at Harvard over its legacy of discrimination and racism, as well as the larger reckoning playing out across the country.
At Harvard, where I was a fellow with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism during the last academic year, this reckoning has involved a call from Harvard President Drew Faust, a historian of the Civil War and the first woman to lead the university, to confront the school’s rarely acknowledged links to slavery. It involved the unveiling of a plaque that honors slaves who worked on campus for Harvard presidents and the exhibit Bound by History: Harvard, Slavery, and Archives, which earlier this year presented ongoing research about links between slavery and universities around the world. Students have also demanded greater transparency and discourse around issues of race and social justice in recent years, especially with the rise of Black Lives Matter. That this reckoning feels fresh and urgent on campus is telling. That the Philosophy Chamber exhibition, with its unromantic approach, contributes new discoveries only emphasizes how much work has yet to be done.
Though the worst tendencies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries are on full display in the current show, so are some of the finest. A revelation for me was seeing how essential art and science once were to one another, given how distinct those worlds can be today. Simply put, art was at the heart of learning.
Before widespread mechanization, scientific instruments demanded the exquisite craftsmanship of artisans, sometimes several hands with multiple specializations. One remarkable machine with a mahogany wheel, brass parts, and glass orb was used for creating static electricity. Slides painted in jewel-like colors were paired with a magic lantern, a proto film projector, to project astronomical phenomena onto the chamber’s wall. Simple, graphic representations of the sun and moon swirl the Earth kinetically in a large, circular projection one moment, while an eclipse unfolds cinematically the next. No special glasses needed.
Perhaps the grandest scientific instrument in the show is a large, round orrery made especially for the Philosophy Chamber by Boston clockmaker Joseph Pope. It’s a mechanical, clockwork model of the solar system, exceptionally cutting edge for its time. Pope spent a dozen years constructing the piece of brass, bronze, mahogany, painted glass, and ivory, largely during the Revolutionary War. Paul Revere may have lent a hand, though scholars can’t be sure. A crank was used to turn the miniature planets in their orbits around the sun and, likewise, their moons around them. Flanking the orrery are the likenesses of Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, and other notable thinkers. This complex 18th-century contraption has made me want to gaze at the night sky every bit as much as the images of the moon’s dance with the sun that spilled from my social feeds during the recent eclipse, maybe more. It leaves me to wonder: How do we learn best? What really opens us up to new knowledge?
At some point, the world of what is known became too expansive for the tiny Philosophy Chamber. Books edged out objects and became the dominant form of archiving and sharing information in academic settings; the notion that a multitude of disciplines could be contained and studied in depth by all college students became largely a thing of the past. And so, the Philosophy Chamber’s collection of wondrous things was carved up and scattered. Still, all of these generations later, it has much to teach us.
The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820 continues at the Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA) through December 31.