Joshua Massey and classmates photographing objects.

Think about your last trip to a museum. Any museum—art, science, history—works. Picture yourself walking through the galleries. What kinds of objects do you see? Paintings? Taxidermied animals? Old books? Pottery fragments? Photographs? How do they fit into the narrative of the assembled objects in the museum?

In “Tangible Things: Observing, Collecting, Sorting”, a seminar taught by Professor Ivan Gaskell, we explored the historical formation of Western disciplinary categories in the United States through the objects made to embody them. Each week, our discussions centered around a different category of tangible things—among them, art, medicine, commerce and law, and arboriculture and dendrology—and the museums, libraries, and archives at Harvard University built to house and display the objects placed into each.

As the nation’s oldest university, founded in 1636, Harvard’s long and complex institutional history and dozens of collections offer instructive case studies to study how things are collected, classified, and deployed in educational contexts. Gaskell’s previous tenure at Harvard, where he worked as a curator and professor for twenty years, informs his knowledge of the university’s collections. At Harvard, he taught interdisciplinary object-based research seminars with historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and co-curated a Tangible Things exhibition, which introduced “guest objects” from the various Harvard collections into displays at other Harvard museums. Examples include the placement of a flower-shaped Tiffany glass vase from the Harvard Art Museums next to glass flowers made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka for scientific use in the Harvard Museum of Natural History; or an eighteenth-century pocket globe from the Harvard University Archives beside models of Native American canoes and kayaks in the Hall of the American Indian at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Among over a dozen creative juxtapositions, both examples challenge conventional disciplinary categories and propose alternatives for how museums organize and display objects.

In many cases, a deep historical study of Harvard collections reveals that the categorization of objects is intertwined with the social, cultural, and political history of the United States. For instance, Harvard biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, who founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1859, was one of the leading American proponents of scientific racism in the nineteenth century. His daguerreotypes of enslaved African Americans, among the first ever taken of enslaved people in America, have been the subject of continued legal and moral debates since their rediscovery in Harvard’s Peabody Museum collections in 1976. Other Harvard figures, including botanist Asa Gray and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., were intimately involved in the professionalization and institutionalization of their respective fields in the United States. As such, many disciplinary distinctions and, by extension, museum collections reflect nineteenth-century values and ideals in tension with those of the present.

Each week, seminar students brought in tangible things to form a class collection of objects that embodied or challenged a given week’s category. We were encouraged to bring something we already owned or found, but, as a rule, if we did buy something, we were not allowed to spend more than five dollars on it. I limited myself to objects I found while walking in New York City, except for one that I found in Paris.

Two of my objects reflect my creative and academic interests in “found” objects and the practice of assemblage in art, philosophy, and archaeology; they also reflect the intellectual and historical contradictions that underlie Western disciplines. For our week on botany, we read about Asa Gray, who founded the Harvard University Herbaria in 1842. As a botanist and professor, he is known for his efforts to introduce Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to wider audiences and standardize North American plant taxonomies. For the class collection, I brought what was at one time snow.

A little backstory is necessary. I moved to New York from North Carolina in 2021 to attend BGC, and that winter was my first “true” city winter. After a heavy snowfall (for me) in January 2022, I stuffed some snow into a glass bottle as a memento of my first winter in the city. I was aware it would melt (it did in a matter of half an hour), but I kept it on my windowsill as a sort of conceptual art piece I cheekily called “New York Snow.” After a few weeks, I noticed a green film accumulating on the water’s surface and at the bottom of the bottle. I realized that exposure to the sun was causing algae in the water to grow and multiply.

New York Snow. Water and algae in a glass bottle. 2022. Photo by Joshua Massey.

Eight months later, I decided to bring my algae bottle to class to test and tease the limits of botany as a category of a tangible thing. Technically, algae are a biologically complicated group of organisms that fall between categorization as plants and protists, a sort of taxonomic grab bag of things that are neither plants, animals, bacteria, nor fungi. Yet, there are connections. Like plants, algae are photosynthetic and eukaryotic; unlike plants, they do not have roots, stems, or leaves, so they are excluded from botany. Like other botany-related items that my classmates brought, such as a postcard for Canal Rubber, a bundle of sacred white sage, and a sweetgrass basket, my algae bottle challenged the historical boundaries of the category and the limitations of universal classifications.

During our week on history, sociology, and Afro-American studies, we read about the Harvard University Archives, the Social Museum Collection, and the General Artemas Ward House Museum. Our discussions revolved around General Artemas Ward, a forgotten figure in the American Revolutionary War, who, through the actions of his eager descendants, was immortalized through written and material sources, and the Social Museum, a Gilded Age institution dedicated to documenting and illustrating sociological trends in a quickly changing world. Each collection fostered the idea that historical narratives can be drawn from objects brought together in assemblage with each other. Student objects, including a model of the H.M.B Endeavour, an election flier, and a chunk of kaolinite, complemented these case studies.

Four photographs found on Broadway at West 84th Street in 2022. Photo by Joshua Massey.

I brought four Kodak 126 photographic prints I found on Broadway at West 84th Street. In June 2022, while sifting through boxes of discarded books, I discovered an envelope from a camera shop with four prints made for Jane Towle of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, sometime in the 1960s. Somehow, they had found their way to New York and eventually to the trash. The pictures show young people in colorful clothes in various poses, perhaps as part of a freewheeling theatrical production of Hair or another countercultural escapade. The circumstances under which I discovered them leave me with many questions about who took the pictures, why they were taken, and exactly what they depict. By classifying these photographs as “historical objects,” I demonstrated their simultaneous stability as tangible things and instability as evidence of past lives and actions.

Tangible Things exemplifies everything a course at the BGC should be: challenging, creative, collaborative, and fun. Student projects, which proposed introducing “guest objects” from Harvard collections into existing New York displays, exemplify the wide range of possibilities the study of tangible things affords. Could you imagine massive glass lens “blanks” in the Noguchi Museum or a mahogany sideboard in a tropical diorama at the American Museum of Natural History? Or my juxtaposition of botanical apple pressings from the Harvard University Herbaria next to a still life of apples by Paul Cézanne in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Our weekly meetings, filled with enticing discussions, abundant objects, and delicious cookies, were a highlight of my time at BGC and one of many reasons I chose to stay here for my PhD. The questions we asked about collection, categorization, and display are applicable to contexts beyond Harvard collections. I find myself returning to them in my coursework and my own research on assemblage practices and “found” objects in twentieth and twenty-first-century America. They allow me to think critically about relationships between objects and the historical narratives into which we place them. For me, the chance to create and engage with worlds of tangible things was one well worth taking.