The Re-Uniting of the Arts and Sciences: Clues from an Exhibition

Around the university, and perhaps elsewhere, the phrase “arts and sciences” is familiar. It evokes diverse associations: positive ones (what all educated persons should master); negative ones (teachers and courses that are believed not to be useful for careers or for life); or confusion (even at schools that describe themselves using those words, most students cannot define the phrase). And when the term “liberal” is pre-posed, confusion multiplies.

For someone of my vintage, one association is C. P. Snow’s famous Rede lectures (and subsequent book) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. A physicist turned civil servant and novelist, Snow argued that Britain had excessively valorized the humanities—history, literature, philosophy—while minimizing the importance of scientific knowledge and skills. One could be ignorant of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but not of Shakespeare’s plays. Nowadays, that sentiment seems nostalgic at most. The educational push is entirely for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics); the most that softer subjects can lobby for is a conversion of STEM to STEAM, with the inserted “A” standing for the arts.

Recently, I went to a quite fascinating exhibition at my own university: The Harvard Art Museums’ “The Philosophy Chamber.” Between 1766 and 1820—a period that encompassed the Revolutionary War, as well as the French Revolution and other epochal events—Harvard College had a special trio of rooms in which its leaders stored and displayed all manner of objects, extending well beyond the select books, paintings, and prints that one might expect at a college, library, or museum. The collection in the Chamber was dissolved in 1820 in favor of a discipline-based approach to knowledge and a larger book library; not surprisingly, many of the items were lost or dispersed. Through the heroic efforts of many scholars, more than one hundred of these display items—or records of them—have been reconstituted and put on display. (The exhibit runs through December 31, 2017, and one can purchase the catalogue, ably edited by Ethan W. Lasser, a curator at the museum.)

Let me say some words about the contents of the exhibition, one surprising artifact, and the lines of thought that it evoked in me.

The exhibition is best described by the German phrases Wunderkammer or Kulturkammer—a collection of curiosities. (Those who have visited the home of Sir John Soane in London will instantly recognize this characterization.) The items include mechanical and electronic instruments, artifacts from indigenous populations (headdresses, tomahawks), species of plants, animals and minerals, ancient manuscripts, mounted skeletons, paintings, drawings, and engravings from the era, as well as copies of works from classical times, maps, architectural plans, and perspectival projections.

Perhaps the most striking items in the exhibition, depicted below, are:

1) the Orrery, a stunning and complicated mechanical model that reconstructs the solar system as it was then understood, including orbits of planets and satellites and the rotations of these celestial bodies;

The Orrery. Photo source: Lasser, E. W. (2017). The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.


2) drawings of the inscription on Dighton Rock, a 40 ton boulder from the area which features a Wampanoag inscription that has not been deciphered to this day.

Dighton Rock. Photo source: Lasser, E. W. (2017). The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.


Inscription on Dighton Rock. Photo source: Lasser, E. W. (2017). The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.


But what particularly caught my own eye was a book from 1759 called Universal History of Arts and Sciences (patterned after a similar book issued in France 14 years before). I learned of the distinction between natural science (featuring machines dedicated to various purposes and the scientific ideas and mathematical operations needed to understand their operation); and natural history (featuring description and classification of living entities). And I was reminded that it was in the 18th century, especially in Western Europe, that efforts were made to systematize all current knowledge—most famously in Diderot’s Encyclopédie.

As a teacher, I pondered the use of these rooms and the potpourri of objects contained within them. From lecture notes that have survived, we know that the professors (at the time, Harvard had a grand total of two professors and four teaching assistants!) used them actively in their teaching. And we can infer, from their condition and from records kept at the time, that many of the objects fell into disrepair, possibly because they were also handled by students. For those who think that “hands on” and “active learning” are a conceit only of the 20th and 21st century, these displays are a tangible refutation of that assertion. John Dewey and Maria Montessori had their predecessors—among them Johann Pestalozzi, who lived in the era of the Philosophy Chamber, and who drew heavily on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was translated and read in the colonies and whose ideas about learning clearly affected educators of the era. As curator Lasser comments, the Chamber was “less like a museum or gallery and more like a lab.”

In addition to contemplating the pedagogical use of these materials, I also reflected on what the Chamber can teach us about the organization of knowledge. Nowadays, we take disciplines, subdisciplines, and specialties for granted—that’s the way that universities, colleges (and secondary schools) are organized. Period. And indeed, the Philosophy Chamber was disbanded precisely at the time when more specific subject areas were delineated and the respective objects and specimens were sent to the department or laboratory deemed most appropriate—the Orrery to astronomy, the magnet to physics, the rocks to mineralogy, the leaves and flowers to botany, and so on. To quote curator Lasser once again, “the polymath gave way to the expert.”

The term “philosophy” means love of knowledge. I wonder whether it was not short-sighted to close the chamber and thereby challenge or scuttle the view of knowledge and learning that it embodied and conveyed. Curiosity is one of the earliest and most powerful of human motives; and we do not come to earth programmed to think of a magnet or a motor as an entity that should necessarily be categorized differently from a star or a starfish or a scorpion.

Now that books themselves have in some ways been sidelined, some university libraries are becoming contemporary Wunderkammers, collecting objects of all sort and providing clues (but not too many) of what they are and how they have been conceptualized and studied. Not only does this curatorial move point up unexpected similarities and differences across categories of experience; it may also enable new connections and syntheses that disciplinary study necessarily minimizes or occludes. And in a way that certainly could not have been anticipated, such contemporary “chambers” reflect more faithfully the melange of knowledge (and, it must be added, mis-knowledge) that is currently available on any search engine. The most powerful education today should meld the concepts and methods of the disciplines with the curiosity and novel forms of association enabled by a contemporary Philosophy Chamber.

For much more information and analysis, see: Lasser, E. W. (2017). The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.

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