Arthur M. Sackler Museum to Display Harvard’s Social Museum Collection
Exhibition of early 20th-century social documentary photographs and graphic illustrations is the first significant presentation of works in more than 30 yearsDownload PDF
The Harvard University Art Museums present Classiﬁed Documents: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903–1931, an exhibition featuring more than 100 original exhibition boards with photographs and graphical illustrations from the Social Museum collection, on display from January 20 through June 10, 2007 at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Established during the turbulent Progressive Era as the cornerstone of Harvard University’s new Department of Social Ethics, the Social Museum promoted a comparative study of social conditions and institutions—from health to housing, industry to government, education to crime, welfare to recreation, and race to religion—in America and abroad. The exhibition presents a compelling case study for a broader understanding of the development and use of social documentary photography, the graphic illustration of reform subjects, the techniques and strategies of exhibition display, and the role such museums played in the formation of the modern research university.
The Social Museum remained open and in use into the 1930s when the Department of Social Ethics was absorbed into the newly formed Department of Sociology. In the late 1960s, material from the Social Museum was among the historical photograph collections rescued by and placed under the care of Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. The only signiﬁcant public exhibition of works from the Social Museum collection in the past 60 years occurred in 1974 when renowned Carpenter Center curator Barbara Norﬂeet organized the ground-breaking exhibition The Social Question, which traveled to the Museum of Modern Art. It is the remarkable survival of the Social Museum photographs and graphical material aﬃxed to the original exhibition boards and the intriguing context in which they were created that makes the collection unique.
Classiﬁed Documents: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903–1931 is organized by Deborah Martin Kao, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, and Michelle Lamunière, Charles C. Cunningham Sr. Assistant Curator of Photography. In 2002, Kao and Lamunière prepared the photograph collections of the Carpenter Center to move to the Fogg Art Museum, where they have been placed on permanent deposit. “Among them we were surprised to ﬁnd still housed in their original wooden cabinets the more than 6,000 reform-era photographs and graphical illustrations that comprise what survives of Harvard University’s Social Museum collection,” said Kao, “Seeing this time capsule motivated us to recover its historical context and interpret the use of this unique institution and remarkable collection.” Lamunière adds, “Discovering the boards in their specially designed storage and display cabinets was a particular thrill because it enabled us to experience the material in ways similar to the original visitors to the Social Museum, thus informing our own decisions about how to present these works.”
The progressive social reform movement transformed American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Spawned by the nation’s rapid industrialization, the unprecedented growth of urban centers and the massive inﬂux of immigrants in the decades following the Civil War, its backers sought to illuminate and improve the conditions under which the impoverished and immigrant populations lived and worked. It was during this time that Francis Greenwood Peabody, Harvard’s Plummer Professor of Christian Morals from 1886–1913, established the Social Museum at Harvard University in order to document the existing social conditions and to affect changes in industrial and social life.
Peabody touted the Social Museum as the ﬁrst attempt to “collect the social experience of the world as material for university teaching.” Although open to the public, the Social Museum was established as a resource for Harvard’s Department of Social Ethics to provide specimens of social science for use in teaching and study as a means to understand “social evolution” and “social progress.” Peabody envisioned the Social Museum would function in the ways that other museums served the ﬁelds of anthropology, art history, and natural history through the rational comparison of specimens.
Nearly 4,500 photographs and 1,500 graphical illustrations and other examples of ephemera (albums, blue prints, plans, diagrams, booklets, hand-written matter, and handcrafted objects) survive from the original Social Museum collection, mounted on boards and captioned in the style of reform exhibitions of the time. The collection includes approximately 3,000 such boards, which were meticulously classified by such highly charged topics as: Charity, Crime, Defectives, Education, Family, Health, Housing, Industrial Problems, Races, Religious Agencies, Social Conditions, Social Settlements, and War.
Made by professionals and amateurs, the photographs in the Social Museum collection encompass a broad range of styles and formats, from carefully composed large-format pictures to modest snapshots and from luscious platinum prints to crude halftone reproductions. The diversity of technique and inconsistency of approach expose the expansive use of photography as a social document decades before the codification of a documentary style and collide with the institution’s obsessive system of classification and regimentation of display. This disjuncture also reveals the uncanny capability of the photographs to simultaneously index and elude their framing contexts.
Peabody’s enthusiasm for photography as an essential primary source for the Social Museum reﬂected the medium’s vital role in the larger progressive movement, which affected every aspect of the social program and raised issues regarding society’s obligation to the individual that still resonate today. Social activists used photographs as if they were incorruptible specimens of social problems and solutions, capitalizing on the power of the image to persuade, especially in connection with text and statistics.
“In addition to the importance of these works to the history of photography, the access they provide for students, scholars, and the public to other ﬁelds of study underscores the value of such a collection to a teaching museum,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums, “We are fortunate to have a largely intact group of primary source documents that present the opportunity for research not only in the arts, but also in the history of museums, the history of the social reform movement, and the development of the discipline of social science here at Harvard and around the country.”
The exhibition features compelling examples of social documentary photography, including a series of photographs from Ellis Island’s Immigrant Station that convey the threat of deportation, the requirements for admittance, and attempts at Americanization. A remarkable range of Social Settlements, as well as the educational and social activities they provided, are depicted in photographs from Chicago to Kentucky and from San Francisco to Boston. Private and state-funded institutions for the care and education of the poor, aged, sick, indigent, and mentally disabled, are documented in photographs from the Medﬁeld Insane Asylum, the ﬁrst state-operated institution for chronic cases of insanity in Massachusetts, and New York’s Institute for Feeble-minded Children, one of the largest of its kind. Historic photographs illustrate workers’ cooperative societies in Europe, among them exquisite portraits of a German cooper and stone mason by Waldemar Franz Herman Titzenthaler. The exhibition also includes large-scale prints by Lewis Wickes Hine, mounted to hand-lettered display boards from an exhibition of the 1907 Pittsburgh Survey, a pioneering sociological investigation of the living and working conditions of workers in one of America’s most industrial cities. Examples of corporate “welfare work” (employee benefits) by such model companies as the H.J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh and National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio are on display, as well as Percy C. Byron’s related series on the employee recreation facilities established for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company’s workers.
The Widgeon Point Charitable Foundation has provided major support for this exhibition.
In conjunction with the exhibition, an interactive website will serve as a searchable database of objects in the Social Museum Collection. The site will provide scholars and the public with access to a resource of material reﬂecting the international social reform movement at the turn of the 20th century. The conversion of these historical sources to electronic form will allow teachers to incorporate them into their course syllabi, and expose students to the nature of primary sources, historical analysis, and research. The website, which goes live in early 2007, is at: www.harvardartmuseums.org/socialmuseum.
Digital access to material from the Social Museum collection is also available through the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program website, which creates comprehensive, subject-based digital resources that link Harvard’s libraries, museums, and research institutes, at: http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu.
The Open Collections Program provided major support for the digitization of the Social Museum collection.