Classified Documents: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903-1931

, Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Touted as the first attempt to “collect the social experience of the world as material for university teaching,” Harvard’s Social Museum was established as the cornerstone of the University’s new Department of Social Ethics. The Museum’s surviving collection, placed on permanent deposit at the Fogg Art Museum in 2002, comprises over 4,500 photographs—by professionals, amateurs, and documentarians such as Lewis Wickes Hine and Francis Benjamin Johnston—and nearly 1,500 graphical illustrations. These specimens of social science were obsessively classified by reform topic and didactically installed to encourage comparison of social conditions and institutions in the United States and abroad as a means to understand “social evolution” and to affect “social progress.”

This exhibition of over 100 images presents the Social Museum as a compelling case study of the early institutional use of photography as a social document, the systematization of exhibition display by reform organizations, and the role such institutions played in the formation of the modern research university.

Organized by Deborah Martin Kao, Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, and Michelle Lamunière, Charles C. Cunningham Sr. Assistant Curator of Photography.

The Widgeon Point Charitable Foundation provided major support for this exhibition.

Digital Resource
The Social Museum Collection is a searchable online database that makes available images and text information relating to the more than six thousand Progressive-Era photographs and graphic illustrations that survive from the Social Museum of Harvard University. It also provides a short essay contextualizing the photographs in the collection; information on a related exhibition, symposium, and publication, and a selected bibliography; and descriptive summaries, accompanied by slide shows of related images, of some of the major social reform subjects and institutions represented in the collection.