Collecting Ourselves

This first post marks a milestone. In May 2016, I received my Master's degree in Museum Studies, an accomplishment that took several years to achieve. When I was invited to speak on behalf of my graduating class, I felt I owed it to all of us to tie our museum-based learning to a wider recognition of commencement. This speech is what resulted. 

*****

Greetings, fellow graduates, esteemed faculty, honored guests. Today, I'd like to take you on a tour. Don't worry; it's completely virtual. You can stay comfortably seated.

I'd like to take you to explore the collections of Harvard's museums. Harvard University has almost two dozen museums, spanning art, culture, history, and the sciences. It shouldn't be too surprising that the oldest university in the country would boast such extensive collections. In their earliest forms, universities were museums, and vice versa. Scholars studied ancient texts, natural specimens, and artificial curiosities to generate new knowledge.

  Musei Wormiani Historia, or Ole Worm's Museum, 1655.  A Danish physician and professor of classics, physics and medicine, Worm assembled this collection to inform his work in natural philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. 

Musei Wormiani Historia, or Ole Worm's Museum, 1655. A Danish physician and professor of classics, physics and medicine, Worm assembled this collection to inform his work in natural philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. 

Today, we become part of the grand tradition of university-as-museum. Harvard has collected us together to celebrate this occasion. And we, in turn, are also collections, each of us our own museum housing utterly unique holdings of knowledge, feeling, and experience - collections we began building at birth, and will add to throughout life. We are always collecting ourselves.

If we think of life histories as collections then we face a set of decisions (as any museum does): what kinds of things belong in our collections? Only the most hallowed treasures? Or a more representative sample of the stuff our lives are made of? 

Let's use our virtual tour as inspiration, taking a look behind the scenes at the Harvard Museums of Natural History and Comparitive Zoology. First, we'll pass through an unassuming side door and step down to a cool, dim basement. Take a minute to let your eyes adjust to the dim light. If you detect a smell, that's just the spirits of alcohol in thousands of specimen jars, many of them containing preserved animals that continue to serve science as the holotype, the type specimen that is the single source of truth for defining the members of a species.

  Holotype of a longhorn beetle species, Saperda moesta , from the type collection of the Harvard Museum of Comparitive Zoology. 

Holotype of a longhorn beetle species, Saperda moesta, from the type collection of the Harvard Museum of Comparitive Zoology. 

Next, let's go upstairs, where whale bones and bird skins rest in row after row of tall, graceful wooden cabinets designed by natural historian Louis Agassiz, who founded this museum in 1859.

 Specimen cabinets designed by Louis Agassiz at the  Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. 

Specimen cabinets designed by Louis Agassiz at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. 

 A member of the  Jenks Society for Lost Museums  investigates Agassiz specimen drawers at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Image source at link.

A member of the Jenks Society for Lost Museums investigates Agassiz specimen drawers at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Image source at link.

The diversity of these collections shows that the act of collecting demands a willingness to see everything as potentially valuable. The project of creating a comprehensive catalogue of the world - naming and numbering its every thing and being - is complex, and it presents serious dilemmas. Museums love to show celebrated treasures. But they also hold objects with painful histories. We remember Louis Agassiz as the museum's founder and collector of more than 35,000 plant and animal specimens. Agassiz was so respected for his drive to understand nature that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem for his 50th birthday:  

"And Nature, the old nurse, took

The child upon her knee,

Saying: "Here is a story-book

Thy Father has written for thee." 

"Come, wander with me," she said,

"Into regions yet untrod,

And read what is still unread

In the manuscripts of God."

We remember that Agassiz.

But we also remember him, less reverently, as an early theorizer of eugenics. Acting on the theory that human races had separate origins, he attempted to generate evidence by hiring a photographer to force enslaved people to pose for daguerreotypes, so that he could sort them into types - a notion which, today, we find abhorrent, and recognize as deeply unscientific. 

This is the difficult part of maintaining a collection, the part that demands serious commitment  - acknowledging that some objects are linked to mistaken understandings, inexcusable actions, and bitter legacies.

Harvard's museums still hold those daguerreotypes. Why preserve such a thing? At their most careful, museums acquire objects with the expectation that they will keep them in perpetuity, acting on the assumption that we can't know what insights they may yield in the future. Today, historians and anthropologists study the Agassiz photos to piece together clues about the identities and communities of the enslaved subjects, finding meaning where once there was only misery.

 Drawers containing materials from Agassiz' collecting exhibitions. In her report,  archivist Gwendolyn Henry  reflected on the changing interpretations of objects, writing  "when I took on the project, I did not think of the subject areas of cultural anthropology, Native aesthetics, colonization, sociology or ecoloy as research uses in addition to scientific exploration and zoological specimens. I think of the descendants of the indigenous people in these images and their possibility to have more access to their elders that are long gone." 

Drawers containing materials from Agassiz' collecting exhibitions. In her report, archivist Gwendolyn Henry reflected on the changing interpretations of objects, writing  "when I took on the project, I did not think of the subject areas of cultural anthropology, Native aesthetics, colonization, sociology or ecoloy as research uses in addition to scientific exploration and zoological specimens. I think of the descendants of the indigenous people in these images and their possibility to have more access to their elders that are long gone." 

Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has said “every object has a story; most objects have multiple stories.” We collect objects knowing in advance that we can’t possibly imagine all of the stories they may contain.

So it is with our own collections of experience. As we celebrate this Commencement, take a moment to imagine walking through the storage rooms in the museum of your own life. No doubt, some of the things on the shelves are sublime, and some somber; some proud, and some painful. Today, as graduates, we add several new acquisitions to these collections. They include tokens of achievement of which we are justifiable very proud: A diploma. The letter giving notice of acceptance into the degree program. Posters, PowerPoint presentations, and papers...endless papers. A mortarboard...and a gown rental receipt from the Coop. These signature objects are our Mona Lisas, our Lincoln's hats, our Sue the T. Rexes. We're thrilled to put them on display.

 Gowns, fans, mortarboards and other tokens of achievement. 2016 Museum Studies Master's graduates with program director Kathy Jones. Photo by Kathy Jones.

Gowns, fans, mortarboards and other tokens of achievement. 2016 Museum Studies Master's graduates with program director Kathy Jones. Photo by Kathy Jones.

And, as in real-world museums, there are also relics of struggle. Piles of dishes and laundry, testifying to a constantly rearranging schedule. Parking tickets and commuter rail receipts tracking our travels home after the 7:40-9:40 class. Disappointing grades that came now and then, giving the honest, if unwelcome, feedback we needed to improve. Invitations declined. Mistakes, missed deadlines, and postponed projects.

These are wide-ranging collections. Just as museum collections illustrate humanity's unfolding understanding of the world, these objects tell of our journey to this moment - both successes and sacrifices. We will care for this achievement of commencement, with all its joys and challenges, in perpetuity. We won't jettison any of them, because we know that one day they will yield up meanings we can't predict now. In Longfellow's words, we will take all of them with us "into regions yet untrod, and read what is still unread."

Congratulations, Class of 2016!