In the early days of the republic, the Philosophy Chamber at Harvard College housed an assortment of natural specimens, scientific instruments, and various objects of curiosity and delectation. This was a place to apprehend the logic of the universe and to ruminate on divine influence in the natural world.
It was also a laboratory for national identity, where scholars invoked classical literature to legitimate a rupture with the House of Hanover. At times, this was a violent affair, as when miscreants vandalized a painting by John Singleton Copley of royal governor Francis Bernard.
The surprise of this exhibition is that it proposes a critical assessment of the social and political character of Harvard College at the time. One object, Stephen Sewall’s Copy of Inscription on Dighton Rock (1768), lays bare the Western bias of the period imagination. While Enlightenment scholars took the markings to be Levantine in origin, they are now believed to be Wampanoag petroglyphs.
Show runs until 12.31. Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. harvardartmuseums.org
This short review is being simultaneously published at Delicious Line, deliciousline.org. Christopher Snow Hopkins is an independent writer and critic living in Boston.