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Fig. 1: John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), Portrait of Nicholas Boyleston, 1767. Oil on canvas in original carved and gilded wood frame. 491/4 x 391/4 in. Harvard University Portrait Collection; bequest of Ward Nicholas Boyleston to Harvard College, 1828.

The study of decorative arts and the contexts within which they were made and used offers insight into how people in the past behaved both in relation to one another and to their environments. While art history is taught at nearly every college campus across the country, relatively few programs offer courses that focus on or incorporate decorative arts into their curriculums.

As a museum curator responsible for paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts, I believe the hierarchical ordering that accords paintings pride of place may well have had a function in an earlier epoch, but makes little sense in today’s academic environment where scholars are intent on establishing broader, more inclusive accounts of the past than can be offered solely by studying pictures. Furthermore, art history of whatever persuasion—from connoisseurship to deconstruction—can only address a relatively narrow range of questions concerning our relationships with objects. In addition, the question of where “art” begins and ends is open-ended, so that the things usually grouped as the “decorative arts” and the “ethnic arts” should be treated with the same attentiveness and respect as the “fine arts.”

Traditionally the classes that address the vast and varied topic of decorative arts isolate it from other disciplines. This, too, is a limitation. To address this issue and provide students with a broader introduction to objects and historical environments, the American colonial historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and I introduced a seminar course on American art and artifacts into Harvard’s spring 2002 semester. Our course, Confronting Objects/Interpreting Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on North America (History 1610), was the first of its type taught at Harvard. I hope this article will provide some ideas for others who wish to expand upon the traditional curriculum in academic programs.

The Harvard University Art Museums are independent of any school or faculty, though a number of their curators, myself among them, also hold faculty appointments. I have always used my teaching to give students access to museum objects and to explore museological questions. In Laurel Ulrich I was fortunate to meet a fellow objects enthusiast. She was then completing the text of what would soon become The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (2001), her marvelous alternative history of New England based on the close examination of artifacts. I had recently published Vermeer’s Wager: Speculations on Art History, Theory, and Art Museums (2000), about a single object and our claims to knowledge in respect of it.

Fig. 2: Two-handled cup and cover (“The Stoughton Cup”), 1701, John Coney (1655–1722), Boston, Mass. Silver. H. 10 in. Harvard University Art Museums, loaned from Harvard University; gift to Harvard College from the Honorable William Stoughton, 1701.

Our complementary interests led us to approach artifacts in our new course not solely as windows on the past, but also as things with which we and those who had previously used them, have or had complex relationships. We did not want to present objects as shortcuts to the past, nor simply as pretexts for archival research. We wanted to slow down the process of historical thought, and complicate it with the consideration of issues—such as aesthetics—that might initially seem historically irrelevant.

The concern was not with promoting any particular kind of visual art, but rather with drawing attention to more fundamental questions regarding human beings’ relationships with objects, whatever their local status as “art” or “artifact;” “decorative,” “fine,” or “ethnic.” In short, we were interested in the connections people make with objects and with one another using objects. We decided to impose chronological and cultural limits for practical reasons and to encourage a certain focus—North America from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, which presented a huge variety of artifacts drawn from innumerable cultural sources, mainly of European, African, and Native American origin.

During the planning stage the basic principles of our course fell readily into place: It would be limited to twelve students to ensure that all could engage with actual objects. We would examine one object or a small group of related objects each week. There would be preparatory reading for each meeting, but texts would not reveal the object that the students would then confront. That information would remain unknown until the class met—hence, our students dubbed the sessions “The Mystery Seminar.”

Selections of our readings included Max Friedländer and Gary Schwartz on connoisseurship: Though their texts related to old master European paintings, the class time focused on a group of Native American baskets, exemplifying the broad applicability of analytical concepts. We read literary theorist Éduard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation (1997), about cultural intermixture, before confronting the marble bust of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by the African-American and Native-American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis. Before seeing the oil portrait of Nicholas Boyleston by John Singleton Copley (Fig. 1) in the Fogg’s paintings conservation laboratory, we read Jo Kirby’s article in the National Gallery Technical Bulletin (vol. 14, 1993) on the decay of the pigment Prussian blue, and the first chapter of J. L. Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (1977) which begins, “There are no objective values,” prompting students to consider conditions for aesthetic judgements.

Fig. 3: Decorated box, “M.D.,” ca. 1700, maker unknown, Connecticut River Valley, probably Springfield, Mass. Oak and pine, with traces of polychrome paint. H. 83/4, W. 231/2, D.171/4 in. Private collection.

The objects we selected covered a wide range of American inventiveness. We began with a modest eighteenth-century cast-iron skillet, followed the next week by a grandiose two-handled silver cup and cover given to Harvard in 1701 (Fig. 2). Other objects included the Grand Orrery created in the late eighteenth century by the Boston clockmaker Joseph Pope, and two spinning wheels, for wool and flax respectively. At each class the students would examine the object without being told what it was. They would make observations;
formulate questions surrounding such issues as use, manufacture, and social implications based on materials; and try to find answers from what they saw before them. They would not be given any information. From the outset we encouraged them to jettison their inhibitions by assuring them that no observation was too trivial or self-evident. We would spend an hour on this exercise, the students becoming increasingly observant and collaborative week by week.

At each class we were fortunate to enjoy the contributions of a specialist who would look on as we examined the objects about which he or she knew so much. Indeed, they were often pleasantly surprised by the acuity of the students’ remarks, which more than once suggested ways of thinking about objects that the specialists had not previously considered. These colleagues then generously shared their knowledge and answered questions about the object. We then tried to put the examination and discussion into a broader theoretical and historical context by incorporating the week’s readings, with varying degrees of success. For instance, we had become so engrossed in a group of New Mexican saint statuettes (bultos), discussing them with New Mexican decorative arts specialist Laurie Kalb, that there was too little time to consider them in relation to notions of beauty arising from our readings of texts by Elaine Scarry, Alexander Nehamas, and others. However, as the weeks progressed, we were delighted to find that students were accumulating not just experience in examining a wide variety of artworks and artifacts, but were applying readings and discussions unexpectedly. For instance, points raised by David Hume in “Of the Standard of Taste” (first published in 1741) came up in discussions long after it was assigned.

The one sophomore, one junior, seven seniors, and three graduate students had to do more than read texts and examine objects together. Each week a student acted as secretary, writing an account of the discussions, which was circulated to all participants by e-mail. The students’ main assignment was to put into practice individually what they had been experiencing collectively. Each had to choose an object for investigation, formulate a proposal, and then write a final paper on that object in all its complexity. In addition, the last three meetings of the seminar consisted of half-hour presentations and discussions of each student’s object as a work-in-progress, so that they could benefit from each others’ insights.

Fig. 4: Adult cradle, eighteenth century, maker unknown, probably Worcester County, Mass. Pine. Harvard University: The Artemas Ward House, Shrewsbury, Mass.

The students chose a wonderful array of objects, drawing on the collections not only of the Fogg Art Museum, but Harvard’s Portrait Collection, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, the Historical Scientific Instruments Collection, and the University Archives. The objects they chose included a Creek Indian silver gorget from the Peabody Museum, which unites a European military form with Creek symbolism; a seventeenth-century valuables box, generously lent by its present owners (Fig. 3); and an unusual eighteenth-century adult cradle (Fig. 4).

Among those who supported us behind the scenes were Anne H. and Frederick Vogel III. The Vogels have long nurtured the cause of early American decorative arts at Harvard, and now find at last that their enthusiasm has a meaningful museum and curricular context. I share an ambition with them to develop such a collection, not only so that courses of the kind that Laurel Ulrich and I have been teaching might flourish, but so that other kinds of courses that make equally demanding uses of American decorative arts might be conceived and taught at Harvard in the future. Now that they see that the future is bright in this respect the Vogels have promised six important pieces of seventeenth-century Massachusetts furniture from their outstanding collection. In addition, they have established a fund to support programs in American decorative arts at the Fogg, and are lending objects for research, teaching, and exhibition.

As I write this article, the final papers are due tomorrow. Never have I looked forward so eagerly to reading student work. Their research, no less than the classes themselves, would have been quite impossible without the enthusiastic cooperation of colleagues at the Fogg and at the various Harvard collections that care for the objects that have so intrigued us. I know, based on their presentations and discussions, that the students have all developed an appreciation of the complexity of human beings’ relationships with artworks and artifacts. Such objects were made so ingeniously and have been used so variously over the generations that they offer no easy route to historical comprehension, yet they repay efforts to understand them and those people who made and used them, many times over. The students’ response has been phenomenal. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and I shall be offering History 1610—“The Mystery Seminar”—at Harvard again next spring.

Ivan Gaskell is Margaret S. Winthrop Curator of Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.

Selected Course Reading List

Alpers, Svetlana. “Is Art History?” In Explanation and Value in the Arts, edited by Salim Kemal
and Ivan Gaskell. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Clifford, James. “On Collecting Art and Culture.” In The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills. 1861.

Hindle, Brooke. “How Much is a Piece of the True Cross Worth?” In Material Culture and the Study of American Life. Edited by Ian M.G. Quimby. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Malloy, Mary. Souvenirs of the Fur Trade: Northwest Coast Indian Art and Artifacts Collected by American Mariners, 1788–1844. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum Press, 2000. Phillips, David. Exhibiting Authenticity. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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