Ethan W. Lasser, Harvard Art Museums
The first superbly illustrated lecture by Ethan W. Lasser, the Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Curator of American Art, Harvard Art Museums, explores one of the most extraordinary collections ever assembled in 18th century America of scientific instruments, natural specimens, ancient relics and exceptional works of art. Between 1766 and 1820, Harvard College placed these one thousand plus objects in an ornate room called the Philosophy Chamber, so named for the Enlightenment-era discipline of natural philosophy, which wove various sciences together in an attempt to explain natural objects and physical phenomenon in the universe.
The immense collection and the Philosophy Chamber played a vital role at Harvard and served as the center of artistic and intellectual life for over 50 years. During that period, artists, scientists, and advocates of American Independence, including George Washington, came to the Philosophy Chamber to discover, discuss and disseminate new knowledge. Students attended lectures there and visitors from around the globe flocked to the chamber to see works by some of the greatest artists, including John Singleton Copley and John Trumbull. This eventually came to an end with the expansion of the college•s library in 1820 when the collection was disbursed to various departments at Harvard and to local museums where many of the pieces have been hidden for almost 200 years. The 2017 Harvard Art Museums exhibition, The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard's Teaching Cabinet, 1766 - 1820, reunited more than 100 of the original objects and created a loose reconstruction of the Philosophy Chamber itself. Included in the exhibit were full length portraits by John Singleton Copley, exceptional works by artisans from the Pacific Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands and, one of the most remarkable pieces, the dazzling celestial Grand Orrery, a large scale mechanical model of our solar system, by Joseph Pope.