People make history through the things they gather, create, collect, exhibit, exchange, throw away, or ignore. Over four centuries, Harvard University has amassed an astonishing array of tangible things—books and manuscripts, art works, scientific specimens, ethnographic artifacts, and historical relics of all sorts. The university not only owns a Gutenberg bible, it also cares for Turkish sun dials, a Chinese crystal ball, a divination basket from Angola, and nineteenth-century “spirit writing” chalked on a child-sized slate. Tucked away in storage cabinets or hidden in closets and the backrooms of its museums and libraries are Henry David Thoreau’s pencil, a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, and chemicals captured from a Confederate ship. The Art Museums not only care for masterpieces of Renaissance painting but for a silver-encrusted cup made from a coconut. The Natural History museums not only preserve dinosaur bones and a fish robot but an intact Mexican tortilla more than a century old.
Led by the Pulitzer-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, alongside Sarah Carter, Ivan Gaskell and Sara Schechner, Tangible Things is Harvard University's documentary-style online course exploring history through objects.