Bringing Nature Inside: 17th Century Natural History, Classification, and Vision

Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments Department of the History of Science, Harvard University Special Exhibition Gallery Science Center, Room 251 1 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 617-495-2779

Guest Artist: Rosamond W. Purcell

Curator: Sara Schechner, Ph.D (The David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments)

Dates: 4 October 2004 – 14 January 2005

Hours: Monday – Friday, 10-4 2nd and 3rd Sundays of November and December, 1-5

Working from the celebrated frontispiece and catalogue of Worm’s Museum, or the History of Very Rare Things, Natural and Artificial, Domestic and Exotic, Which Are Stored in the Author’s House in Copenhagen (1655), Rosamond Purcell, has recreated the private museum of a Danish professor of medicine, Ole Worm (1588-1654), by using natural history specimens and ethnographic objects borrowed from collections at Harvard and elsewhere in the United States. In recreating Worm’s world, Purcell, an installation artist, and Sara Schechner, a historian of science, explore not only the place of Worm’s cabinet among other early museums and the ways he organized his collection, but also the issues that arose in representing nature through the sense of sight.

As we move from the engraving to the reconstructed room, we are confronted immediately with these questions: How many layers are between us and the room? Can we peel this box back–as in an anatomy dissection–to see the bones and organs of the collection and their relationships to each other? Are we really seeing the thing in itself or just an artistic representation of it? Are the specimens drawn as archetypes or individuals? How do the monstrous and anomalous fit in? These questions were relevant to Worm and his contemporaries, too.

One distinguishing characteristic of early modern science was the emphasis on learning through the observation of Nature — through empiricism and experiment — and not just through the study of texts. Worm firmly believed that vision was the most trustworthy sense for natural history investigations. He assembled his museum collection as a resource for teaching.

The 17th century was also an age of new optical instruments that enhanced or skewed vision. Lenses, mirrors, telescopes, microscopes, and prisms were heralded as aids to vision and tools to analyze and dissect the world, but others accused them of distorting Nature and creating optical tricks. These instruments brought new worlds into view, gathered information, fragmented it, reassembled it, and dispersed it. Drawing instruments and engravings improved the transcription and sharing of visual information.

This exhibition looks at the work of Worm and other naturalists in this age of vision and optical instruments. It asks what was the authority of vision, and what impact did this have on the classification of things and understanding of Nature.

In exploring these themes, the exhibition juxtaposes many kinds of material culture used by early modern scientists. These include scientific instruments, natural history specimens, ethnographic objects, rare books, and prints.