Program in the History of the Book  in American Culture


Useful Objects: Museums, Science, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century America
with Reed Gochberg

Thursday, February 24, 2022, at 2pm

Approx. 1 hour

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This program is free but requires advanced registration.

Useful Objects examines the history of American museums during the nineteenth century through the eyes of visitors, writers, and collectors. Museums of this period included a wide range of objects, from botanical and zoological specimens to antiquarian artifacts and technological models. Intended to promote “useful knowledge,” these collections generated broader discussions about how objects were selected, preserved, and classified. In guidebooks and periodicals, visitors described their experiences within museum galleries and marveled at the objects they encountered. In fiction, essays, and poems, writers embraced the imaginative possibilities represented by collections and proposed alternative systems of arrangement. These conversations interrogated many aspects of American culture, raising deep questions about how objects are interpreted--and who gets to decide their value.

Combining literary criticism, the history of science, and museum studies, Useful Objects examines the dynamic and often fraught debates that emerged during a crucial period in the history of museums by drawing on a wide range of archival materials and accounts in fiction, guidebooks, and periodicals. As museums gradually transformed from encyclopedic cabinets to more specialized public institutions, many writers, including J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, William Wells Brown, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau, questioned who would have access to collections and the authority to interpret them. Throughout this period, they considered loss and preservation, raised concerns about the place of new ideas, and resisted increasingly fixed categories. Their reflections shaped broader debates about the scope and purpose of museums in American culture that continue to resonate today.

Reed Gochberg is Assistant Director of Studies and a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University, where she also teaches in the Museum Studies program at Harvard Extension School. Her research and teaching broadly focus on nineteenth-century American literature and culture, the history of science and technology, museum studies, and material culture. Her work has appeared in journals such as J19 and Early American Literature, and she received the 2019 Richard Beale Davis Prize for the best article in Early American Literature. She also recently guest curated an online exhibit on “Women of the Museum, 1860-1920” at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. In 2016, she held the Barbara L. Packer Fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society.

Order this book directly from the publisher at global.oup.com

Headshot of Reed Gochberg


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