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Harvard University

Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You

Harvard University via edX


Have you ever wondered about how museum, library, and other kinds of historical or scientific collections all come together? Or how and why curators, historians, archivists, and preservationists do what they do?

In Tangible Things , you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people. This course will draw on some of the most fascinating items housed at Harvard University, highlighting several to give you a sense of the power of learning through tangible things.

By “stepping onto” the storied campus, you and your fellow learners can explore Harvard’s 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, but it also houses in its collections 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 also for a silver-encrusted cup made from a coconut. The Natural History Museum not only preserves dinosaur bones and a fish robot but an intact Mexican tortilla more than a century old.

In the first section of the course, we will consider how a statue, a fish, and a gingham gown have contributed to Harvard’s history, and you will learn the value of stopping to look at the things around you.

In the next section, we will explore some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce, and define culture.

Finally, we will consider methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking about nature, time, and ordinary work.

Along the way, you will discover new ways of looking at, organizing, and interpreting tangible things in your own environment.

HarvardX requires individuals who enroll in its courses on edX to abide by the terms of the edX honor code. HarvardX will take appropriate corrective action in response to violations of the edX honor code, which may include dismissal from the HarvardX course; revocation of any certificates received for the HarvardX course; or other remedies as circumstances warrant. No refunds will be issued in the case of corrective action for such violations. Enrollees who are taking HarvardX courses as part of another program will also be governed by the academic policies of those programs.

HarvardX pursues the science of learning. By registering as an online learner in an HX course, you will also participate in research about learning. Read our research statement to learn more.

Harvard University and HarvardX are committed to maintaining a safe and healthy educational and work environment in which no member of the community is excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination or harassment in our program. All members of the HarvardX community are expected to abide by Harvard policies on nondiscrimination, including sexual harassment, and the edX Terms of Service. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact [email protected] and/or report your experience through the edX contact form.

Taught by

Sara Schechner, Ivan Gaskell, Sarah Carter and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich


4.2 rating, based on 9 Class Central reviews

4.7 rating at edX based on 77 ratings

Start your review of Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You

  • Anonymous
    Tangible Things at Edx (Harvard-x) It was a great course, very refreshing. It covers about 400 years of historical items. This reflects how society and the culture gathers, collects, and exhibits ancient artifacts. The Teaching Duo (pair) is a good…
  • Anonymous
    I loved this course! Professor Ulrich is spellbinding. This course teaches universal skills that are applicable to daily life. It opens one’s eyes to new ways of seeing, thinking and analyzing art and ordinary objects around us. This was my first MOOC. I enjoyed the academic work after retiring from a long professional career.
  • Laly Noya Rakotoniaina
    For students who love learning about artifacts. Or plan on opening up your very own museum. I highly recommend this course to you. During this course you will learn how to see an object in depth. Also, the significance of each item. Lastly, you will be able to design your own museum.
  • Profile image for Sheri Havens
    Sheri Havens
    I took this as a self-paced class. I found Professor Ulirch's class quite interesting. The class has you looking at items with a new perspective.
  • Irena Makarushka
    This is a great course for high school students or perhaps first semester college students. They will learn a great deal. It is really far too simple or even simplistic for anyone with a degree.
  • Aana
  • Niki Nicholson

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