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Critic’s notebook

These are just a few of their quirkiest things

Mining meaning in a Harvard exhibit of unrelated objects

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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A Gutenberg Bible, a taxidermy giraffe, a collection of glass flowers, scads of great paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, and Picasso: Harvard’s got them all, and the world knows it.

What they don’t necessarily know is that there are millions of other, mostly forgotten objects in Harvard’s voluminous holdings. Accumulated over four centuries, the majority of them spend their lives in darkness — in the drawers and cabinets and climate-controlled storage rooms of the university’s nearly 50 distinct collections.

It’s a pity, because some of these objects are more than just remarkable: They’re downright charismatic.

Recognizing this, some experienced hands at Harvard recently embarked on an ambitious project to rescue more than 200 of them from obscurity. The result is “Tangible Things,’’ a multivenue exhibition of some of the most fascinating, beguiling, and frankly bizarre things you will ever see.

In some cases, the things in question derive their charisma from their association with famous names (call these the “celebrity objects.’’) The blue “commander-in-chief’’ sash worn by George Washington, for instance. A painter’s palette that belonged to John Singer Sargent. A microscope owned by Mark Twain (from when he was writing the “autobiography’’ of a cholera germ). A bronze cast of a life mask of Abraham Lincoln. Or a turtle collected by Henry David Thoreau.

Others generate excitement because of their palpable connection to history. It’s thrilling, for instance, to read the handwritten instructions given to Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Thomas Jefferson in advance of their mission to negotiate a treaty with France. (Jefferson, in the event, stayed home.)

Though the story is more circuitous, it’s just as engaging to look at a group of glass bottles containing brightly colored chemicals, knowing that they were intended for the Medical College of Alabama but came to Boston when the ship carrying them was seized by a Union vessel during the Civil War.

And there are plenty of objects that relate to more recent history, including a silkscreen poster from 1972 — the height of the Women’s Liberation movement — announcing “Women are not chicks.’’

But many other objects have a charisma that’s not so easy to pin down.

As if conscious of this, and of the fact that context can play a major role in the way we think about objects, the curators of “Tangible Things,’’— Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Ivan Gaskell, along with Sara Schechner and Sarah Anne Carter — decided to get creative with the display.

The core of the show can be found in the Putnam Gallery in the Science Center, just off Harvard Yard. At first, the display, which has been divided according to traditional curatorial categories, seems to follow a fairly predictable pattern.

There’s “Books and Manuscripts,’’ for instance, where you can see a copy of John Ashbery’s seminal 1975 collection of poems, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’’ dedicated to his poet friend, Elizabeth Bishop. You can also see a private letter written to “my dear sister Bessie’’ in 1855, which is remarkable because the lines fill the page diagonally in both directions, forming a kind of calligraphic cross-hatching. (The idea, it seems, was not only to save on postage but to discourage casual reading of private correspondence.)

Then there’s “Natural History,’’ where you can see, among other wonders, a stuffed platypus, a pink fairy armadillo, the scapula of a tiger, and a chunk of caramel-colored Burmese amber that may be more than a million years old. And in “Anthropology and Archeology’’ you can see a dog sled team carved out of walrus ivory by the Netsilik Inuit people. It all makes perfect sense.

But then, in the middle of the gallery, the curators have grouped 38 objects under the challenging heading “Muddle.’’

How, after all, do you classify a board game produced by the Westinghouse Electric Corp. called “Blondie Goes to Leisureland,’’ in which the aim is to reach “Leisureland,’’ an “all electric home’’? Is it History? Is it Anthropology? Is it Books and Manuscripts? Is it something else?

Likewise, into what category should we put a quilt on which is inscribed the apt quotation, “Great objects make great minds’’? Sarah Putnam made it for her spinster nieces in 1881.

There are other things in the “Muddle’’ section that defy you to box them in. A 100-year-old tortilla from Mexico. A tapeworm extracted from the intestinal tract of Bostonian Connie Lukewater in 1893. A giant Galapagos turtle designated as a “holotype’’ (the specimen used by scientists to define a species). A silver teapot bequeathed by Samuel Johnson to his Jamaican companion and valet, Francis Barber, in 1784, but purloined by his executor and sold. And so on.

The message of the “Muddle’’ section (and it’s a bold thing to acknowledge in an academic institution like Harvard) may simply be that objects are stranger, richer, and more complex than traditional academic systems of classification allow.

The point is driven home more forcefully — and more mischievously — by the exhibit’s final feature, which aims to get you out of the Putnam Gallery and sleuthing through some of the eight other participating Harvard museums.

The curators have placed 16 objects belonging to one kind of collection among objects from another. You can find Sargent’s paint-splattered palette, for instance, in the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. It has been deposited among an array of instruments relating to color and vision — Titchener’s color pyramid, Holmgren’s test for color blindness, and various models of the eye.

The idea, presumably, is to get us to reflect on the nature of vision and representation.

In a similar spirit, Thoreau’s pencil has been placed alongside a clump of graphite in the Natural History Museum’s “Minerals, Gems, and Meteorites’’ gallery. An ancient clay tile impressed with a dog’s paw print has been placed among the taxidermy canines in the same museum’s “Great Mammal Hall.’’ And a floriform glass vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany has been placed in the room displaying Harvard’s famous glass flowers.

One of the exhibit’s most astonishing objects can be found in a niche gallery dedicated to a temporary art display in the Harvard Art Museum. The display features depictions of birds, both dead and alive, by the 18th century French animal painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry and his wife, Marie-Marguerite Froissé.

The “intruder’’ object is the skull of a helmeted hornbill from the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Hornbills, which can grow up to 4 feet long, have a heavy growth, or “casque’’ (French for “helmet’’) on the upper part of their bills, which they use to break up rotting wood and bark in order to get at insects.

So far, it seems, we’re in the territory of natural history. But it so happens that the Chinese considered hornbill casques as valuable as jade or ivory, and skilled carvers used them to make extraordinary miniature sculptures. And on closer inspection, this specimen does indeed have an incredibly detailed scene carved in relief into its casque.

Contemplating the bird’s bright orange bill and beady eye offset by this exquisite carving of a pagoda with trees and human figures, it’s impossible to say if it belongs in an art gallery, a natural history museum, or on another planet. The object — indeed, the whole exhibition — calls to mind the old convention, dating back to the Renaissance, of the “cabinet of curiosities,’’ encyclopedic collections which were formed before categorical boundaries had been defined.

Whether it makes sense to go back to those days, “Tangible Things’’ reminds us that, one way or another, “curiosity’’ will always have its day.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at SSmee@globe.com.