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

Harvard University via edX

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  • Provider edX
  • $ Cost Free Online Course
  • Session Self Paced
  • Language English
  • Start Date
  • Duration 5 weeks long

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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.


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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 harvardx@harvard.edu and/or report your experience through the edX contact form.

Taught by

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

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Reviews for edX's Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You
4.5 Based on 6 reviews

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  • 1
Anonymous
5.0 4 years ago
Anonymous completed this course.
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 one. Prof Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Sarah Carter are both wonderful.

Lessons Learned from this course.

Every week, every Lesson is a surprise ! They cover diverse, eclectic subjects.

My favorite Lessons were on - A Toga, Hidden in Plain Sight, Time and Time Again, Orphan Sewing Machine, and ‘Wh…
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this review helpful
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Sheri H
4.0 3 years ago
Sheri audited this course, spending 2 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be easy.
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.
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Dave R
4.0 a year ago
by Dave completed this course.
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Aana A
5.0 3 years ago
Aana completed this course, spending 3 hours a week on it and found the course difficulty to be easy.
Was this review helpful to you? Yes
Niki N
5.0 2 years ago
Niki completed this course.
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