on Useful Objects

December 2021

This fall, graduate students Max Laitman Chapnick (Boston University) and Allison Fulton (University of California Davis) spoke with Reed Gochberg, Assistant Director of Studies and a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University about her recently-published book Useful Objects: Museums, Science and Literature in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press 2021). Gochberg focuses on 19th-century American museum collections, scientific culture, and literature about objects and specimens, exploring the “shared history” between “books, specimens, and artifacts.” Gochberg shows how, even today, an object's meaning shifts as it moves across the contexts of a museum gallery, laboratory, and the written page, and encourages her readers to consider how individuals and institutions are always circumscribing what knowledge counts as useful.

Useful Objects begins by transporting us back to the cabinets of the Enlightenment-era American Philosophical Society, with its cabinets full of taxidermy and plant specimens. The book moves forward into the succeeding century taking readers through the Patent Office during the Civil War and concluding with the intensely-specialized, specimen-packed Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology created by Louis Agassiz in the postbellum period. She demonstrates how these collections shaped and were shaped by canonical literature through close readings of Whitman, Hawthorne, Brown and Alcott, among others, to explain how “writers considered alternative ways of interpreting objects and proposed imaginative systems of arrangement.”

In a stimulating hour of conversation, Gochberg discussed her approach to archival research and how interdisciplinary scholarly and professional communities have shaped her work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Allison Fulton (AF): What was the process of moving from the finished dissertation to the book?

Reed Gochberg (RG): I would say that my process for revising the dissertation into a book was really shaped by the kinds of communities that I’ve been a part of since finishing grad school. Which is to say, right after finishing my PhD I was a postdoc for a year at Amherst as part of an interdisciplinary cohort of people at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry thinking about various implications of conservation: environmental, archival, aesthetic.

Since then, for the last several years I've been teaching in the History and Literature program at Harvard, which is also a very interdisciplinary community. I work alongside historians and other literary scholars from across lots of different fields, and I also work with students on projects that range quite a bit in terms of their topics. As part of that work I also do a lot of teaching with the museum and library collections and work with students in the museum studies program.

What does it look like to really try to be speaking to multiple fields? What do we gain by placing those fields in conversation? But also what can our disciplinary training help us bring to the table? So that's something that I was reflecting on a lot in terms of reframing the project, especially this question of how literature can help us better understand the history of museums, and how it can open up or illuminate other kinds of perspectives. I think that those larger questions are really important for me in terms of thinking about the audience for this book as including literary scholars and cultural historians, but also people working in the museum and library field.

Max Laitman Chapnick (MLC): I'm curious about the time that you spent with the material objects in various archives, libraries, and museums and how that shaped the primary argument. How did you respond to seeing objects in person?

AF: Also, did you work with these objects in graduate school or did you do a lot of that work post dissertation?

RG: It was really a mix. I had the chance to do short term research fellowships at a number of different archives, museums, and libraries and that had a huge impact on the work that I was doing because it really expanded my source base for the project. I was just looking at so many different kinds of materials: treatises on taxidermy, manuals for how to preserve specimens, material objects and books like the Crèvecoeur paper samples, and visual materials like the silhouettes of the Native American visitors to Peale’s museum or Hitchcock's drawings. Working with these collections was really important for how I expanded the diversity of voices within the project as well. I think I was very aware of the kinds of limitations if you're looking for extended writings about museums in the 19th century, a lot of that was shaped by who had access to these collections and who was able to access the galleries.

I think a couple of other things are really important in terms of the time that I spent in these settings. One aspect of that was having the opportunity to work with, collaborate, and learn from library and museum professionals and hear about the kinds of conversations happening in their fields. In addition to researching within collections, I've been doing a lot of teaching with collections and so the kinds of conversations that I will be having with students and colleagues about these objects was really important to how I was expanding my own thinking about this project.

AF: Last question about the book as a whole: could you define the main term in the title—“useful objects”— for our readers and elaborate a little bit more on what you mean by “useful” and how that term is anchoring the book’s main argument?

RG: The title of the book “useful objects” comes from this emphasis in the late 18th and early 19th century on this idea of useful knowledge [that was circulating] among a lot of the founders of these collections. So you see this in the acts of incorporation or mission statements of places like the American Philosophical Society (APS) or the Smithsonian and a lot of other smaller institutions.

I was really struck by the idea of useful knowledge, and this term useful, because how do we define that? Like useful to whom, and who gets to decide that definition? I found that it captured the kinds of questions about knowledge and authority that are resonating across this project and across a variety of different kinds of collections. And it also seemed an apt term for some of the literary stakes of this project too because a lot of these writers, I think, are reflecting on these questions of: does literature have to be useful? Or what is the status of literature or the imagination and a collection that is being presented in this way?

Part of the reason that I emphasize this term is that it highlights these larger questions about value and the role of museums and other institutions in determining those and in shaping the kinds of conversations that we have about what we consider worth collecting or preserving and knowing. But it's also inviting us to think about how some of those definitions could shift, and I see that idea as being really resonant at the moment, especially in this period of a lot of transition and crisis for many museums and in the last year and a half with the pandemic. Also in terms of how we think about the university—we're in English departments, we hear a lot about major and enrollment numbers and a lot of these debates broadly about what ideas are considered most useful, what majors are most practical, whose contributions and perspectives are most valued or not. Those larger ideas were what I was hoping to highlight here.

MLC: You discuss in some detail a book from Crèvecoeur where pages are a literal object. Each page is inscribed with the name of the plant that it's made out of. Using that close reading example, how are you intervening in material culture and print culture studies, and how do these objects focus the argument on the materiality of writing?

RG: I first encountered this book through the description that I include at the beginning of that section. I actually just pulled it up because I wanted to remember the exact language. In the donation books for the Cabinet, they describe “the specimen of a curious book, the leaves of which are made of the roots and barks of different plants and trees. This being the first essay of the inventor.” From the description of it I wasn't really sure what was being described. It sounds like an herbarium, it sounds like the leaves of the book are actually leaves. So I was really struck by the way that this description was highlighting the natural specimen but also the inventor, human action, and creation of the paper.

Actually when I first saw that description I didn't even know if the APS still had this. I mentioned it to the curator and he actually knew exactly what I was talking about and was able to identify it. And I emphasize that because I think sometimes there are these narratives about scholars visiting the archive and “discovering something” or finding some kind of lost or unknown object. This is rarely the case because of the knowledge of librarians, curators, and catalogers in terms of maintaining records of these objects.

It was loaned out to a member of the society who incorporated it into his own collection. You were talking about how it's an object and the label at once, but actually on the first page he wrote his own name—he was going to keep it. So the fact that it is still in the library at the APS is really significant; it highlights the precarity and the potential for loss that is so central to a lot of the collections from that time period that it almost didn't make it back.

AF: We really loved the Patent Office chapter. Specifically, we were interested in the visual and written descriptions of the hospital beds that are juxtaposed with the Patent Office cases. So, could you talk a little bit more about how this juxtaposition informs Emerson and Whitman's ideas of originality and novelty?

RG: I find the history of the Patent Office in the 19th century to be just so fascinating because what this gallery is doing is making the idea of novelty into something concrete. Patent models, I should just say, are so strange and weird in many cases, because they were an element of a bureaucratic application. Inventors had to submit a three-dimensional model, but they often took a lot of creative liberties and decorated them and used a lot of interesting materials in order to make them eye-catching.

The moment of the Civil War is just this hugely horrific moment in terms of the transformation of the space. You're talking about the juxtaposition between hospital beds and these cases of patent models. Whitman really captures the strange and eerie quality of this moment—he's reflecting on the human costs of invention. Prior to this moment, this is a gallery where people are thinking about the new through these model machines. But, at this moment, we see a kind of broken model. He’s thinking about the kinds of consequences of these national ideals for the individual soldiers who are housed in this space. This is a federal bureaucratic building but it's also a museum and now it's also a hospital. And Whitman’s sketch layers all of these questions on one another and shows these tremendous human consequences.

MLC: I'm curious about the scene with Thoreau killing the turtle because he's so sad about killing it. Could you say more about this moment as a warning of de-vitalization that could happen during specimen collecting of the natural world?

Reed Gochberg: In the last chapter I was really interested in thinking about how writers are resisting the fixed categories of a museum and I think that's especially true if you're thinking about Louis Agassiz and his museum. So much of his thinking was about trying to fix nature in place, trying to fix human beings in place. The scientific racism that he was promoting was very much tied to the natural history work that he was doing. Thoreau especially is interested in the ethical implications of the question: what are the limits and possibilities for trying to look at the natural world fixed in place? What does that afford us but also what do we lose?

The turtles are an interesting example of this conflicted reflection that he has about the process of preservation. He's acknowledging what we gain from being able to look at something and from the kind of sustained attention that that allows, and I think that's really important for his literary projects as well. But there is this question of what do we lose, and how might other methods of observation allow us to come back to those elements of life itself? For the rest of the chapter in my book, this question of how could we maybe break open the cabinets and cases of the museum collection to think about other possibilities is very resonant as well.

AF: Thank you, that leads really nicely into our final section. At the end of the conclusion you're talking about how we can rethink museum space by thinking museums with literature, with science. Since you not only teach literature, but teach museum studies and curate exhibits, could you talk more about how you see the museum now as a dynamic institution that offers people new ways of interpreting these collections that have existed for over a century?

RG: Broadly speaking my curatorial projects have been really focused on under-represented histories and telling new stories with collections. As you suggest, that's also a really big part of the teaching that I do on material culture and museum studies. My most recent exhibit was an online exhibit this past spring with the Harvard Museum of Science and Culture that explored the early history of women workers at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. My interest in that topic actually came out of some of my research for the final book chapter.

Some of the women who worked at the museum did leave behind some extensive correspondence. But for others, the way of telling their stories is through the collections themselves. I saw this as an opportunity to rethink some of the specimens in the museum's collection for how they could serve not only as material for scientific research, but also as artifacts of the lives and legacies of these women. In that project, I included specimens of spiders that were collected and cared for by a woman named Elizabeth Bangs Bryant. I included fossil specimens that were collected by a woman named Elvira Wood who actually received a PhD in paleontology in 1910, in a very male dominated field. I saw these collections as ways of accessing some of these stories about the people working to care for, organize, and catalog these collections. In the late 19th century, the museum was overflowing with a lot of different barrels, casks, and boxes full of specimens, so the work that these women did is important in terms of making these into usable materials and also ensuring that they still exist for researchers today.

MLC: Okay, the last question is a two part question: how do you teach about the intersections of literature and science with material culture or with field trips to museums? How do you get students involved and excited about material studies? I can see how that would be obvious if you're teaching a curatorial or museum studies class, but if you're teaching a literature class, how do you incorporate those things into that class?

RG: I would say, in general, I do a lot of teaching with collections, so both a lot of object-based analysis and also collaborative projects. I want to invite students to participate in the process of interpreting collections in new ways and drawing some of those connections themselves. One project I've done recently is having students select an object from one library or museum collection and then reinterpret it in the context of another. So what happens if you move something from an art museum to a natural history museum, or vice versa? What different kinds of questions do we ask when we move objects around?

What I would say kind of more broadly is that I've really tried to invite students into the conversations that are happening about museums and cultural institutions at this moment. As I've mentioned, there have been a lot of debates, especially recently, about the role that these institutions play in American life, about their commitment to social justice, and about the scope of their collections, the nature of the work that they're doing. I foreground that for students, and I invite them to speak to these questions, to participate in the process, and give them a lot of opportunities to offer their own perspectives.

In terms of how some of these conversations play out within a more literature-oriented class discussion, I see the kinds of object analysis work that students do within a museum or in a visit to special collections as being a really valuable way of providing additional training in close reading. I also see it as a chance to reflect on the different kinds of information we get from different kinds of sources. I always come back to this set of questions: what does it mean to do interdisciplinary work? How can objects and museum collections tell us about the lives of people? How do they allow us to access the lives and experiences of people who may not have been able to write things down or whose writings are not included in more traditional archives? How can we think about the possibilities and limits of different kinds of fields and objects?

In the conclusion of the book I included William J. Wilson's “Afric-American Picture Gallery.” That’s a work I really love to teach because it's just such a fascinating example of how Wilson is imagining a museum dedicated to Black history and culture and using literature to capture that vision. And it pairs well with a reflection on contemporary museums and the role of institutions in showcasing more inclusive histories. I come back to this work in a lot of my courses as, broadly speaking, an opportunity to think about the processes of collecting and displaying and also reflecting on the role of museums.

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. She is the author of Useful Objects: Museums, Science, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2021), and her research and teaching broadly focus on nineteenth-century American literature and culture, the history of science and technology, museum studies, and material culture. She also recently guest curated an online exhibit on “Women of the Museum, 1860-1920” at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture.