19th Century Women at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology with Reed Gochberg

HMSC Connects! Podcast Episode 13 Transcript

SPEAKERS: Reed Gochberg, Jennifer Berglund

Jennifer Berglund  00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of for Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. For our first episode celebrating Women's Suffrage Month, I'm speaking with Reed Gochberg, the Assistant Director of Studies, History and Literature at Harvard. Her work focuses on 19th century American culture, the history of science and technology and museum studies. Today, I'm speaking with her about an exhibit she's guest curating at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on the early history of women working at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The exhibit will focus on all kinds of work that women were doing at the museum like cataloging and organizing specimens, writing exhibit labels and preparing materials for public exhibitions--the stuff that largely took place behind the scenes. I wanted to ask her about this history, and how the legacy of these women lives on at the museum today. Here she is. Reed Gochberg, welcome to the show. 

Reed Gochberg  01:42

Thank you so much for having me.

Jennifer Berglund  01:47

How did you first become aware of the women working behind the scenes during the early days of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and what about them intrigued you most?

Reed Gochberg  01:58

You know I first started research the early history of the museum while working on my dissertation, and so I was really interested in the work that Henry David Thoreau and William James did as specimen collectors, and some of the specimens and objects that they donated to the Museum. But that really got me thinking about the kinds of stories that could maybe be told about a lot of the different objects in the museum's collections. While doing some of this research, I was spending a lot of time reading through the museum's early annual reports. I became very intrigued by some of the references that I was seeing to women working in the collections as assistants, and I knew that this was something that I might want to come back to at some point. You know, I've always been very interested in women's history, and so seeing these glimpses of the role of women working at the  museum really fascinated me. I was really intrigued by the questions of invisible labor and uncredited work that you can see, even in the pages of these annual reports, were one year the assistants are described by name, and then the next year, the work that they're doing is just described kind of in passive voice without any kind of credit. I think I've always generally been interested in women's history, and I was really just fascinated by the kinds of work that they must have been doing and what that must have looked like on a daily basis, and also how that can allow us to maybe think about the museum's collections in new ways. You know, how can we understand the history of the museum differently by recovering the stories of these women who worked there as secretaries as assistants, and eventually, as curators? You know, how does that help us tell a different kind of story about the history of these collections and how they've been maintained over time and the kind of people who have been involved in that process?

Jennifer Berglund  03:44

You mentioned, from year to year, sometimes these women's names would be mentioned and then sometimes they wouldn't be. Why do you think that would happen?

Reed Gochberg  03:52

That's a great question. I think it would vary a little bit department to department. Sometimes, I think, depending on the curator in charge of the department, one year, they might specifically mention all the people working there, and also describe all of the different tasks that they were working on over the course of that year. And then the next year, it might just be that they focused much more on describing the work that had been done over the course of that year, and a little bit less time on the people but because you can see the previous year, and you know from other reports from the museum's ledgers or account books showing that, you know, these assistants are still working there, you can kind of infer from some of these descriptions who would have been doing the tasks that are just described as, "this was accomplished," or something like that.

Jennifer Berglund  04:39

So it wouldn't be like one curator felt it necessary to credit the work of these women, and then, you know, maybe another curator came in the next year and felt that wasn't necessary, or it was just a different kind of work being done.

Reed Gochberg  04:55

Yeah, it kind of varied year to year, and I think that, you know, to some extent, if we imagine the people who were writing these reports, you know, it may have also depended on how much time they had to put together this description of what they had done in the past year, or just, you know, what was on their mind at that particular moment, but there is one example of a curator who worked at the museum in the 1860s and 1870s who I think is is kind of an interesting example for thinking about the early history of women working there, because this was John Gould Anthony, who was the curator of shells, and in 1869, his daughter, Elizabeth, actually started to work at the museum as an assistant, and she worked at the museum for 50 years. But her name does appear in the reports that, of course, her father wrote.  In those first couple of years, he had a couple of assistants working in the department, and so he does name them, and he also describes in detail the kinds of work that they were doing that year, and it just sounds so tedious. So, what Anthony was having them do was clean all of the shell collections, and glue them to individual tablets, so individual pieces of slate or glass in order to put labels on them, organize the collections, and prepare them to be exhibited to the public. And so each year, he's describing just the thousands of specimens that have been cleaned and glued to these tablets and that are now organized.  But he does describe the work of his daughter by name, which I think is really striking because, actually, apart from some of these early reports, her name appears almost nowhere in other museum records, even though she worked there for 50 years. And so she appears in 1919, when they announced her retirement, and there are a couple of letters from her in the archives, but these other reports are really where we see her name showing up. And the other thing that I think is kind of interesting about that is that only one of these shell tablets actually survives from the 1870s because a generation later the methods and practices have changed, so the next generation of assistants and curators actually had to unglue all of these specimens from their tablets, and relabel them, and reorganize them, but the one tablet that we do have, I think, does tell this story of the kind of work that she and other assistants would have been doing during this time.

Jennifer Berglund  07:12

What other kinds of collections did these women keep? And what did they do?

Reed Gochberg  07:19

Women were working across different departments of the museum. So in addition to working on shell collections, there are also women who worked in entomology, ornithology, mammals, paleontology.  Some also worked in the library. And it really varies year to year, who was working in each department, but they were doing a lot of different kinds of jobs. So, some were doing kind of secretarial work assisting curators, helping with correspondence, things like that, but they also often were doing this work of cleaning specimens, organizing them, sorting through them, and finding duplicates that would be given to teachers at the University, or educators around Massachusetts, and also preparing collections for exhibition. One woman who worked at the museum in the 1890s named Elvira Wood actually for a while taught as an instructor at MIT. She got her PhD at Columbia, and then she came back to work at the museum in the 1910s for a few years, but she specialized in in Vertebrate Paleontology, and so the work that she was doing at the museum in the 1890s was actually preparing some of the museum's early paleontology displays for public exhibits, and she also donated a number of her own collections, she helped to catalog collections for the museum, and also prepared illustrations and actually published some of her own work. So I think she's a kind of notable example among some of the figures who are working at the museum during this time, just from her educational background and the fact that she also was involved with some of these other educational institutions at the time too.

Jennifer Berglund  08:48

Do we have any of her specimens or any of the things that she worked on in our galleries?  Do you know?

Reed Gochberg  08:55

I'm not sure if her specimens are still in the collection. So, that's been something that I've been trying to find out because I know that she did donate some specimens to the museum, I think around, I want to say, 1915 or 1916, but that's a next step in my research is really to try and figure out whether any of these are still in the museum's collections. I think where we can really see her work though is there are some photographs of the exhibitions from the 1890s, and so you can imagine who was doing the work of preparing some of these exhibits, and then thinking about what should be placed on display. Also, just as we're thinking about, like the history of the museum's public programs and exhibits, it's kind of fascinating to imagine who was involved in that work in those early years?

Jennifer Berglund  09:38

Yeah, that's so interesting, particularly for me as an exhibit developer, thinking about how the exhibitions were assembled, and what kinds of stories they told, or if they told stories at all, if they were just displaying specimens or how were they sort of connecting the different specimens and objects and various things they had on display? What was it like compared to what we do today?  Do you know?

Reed Gochberg  10:01

Yeah, I mean, I think that one thing I would say about those early exhibits is that they really did follow a kind of Victorian model of trying to show as many different examples in a single case as possible. So if we think about the various shell tablets that I was telling you about earlier, those would have been all in a case together, and it's trying to show this kind of encyclopedic vision of the natural world. But I think that it's really more in the early 20th century that you see exhibitions being kind of rethought to become more interactive, to really be focusing on education as well, as opposed to trying to just show as many different examples together as possible.  One woman whose career I think is really fascinating was Elizabeth Bangs Bryant who worked at the museum from 1898, first starting as a volunteer on a very part-time basis, and then starting in the 1930s, and until her death in the early 1950s, she was the Assistant Curator of spiders. So her career and its impact on the collection, I think, is really fascinating, in part because Bryant herself donated collections that she kept from around New England, but she also worked really closely with people around the United States and around the world, actually, who would write to her because they knew of her expertise and being able to identify different spiders. And so they would send her specimens, they would write her letters asking for her help, and she would respond to them, but she also would, if they had duplicate specimens, she would acquire those for the museum. And so she had this amazing network of people that she was in correspondence with throughout her career, and that really helped her to build the museum's collections. But the other thing I think is really interesting about Bryant is that in a lot of these letters that she's writing to her friends and colleagues from around the United States, she includes occasional details, just talking about the work that she was doing in the museum, and especially the work that she had to do in order to maintain the collections. So, each specimen was kept in a glass vial that had to be refilled with alcohol in order to keep it preserved properly. And she complains all the time in her letters about the work of having to refill the jars of spiders and how she doesn't fully trust the students to do it properly, and, you know, it's really tedious work, but somebody has to do it, and I think it's really fascinating to kind of think about these different elements of her contribution to the museum, right, that she, you know, not only was helping to build the collections, but also that she often had to do this very mundane work of making sure that they were being stored properly in order to make them available to future researchers. So I think that that's really an area where we can see some of her legacy living on in terms of having these collections available today for people to use. There were male students, and there were male assistants who were also doing these kinds of work, but I think one important difference is just, sort of, what the possible pathways for career advancement existed. You know, you might have some undergrad students, for example, working in the museum and doing research, but I think that for many of these women, I'm especially thinking of someone like Elizabeth Anthony, working at the museum for 50 years, and she stayed at the assistant level. And so I think that that's definitely something to keep in mind. To some extent that changes for a few individual figures, especially in the early 20th century, you do start to see more women who are reaching the Assistant Curator level, right, but that is pretty limited in the kind of overall picture of the museum. I think one thing I would want to emphasize is the fact that women have been present in doing this kind of work within the space of the museum, basically from the very beginning that, you know, from the early 1860s, there are these records of women working there, even doing these kinds of menial jobs, or I guess I would maybe describe it too as actually important work that maybe wasn't valued or taken as seriously, but I also think that it is important for us to pay attention to that kind of work too because it's so important to the history of the museum, right, to understand how these collections came to Harvard, how they were organized and maintained during that early history, and also how they were then made available to be used in research or teaching and public programs. One thing that I really hope to feature in this exhibit is the collection itself, right, to try and connect different objects from the collections, whether it's a shell tablet, or a spider collection, to the people who worked on them, because I think that that allows us to see that history in a different light. But I also think that, you know, it's important too for us to sort of rethink how we imagined what this museum might have looked like in that time period in terms of who was working there, in terms of the number of women working there, and just in terms of the range of different kinds of work that were involved in building this museum and kind of continuing and developing its place within the Harvard community.

Jennifer Berglund  15:15

Yeah, and I mean, in many ways, their legacy is the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The reason we have what we do in our collection is because of the specimens that were collected and preserved from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. It was really these women that preserved the phenomenal collection that we have today.

Reed Gochberg  15:38

Yeah, absolutely.

Jennifer Berglund  15:44

What do you think the role of these women tells you about the role of women in science back in those days?

Reed Gochberg  15:54

I think that's a great question. One reason I think it's important to look at the history of women at the MCZ is that it kind of opens up this larger story about women's involvement in scientific institutions during this time period. So, whether that's a museum or a university, often women had very restricted access to professional organizations. And this was a moment when those mattered quite a bit in terms of your kind of full participation in the more elite scientific community, right? But by looking at the kinds of work that these women were doing, and the kinds of contributions they were making to the museum, I think it allows us to better understand this particular museum, but it can also potentially connect to how we understand other institutions of this time period too, like, I think that this potentially could connect to projects that are ongoing kind of recovering the work that women have done in the early history of the Smithsonian, for example, or at other natural history museums around the US or around Europe. I think that it can allow us to see how they often were present and participating in and contributing to institutions that often might have seemed to have been spaces where they weren't as fully involved. We might imagine that the early history of this museum would have been all men, right? Only male professors or male Harvard students working at this museum, but by looking at some of this early history, we actually get a much different portrait of what the museum community would have looked like and the different kinds of people who would have been contributing to it.

Jennifer Berglund  17:36

How do you think the legacy of these women lives on today?

Reed Gochberg  17:42

So one thing that's kind of challenging about recovering the stories of these women is just the limits in terms of the kind of written records that are left behind.  So, I mentioned before, the occasional, but still very limited discussions of their work in the museum's official reports. But even in the museum's archives, I think, for some of these figures, there are very few letters that survive.  Thinking again of Elizabeth Anthony, who work there for 50 years, and there might be two letters from her in the museum's archives, so there's not really a lot of written material. And that's true for a number of these figures, and so that can be really challenging, I think, to try and learn more about the kinds of work that they did. And so, really, I think that the place to look for that story is the collections themselves. I think that that's where the legacy really lives on whether it's in the spider collections or the ornithology collections or early paleontology exhibits, I think that there are examples there where we might kind of dig further to try and find out more about the collectors, or about how these collections have been maintained or organized or reorganized over time that can help us kind of better understand that legacy. But I also think that, to some extent, their legacy also lives on in the people who are still working at the museum and continuing to do the kinds of work that they were doing back in the 1870s and 1880s. You know, I mentioned before that these women often were doing a huge range of different kinds of tasks, whether that was organizing and cataloging, or preparing specimens for public exhibits or starting to think about early educational programs, and I think that we can see that kind of work living on in the various kinds of programs that happen at the museum today as well.

Jennifer Berglund  19:28

Do you see your work as an extension of theirs?

Reed Gochberg  19:33

I think that these women had a really amazing impact in terms of leaving behind this legacy of the museum's collections--the work that they did in terms of cataloging or preserving them has been really important for scientific researchers, right? I mean, and I think that that's probably how they would have imagined their legacy continuing, in a sense, that, you know, that these collections are now available for scientists in those fields to continue working with, to do research with, to teach with. But I also think that coming at this from a more kind of humanities perspective, I also think that they left really amazing, kind of, historical records through these collections as well, that allow people from across different fields to look at these objects in different kinds of ways and to maybe use these collections too to reconstruct other kinds of stories about the social or cultural contexts behind some of these specimens that they were working on. In that sense, I think that their legacy could maybe kind of cut across different fields and disciplines as people approach these collections in different ways.

Jennifer Berglund  20:45

What do you hope our visitors come away understanding from our exhibit?

Reed Gochberg  20:51

My hope is that the exhibit can help us better understand the museum's history, and, perhaps, think about its collections in new ways. I think that by looking at the people who were collecting and classifying these objects, we can not only think about how these specimens have been valuable to research in the sciences, but also gain a kind of fuller appreciation for the kinds of people who are involved in that process, and the various kinds of work that goes into putting a museum together and presenting collections to the public.

Jennifer Berglund  21:25

Reed Gochberg, thank you so much for being here today.

Reed Gochberg  21:28

Thank you so much for having me.

Jennifer Berglund  21:36

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special things to Reed Gochberg for her wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening!  If you'd like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next week!