Scale: A Matter of Perspective: New Exhibition Opens Friday, March 10, at Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

March 10, 2017

(Cambridge, MA) Scale has long captivated the human imagination, as evidenced in classics like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and in today’s popular movies and television shows. People spend hours making models that shrink or enlarge everyday objects and surroundings. They invent technologies to explore tiny realms or search vast stretches of the cosmos beyond sight. Scale: A Matter of Perspective, examines the concept of scale and its power to transform perceptions of the world and our place in it, inviting visitors to make connections to the world in surprising new ways. 

This new exhibition, on view through December 8, 2017, explores the concept of scale from multiple perspectives, including investigation of the cosmos with telescopes and microscopes, models that scale things up (e.g., molecular models, glass flowers, embryological models) and those that scale things down (e.g., celestial and terrestrial globes, or ethnographic dioramas of village life), scale in literature (such as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland). Even the complexities of interpersonal relationships may be defined by variations in social scale.

Among the dozens of objects in the exhibition will be the optics of the 125-year-old Bruce photographic telescope recently discovered and restored. Accompanying the Bruce lenses will be astronomical photographs on glass plates taken in Peru that were annotated by Henrietta Leavitt, a “computer” at Harvard College Observatory, and her logbooks.  Leavitt’s discovery of the period-luminosity relationship of Cepheid variable stars fundamentally altered our view of the scale of the universe. Viewers will see a microscope that belonged to Mark Twain, as well as those of Asa Gray and other noted scientists. From the collections of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, which marks its 150th anniversary this spring, the exhibit will display an intricately-crafted miniature model of a Japanese furnished kitchen (pre-1879). Several extraordinary books from Houghton Library at Harvard will illustrate humanity’s long fascination with exploring scale and perspective. These include a 1727 edition of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Jonathan Swift, a book that later came to be known as Gulliver’s Travels.  

“This exhibit is a marvelous example of how the vast collections held in Harvard’s museums can be brought together to explore concepts such as scale from a unique and multidisciplinary perspective.” said Jane Pickering, Executive Director of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture.  

In conjunction with the new exhibition, the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture will offer a public lecture on Wednesday, April 26, at 6:00 pm in the Harvard Science Center, 1 Oxford Street, Hall D, entitled Knocking on Heaven's Door: Scaling the Universe by Lisa Randall, Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science, Department of Physics, Harvard University.  Professor Randall will discuss how scientists think about scale when studying the cosmos -- from the mysterious properties of dark matter to the depths of our universe and beyond. The lecture is free and open to the public, and there will be an opportunity to see the Scale exhibition afterwards at a reception sponsored by the Harvard Chapter of Sigma Xi.

During your visit, be sure to visit the museum’s permanent Putnam Gallery on the 1st floor, with John Singleton Copley’s portrait of John Winthrop, on loan from Harvard Art Museums, on display along with telescopes from Winthrop’s collections.   

About the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments

Harvard has been acquiring scientific instruments for teaching and research since 1672. This collection, established in 1948, is one of the three largest university collections of its kind in the world and contains telescopes, timepieces, computers, optical equipment, and much more.

The Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, one of the four Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, is located in the Harvard Science Center at 1 Oxford Street in Cambridge, just a 6 minute walk across the historic campus from Harvard Square.  Scale, in the second floor special exhibit gallery is open weekdays from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission is free and open to the public. The main Putnam Gallery on the first floor is open weekdays from 11 am to 4 pm.

Images available on request.


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Press contact:

Blue Magruder, Harvard Museums of Science & Culture




See also: Press Release