CAMBRIDGE — The world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was both so much smaller than the world today and so much larger. It was smaller because, obviously, it didn’t have railroads and jet travel and the Internet. It was larger for the same reason — larger in the sense that ideas and exotic objects could matter in a way they don’t matter now. Does the concept of exotic even make sense anymore?
Distances then being vastly harder to surmount, whatever surmounted them had a nimbus of the miraculous. That quality of hard-won wonder deeply informs one of this year’s more unusual and marvelous museum exhibitions, “The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820.” It runs at the Harvard Art Museums through Dec. 31. Harvard’s Ethan W. Lasser curated it.
“The Philosophy Chamber” re-creates three rooms that during those years were next to Harvard’s library. The rooms displayed artworks, scientific specimens and instruments, indigenous artifacts, and objects from antiquity. The space was a teaching version of the Wunderkammer , or cabinet of curiosities. The Wunderkammer — sometimes the literalness of German cannot be improved upon — was an early modern forerunner of today’s museums, both art and science.
Part of the pleasure of “The Philosophy Chamber” is how it takes what might seem to 21st-century eyes like an intellectual and cultural jumble and makes that jumble a point of entry to a time that brought together seemingly disparate realms to form a unified world view.
In that sense, the centerpiece of “The Philosophy Chamber” is an orrery that it took Joseph Pope 12 years to make during the 1770s and ’80s. An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system. This was only the third one to be built in America. Simply as an object, it’s a magnificent thing: roughly 5 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet, and made of mahogany, brass, bronze, glass, and ivory. What makes the orrery the centerpiece isn’t its considerable size or even more considerable beauty. It’s how the orrery epitomizes this idea of bringing together in one place — or, as here, in one object — a vast body of knowledge and weight of meaning.
The orrery isn’t the only scientific instrument among the 100 or so objects in “The Philosophy Chamber.” A quadrant and microscope, handsome as they are, look humdrum compared to a cylinder electrical machine, from the 1760s. It looks like a spinning wheel and produces sparks instead of yarn. Benjamin Franklin had a hand in its purchase. Also used for scientific study were dried fish specimens, a rattlesnake hide, and two stuffed birds: a bald eagle and long-eared owl. In their way, all are as beautiful as the orrery and other instruments. The handiwork of God need not defer to the handiwork of man.
The birds were mounted by Charles Willson Peale. It’s fitting that he have a place here. Himself a sort of one-man philosophy chamber, Peale founded one of the first museums in the United States. It was in Philadelphia and dedicated to natural history. Peale was also one of the early Republic’s foremost painters.
Among the painters the young Peale studied with was John Singleton Copley, of Copley Square fame. There are three Copley oil portraits in the show, as well as a half dozen prints after Copley paintings. They hang in a gallery that’s meant to re-create the original chamber, including a version of the red flocked wallpaper (donated by John Hancock, no less) that covered the walls: decor as time machine. Here we find something like a gallery in an art museum as we might expect it today. But those were most definitely not the expectations of the Enlightenment and early Romantic era.
“The Philosophy Chamber” affords a rare and revealing window on an age. But you don’t need to be interested in intellectual or cultural history to cherish the show. A Hawaiian feathered cape is so vibrantly colorful it wouldn’t look amiss in the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Matisse in the Studio.” Renderings from 1768 and 1788 of the Native American inscriptions on Dighton Rock (the boulder now sits in Dighton Rock State Park, in Berkley) seem to look ahead to Paul Klee, in their sense of mutual enchantment and inscrutability. Something as simple as a drawer with an array of slides, mounted specimens, and accessories has the magic of one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes — and vastly more utility.
Utilitarian magic, purposeful wonder: That describes the Philosophy Chamber then — and “The Philosophy Chamber” now.
THE PHILOSOPHY CHAMBER: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Dec. 31. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.orgMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.