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Instituting Reform: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903–1931

Instituting Reform: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903–1931

$ 55.00

Published in 2012

Winner, first prize in the book category, American Alliance of Museums 2013 Museum Publications Design Competition

One of photo-eye Magazine’s Best Books of 2012

Harvard University’s distinctive Social Museum was established in 1903 by Francis Greenwood Peabody (1847–1936) to “collect the social experience of the world as material for university teaching.” The more than 6,000 photographs and graphic illustrations that survive, including works by Lewis Hine and Francis Benjamin Johnston, are now held by the Harvard Art Museums.

Instituting Reform focuses an exacting lens on the Social Museum’s history, motive, and meaning. Punctuated by generous portfolio sec­tions, the book’s five essays probe the museum’s collection, using it as a case study to explore the early institutional uses of photographs as social documents, the systematization of exhibition display by reform organizations, and the role such institutions played in the formation of the modern research university. The museum promoted the study of philanthropic, social, and industrial progress through the inductive method of observation common in the sciences. As the authors demonstrate, however, the social “truths” made evident were strongly influenced by prevailing values and tensions of the Progressive era.

Deborah Martin Kao is Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, Acting Division Head of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Chief Curator, Harvard Art Museums; Michelle Lamunière is John R. and Barbara Robinson Family Assistant Curator of Photography, Harvard Art Museums; Elspeth H. Brown is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Study of the United States and the American Studies Program at the University of Toronto; Julie K. Brown is an independent scholar and Research Associate at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; Anthony W. Lee is Professor of Art History at Mt. Holyoke College.

Research Tool: A searchable database of the more than 6,000 Progressive Era photographs and graphic illustrations that make up the Social Museum Collection is available at

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