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.