COOL CLASSES: “Collecting and Displaying Nature”

This history course explores how museums shape our understanding of the natural world and our knowledge about the past and includes several field trips to Philadelphia museums.

Class name: “Collecting and Displaying Nature”

Taught by: Associate Professor of History Darin Hayton


Here’s what Hayton had to say about his class:

This course explores a constellation of questions around the desire to collect natural and artificial things, and to display those things. Why, for example, have people collected rarities and ancient artifacts? Is there some shared or universal desire people have to collect things? How does a person express that desire through arranging and displaying those objects? We approach these questions through a careful study of historical collections, from the Medici in the 15th century, to the German cabinets of curiosity in the 16th, to the opening of the first purpose-built public museum, the Ashmolean in Oxford in 1683. Although we focus on the past, this course is really about the role of museums in the present: how museums shape our understanding of the natural world as well as our knowledge about the past.

Philadelphia is a great place to teach this course because we have so many excellent, old museums. When I teach this course we take a number of field trips to local museums—this semester we visited the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Wagner Free Institute of Science, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and the Mercer Museum. In this way we supplement our in-class, theoretical discussions with what might be described as a practicum. We go out and try to apply the analytical tools we’ve been discussing to real world examples.

I hope [my students] begin to see museums as more than just neutral displays of knowledge. I want them to develop the skills to analyze museums so that they can better understand whose political or cultural or religious or economic authority is served in any museum and its arrangement of objects. I want them, in other words, to worry about the ethics of museums. By reconstructing a genealogy of museums students come to see that collections are inextricably bound up with authority.

[I teach this course] because museums are great fun! More seriously: Museums are a place where history and the history of science collide with our everyday lives in way that most of us don’t realize. By pulling back the curtain, so to speak, students get a much better understanding of and appreciation for the intellectual work that underpins any collection and display. I want students to be informed, critical museum goers who understand both their benefits and their inherent limitations.


See what other courses the History Department is offering this semester.

Photo (of the Hall of Biodiversity at the Museum of Natural History in New York) by Anagoria – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.