My twitter followers will know that over the past year or so I’ve been posting primary sources from the history of museums. My apologies to those who find their timelines clogged with selections from the museum debates of yesteryear, and my thanks to those who have let me know that they’ve enjoyed my odd hobby.
Some background: I’m working on a book on museums that includes a bit of history, and so I’ve found myself exploring the nineteenth and twentieth century museum literature. I am surprised by how much seems of interest to today’s museum debates, and often find myself carried away far beyond what’s useful for my book.
And so why not share it with my twitter friends? Cut out a bit of the text using cmd-shift-4 (or photograph it from the book), paste into the tweet. Add a source so that anyone who’s interested can learn more (footnoting is important in primary-source twitter!) Add a brief description for those who don’t see the image in their twitter stream, and to explain things, and to make it seem interesting.
Next step: to turn these into a timeline. It’s easy to download from storify. Someday I’ll do that, and make a timeline of museum history out of them. Not the history of exhibits, collections, and education, but the history of the debate over exhibits, collection, and education.
I just have to find time to turn the json into a google spreadsheet, and then a google spreadsheet into a timeline… Any volunteers? Or, you can just wait until my book is out…
The call for papers placed this conference in the context of RISD’s recent interest and success in “transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries to encourage more holistic, multi-faceted approaches to art and design practice.” In my talk I’d like to focus on disciplinary boundaries in how museums use artifacts, and offer some suggestions on how we might transcend some of those traditional boundaries for a more holistic, multi-faceted museum.
The disciplines whose boundaries I’d like to consider are those mentioned in the title of this session: “art, craft, design and cultural artifacts.” There are art museums, craft museums, design museums… “Cultural artifacts” is the ringer here. It suggests, perhaps, anthropology museums? After all, anthropology is the discipline that likes to claim “culture.” But I’d like to be more open-minded, and include here both museums of anthropology and museums of history.
Each of these types of museums addresses its collections differently, and often engages in defending its boundaries. They each have ways of thinking about what’s included, and what you should say about it. And so we sort the artifacts of the world into categories, put them into museums based on those categories, and don’t think about what we’ve lost. Disciplines have a way of disciplining our thoughts, and understanding them can offer us a way to think outside those boxes.
Museums tend to fall back on usual ways of telling stories with objects. I want to look at what might be called crossover objects—ones that fit uneasily within disciplines—we can find better ways to present not only these objects in exhibits, but maybe all objects. How might breaking down these barriers make for more interesting, useful, or provocative exhibitions?
Thomas Thiemeyer recently suggested three useful categories for considering the ways that museums use things: as works, as specimens and as witnesses.
By works, Thiemeyer means, mostly, works of art. The Mona Lisa is presented as a work, as an original. To use Stephen Greenblatt’s language, it is shown as an example of “wonder.” In Walter Benjamin’s terms, it has an “aura.” In Benjamin Ives Gilman’s terms, it’s a “unicum.” It’s an original, authentic, special. The display reflects this: It’s displayed by itself, for visitors to admire. Art objects are displayed on white walls, given space, kept with others of their kind.
By specimens, Thiemeyer means: representatives of their type. Natural history museums are full of specimens; any example of a species is as good as any other. Cabinets of curiosity were full of special objects; museums are full of typical objects. Foucault described this as a transition from the ‘age of the theatre’ to the ‘age of the catalogue.” And art museums followed along, to some extent: when, in the nineteenth century, museums came to be organized by school and date, art became, in a way, specimens as well as works. Displays of art were organized to tell stories.
Art museums fought over these two ways of thinking about art for most of the last two centuries. Were they places to commune with great art, or places to learn art history? They’re both, of course, but it’s difficult to do both things at once.
Thiemeyer’s third category is witness. These are objects that carry a meaning because of where they were in their pre-museum life. Witness objects are about use and source and provenance. In art museums, pure witness objects are rarely displayed, though one might argue that fragments of ancient sculpture fall in this category. But many art objects have a witness story to tell. In history museums, witness objects cover a wide range of witnessing—from the daily stories of use to the more dramatic stories of politics. This category is similar to Greenblatt’s “resonance,” but I think more inclusive.
Each kind of museum balances these three categories differently. Art museums want each work of art to be considered a work, but they also want to present art history, and consider art as specimens, as examples of the work of an artist or a school. Natural history museums present specimens—they even call their objects by that name. (The fad for exception specimens in the early 20th century had them veering toward a concept something like a work.) Anthropology museums do all three—they bounce between treating objects as specimens and acknowledging them as works, or putting them into context and calling them witnesses. (That’s why so many early leaders in the field mused about putting all their cases on wheels.) History museums generally want to tell stories, and make comparisons about change over time, and so they want specimens to tell the story with—but they depend on witness objects to make the story seem true. The dual use of objects is especially interesting to observe at museums focused on trauma, like Holocaust museums, where witness is so important.
Museums have an easy time when they treat an object in one way, or in their traditional way. It can confusing when they try to break the rules, or mix modes of presentation. Consider the elephant in the lobby at the NMNH, trying desperately to be all three things.
Design objects are, perhaps, particularly complicated because they’re about use as well as making. We want to treat them as art, as works, but we also need to think about them as telling their own story of usefulness, that is, as witness objects. We don’t like to think about them as specimens because what distinguishes them from other everyday objects is their design, their specialness. Considering these three categories of understanding helps us understand the challenge of displaying objects of design.
Let’s look at a few examples:
Shaker tools. Art museums embraced these as modernist art in the 1930s, and so they might be seen as works of art. But they’re anonymous, simple, things; it’s hard to treat them as we would a painting. The Shakers would have thought of them as technology. And they would fit nicely into an anthropology exhibit on sects, or an American history exhibit.
Eames plywood splint. It is an icon of design, but it’s also, through its materials, craft; through its use, a medical technology; relieved of its context of use, and considering the place of the Eames in modern design, it comes close to art.
The famous Bell helicopter. It must seem odd to some visitors to see this hanging at MOMA, but it fits nicely as both technology and design.
An 1855 Gothic revival steam engine on display at the Henry Ford Museum. It’s technology, but its design suggests culture, design, maybe art.
Decorative arts more generally falls into this confused category, and it’s why the period room is such a difficult medium. We want to claim furniture as a work of art, but we know that to call it solely that, we are leaving out too much of the story. Furniture is a specimen, and furniture is a witness—either to daily life, or wealth, or to history.
The period room, I suggest, captures that ambivalence; it’s trying to do three things at once. Consider a few attempts at period room-type displays.
The early rooms at the Essex Institute, from 1907, were designed “to present a truthful picture of an interior in the year 1700,” wrote curator George Francis Dow, and so he felt free to use reproductions, aiming at an “atmosphere of liveableness.” (No “works” here!) “The old way was to have the specimen placed upon a platform. Today we put it in its relative position as associated with other articles of the furniture of a room. It at once takes on a new significance, becomes almost a living object.” He treated the room as a stage set, dressing them to make them seem real.
The period rooms at the Berlin Jewish Museum. Here, the furniture has no special design significance. But it does two things: it serves as specimens, that is, examples of pre-war Jewish life; and it serves as a witness to the Holocaust. The furniture was recovered from families that had left Germany, and the story that’s most prominent is the story of its travels out of the country, and back.
“Maira Kalman Selects” at the Cooper Hewitt. A selection of objects from the collections that is all about her relationship with objects. Her text reads: “What is this room about? … It’s about falling in love with a group of objects….” Some are there as works of art. Some, like this chair, break all of the rules of showing a work of art. Some, like Toscanini’s pants, are there as witnesses. Some are specimens, symbols of walking, or childhood. Kalman’s introductory text advises viewers to “not think too much. Unless it pleases you.”Perhaps she is acknowledging the challenge of thinking about these things in a usual museum way—and asking us to think differently.
It’s not just period rooms that wrestle with how to mix these modes. Consider what happened when an art museum—more precisely, an Institute of Contemporary Art—tried to make sense out of a movement that crossed the lines between art, craft, and design. The ICA displayed the loom from Black Mountain College as an art object, but it’s really, in this case, a witness object. The timelines on the wall treated art objects as specimens, to tell a story.
All objects are complicated, and I think that design objects are particularly complicated—artifacts that offer great return, if treated well, but which don’t fit into our usual way of thinking about things, that make us rethink our categories, our modes of presentation. I think that’s worth doing; that museum they might do a better job of fully appreciating their collections, and more fully getting their visitors to appreciate them, if they open up beyond the usual way of treating objects. Let me consider some possibilities…
There’s a long tradition in the history of museums of suggesting, wistfully, that it would be easier if we could just put all of our display cases on wheels. (Pitt-Rivers, Frederick Lucas, and George Brown Goode all suggest this.) One can sympathize with them. We want to tell many different stories with the artifacts. But we also want to tell different kinds of stories, and for that wheels won’t do. It’s not enough to move a case from a synoptic series to a featured work of art; the modes of display are different.
The digital offers us the chance to virtually put our artifacts on the wheels that early twentieth-century museum philosophers wanted, a place where objects can flicker between categories, maybe even occupy more than one at a time. Perhaps; but most digital museum display turns everything into a specimen; it flattens it into two dimensions. The aura is gone, and so, often, the story, the context.
Another possibility is to try to balance the two parts of an artifact’s life: making and using. The RISD Museum has begun to experiment with ways to show making as part of the artifact’s story. It’s done that by reorganizing some areas by material, and explaining tools and techniques. What if a museum added to that the story of use? Objects would begin to tell multiple stories, and—if the making and use were integrated—the story of design would become prominent.
Another possibility: Think about how the visitor interacts with and makes meaning of objects. Design connect making and using, and putting the visitor into the position of using the objects, and asking about who they were made for, and and how they were used, might offer us insight that allows us to think of objects as works, specimens, and witnesses, all at once.
It’s done! For the past year or so I’ve been working with staff and other Collections Committee members at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on a new collections development plan. It’s been an interesting experience.
Collections development plans are a fairly new thing for museums. They are part of a general transition in how museums think of collections. Stephen Weil’s famous 1999 essay sums it up: “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody.” Museums once existed for their collections. Now, collections are there to do something, for someone. Museums have a mission, and collections are a tool to achieve that mission.
The first step toward making collections useful is to know what you have. The second step is to figure out what you need. Step three: over time, acquire what you need, and get rid of what you don’t.
Seems simple. As you might imagine, though, each of these steps can be… complicated.
Step one. Yes, museums should know what they have… just look in the collections management system! Search for what you’re interested in! But: is everything in that database? Of course not. And even less is well described. Cataloging is a never-ending process.
On a more philosophical level: A collection is more than many individual things. To understand it, you need to break it into categories. It’s the categories, not the individual objects, that shape our understanding of collections. (Search as a discovery mechanism actually makes it harder to understand these categories.) Determining those categories isn’t easy. The categories of those who collected the things? Those who entered them in the CMS? Or those of curators thinking about new exhibits, or of visitors? There’s a large literature now that urges us to “decolonize cataloging,” thinking through the categories and sources of information that catalogs are built on. What assumptions were the collections built on?
And that’s easy, compared to step two: figure out what you should have. The AAM urges that a museum create an “intellectual framework” to shape its collecting. This framework is “the compelling vision that defines the unique role your museum plays and provides the context for making decisions about the future of the collections.”
At the Whaling Museum, we didn’t use the phrase “intellectual framework,” but we did think hard about our mission. The museum has well-wrtten mission statement, and our job was to ask what what artifacts we need to carry it out. Translating a mission statement into artifacts might be the best description of writing a collections development plan.
Over the next few years we work on step three, following these general directions with specific actions. We’ll plan some collecting initiatives. When we’re offered objects for the collection, we’ll look in our collections development plan and see if they fit. The plan advises the curatorial department about where to put its collecting effort, helps the collections committee in considering curatorial requests, and guides deaccessions.
The plan also encourages better cooperation with regional museums and other whaling museums. It makes the case for a new collections management system, so that the museum can make better decisions on future collecting based on a more complete understanding of its present collections. And it call for additional staff time focused on retrospective cataloging. Looking ahead, we need to better understand our existing collections so that we build on a strong foundation.
A collections development plan is about shaping the collections, not taking them for granted. That active engagement with collections will make them more useful. It will also make our collecting better and more efficient.
(some advice I gave my students before our visit last week, updated after the visit)
When you visit the museum—when you visit any museum—try to examine it in three different ways, to look at it through three different lenses. First, consider it as a member of the general public. Next, look at it with a critical eye, trained by your reading, museum experience, and theoretical concerns. And finally, think about it as an employee of the institution might: what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be fixed?
1. First, consider the museum as a member of the general public might. Remember: you are not the “general public,” and so you need to make a conscious effort to shift your perspective. Most of the audience has a different background, different interests, and is there for different purposes than you are. And remember that the public is diverse in many ways; consider that diversity as you think about the public in the space.
The best way to see the museum through visitors’ eyes is to watch visitors in the space, and talk with them.
What do they look at?
How do they react?
What sections of the museum do they avoid, what are they attracted to?
What do they read?
Do they interact with each other? Do they seem to be swept up in the flow of the narrative?
To what extent are they observers, to what extent active participants in their visit?
2. Next, analyze the museum as an academic reviewer might. How does it work on an ideological level? Use the critical skills you’ve developed in classwork and reading to think of the museum as a cultural, statement. What are its politics?
As a critical observer, these are some of the things to look at:
What artifacts (and sounds and video) are displayed, and how are they used? Are they witness objects, evidence, context, or backdrop? Are they there to prove something, to make a point, or to make you feel a certain way? What are the ethical issues of displaying artifacts here?
Think about scale – what’s gained, what’s lost by the size of the space?
How are things organized in different areas? Chronologically, thematically, or other? Why?
Look closely at the details—the way words are used, cases put together, juxtapositions created. Try to see these separately from the overall impression they make. What exhibit techniques are used, where?
Some things to reflect on:
What’s not here that might be? What is made visible, what is made invisible? What is foregrounded, what needs to be sought out? What is left out altogether?
How does the museum think about the public? What categories does it use, explicitly or implicitly?
What communities are privileged? What voices are silenced?
Consider the balance of past, present, and future
Consider the balance of museum, memorial, monument. Are these separate? How do they interact?
In what ways does the museum use emotional appeals? How does it balance affect and discourse? Try to separate out your emotional and intellectual responses to the material and presentation, and reflect on the ways these two interact.
3. FInally, think of the museum as an employee might. What’s working, what’s not?? Consider both a practical level (areas too crowded, areas ignored) and on a teaching level (are visitors getting out of the visit what you want them to?). Think about the museum as a tool: How effective is is? How can you determine that more precisely? And how could it be changed to be more effective? What needs to be changed, and what are the practicalities and politics, both internal and external, that it might take to make those changes.
We’re halfway through the semester, and my collections class is deep into the stamp exhibition project.
I’m teaching a course titled “Museum Collecting and Collections.” There are three projects:
the Brown University’s Library extensive stamp collections
the paintings that came to Brown with the Annmary Brown Memorial, and
scientific instruments scattered across Brown departments.
In each case, we’re trying to understand the history of the collection, think about their potential use, do some cataloging, and propose a collections management and development plan.
Today two students—Anna Meyer and Sarah Dylla—joined me to talk about the course at a meeting of the Library Advisory Committee. Here’s the presentation we gave. Thanks to Anna and Sarah for their work on the presentation, and for spending a Saturday morning talking about stamps, collections, and exhibitions.
For a search engine to work well, it needs to know where to look. The streetlight effect offers a common metaphor. The drunk man searches under the streetlight because that’s where it’s easiest to find things. In a search of a museum collection database, we can search most easily, or only, in the categories that are well described, that we have good vocabulary for, that curators care about.
I’d like to suggest another metaphor: the amusement park dark ride.
There are two kinds of amusement park rides. When we think of amusement park rides, what we mostly see are the ones that are out in the open. Roller coasters, Ferris wheels… We see what’s going to happen, we more or less know what will happen, the path that the rider will take through time and space. Even more important for my metaphor, so does the rider. On a Ferris wheel, you know that you’ll go around in a big circle. It’s not quite so clear on a tilt-a-whirl, say, because your path is complicated. And on some big roller coasters, it’s not all visible. But still, you know that if you go up very slowly for a long time, you’re going to go down very quickly for a short time…
Now let’s imagine the other kind of ride, what the cognoscenti call a dark ride. Dark rides are enclosed. You can’t see them from the outside, so you don’t know what the path will be. Inside the enclosure it’s dark, except when there’s an experience. That increases the fear factor, but more important, it highlights the theatrical effect.
Consider what it’s like to be the rider on a dark ride. It’s an experience of uncertain movement in the dark, on paths that aren’t clear – more than not clear, completely unknown, by their very nature surprising – punctuated by bursts of light, when you see something. And, of course, when you’re suddenly visible.
Now, to turn amusement park rides into a metaphor for material culture, and to consider what that means for the museum, and particularly for search in the museum…
What kind of ride are material objects on? What assumptions have we made about them? What assumptions have art museums and anthropology museums made about them? My conceit is that objects are on dark rides, and museums – for good reasons – are imagining them as on old-fashioned roller coasters.
So: let’s get on the roller coaster. Or more important: I want to let the object get on its roller coaster and watch it both from a distance – what we see – and also try to give you its story, its view from the roller coaster.
There’s a lot happening in the moment it appears. To use the roller coaster metaphor: this is a launch ride, not a lift ride. There’s an explosion of activity. Trees chopped down, animals slaughtered, birds captured. Knives and needles. Skills and culture and aesthetic vision, needs for immediate use, a sense of history and tradition, a social arrangement that allows for people to come together to make things, another that allows for its distribution, maybe ideas about the future… the object is born. From our watching perspective, it’s suddenly burst into light, but from its perspective, on the dark ride, there’s been a lot of waiting in lines, a lot of history.
Anthropology museums are pretty good at this moment of creation. In the late 19th century, you’d have a synoptic display of tools, playing out the story of invention. In the early 20th century, the diorama would show the Native person at work. In the late 20th century, say at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, you’d have an entire village imagined as a worksite. Art museums are less interested, maybe too invested in the notion of genius to focus on materiality and workmanship – though the RISD Museum has done this nicely in a few areas.
But back on the dark ride with our objects. Most things are in the dark most of the time. They’re in dark closets, in the dark because it’s night, in the dark because they are only needed for a particular occasion or use. We can’t see them, we don’t think about them.
Things are illuminated when they’re in use. They’re taken out of the box, allowed to do their thing. That story gets told in history museums, anthropology museums, industrial museums.
Things are illuminated at moments of exchange. Consider this from the object’s point of view: a dark box, the nagging friction of being carried, and suddenly: a bright light of evaluation and comparison. An abrupt switch onto another track.
Objects don’t last forever, of course, and processes of decay happen in our metaphorical darkness. Museums – art historians, most anthropologists – don’t note them well. Archaeologists do, of course, for some objects: one could imagine the archaeologist visiting the dark ride after it’s been closed down. But that’s a metaphor for a different time.
For a very few lucky objects, there’s a different kind of moment in the light, a special kind of moment of exchange. That’s the moment when they switch off of the use track and onto the museum track. The objects we’ve seen today have made that switch. But that’s not as simple a switch as we sometimes think. It’s another bumpy transition, often, through many hands in the dark. Dealers, collectors, sometimes smugglers: there’s a dark transition here before the bright light of the museum case – or, I should say, the conservationally appropriate 5 foot-candle light of the museum case.
And for many more objects than we imagine, the museum is not the end of the roller coaster ride. Once they’re in the museum, they get taken out of their dark storage rooms for scholarly use, for exhibitions, for comparisons.
The drunk looks under the streetlight because that’s where the light is best. In the life history of an object on a dark right, the light is best where the object is having an experience. And that’s what museum search engines should focus on. We need to think about cataloging and describing not the parts of the story that are static but the parts where the object is suddenly exposed to the light, where the experience happens. We need to catalog the full life history of the object, and then make it possible to search for it.
How do you find things on a dark ride? You look under the light. But on the dark ride, unlike the streetlight effect, the light is where we should we looking. We just need to pay attention.
[my presentation at the RISD Museum / Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology “On Search” Conference]
I’d like to tell you about the new machine I just invented. It’s called the “find me another” machine. The portable version I brought with me happens to be just the right size for the objects we’ve heard about today.
Here’s how it works. First, you set some sliding switches on the front of the machine. And then you take an object – a Maori feather box, say,or the mocassins – and drop it in the slot on the top of the machine. Don’t worry – it won’t hurt the objects – it’s a machine that works on metaphor and meaning, not on physicality. Still, it makes a lot of noise, and mabe a little smoke, and after a few minutes, out of the bottom of the machine comes both your original object (nicely conserved) and the accession number of another object that’s like it.
That’s why it’s called a “find me another” machine.
But it often links us to some surprising objects. You drop in the feather box, and you might get a piece of wood about that size, an actual box made out of feathers, another object from the same place, or from the same date but from somewhere else in the world. You might get, in 1890 version of the machine, an object that represents the same degree of technological advancement or social evolution but from a different part of the world. You might get another carved object, but from New Guinea. You might get someething collected by the same collector, or the same color, or having the same use in another culture. You might get Kate’s mocassins.
And it’s not that the machine is broken. These are are objects that are like Thierry’s feather box. They’re just like it in different ways. And it turns out that there are many ways that things can be like Theirry’s feather box, or Kate’s mocassins.
That’s why there are switches on the front of the machine. You can set them. Some of the setting are pretty straightforward – which means they’re the ones we’re used to thinking about. If you’re an anthropology museum, you set the “use” slider all the way to the right, and maybe the “meaning” slider too. At the art museum, they set the “appearance” slider to high, and the “use” slider to low. Some departments in the RISD Museum sets the “material” slider and the “technique” slider to high, some don’t.
There’s a meta-version of the machine that is lot larger – you dump in your entire collection, or an entire exhibit, and it sets the sliders for you. That way, when you put in a new object, it finds things that are like your object, using a definition of like that is defined just for you. That way, you can keep building the collections or making your exhibits in the same way.
My find-me-another machine has two inspirations. The most peculiar one is an 1866 Atlantic Monthly story – a fictional story – about a Civil War veteran who had his arms and legs amputated during the war. He goes to a séance where the medium calls forth the spirit of his legs – who make their presence known by rapping out, as spirits do, a message. What do they rap out? their accession number at the Army Medical Museum! (My thanks to Ashley Bowen-Murphy for calling this to my attention.)
Deborah Diamente, head registrar at the RISD Museum, is the second source of inspiration for the find-me-another machine. She came to my class earlier this week to talk about registrarial work. She described the practical advantages of treating the museum collection management system as the center of museum work – a central place for all of the data about the collections. Not just the traditional ways that curators describe them, but also the story of their life in the museum, all brought together in one place. The CMS, in this vision, joins the several life histories of objects – their life before the museum, which is what the curator traditionally focuses on, and their life in the museum, whichis what the registrar traditionally focuses on.
An inclusive CMS is a step toward overcoming that divide – saying that objects have a life that has two parts, but connected, and that the way we think about the first part, in the wild, is shaped by the second half of their life, in the museum.
An inclusive CMS, sith a really clever search engine, is the secret power behind my find-me-another machine. It’s what lets us set those switches, what lets us think about an inclusive life history of artifacts.
My find-me-another machine is the next generation of search engine, or a metaphor for what a search engine might be. Thierry and Kate have discovered so much story for the objects they’ve talked about today. At one point, museums would have been happy to know where something came from, its original maker, its first use. What they’ve made clear is that there’s so much more that’s interesting.
They’ve found information that we ought to be able to search for, or, using my find-me-another machine metaphor, that we ought to be able to set a slider for, to say, we want to be able to search for things for similar paths not only in their use life, but in their museum life. We should be able to search for questions like:
Where have these objects been?
Who have they been with? What was the relationship with those objects?
Who decided that they should be together in that exhibit, or storeroom?
What’s been said about them, and by whom? That is, how have they been described, and how have they been named – what categories are they in? What systems of categories have they been in?
Let me end by bringing another object into the discussion. Another set of objects, actually. In the summer of 1855, John Whipple Potter Jenks, then a school master in Middleboro, Massachusetts, later the curator of Brown’s natural history museum, caught about 400 mice and sent them to the Smithsonian. Spencer Baird, curator there, was working on a book on the mammals of North America, and men like Jenks sent in thousands of mice and other animals from across the continent.
I went to visit the mice this summer. Not at the Smithsonian, but at Harvard, at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. There are about 100 of them there. There are about 200 at the Smithsonian. And there are Jenks mice all over the country, sent for research projects, or as part of sets of mice species that the Smithsonian supplied to universities and museums. The mice have had quite an adventure over the past 160 years.
Like the mice, many museum objects have had quite an adventure. They have had adventures that shape how we look at them, how we think about them, how we think about objects like them.
So what happens when I put the mice into my find-me-another machine? On the one hand, they’re just mice; I should get more mice out. But like the mocassins and the feather box, they can be like other things. They can tell us stories of connections, across the continent, across the natural history musuem, across nature, even across cultures. We should think about what kind of find-me-another machine – excuse, what kind of search engine, what kind of collections management system – will help us tell those stories.
Robyn asked me to give “something like a trajectory of how we’ve come to understand ‘public humanities’ within the program’s history,” connected to the work you’ll be doing with this semester.
That’s a fair assignment for me, as someone who’s been part of that trajectory.
I know Robyn won’t mind if I question her assignment a bit, consider her assumptions. (That’s what you’re supposed to do in graduate school, especially at Brown!) There are two questions to consider.
First Question: As Tonto famously said, “What do you mean… ‘WE’?”
That turns out to be a major question in the public humanities, maybe the major question. What is our relationship to the subject matter and to the audience of our work? We use the word “community” a lot, and it’s a word that we should always question.
Who is the public humanities community? Who gets to define public humanities? The first exercise in Intro class each year is to consider that definition. After all, for at least the next two years, when you announce that you’re in a public humanities program most people will respond, “what’s that?”
I don’t want to give away the ways that we’ll do that in class , but I will give you one hint: You can prepare for the first class by thinking about what you think the public humanities is, and contrast that with what other people think the public humanities is.
The second part of Robyn’s prompt was about a trajectory. I like the work—better than, say, progress, or evolution, or even change over time. It suggests a considered path, something in motion, forces coming to bear on it. Robyn asked me to connect to the work you’ll be doing, so I thought I would talk about the trajectory of AMST2650.
This is where I get to define the public humanities. I went back through the syllabi for the past ten years – you’re the tenth class taking this course! and looked at the headings. I’m going to read them to you without comment, by way of defining the field, and suggesting the trajectory of what I (and Annie Valk, who taught the course for a few years) have come to understand as public humanities.
History and Memory
Culture and Community
Preservation and Representation
History and Memory
Culture and Community
Interpretation and Representation
Remembering and Saving
Who owns culture?
How to connect?
Who Owns Culture?
Who Owns the Past?
Who Owns Community?
Connecting to Community
Who owns culture?
Remembering and Memorializing
Which brings us to this year’s tripartite headings for public humanities. It’s been a very public humanities-rich summer, and that’s shaped the syllabus this year. There’s a lot here from the news, from what I call “public humanities twitter”—and I seriously considered just focusing directly on hot issues, with sections on memorialization, gentrification, and appropriation, which also had the appeal of alliteration—but I pulled back a bit from the headlines to look at some of the theoretical issues behind them.
Here’s my four headings for this year:
I thought about putting a question mark after each of them – but I think it’s the very nature of a syllabus that it implies a question mark.
Looking forward to seeing you in class on Wednesday.