Brown’s Public Humanities Program Closes

Brown’s Public Humanities Program Closes

I have been involved with Brown’s public humanities program since it began: its founding director, for the first ten years of the program; a faculty member and advisor, for the entirety of the program; and, these past six months, interim director with the job of closing the program after nineteen years.

I have been asked by students, alumni, colleagues and friends why the program is closing. Everyone has theories, and the university has never made an official statement. A combination of less faculty interest, a feeling that MA programs should prepare students for higher-paying jobs, a new university emphasis on research and, no doubt, some internal politics, all played a role.

The decision to close the program was made before I became interim director. My job, I decided, was to end the program with grace, to go out with style (and perhaps, to show the university what it would be missing.) That meant celebrating the achievements of faculty, students, staff, and alumni, making the argument that the program was a success, carefully archiving the program and, and drawing from it lessons that might be useful for others. We were limited in what we could do; it would be wrong to try to undertake new community-engaged projects when we wouldn’t be around to see them through.

It seems likely, at this writing, that the program might be reborn at Brown, at the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.

I have gathered here several blog posts and talks I gave about the ending of the program, including:

  • A talk to the New England Public Humanities Consortium, April 2023
  • Posts I wrote on the Public Humanities Center blog during this last semester, and
  • My talk to the reunion event organized by alumni.

These are here for archival purposes, and because having them in one place seems useful. There are several other posts on the Public Humanities blog about the work of closing the Center and celebrating its work. Folks interested in the impact of the public humanities program might take a look at:

  • Stephanie Fortunato and Julia Lazarus’s post about their report on the public humanities program’s impact on the local community
  • Katrinne Duffy’s post on the alumni memory book she edited, The Public Humanities Idea
  • Bryn Pernot’s post and report on public humanities alumni careers, and
  • Jasmine Chu and Rica Maestas’s post on the alumni reunion.


Letter from the Director, January 20, 2023

Centers and programs have histories.

The JNBC and the public humanities program can track its origins to 1979, when the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization was established, or 1995, when it became part of Brown University, or 2007, when it was rebaptized with its present name to confirm a new focus on public, community-engaged scholarship.

And they have endings, too. The Center will change again, in July 2023. It will become a center for advanced study with the goal of communicating “the value of academic scholarship as such to the public at large.”

I am sad to see this change. So too, I know, are alumnae of the MA program, current students, and members of the many communities, local and around the world, with whom we have collaborated over the past two decades.

We shape our histories by making them and telling them.

We’ll continue to do good work this spring, sponsoring courses in the methods of public humanities and museum education, and engaging in our usual ambitious programs for students, scholars, and the public. We will work with local communities to suggest ways to keep the work of public humanities strong. Brown is committed to engaged scholarship, and we know we have much to offer to its ongoing efforts to find new places for public humanities in its scholarship and teaching.

And we’ll celebrate our successes. The JNBC will sponsor a reunion in May. We will gather reminiscences and archives to preserve the Center’s legacy. And most important, we will work to strengthen alumnae networks to support the ongoing work and careers of the more than two hundred alumnae of the program so that they can continue this important work.


Presentation to the New England Public Humanities Consoritium, New York, April 2023

Six months ago, this would have been a report on the closing of the program.

Today, it’s a report on the possibility of reinvention and change. I offer this in the hope that it may be useful to others here.

In December, Brown announced that the John Nicholas Brown Center for public humanities and cultural heritage would be closed and a new center would take over its building and its endowment: the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Advancement of Academic Scholarship for the Public Good. The MA program would be shut down.

Why did Brown close the program?

We were never given a public explanation – informally, I was told two things:

  • It’s unethical to have students pay so much for a degree when salaries in the field are so low
  • There aren’t enough faculty to teach the courses needed, and Brown doesn’t like adjuncts

Both of these have merit. I am sympathetic with the first, and Brown is mostly out of business of MA programs in the humanities. As to the second: the program had been mostly run out of American studies, and of the four professors most interested, two are on the edge of retirement and two left Brown. New hires in American studies have focused on ethnic studies, not public humanities

I think there’s a more general philosophical issue underlying this. Brown’s new focus is on being a research university  and it wants to be more like Princeton and Stanford. To do that, it needs  a Center for Advanced Study, not work that engages with local communities. I think this points to a failure of the program we did not do a good enough job of making the case for public humanities work as cutting-edge research.

I should say that students and alumni have come up with other theories, grounded in the suddenness of the news and concerns about the degree of Brown’s commitment to more public-facing scholarship and activism.

I’m not sure there’s any lessons here for other universities, except perhaps to reinforce the importance of public humanities and part of the research mission of the university.

But there might be in the second half of the story.

Here’s how we responded to the notice of the shutdown.

  • Alumni organized and wrote to the provost and president of the university arguing for the program’s  importance
  • The Center commissioned a survey of our 200+ alumni that found deep support for the program: 74 percent would do the program again, 84 percent are satisfied with their current career, and 96 percent believed that the program prepared them for their career.
  • We commissioned a report about the program’s impact on the local cultural community that found deep support. Brown is trying to figure out “community engagement,” and the report shows that public humanities is an important part of that effort.

The new dean of the faculty has asked Prof. Tony Bogues, director of the Ruth Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, to imagine a new public humanities program, and promised to support it. Tony has talked to many faculty and other stakeholders and found deep support. He’s at work on a proposal. I am very hopeful that it will be accepted, and that in a year or two Brown will once again be at the forefront of public humanities work and teaching.


A Busy and Useful Semester, May 5, 2023

As we bid farewell to the spring semester and the John Nicholas Brown Center prepares for a new mission, it is worth reflecting on some of the work that the Center has done these past few months.

It has been a busy semester; we are making a graceful exit. More than that we continue to showcase the vitality and potential of public humanities. The Center’s students, faculty, and staff have engaged with art, archives, scholarship, the built environment, and community,

JNBC_Archival Voices_MP-3406_Poster_0.pngThe Center explored the scholarship of public humanities in lectures that brought a diverse group of speakers to campus. Kristen Iemma, Ally LaForge, and Katarina Weygold, Ph.D. students in American Studies, helped us organize “Archival Voices” with speakers on the history of HaitianPhilippineArmenian, and Native American archives. What struck me as most “public humanities” about these talks was that they all dealt with both “the archive,” a theoretical construct, and an actual archive as a physical collection, a place of work, and a site of research. We also sponsored lectures on public scholarshipecology, and aesthetics (co-sponsored with IBES) and curating anthropology (with the Haffenreffer), and a conference, Rethinking Catharsis: Virtual Narratives and the “Empathy Machine” (with Italian Studies and the Center for Digital Scholarship).

The Nightingale-Brown House is home to a variety of wonderful art installations; if you haven’t seen them yet, please drop by. Site-specific projects include two installations by MA student Traci Picard that honor the workers behind the scenes at the House. She set the dining room table with places for the workers, enslaved and free, who worked for the Nightingales and the Browns. New portrait photography celebrates the workers at Brown today whose invisible labor makes academic work possible. Visiting artist Diana Limbach Lempel’s “Revival Archival Revenge” engaged many participants in bringing alive the artifacts and books—and even the air: think sourdough starter—of the Nightingale-Brown House. Undergraduates Asya Gipson and Béatrice Duchastel de Montrouge’s installations remix the Center’s wallpaper, and offer insight into the life of the Brown family. Thanks here to as well to RISD graduate student Pryiata Bosamia for the wonderful design. The Center will be publishing Jazzmen Lee-Johnson’s artist’s book based on her installation NOT NEVER MORE at the Nightingale-Brown House. Masters students organized RE/GENERATE, a semester-long series of workshops engaging with themes of regeneration, creation, and remix. The work created during these workshops will be gathered into a culminating exhibition that will open in the Center’s Gallery in the evening of May 12.

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Instalations by Traci Picard and Béatrice Duchastel de Montrouge (photos: Steve Lubar)

The Center supported classes on various public humanities topics. Students in my “Methods in Public Humanities” collaborated with RISD students in Francesca Liuni’s course on exhibition design to create plans for the new National Park Service site at the Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut. Students in Janet Zweig’s “Public Art: History, Theory, and Practice,” (co-sponsored with RISD) are working on projects that will appear around campus and throughout Providence in the next few weeks. Renée Ater’s courses on monuments and memorials examined both the theory and practice of memory. Jackie Delamatre’s “Promise of Informal Learning” course engaged students with projects useful to local organizations.

The Center’s engagement with our local community is coming to an end, as befits the conclusion of the program. One final public event: we are helping to sponsor Jane’s Walk in Providence on May 6 and 7. Organized by alumna Caroline Nye (MA’16) of Doors Open RI, Jane’s Walk, named in honor of urbanist Jane Jacobs, offers walking conversations across the city, as well as city-making games for kids: a perfect public humanities event!

Our community as a program, on the other hand, remains strong. Alumni have met with university leaders to advocate for the continuation of public humanities work at Brown. Many contributed to a memory book, now at the printers, and responded to a survey that captured the strengths of the program. Our thanks to Kate Duffy (MA’15) for editing the book, to Bryn Pernot (MA’18) for conducting the survey. And many alumni will be gathering next week for a reunion, “Destruction & Regeneration in the Public Humanities.” Credit for organizing this goes to Rica Maestas (MA’18) and Jasmine Chu (MA’19).) I am eager to see many of my former students!

I continue to be hopeful that public humanities will find a new home at Brown. The Center commissioned a report on the ways in which it’s been useful to local community organizations; we found deep support for this kind of work. (Thanks to alumnae Stephanie Fortunato (MA’08) and Julia Lazarus (MA’07) for suggesting this, and taking on the project.) The Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice is at work on a plan for public humanities teaching and engagement. Support for public humanities work is growing among scholarly organizations, foundations, and many universities, and I feel certain that this important work will continue at Brown.


“Destruction/Regeneration,” May 13, 2023

“Destruction/Regeneration” was gathering honoring the Public Humanities that took place over the weekend of May 13th and 14th, a combination reunion and celebration and funeral. You can read more about it here, in a blog post written by the alumnae who organized the event, Jasmine Chu and Rica Maestas. It was a wonderful event; so wonderful to reconnect with. so many former students and colleagues. You can see some of the talks here.

Here’s my talk:


Endings and New Beginnings

Endings offer the possibility for new beginnings. They open a space to move on, as they also provide a time to look back, acknowledge successes and failures, document, and learn.  

The final semester of the public humanities program has been such a time for retrospection. We published a book of student memories, surveyed alumni careers, and studied the powerful work the program accomplished in the Providence community. As the year reached a close alumni, students, and colleagues gathered to reminisce. The staff of the Center archived posters, papers, and digital files; our history will be well preserved.

As I packed up books and papers for my move to a new office, I reflected on our program, on the field that, in no small measure, it has helped shape, and my own career in public humanities. I am not usually an introspective person, but this has been a time of thinking about past and future, about what was and what might have been, and what might be.

It was good to see the many ways in which public humanities thinking was helpful in this retrospection. Its theories help us think deeply about the past, always keeping in mind what that thinking tells us about the present and the future. Questions often asked in public humanities classes are worth posing again, in this moment. What is worth saving, and why? How do we save it?  These inquiries address the practical side of our work, and are just as much public humanities questions as more theoretical one that asks about the value of archives.  As I undertake this work, Trouillot is never far from my mind. I am deciding, after all, what our history should be: I am creating facts, events, archives, stories. I am always aware that I cannot help but tell a particular story, that I have a point of view, even as I try to build an honest archive. And yes, you may notice here my continued insistence that public humanities demand space for both theoretical reflection and practice!

The reunion activities culminated in what was described as the “burial” of a time capsule. This kind of container functions to declare the importance of a particular moment: the present one. It speaks to an imagined future. “Look at what we did! Remember us at this moment! We are preserving our present for you! This is what we were.” That is appealing, of course, just as shaping our archives is appealing.

But were we depositing a time capsule for the future to discover, or were we doing something closer to a funeral, laying to rest a program that had died? That is a ritual of closure, of acknowledgment, that speaks to a certain kind of finality. We called our casket a time capsule, but the rituals we followed – the dirge, throwing handfuls of dirt in the grave, hugs – were those of a burial.

It might be best to leave that tension between ending and continuing unresolved, just as we leave unresolved the practical uses and theoretical meanings of an archive. We can take pleasure in the way that archiving and time-capsule creation lets us send messages to the future, and maybe shape our story, and also as burial, as an ending. We need both to move on. 

As individuals, we are surely doing that, with so much useful work based in part on the ideas and ideals of the public humanities. The program lives on in what we do. Our experiences in the program are a foundation on which we build, but as the world changes, we face new challenges and must learn and do new things.    We get wiser in the course of this, as certain aspects of past knowledges fall behind us, crossing paths once more time with what will be carried forward. If there be a wisdom particular to the public humanities, perhaps it is in acknowledging this process, and welcoming it.

And we are also moving on as a program . While Brown has not yet committed to a re-invented public humanities program, it seems likely that the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice will announce a new program in the next few months. I have seen the proposal, and it is both based on and significantly different from the program I proposed almost twenty years ago, and different from and building on what we have done over those two decades. And that is as it should be: the world has changed and it is crucial to acknowledge and embrace that change. The tension between creating archives and making histories, between burying the past and preserving it in time capsules is perhaps resolved in reinvention, in building anew. And from our actual building, from the Center, a final moment of learning may emerge: with retrospection comes renewal.

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