Teaching through projects

Teaching through projects

The public humanities program has two required courses, one theory and one method Projects count for about 50 percent of the grade in the project course. For several years, large class projects that built an exhibition. We built some shows that I am proud of, but there’s not really enough time in a one semester course, the group’s too large for everyone to learn about all of the aspects of the show, and too much of the class turns into an exercise in construction.

For the past two years I’ve tried something different. Each class did several exhibit or other kind of projects. These were done by small groups – 3-5 students in each. They were real projects, for real clients, organizations that had approached the Center asking for student help. We took project management very seriously, using Basecamp for all of the projects and devoting several class sessions to project management (TA as project manager!). We didn’t build the exhibit, but delivered scripts and plans to the client. And a surprising number have had a real outcome!

Some of our projects… Last year:

  1. The New Lafayette Theatre Company of Harlem was an important black theater group in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Alumni of the group are interested in creating an exhibition of its history, possibly to be presented at the University of South Florida in early 2013. We’ll pull together archives and collections, interview alumni, and create the outlines of an exhibition for them.
  2. We will produce a collections and exhibition plan for games about business for the National Museum of American History’s upcoming “American Enterprise” exhibition. First, we’ll read about museum collecting plans, find out more about the proposed exhibition, and about existing collections available for American Enterprise. Then we will research the history of games and American business and culture, conducting primary research in trade journals and archives, and existing museum and private business board games collections. If we obtain permission, we’ll visit the Hasbro archives, and help them catalog some their collection of board games. Finally, we will produce an Omeka online-catalog and exhibition for the Museum, and suggest interactives for them.
  3. The Pilgrim Hall Museum in Provincetown, Massachusetts, is interested in a variety of new introductory exhibitions, including a photo exhibit: “Provincetown Exposures,” a historic narrative (timeline) permanent installation, and a new installation in the 252-foot tall Monument for visitors to see as they ascend the tower.


This year:

  1. Improve the representation of Rhode Island’s outdoor sculpture on Wikipedia. Sources include the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission’s publication on them; Wikiproject Public Art, http://www.wikilovesmonuments.org/, and the Massachusetts Civil War Sesquicentennial memorials project. Some of the challenges: understand how Wikipedia works; contact others who have worked on similar projects; analyze what’s missing from Wikipedia and what should be there to best represent the stories you’re trying to tell; and write or improve Wikipedia entries to improve the way it represents this topic. (No interest in this one.)
  2. The Haffenreffer Museum has a new exhibition up about Kennedy Plaza: “City • Plaza • People: Sharing Public Space in Providence,” curated by Rebecca Carter’s class, “Urban Life: Anthropology in and of the City” this fall.  More about their work here. Plan and execute installations or programs for the exhibit at Kennedy Plaza, or online, to connect the two places and extend the impact of the exhibition. Contact the Greater Kennedy Plaza Partnership, the class that did the exhibition, and the Haffenreffer Museum staff. Find out what programs are planned, what research, images and artifacts you can use from the exhibition. Find out what spaces might be available at the Plaza. Research the audience there.  Determine whether an installation, programs, or other work might be appropriate.
  3. The Roger Williams Natural History Museum is planning on renovating its “Natural Selections” exhibit. The proposed exhibit will put these early collection resources in the historic context of the times, using them to discuss the late 19th and 20th century interest in collecting, especially in the local area. They’re also interested in contemporary collectors. We’ll work with the staff at the Museum to discuss their interests, research their collections, and propose new content and a new story. The Museum is open to adventuresome presentations, and to extending the collection beyond natural history to include ethnographic and archaeological collections.
  4. The Westport (Massachusetts) Historical Society is beginning a significant new undertaking: interpreting the 1710 Handy House, which it has just purchased. They would like help with two projects. One is to edit audio, video, and images into an iBooks tour of the house that can be used on an iPad. The second is to write the storyline for a future video installation: 500 years of looking out the window of the house. (This didn’t garner enough interest.)
  5. Barnaby Evans, director of WaterFire, is working on a plan to bring WaterFire to the Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC, in celebration of (among other things) the 350th anniversary of the chartering of Rhode Island. You’ll work with him on research and planning. (This turned into something completely different – an augmented reality, gamified tour of Providence based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu. (Hard to explain the relationship…)
  6. Rhode Island is celebrating the 350th anniversary of its charter, and a Commission is interested in a creating podcasts and social media to help get word out.
  7. Work on a project as part of the National Museum of American History’s American Enterprise exhibit. The exhibition team is looking for research, writing, artifact selection, and help on creating a web exhibit on young entrepreneurs, “everything from the young Ross Perot to lemonade stands.  How do kids make money?” You’ll work with staff at the museum, choose objects from their collections and suggest new ones that should be collected (This changed to a different piece of the exhibition.)
  8. The New Bedford Whaling Museum is interested in re-inventing museum education by using topics of interest to kids, like boats, to teach skills they need to know, like writing. Working with their educational consultant, you’ll figure out ways to connect online and in-person visits to the museum by New Bedford Elementary school students. (This focused on an exhibition on fishing.)
  9. Sakonnet Mobile.  Sakonnet Mobile Historical is a collaborative project between the Brown Center for Public Humanities, the Tiverton Public Library, and the Little Compton Historical Society to interpret sites of historical and cultural interest utilizing Mobile Historical, an NEH-funded project developed to curate physical landscapes using GPS technology. The app will include a blending of textual interpretation, historic documents and photographs, oral history recordings, and short videos. You will gather collections, information, and stories using traditional and social media, oral history, and community workshops and, working with the partner organizations, curate the sites, write content, and launch the mobile application.


Each of these projects had required writing, in addition to turning in a final project to me and to the client. The students had to write, as a group, memoranda explaining their project to the client at the beginning, middle, and end. (Almost none of them had ever had to write memos before!) They had to write individual reflections, at the end of the course, on what worked and why. And they needed to keep good notes on their meetings and interactions, and post them to Basecamp, so that I could follow along when I wasn’t able to attend meetings.

For the most part, I believe these projects were useful learning exercises. Students were occasionally frustrated in their role as consultants for organizations, and sometimes had trouble working out how best to organize their project teams. Some of the groups missed out on learning important topics (for example, design). It’s a good bit of work for the faculty member, especially when there’s problems in communications with the client. But I’ll try it again, next year! 

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