Selected Public Humanities Projects

So... what is public humanities? 

When I first began the Public Humanities Master's Program at Brown University, I would have defined “public humanities” as having to do with theories and practices of the management of cultural institutions. That definition has been useful to me in describing to people outside of Brown University what this degree program is about, roughly. However, after actually taking courses and doing some work in the field, I have to reassess my definition to include the types of knowledge and interventions that are not based in, or derived from, institutions or established centers of power and influence. 

Overall, I don’t have a precise definition yet that I like, but I know that it needs to take a more civic-minded approach than my previous definition, and needs to include memory and history and the dismantling of hierarchies. My public humanities projects reflect my shifting approach to the discipline. 

Here, you can find information about a few of the projects that I've worked on and/or dreamed up in the program. If you want to collaborate with me to make any of them happen in real life, feel free to get in touch!

Collaboration with the International House of Rhode Island, Spring 2021.

Public Humanities Semester Practicum

For my Public Humanities semester practicum, I designed a collections management system for the art objects and gifts International House has received over the years, and subsequently curated an exhibition of a selection of those works titled Exchange. (You can learn more about Exchange and its interpretive activities here.

While I had gained experience working with TMS software while at the Delaware Art Museum, I did not have experience developing a management system from scratch. The IHRI director and I decided that storing the information in a Google spreadsheet was the most accessible (as well as no-cost) method for future volunteers to be able to use. But the main challenge for me was that the information, such as it was, was totally scarce. The IHRI collection was not catalogued in any way previously. There were no dates of receipt of these objects. Indeed, they were not accessioned in any traditional way. There was no information for the majority of the objects beyond what physically existed in front of me: no date of creation, date of acquisition, title of work, name of artist, location of object origin—the typical information that goes into any collections management system. 

After consulting with a registrar at the Delaware Art Museum, I decided to adapt the David Winton Bell Gallery’s accessioning format for my own devices. The Bell uses letter designations to indicate the medium of the work as part of the accession number, so I decided to include that information for the IHRI system. The eventual accession number format I created is designed to be easy to continue and append future objects, and includes the following information: two dimensionality or three dimensionality; the medium of the work; the number in that series; and the year of cataloguing. (More information can be found in the manual I created for future volunteers, linked here as a Google doc.) Because much of the basic information about the objects in the IHRI collection is not known, I relied on the community of the IHRI to learn more about the works, and subsequently chose those works with the most information as the basis for Exchange. 

AMST 2684: Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship in the Commons

Over the course of the current COVID-19 pandemic, museums across the United States have laid off staff, furloughed workers, and instituted pay cuts in order to remain financially solvent. Yet as the months of quarantine and, successively, low visitation rates have dragged on, several major institutions have begun to consider the unthinkable: selling objects in their collections to keep the lights on. Museums cutting dedicated staff members for financial reasons rarely causes people to bat an eye; some museum workers have begun to address the employment situation and lack of income through creating mutual aid funds. But when museums make similar calculations about the objects they are ostensibly meant to keep in perpetuity, it makes the headlines of major newspapers.

The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which counts over 200 museums in the United States, Canada, and Mexico among its membership, prohibits museums from deaccessioning art except when those funds raised are used to build up collections in different ways. Deaccessioning to raise money to support operations and capital projects is specifically forbidden. Failure to comply means a loss of accreditation, which essentially cuts off the offending institution from the larger museum ecosystem, as AAMD discourages lending to, or collaborating with, sanctioned museums. During the coronavirus pandemic, where the loss of revenue and jobs across the museum field has been steady and devastating, the AAMD has established a "safe harbor" period until April 2022 where museums that sell art will not incur sanctions. Several museums have begun to take advantage of these loosened standards.

The issue of ethical deaccessioning is a fraught and complicated one. However, if we take as a given that museums should not sell the objects they hold in trust for their communities in order to cover operating costs, another question arises: in the absence of the ability to quickly fundraise or a lack of wealthy donors coming to the rescue, how can museums right their financial ships in ethical ways that reflect community values? This document submits that museums consider investing in one another's successes not merely rhetorically, but financially. This prospectus outlines a proposal for a new form of institutional commitment: the creation of institutional mutual aid, or "rainy day" funds, to be shared among different museums.

HIAA 1882 Indigenous Art, Issues and Concepts

Exhibition proposal, collaboration with Hanna Leatherman, Public Humanities '21.

The multitude of peoples who have lived on Turtle Island (North America) since before the arrival of European settlers have variously been referred to over time as “Indians,” “Native Americans,” “First Nations,” and “Indigenous.” While the usage of these terms often depends on circumstance, historical context, or personal preference, Continuum: Indigenous Contemporary Art on Turtle Island utilizes the term “Indigenous” due to its history as a tool of unification, solidarity, and coalition-building among disparate individuals, communities, and nations. 

The artists of Continuum span the continent of Turtle Island and its regions, crossing settler borders between the United States and Canada. As a concept and an identity, Indigeneity is often described through the complex interrelationship of sacred history, ceremonial cycles, language, and ancestral homelands. These interlocking tenets underpin the themes of this exhibition and guide the methodology of the curatorial team as we strive to evoke the ephemeral past, present, and future. 

[...] We wanted to choose a topic--and assemble a body of work--that would allow us to subvert common modes of exhibiting Indigenous objects as either art or artifact, while also engaging with a multiplicity of themes and a wide variety of media. Rejecting a survey model that groups artists and/or objects according to chronological time period or physical geography, as many traditional museums do, we were free to think about new ways to relate works to one another that could engage more deeply with some of the aspects of Indigenous lifeways, belief systems, and knowledge that we have studied in class.

As art historians by training and public humans by sentiment (as well as by training), we are familiar with the pitfalls and shortcomings of a strictly linear progression through an exhibition, and chose Continuum as lodestar from both a curatorial and design standpoint. There is no singular entrance or exit to our exhibition; rather, we locate our exhibition in a single large room with four points of egress that allow the viewer to decide how they want to begin their engagement. Within the exhibition, each entry portal features our introductory text as well as a map of Turtle Island that reflects the nations and tribes of origin of all artists in the show. To guide the viewer into the show, we have designed a set of loosely circular, curvilinear paths that trace our four overarching themes: "Temporal," "Experiential," "Vocal," and "Spatial." These paths run alongside one another and overlap, reflecting commonalities and intersections of our themes within individual works of art.

AMST 2685 Critical Approaches to Preservation and Cultural Heritage

Los Angeles is famous for being a city that does not particularly value its own history. In a relatively young American city that represented (and still represents) a yearning towards a sunny, golden future, there has not been sufficient attention paid to controversial aspects of Los Angeles’ past, particularly those aspects that do not reflect well on the politics and priorities of the city in the present moment. 

As the inaugural Director of Programs at the new Angels Flight/Bunker Hill Visitor/Community Center (final name to be determined), I propose turning the tourist attraction that is the historic Angels Flight funicular into a site that interrogates the past history of the Bunker Hill neighborhood—specifically, its previous life as a residential area that served a variety of populations, and its subsequent changes under urban renewal in the postwar period into a commercial district.

There is a pressing need for a way to address this history. This proposal outlines the creation of such a site located next to the Olive Street Angels Flight station—the presently unnamed Angels Flight/Bunker Hill Visitor/Community Center. This proposal also details a transformation of the current roster of programming—such that it is—into a site that confronts both Angelenos and tourists alike with the history of the Bunker Hill neighborhood and of urban renewal in Los Angeles. Lastly, it will discuss a potential commissioned public artwork that will complement the physical Angels Flight apparatus while also visually reflecting the lost history of the area. 

AMST 2685 Critical Approaches to Preservation and Cultural Heritage

Why do we preserve? What do we preserve? What do we value in our national history? What do we consider significant that is not necessarily historic? 

Who is "we"? 

This form is a reimagining of the application form to nominate structures, buildings, landscapes, districts, and other significant sites for inclusion in the National Register of Significant Sites. While it maintains many elements of the original National Register of Historic Places, it incorporates a wider outlook on what it means for a site to be listed. What kind of qualities might a site have that meant it was historically overlooked by the National Register? What is the importance of the physical land on which a given site is located? What duty do sites have, once placed on the Register, as places where history and culture are not only shared, but also created? 

This form aims to address the disparities and complexities of the traditional National Register nominating process.

AMST 2653 Public Art: History, Theory, and Practice
For one of the projects in the course "Public Art: History, Theory, Practice," I designed a proposal for a public art project that would be displayed in Providence, Rhode Island's central Kennedy Plaza Bus Terminal. 

According to Rhode Tour, 69,000 people pass through Kennedy Plaza every day. Kennedy Plaza does not have many areas where people can seek shelter from the elements while waiting for their buses to arrive. The Providence Journal writes that Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza wants to make Kennedy Plaza a “true civic heart for our city.” The heart of a city is its people and stories. 

Responding to the ways in which urban renewal, displacement, and other forces have divided Providence in ways both physical and societal, I would partner with community organizations to collect recorded oral histories from Providence locals in different neighborhoods across the city. In this hypothetical project, people waiting for their bus at Kennedy Plaza would be able to stand under lighted sound domes attached to heat lamp poles, and listen to their neighbors talking about their lives, giving them a window into life in the neighborhoods and communities outside of downtown Providence.

AMST 2650 Introduction to Public Humanities

As the final project for my "Introduction to Public Humanities" course, I worked with Felicia Salinas-Moniz, Assistant Director of the Sarah Doyle Center for Women and Gender at Brown University, and with Bonnie Lilienthal of the Providence Public Library system, to create three reading lists related to the themes of Exposing Unseen Boundaries: Works by Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, on view in the Sarah Doyle Center Gallery through May 2020. Underwood’s installation in the Center tackles themes of migration, borders, family histories, and environmental concerns, among other concepts. 

These reading lists are resources for local educators. Each suggests relevant texts for one of three age groups—grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8—in a variety of genres and categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, picture books, graphic novels, and even several films. Going deeper into the themes of Underwood’s show, each reading list is divided into sub-themes that allow for a wider variety of texts about different groups and their immigration journeys in the United States.

Teaching only the classic self-made immigrant stories, usually based on European immigrants who arrived in the early twentieth century, presents a skewed view of the realities of immigration, and excludes more contemporary narratives that very well may affect students in today’s classrooms. It is important to teach the history of this country (and of the world) in ways that do not gloss over fundamental inequalities and continuing struggles, rather than presenting history as always marching towards progress and positive change.