Here are my slides and my notes from a talk I gave at Mt. Holyoke College for the (long name!) Five Colleges, Inc. / Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Bridging Initiative in the Public and Applied Humanities. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity, both because writing the talk allowed me to look back over the past decade of the public humanities program at Brown, and also because it’s great to see smart people thinking through how public humanities might work for them and their students.
Lots of good questions and discussion after the talk. Some of the things I’m still thinking about… What’s the role of the state in this, either in the guise of state universities, or federal agencies, or more generally? How do undergraduates fit into this work? What’s the right balance of practical job skills and bigger-picture concerns? What role does activism play in the public humanities? And how to balance community heritage, on the one hand, with the difficult, hard to discuss questions that arise between communities. Thank you to all who attended, and asked good questions.
On a side note: I was particularly pleased to speak at Mt. Holyoke because it gave me the chance to see the Joseph ALlen Skinner Museum. One of the few eclectic everything-some-guy-collected museums at an American university, it’s got great opportunities for teaching – but also, of course, some real challenges.
Meet the museumbot.
Museumbots tweet random objects from museum collections, four or five objects a day. I know of three museumbots, and I’m sure there are more. @museumbot tweets Metropolitan Museum of Art collections, @cooperhewittbot, and @bklynmuseumbot their eponymous museums’ collections.
Here’s the last few objects from @museumbot, as good a sample as any:
It’s their randomness that makes museumbots so interesting. The two objects to the left are unlikely representatives of the Metropolitan Museum. A belt fragment? A dessert dish? Who knew? And those are not by any means the oddest things. From the past few days: “Preserved Goose in Half of a Wooden Case.” “Mangleboard.”
But these objects are in fact excellent representatives of the Met’s collections, better than the small percentage chosen for display. (Not completely representative, of course: these are objects that have been cataloged and photographed and so there’s already some selection process going on; the really odd and out-of-fashion things are still invisible.) That we think otherwise – the apparent unrepresentativeness of these objects – calls attention to something that’s perhaps not as obvious as it should be to museum visitors: the objects on display are not a random selection from the collection. Rather, they’re carefully selected, to tell a story, or to make a point.
There are five points at which someone at the museum makes a choice that determines what I see when I visit:
- What’s offered to, or available for, the museum? What seems, to the public, or to dealers in art and antiques, appropriate for a museum?
- What does a curator accept? What fits the collections, or the collecting plan, or upcoming exhibition needs? What can the museum afford? What does it have space for?
- What does a curator choose to display? And it’s not just the curator, of course: What does the conservator allow the curator to display? What fits in the space? What exhibits does the director approve? What could the museum raise funds for?
- What exhibits do I visit? What looks interesting on the museum map? What do other members of my group want to see? What has the museum PR department advertised?
- What catches my attention within that exhibition?
The museumbot calls attention to the necessity of making choices. The vast difference between its random choice and what I see in the museum points out that the choices have been made. True, it only changes from (3) on, but it does an excellent job of making clear the differences between what’s at the museum, and what I see on display.
What if we could design a museumbot for the other choices in this list? Could we tweet random things offered to museums, or turned down, to show the collections choices that curators make? Random things on display, to expand my notion of what areas of the museum I like to visit, or what catches my attention? Random objects in various departments? (That would be especially useful for a museum like the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, where whole collections are orphaned as interests change.) How about a museumbot that pulled objects from museums’ deaccession lists and tweeted them, a @notgoodenoughforthemuseumbot?
The randomness of the museumbot calls attention to the choices that we take for granted. And they liven up one’s twitter feed. Just looked @BklynMuseumBot. “Bridge of Delight.” “Head of a Boy.” Who would have guessed?
(With appreciation to @tinysubversions, who wrote @museumbot, and to @backspace, who wrote @BklynMuseumBot and @cooperhewittbot. And to the museums, who have made their collections available for this kind of exploration. Thanks!)
I spent the last two weeks of June at Beautiful Data, a workshop funded by the Getty Foundation and run by Harvard’s MetaLab. I’m not sure why the name, “Beautiful Data”: but it seems fair, given that the workshop address both data about beautiful things and data made beautiful by its utility. The question for the workshop was what we might do with the newly available data about the collections in art museums.
The workshop was pretty intense. Twenty two participants, a half-dozen MetaLab staff, three or four interns. Twelve days straight, 9-6 each day. (I snuck away for the weekend.) Many outside speakers. Not many breaks. But the time was well spent, the discussion fascinating, the subject important.
The participants were an interesting bunch. Chosen from over one hundred applicants, they were pleasingly diverse: museum technologists, designers, curators, education specialists. They were mostly from art museums, but some were from museums of other sorts, and some were academics and librarians.
The staff and guest speakers were a remarkable group, some of the top people in the field of museum data visualization and related fields: We had presentations on graphics, cognition, public uses of data, libraries, and more. Among my favorites, from a public humanities view:
David Weisenberger, co-director of the Harvard Library Lab, spoke on changing ideas of authority (from objectivity to transparency, from settled to engaged, from certain to fallible) and on new ways of thinking about the work the library does, as the change that a collection works upon the user. The discussion got a bit theoretical, as many of them did, with citations of Heidegger (as a network theorist!), Lakoff, and Mumford. But the user was central to this work, which was very appealing.
Yanni Loukissas, a senior research at MetaLab, showed off his wonderful tree-ring visualization of the history of planting at the Arnold Arboretum and discussed what one might learn from it – and what one should not. He has learned to be cautious: often, the patterns in the data are epiphenomenon, artifacts of the data, not the history you’re after. I’m interested in exactly this kind of question, and so this talk, and talking with Yanni, was a highlight of the week for me. He knows how to get inside of the data, how to question it. He asked the question: what does visualization offer the humanities, and answered it three ways, looking at the relationship of data and narrative, the ways we evaluate data visualizations, and the politics of data visualization.
Jeffrey Shnapp, director of the MetaLab, asked the question: What would happen if you described objects as network of relations? He explored this in a course, Teaching with things, and in a range of visualizations. What if, for example, if instead of a simple photograph of an object on a museum’s website, you always showed a gif of it being moved, in someone’s hand? Or if you captured the conversation about the artifact? Or if you described artifacts with verbs, not adjectives? This discussion offered new ways of understanding the range of uses and meanings of artifacts.
Jeffrey Steward, director of Digital Infrastructure at the Harvard Art Museums, described the ways that these museums are living up to their new motto of “open” in making data available. I’m indebted to him for patiently explaining how to use APIs!
Rahul Bhargava, from the Center for Civic Media at MIT, talking about his extremely low-tech “data murals.” Community work at its finest, letting local groups tell their own story. The workshop: give a group kindergarten toys—pipecleaners, legos, bits of cotton—and ask them to visualize data. Quite remarkable, the way that changes group dynamics!
Many other speakers, too! You can search twitter for #beautifuldata to see more, or if you’re really interested, write and ask for my notes.
The second week of the workshop was devoted, mostly, to projects. Some wonderful work came out of this. Just three examples here…There were technical tour de force, like Richard Barrett-Small’s Colour Lens. Laresse Hall created beautiful small hand-bound books, and a video documenting her process of learning how to make them. Katherine DeVos Devine created a three-dimensional visualization of her processes for understanding the nature of transformative works of art as networked objects. Much of the work will eventually made public, I believe.
I’ll just briefly mention my project. Kristina Van Dyke, from the Pulitzer Art Foundation, and I considered how we might tell a new kind of museum history based on open metadata now being made available by so many museums. We talked about zombie artifacts in museums, and called our project “Museums of the Living Dead.” (Many thanks to Yanni and Matthew Battles for their advice.)
Kristina drew some wonderful pictures:
I created some conceptual data visualizations:
Together, it added up to quite a remarkable installation:
And you can see a more traditional explanation of our work here.
If we want the humanities to be more than academic—if we want them to make a difference in the world—we need to change the way we work. We need to rethink some of the traditional assumptions of the humanities. I suggest here seven rules of thumb for doing public humanities.
1. It’s not about you
Start not by looking at what you, your discipline, or the university needs and wants, but by what individuals and communities outside the university need and want. It’s not, “we’re from the university, and we’re here to help,” but, “What are you doing already, and how can we participate? How can we be useful?” It’s not about telling people facts. It’s a about a dialogue, a sharing of authority, knowledge, expertise
2. Be a facilitator and translator as well as an expert
Shared authority is complicated. In exhibits, it’s often an invitation to the subject and to the visitor to provide their stories, and points of view, and to share in setting the rules. It’s using oral history in historical projects and exhibits. It’s web 2.0 methods of opening up online conversations. Having that conversation is not easy. Finding the right balance is tricky. The humanist needs to be not only an expert, but also a facilitator, and a translator. Seeking that balance is part of the work of every project.
The work of public engagement comes not after the scholarship, but as part of the scholarship. I don’t like the implications of “applied” or “translational”; those terms suggest we do our work, in our normal way, and that it is then converted into something for the public. There’s a model here in the transformation of public art. In the 1970s, public art was all too often an art project sprung on a community by a government agency. It came from the artist, doing his own work, responding to his own community. Public art has moved to a model of community interaction. It’s not just for the public; it comes from the public. What would humanities scholarship look like if it too developed out of a conversation? What if a humanities department was a hub of a community of artists, educators, scholars and the public?
Community is important, and hard to define. We’re fascinated by the relationship of community and culture. But community is complicated, and best defined by the community, not by academics looking in. And so, in my experience, it’s better to work with existing organizations than to try to invent them. Public humanities programs acknowledge that there already exist community organizations, institutions, and leaders, and try to work with them, rather than come in and try to create programs that we think the communities need.
Calling something art rather than scholarship is a very freeing move. You have more flexibility. But working with artists to both perform and understand culture at the same time is best. You become part of the community culture, you support it, and you help a larger public appreciate it.
The digital opens up new opportunities for outreach, of course. But it is important to go beyond the digital as outreach to take advantage of digital’s promise of a new kind of openness, a chance to share not just the output of a project, but every step along the way. And it opens up the opportunity for many voices, many ways of telling a story.
Doing public humanities takes specific practical skills, and universities should teach them. That means changing PhD programs, and providing new training for faculty. We shouldn’t assume that working with communities is a skill that comes along with a traditional humanities Ph.D. Practical, hands-on skills, everything from oral history to reading balance sheets, is essential to the work of the public humanities.
How do the humanities change when we take engaged public scholarship seriously? Considering five adjectives that are being put in front of the word “humanities”—applied, translational, open, digital, and public humanities—helps us consider the possibilities of humanities beyond the academy. This essay considers the way these adjectives modify the humanities. It considers their history, the different emphases they bring to bear. How much are they about new kinds of outreach for traditional work, how much about changing the nature of humanities work? How much do they focus on the practical, how much on values? Most important: how do they see their relationship with the public? Are academic humanists providers of information, purveyors of values, or partners in discovery and learning?
One can imagine a model for the humanities that says: we have knowledge; our problem is in applying that knowledge to the real world. On the model of technology as applied science, why not applied humanities? That’s meant two things: practical skills, on the one hand, and values, on the other.
The earliest users of “applied humanities” had a very practical bent: humanities skills. Vocational colleges defined that in one way: what humanities skills were useful in technical jobs and careers? Programs in applied history defined it in another: what skills were needed for careers in archival management, museum studies, historic preservation, and historical editing? On a higher level, applied humanities focused on politics and policy—the Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. program in Applied History became the program in History and Policy. The practical applied humanities found application at many levels.
But there’s another use of the “applied humanities” phrase that focuses not on applying humanists’ skills, but rather, applying the values we gain from history or literature to the real world. There’s an interesting history and politics to the academic humanist who wants to apply the values of the humanities to the rest of the world. It harks back to the early days of the study of modern languages, in the 1880s, as more useful than the classical curriculum they were trying to replace. And so it can be a conservative plea, for an older, less theoretical kind of literary work. “One studies the humanities to gain useful knowledge about the world in which he lives, spiritual nourishment, and a sense of values,” wrote Erwin Steinberg in College English in 1974, calling for an applied humanities.
Svetlana Nikitina of Worcester Polytechnic also focuses on values, arguing for a liberal education that has an effect on students’ lives in the real world—not just how they think, but how they live. How, she asks, should we judge students’ work in the humanities? Should the student who reads Crime and Punishment be able to discuss metaphor, or plot lines; or should reading great literature make a difference in her life? Should we measure her success by her “refusal to hurt another person regardless of how miserable and despicable that person may be? Or by her decision to volunteer at a homeless shelter because poverty, as Dostoyevsky depicts, corrodes humanity?” “Ultimately,” Nikitina writes, “fostering the ability to own (enact and embody) a literary or philosophical insight should be central to humanities learning in college. Withdrawal into information transfer without a view of tangible action or application is a serious failure of education.” We should be able to apply what we gain from the studies of the humanities to action in the real world.
Translational humanities also focuses on the output side of the humanities. The term is confusing: it comes from the world of science, especially of biology and the health sciences, where the essential question is how to translate the work done in a research lab to a practical application. The National Institutes of Health has put a great deal of funding into this, supporting Translational Science Institutes at universities across the country.
Why not the humanities, too? Why can’t humanists think about how to make their work more easily useful? What would we have to change to make our humanistic studies do work in the world? What would a multimillion-dollar translational humanities institute look like?
The Center for the Humanities at Eastern Illinois University has focused on communications as the key to the translational humanities. It sees its role as striving “to establish communication between the studies of academia and the everyday lives in our community…. We envision a place where faculty and students can access popular notions of the humanities and make our specialized work speak to the public….”
Abby Smith Rumsey, director of UVA’s Scholarly Communication Institute, looks to skills as the key to translation. She defines the translational humanities as “the application of humanities expertise in domains beyond higher education and cultural heritage institutions.” She sees this, at least at first, as mostly a digital project. She wants us to use the Web to allow “a large cadre of expertly trained humanists to apply their skills in media literacies, interpretation, research, and teaching in venues beyond the classroom and in careers beyond the professoriate.” But she goes further, and this is the key to translational work: two way connections. “Because the general public can now join in the creation and curation of humanities content,” she writes, “something altogether new has emerged.” The responsibility of humanities scholars are “to make cultural content available to find, use, and interact with—with as few barriers as possible—so that people can “do humanities.” And so she urges the increased teaching if digital literacies in primary and secondary education, calling it “among the best investments we can make to increase the demand for engagement with and critical reflection on the human condition.” In Rumsey’s view, humanities scholars should provide the tools and the materials to allow for the spread of humanistic thinking.
Translational humanities turns to the internet; so too does the open humanities. “Open” is a key buzzword in the era of the Internet, with open source software and the like, and so it’s no surprise that there should be an “open humanities” movement, too. The term is used in at least three different ways.
To some, it’s about publication, bringing notions of open access ideas now common in the sciences to the humanities.The Open Humanities Press uses this meaning: it publishes and supports open access journals and books, in rather traditional fields—they see their work as a way of responding to the crisis in scholarly publishing. The Open Humanities Alliance likewise focuses on open access publishing and more open scholarly communications. The Open Knowledge Foundation goes a bit further: it gives the Open Humanities Awards to “support innovative projects that use open data, open content, and open source to further teaching or research in the humanities.”
For others, it’s about open data. Scientists are increasingly expected to make not only their results, but also their data, available for review. This has taken hold in the digital humanities as well, with digital repositories a part of many NEH digital grants. Open humanities data presents interesting challenges to our work: how do we share our sources and mark the paths to our conclusions?
Going further, some, especially in the digital humanities, see openness—sharing—as a new ethic in the humanities, as well as a key to making the humanities useful. Eric Johnson at the University of Virginia’s Scholar’s Lab takes openness in this direction in his manifesto for the open humanities. He sees “open” as not simply exposing the products of humanities, making it available, but also as changing the ways those products are created. He draws on the “open source” world of programming to define the open humanities as “those aspects of the humanities aimed at democratizing production and consumption of humanities research.” The values of Johnson’s open humanities are:
- Open Access
- Open Process
- Open Source
- Involvement of the public, especially “communities of passion.”
He writes: “It’s a broad term that encompasses those values outlined above, values shared by many libraries, museums, public humanities projects and practitioners of all kinds and standing, in opposition to much of the traditional approach of “solo scholar” research and closed publication.” Johnson’s interested in bringing open to bear not just on consumption of the humanities, but also on production. 
The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University serves as a model for an open humanities that shares historical collections to a broad audience. “These projects,” they claim, “allow for the free sharing of historical information which, in turn, helps solve social problems relating to collective memory and public history.”
You’ll notice that so many of these new approaches to the humanities make reference to the digital, and so it seems right to bring the digital humanities into this list. Defining the digital humanities is something of a sport in the field—see the few hundred definitions at the annual “Day of digital humanities “How do you define DH?” fest”—but so many of them include openness that it’s worth exploring the relationship of the digital and the public. I don’t want to buy into the utopian vision that comes along with this new technology—but I do believe that a thoughtful alignment between the public humanities and the digital humanities can benefit both.
The digital offers some appealing features for those interested in finding new linkages between the academic humanists and the public. It is open, both public and academic at the same time, and so it makes it makes it easy to expose academic work to the public. It can also serve a conduit between the public and the academy, opening up two-way communication.
And perhaps most important, it is easily made multivocal. Anne Burdick and her co-authors in the new book Digital_Humanities capture this: “Digital, polyvocal expression can support a genuine multiverse in which no single point of view can claim the center. The principles of relativist approaches to knowledge, rooted in historically situated understanding, remain fundamental to (digital) humanism.”
It’s not simply many voices, but many hands. Because of “its emphasis on making, connecting, interpreting, and collaborating [and] concentration on process and method,” Burdick and her co-authors write,
digital humanities scholarship promises to expand the constituency of serious scholarship and engage in a dialogue with the world at large… It promotes platforms for informed amateur scholarship, and it serves to make humanities research into something of a new multi-player online game with global reach and relevance.”
It’s worth noting, though, that there are challenges in making the digital humanities fully public. It can have very high barrier to entry, both on the academic and on the public side; you don’t need to know how to code to be a digital humanist, but it certainly helps. Not everyone wants to trade the humanities, either traditional or engaged, for a new multi-player game. Still, the digital revolution is happening, and it’s essential for any engaged, open, public humanities to take advantage of it.
And indeed, the combination of digital and public is finding significant traction. The University of Iowa has established the Studio for Public Digital Arts and Humanities with a focus on
the impact of academic work on civic life and society, using the opportunities provided by digital technologies to amplify and distribute broadly what we do as teachers and scholars, collaborating with communities on projects that have social and artistic impact, and envisioning new ways of interacting with our many publics.
And that brings me to the public humanities, the last in my list of new formulations for the humanities.
The Brown University program I run is called public humanities. I wish I could say that I thought through the various possibilities for how we might title our program and fixed on the one that suggested moving beyond translation and application, transcending simple openness, and including the digital. But in fact it is based on the field I came out of, public history, opening it up to more types of humanistic work.
And just as the field of public history has wrestled with the question of the relationship of experts, communities, and audience, and how shared authority works, so have we in the public humanities program. We’ve also changed as the field has changed. We started off with very much an impact or translation, model: a place where Brown faculty connect the community to humanities: “we’re experts, and we’re here to help.” Then we opened up to two-way connection, and gained a more sophisticated sense of the existing community organizations, and a realization that our work was not about us, or for us.
So we’ve moved from academics connecting the public to the humanities; to helping people and organizations explore heritage; to working with communities that are already making art, history, and culture meaningful, useful and accessible. We decentered the academic in the humanities, and put the public first.
This is a change that other public humanities programs are making as well.
The Public Humanities program at Yale, for example, seeks to expand “academic discourse beyond the confines of the classroom, academic publishing, and the academic conference circuit,” and to “build bridges to wide range of local and regional institutions and their respective publics”– but note, it’s still academic discourse.
Michigan State University’s Public Humanities Collaborative ties the public humanities to the work of democracy. “Public humanities,” they write, “means cultural work in the public interest and liberal arts education for democracy. The public humanities movement seeks the same goal—to make colleges and universities “agents and architects of a flourishing democracy.”
 Erwin R. Steinberg, “Applied Humanities?,” College English, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Jan., 1974), pp. 440-450.
 Svetlina Nikitina, “Applied Humanities: Bridging the Gap between Building Theory & Fostering Citizenship,” Liberal Education. Winter 2009, Vol. 95 Issue 1, pp. 36-43.
 Abby Smith Rumsey, “Creating Value and Impact in the Digital Age Through Translational Humanities,” April 2013, http://www.clir.org/pubs/ruminations/03smithrumsey.
 Eric Johnson, “On a Definition of Open Humanities,” http://www.scholarslab.org/digital-humanities/cross-posted-on-a-definition-of-open-humanities/.
 Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfield, Tod Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities, (MIT Press, 2012), p. 24-26.
In conjunction with the year-long exhibition project examining Brown University’s lost Jenks Museum, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, and the John Carter Brown Library invite paper proposals for a colloquium on lost artifacts, collections and museums. (Other formats—conceptual, poetic, and artistic—are also invited.) The colloquium will be held at Brown University May 7 and 8, 2015.
Museums, perhaps more than any other institutions, think in the very long term: collections are forever. But the history of museums is more complicated than that. Museums disappear for many reasons, from changing ideas about what’s worth saving to the devastation of war. Museum collections disappear: deaccessioned, traded away, repatriated, lost to changing interests and the ravages of time.
We are interested in this process of decline and decay, the taphonomy of institutions and collections, as a way of shedding light not only on the history of museums and libraries, but also on the ways in which material things reflect and shape the practices of science and the humanities, and also to help museums think about current and future practices of collections and collections use.
We invite presentations from historians, curators, registrars, and collections managers, as well as from artists and activists, on topics including:
- Histories of museums and types of museums: We welcome case studies of museums and categories of museums that are no more. What can we learn from museums that are no more? Cast museums, commercial museums, and dime museums have mostly disappeared. Cabinets of curiosity went out of and back into fashion. Why? What is their legacy?
- Artifacts: How do specimens degrade? How have museums come to think of permanence and ephemerality? How do museums use, and “use up” collections, either for research (e.g., destructive sampling), or for education and display; how have they thought about the balance of preservation and use? How can they collect the ephemeral?
- Museum collection history: How long does art and artifact really remain in the museum? Might the analysis of museum databases cast new light on the long-term history and use of collections
- “Lost and found” in the museum: How are art and artifacts “rediscovered” in museums? How do old collections regain their importance, both in artistic revivals and in new practices of “mining” the museum as artists finding new uses for old objects?
- Museum collections policy: How have ideas about deaccessioning changed? How should they change? How do new laws, policies, and ethics about the repatriation of collections shape ideas about collections
- Museums going out of business: When a museum needs to close for financial or other reasons, what’s the best way to do that? Are there good case studies and legal and financial models?
- The future of museum collections: How might museums think about collecting the ephem- eral, or collecting for “impermanent” collections. What new strategies should museums consider for short-term collecting? How might digitization and scanning shape ideas about the permanence of collections?
Papers from the Colloquium may be published as a special issue of Museum History Journal.
If you’d like to present at the conference, please send an abstract of about 250 words and a brief CV to Steven Lubar, email@example.com. Deadline for submission of paper proposals is September 15, 2014.
Department of American Studies
John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage
Trying out Medium.
Here’s a version of the talk I gave to graduating seniors before they set out on a tour of the campus. My hope was to get them to see the campus in a new way. The presence of the past: Landscapes of history and tradition at Brown University.
Yesterday I participated in a roundtable discussion on “Student Work for Public Audiences” at Brown’s Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning. I talked about last year’s AMST1550, “Methods in Public Humanities.”
I teach courses for students who want to learn how to work with the public. Many of my courses are for graduate students in a professional program, or more precisely, a program that’s a cross between professional and academic: the MA in public humanities program. The students in the class are graduate students who are interested in jobs in museums and other cultural organizations. They need to learn academic knowledge, philosophy and theoretical approaches, and practical skills.
And so almost all of our courses are designed to not simply learn things, but to put them to use. While many seminars in the humanities teach students to tear apart the literature and learn to criticize, our seminars are designed to see how we might build on our readings and put them to use. Our methods courses try to teach both a good bit of information about how things are done in cultural institutions as well as how to critique the way things are done. I want the students to learn the rules, and learn how and why the rules came to be, and most important, to know when to follow them and when to break them. The best way to do that is to include projects.
I’ll describe one course – AMST1550,“Methods in Public Humanities” – as I taught it last year. AMST1550 was very much about methods and process: it included project management, memos, meetings, working with outside organizations. I wanted to make the work real. Student work on a group project accounted for 60 percent of their grade. I had organized nine projects before the class, with nine different organizations. We would drop the projects that didn’t attract enough interest.
One key to a project class is a very clear timeline. Three weeks in, the student groups needed to set up their Basecamp project management site, write a project memo listing the contacts they had made, the way they organized their groups, their project budget, and schedule. Eight weeks in, they would submit another project memo, a revised schedule, and outline the final deliverable. At the end of the class, they would submit a written report, to be shared with the client, the work itself, and a report to me on the challenges they faced. At each of these points, they would also make a short presentation.
These were the projects that students chose:
- Plan and execute a program of historical interpretation for Kennedy Plaza, Providence’s downtown park.
- Work with the Roger Williams Natural History Museum to renovate a portion of its “Natural Selections” exhibit.
- Work with Waterfire to produce a Waterfire in DC. (This didn’t work, and turned into a Waterfire project to create an augmented reality tour on H.P. Lovecraft in Providence.)
- Produce podcasts for Rhode Island’s 350th Anniversary commission.
- Work on a project as part of the National Museum of American History’s American Enterprise exhibit
- Work with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on a new model for education. (This turned into an exhibit on fishing aimed at a young audience.)
You’ll notice that many of these changed from what was proposed. Maybe that’s the first challenge: organizations need to be flexible. So do class projects, and so do students.
Other challenges: it was very hard to work the time schedule of a course with an outside project. There were too many projects, too many students. The projects ballooned to take over the class.
On the positive side, when it works, there’s some very deep learning. Students get committed, they get sucked in, the projects get bigger; it’s hard to stop them. One of these projects turned into a kickstarter campaign and a grant proposal and is still going. Two others got produced. One turned into a full-time job for a graduating student.
Projects get students engaged. They need to know the content to produce their project, and they need to understand procedures to get things done. Those two kinds of learning can reinforce each other.
And something else happens when students become producers. They become responsible not just for doing their work for a grade, but for an outside organization that comes to depend on them. The connection to a real organization makes the project work important.
Most of the students look back fondly on these projects. They learned a lot, and the project is good to have on their résumé. At the time, though, some of them were overwhelmed by the work. And so was I: the course required too much work. It was too big, too many moving parts. The outside organizations were too hard to wrangle.
Student feedback suggested some changes. Students wanted clearer procedures set up earlier. more feedback. They wanted more work on group dynamics, difficult conversations, and how to work with each other and their organizations. There was some interest in using this as a way to learn how to work as an independent contractor. They wanted smaller groups, and a smaller class, and more time on the projects. They would have liked a better review process throughout, and, at the end, a “360 review.”
And so, the following year, I changed things significantly. I split the course in two. A projects course was just projects; the Methods course dipped into only two small projects. That worked better.
But there’s still much to learn; it’s a challenging medium, trying to do two things at once. I’m not sure what I’ll do next year.
I’ve been blogging over at the Jenks Society for Lost Museums. You can see my thoughts on curatorial poetry and “Report on the food of the robin” and on taxidermy workshops, as well as reflections on the legacy of Prof. Jenks. And also many other reflections and considerations by fellow fellows of the Jenks Society.
Here’s the talk I wrote for the National Council on Public History conference at the end of March. It’s a piece of a longer work in progress on the history of the museum’s collections. This talk focuses on the the philosophical and bureaucratic contexts of the collecting at the museum. A second part, perhaps this summer, will look in detail at the changing nature of the objects collected. The big questions: What did they collect, why, and how can we evaluate the museum’s collecting work?
Updated: final version of presentation uploaded March 26, 2014.