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Program for Public Humanities

As part of our comprehensive vision of civic life that touches on multiple disciplines and academic endeavors, Tisch College is committed to fostering civic engagement in the humanities and the arts. To that end, we support public humanities, a field of scholarship and an advocacy movement with particular importance in our political and cultural moment. Its work involves such collaborative practices as historical inquiry, recovery, and acknowledgment, as well as innovative uses of narrative and artistic expression to produce civically minded, creative, and just mutual engagements among a broad range of constituencies. Tisch College contributes its expertise to the development of public humanities by supporting teaching, projects, and programming at Tufts, in our host communities, nationally, and internationally.

Tisch College has particular strengths and perspectives that allow us to make distinctive contributions to the field of Public Humanities. We are at the forefront of building the new discipline of Civic Studies, a field that draws extensively on the humanities and involves explicit consideration of ethical issues. Since the fall of 2018, Tufts has offered  a new major in Civic Studies—the first of its kind at any academic institution—which gives students the opportunity to examine the significance of critical reflection, ethical thinking, and action for social change, within and between societies, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Public humanities and arts are very much involved in these forms of civic engagement and advocacy, and in the future will become one of the paths through which students can pursue this new major. The Program for Public Humanities, as part of Civic Studies, is currently developing a curricular track that will include new and cross-listed course offerings that will be known as “Civic Humanities.”

The Program for Public Humanities is directed by Diane O’Donoghue, Senior Fellow for the Humanities since 2015. An art historian, she first came to Tisch College as a Faculty Fellow in 2013—working on a Nazi-era restitution project in Vienna—after chairing the Department of Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. She also holds an ongoing appointment as Visiting Professor of Public Humanities at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University. The Center, home to a graduate program in this field, is one of our academic partners as we create our Civic Humanities curriculum.

Project Focus for 2021-2022: "Endurance Streets (耐力街道): Resilience and Response in Boston’s Chinese Community”

With funding from the Tisch College Community Research Center, the Program for Public Humanities will develop and install a new bilingual exhibition in partnership with the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE), who collaborated with Tisch College on the “These Words” project in 2016. Our upcoming project will document the economic crises and racial violence experienced by this community since the winter of 2020. Its content will connect to the hundred-year history of this neighborhood, using digitalized images of historical records and photographs, to documenting a century of response to racism, as well as to labor and health inequities. This latter material will come from the collection of the late Tunney Lee (李燦輝), an architect and professor of urban studies at MIT who grew up in this community and who amassed a remarkable local history. This collection was recently bequeathed to CHSNE; “Endurance Streets”—a phrase that resonates through Tunney Lee’s preservation efforts—will introduce this gift to the neighborhood and to the city in the context of crucial contemporary issues whose legacies are accessible to us through the activation of this archive. The exhibition will be display, for outdoor viewing, on the windows of two buildings in Boston’s Chinese-speaking neighborhood, in the spring and summer of 2022. Related community dialogs, public lectures and tours, and other community events will occur alongside the exhibition and details about them will be made available as they are finalized. 

Spring 2022 Lecture in Public Humanities

On Wednesday, April 20, 2022 from 4:30 - 6:00 p.m. ET, join our Spring 2022 Lecture "Potshots at the Empire from the Tattered Hot Air Balloon of the Arts" with featured speaker Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Curator of Asian Pacific American Studies at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and discussant Kate Hao from the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University. This virtual event be a shaky and not-undangerous hot air balloon ride where we’ll confect and debate the ramifications of dropping various volatile arts projects onto the fortifications of the contemporary Empire. Over virtual tea, we’ll commiserate about the ethical and political imperatives of creating and curating and making magic in ruined times. We will discuss the project-in-development foundings+findings, an archival activation workshop series that uses found poetry as its guiding method, to reflect on the complexities of navigating institutional spaces in pursuit of anti-institutional goals. At the center of our conversation is a commitment to play, relationship-building, and cultures of access when it comes to making and sharing in communities of art.

Project Focus for 2019-2021: In Their Presence: Debates on the Dignity, Display, and Ownership of Human Remains 

In the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years, with the support of a Tufts Collaborates Seed Grant Program/Tufts Springboard, The Diversity Fund, and the World Peace Foundation, Program director Diane O’Donoghue with Bridget Conley, Associate Professor for Research and Research Director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, organized a series of five webinar panels that brought together leading international voices in areas of forensic ethics to address the materiality of post-life. You can watch the video recording of the first session ("De-colonizing 'objects'" with Ciraj Rassool and Vernelda Grant), the second session (“Recovery and reclamation" with Sarah Wagner and Adam Rosenblatt), and the third session (“The 'life' of museum objects" with Ingrid Neuman, Steven Lubar, and Zuzanna Dziuban ), the fourth session (“Mourning remains" with Professors Isaias Rojas-Perez and Julia Viebach), and the fifth and final session (“Political economies, ethics, and practices of displaying human remains" with Stephenie Young, Elisabeth Anstett, and Ereshnee Naidu-Silverman). 

Flyer for session 3 of Humanities talks

Flyer for In their Presence Session 4

Event flyer with three photographs of people's faces

Spring 2021 Lecture Series

Originally scheduled as part of our annual lecture series for 2020,  our invited speakers presented their work virtually in spring 2021. 

  • "Dislocation & Ambiguous Loss" | Daniela Rivera | February 23, 4:30-6:00 p.m. ET - A graduate of the SMFA and recent winner of the prestigious Rappaport Prize, Daniela Rivera is an Associate Professor of Art at Wellesley College and Director of its Studio Art Program. (Read more about her work.) Daniela discussed examples of her recent work and its attempts to represent her own dislocation (she came to the U.S. from Chile in 2002) recognizing it as “an iterative experience of loss that is unutterable, relentlessly experienced, hard to locate, practically invisible." 
  • “Mapping Indigenous Long Island” | Jeremy Dennis | April 26, 4:30-6:00 p.m. ET - Jeremy Dennis presented his current work, which makes visible the land history of an area that has been long unacknowledged.  Mr. Dennis, a photographer and an enrolled member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, New York, has been working since 2016 to document and preserve sacred and cultural Indigenous sites throughout the Long Island area. His presentation discussed the process, progress, and future trajectory of this project. 

Spring 2020 Lecture Series

Last spring marked the fifth anniversary of this series at Tisch College, and we planned to celebrate with programs that introduce projects embodying the work of civic humanities in art, theater, and education. Due to cancellation of all in-person events in mid-March resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, only the first event took place:

  • "Civil Rights Movement Initiative: Strengthening Students through History​" - Monday, February 10 with Maiyah Gamble-Rivers from Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, where she is a curator and educator. This presentation discussed how one of CSSJ's programs, the Civil Rights Movement Initiative (CRMI), has created space for local high school students in the city of Providence to learn about the movement, shift their perception of self, and provide an opportunity for them to wrestle with the feelings of inferiority that are often learned in schools. CSSJ is working to expand the program to serve more schools and their students.

History and Previous Projects

The Program for Public Humanities began in 2017, expanding on the work of Tisch College’s Initiatives in the Public Humanities, which ran from 2014-2016 and organized a series of panels on various topics that brought together faculty members from across Tufts with colleagues from other universities. (Learn about the panels offered in Spring 2015 and Spring 2016.) The Program continued to organize such events, beginning with a series of presentations this past spring.

The Initiatives also inaugurated innovative projects with community partners. In the summer of 2016, we joined with the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE) to create “These Words,” an exhibition that celebrated a century of printing within Boston’s Chinese community. This bilingual exhibition, drawing on archival material, demonstrated the neighborhood’s long-standing involvement with books, printing, and reading. In addition to its scholarly and cultural purposes, the exhibition drew attention to the need for a public library in Chinatown and in January 2017, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced that library services would finally be restored to the neighborhood. The new Chinatown branch of the Boston Public Library officially opened on February 3, 2018. From that opening to the beginning of August, the branch recorded just under 30,000 visits.

The impact of this exhibition has continued, fostered additional cooperative partnerships and garnering national recognition for Tisch’s work in public humanities. A presentation on “These Words” was selected as part of the closing plenary of the 2017 National Humanities Conference and, in the spring of 2018, an installation on the Chinese communities in Providence, Rhode Island, used the Tisch Exhibition Model (TEM), originating with “ These Words” and featuring the use of large-scale digital imagery, commercial fabrications, and bilingual content, located in the public square. That project is organized by graduate students and faculty of the Center for Public Humanities at Brown.

The "These Words" project is the subject of a chapter in a recently published collection, Doing Public Humanities (ed. Susan Smulyan; Routledge, 2020). The cover of the book shows an image from our exhibition (below). 

A book cover with an old photograph on it

Humanities for All and the National Humanities Alliance

National Humanities AllianceHumanities for All, a project of the National Humanities Alliance, presents the results of a survey of the state of the publicly engaged humanities over the last 10 years, conducted in 2017-2018 and highlighting 1,400 publicly engaged projects. The findings from this work, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, were published on a website that describes each entry and features 50 exemplary cases selected to be represented in more detail. We are honored that Tisch College’s "These Words" exhibition was selected to be among these 50 distinguished projects.

Our partnership with the Chinese Historical Society of New England will continue with a new exhibition project focused on food, labor, and immigration, as documented by the the Society’s and the Chinese community’s extensive archives. 

North Eastern Public Humanities Consortium

Consortium of Public Humanities logoAs part of our commitment to public humanities, we are honored to serve on the Steering Committee of the North Eastern Public Humanities Consortium (NEPH), based at Yale University and its public humanities program. The Consortium fosters public projects animated by humanistic inquiry in support of art, culture, history, and education for a more democratic society.  Through Tisch College, Tufts University joins eleven other member institutions—Bard Graduate Center, Brown, Columbia, CUNY Grad Center, Harvard, Lehigh, New York University, Rutgers University-Newark, University of Delaware, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Yale—that are engaged in developing public humanities in various ways.

NEPH provides opportunities for faculty, students, professionals, and community members to build partnerships and enhance the relationship between liberal arts and the public through humanities practices like historical preservation, oral history, material culture, curation and exhibition, documentary work, digital humanities, public art, cultural heritage, and more. The Consortium provides an innovative structure for sharing ideas, determining best practices, and strategizing funding and resources. It aims to serve as a powerful advocate for the importance of public humanities both within the member institutions and across the region. Along with the two other area members, Harvard and UMass Boston, Tufts and Tisch College hosted NEPH’s annual symposium in April 2019. 

Tisch Exhibition Receives National Recognition

“These Words,” created in partnership with the Chinese Historical Society of New England, has been recognized in a study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation among the leading public humanities projects of the past decade.

Learn more

Exhibition in Providence, RI

The work of the Program in Public Humanities, particularly its "These Words" exhibition in Boston's Chinatown, served as inspiration for a new exhibition in Rhode Island: "Providence's Chinatown." Like "These Words," it utilizes the Tisch Exhibition Model, centered primarily on the use of large window displays.

Learn more about the Providence exhibition