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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 to be offered beginning in the fall semester of 2020 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.

Spring Lecture Series

Maiyal Gamble-Rovers, Daniela Rivera, and Hesamedin SharifianThis year will mark the fifth anniversary of this series at Tisch College, and we will celebrate with programs that introduce projects embodying the work of civic humanities in art, theater, and education. We will welcome:

  • Maiyah Gamble-Rivers from Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, where she is a curator and educator
  • Daniela Rivera, a graduate of the SMFA and recent winner of the prestigious Rappaport Prize, who is an Associate Professor of Art at Wellesley College and Director of its Studio Art Program. Read more about her work
  • Hesamedin Sharifian, currently a predoctoral fellow at the Center for Humanities at Tufts (CHAT) and current recipient of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation public humanities grant for work this spring on a community theater project

The dates and details of these presentations will be available here soon.

Current Project Focus - In Their Presence: Exhibiting Human Remains

In the current academic year, with the support of a Tufts Collaborates grant, the Program’s Director, Diane O’Donoghue, alongside Bridget Conley, Associate Professor for Research and Research Director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, are organizing a series of events for the spring semester that will focus on museums whose displays have included the remains of victims of 20th century genocides. Their programming will include an international roster of speakers, a two-day seminar for invited scholars and human rights activists, and the creation of policy briefings to be presented to major international organizations. These events will be sponsored by Tufts Collaborates, Tisch College, the World Peace Please Foundation at the Fletcher School, and the Department of Art and Art History. Information on all our events, which will begin in February of 2020, will be found here.

Triptych of photos of museums that exhibit remains of people killed in genocides
Natural History Museum, Vienna (left); Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (Bridget Conley/World Peace Foundation, 2017; center); Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Bridget Conley/World Peace Foundation, 2019; right)

Transnational in scope, “In Their Presence” will focus on museum practices that extend from advocacy involving the restitution of remains long held in storerooms, as is the case in Vienna, to efforts to keep human remains on view, often the only evidence of the murder of specific persons by genocidal regimes. In this latter case, our inquiries will include museums in Ethiopia and Cambodia. 

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.

Tisch Exhibition Model

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.

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 late April of this year. The meetings for 2020 will take place in New York City and will be organized by the NEPH member institutions there.

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