Program for Public Humanities
As part of its 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 Public Humanities. Our researchers, and the faculty and students who engage with Tisch College produce some of the most influential and advanced empirical scholarship about civic life. Those findings are relevant to public humanities. Meanwhile, the emerging field of Civic Studies, in which Tisch College is an international leader, draws extensively on the humanities (particularly philosophy and political theory) and involves explicit consideration of ethical issues. Scholarly work by public humanists also requires engagement with communities outside of academia, and the skills and practices that such engagement requires; Tisch College has the advantage of exceptionally rich networks, extending from local neighborhoods to international partners.
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. In Spring 2017, she was Adjunct Professor for Public Humanities at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University. The Center is one of our Program’s principal academic partners.
History and Projects
This new program expands 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. (Read about the panels offered in Spring 2015 and Spring 2016.)
The Initiatives also launched 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.
A presentation on “These Words” was selected as part of the closing plenary of the 2017 National Humanities Conference and its precedent will inform an installation on the Chinese communities in Providence, Rhode Island, that will follow the Tisch Exhibition Model (TEM): use of large-scale digital imagery, commercial fabrications, and bilingual content in the public square. That project is organized by graduate students and faculty of the Center for Public Humanities at Brown.
In tandem with “These Words,” artist Wen-ti Tsen created “Home Town,” an outdoor exhibition of archival photographs from the CHSNE collection that he digitally produced, enlarged, and painted to create remarkable, lifelike effects. Most of the images were of individuals who had immigrated to the U.S. or were from immigrant families—merchants, restaurant and laundry workers, students—who built lives in a neighborhood that now must keep their memory in view, as the effects of gentrification threaten to erase portions of their “home town.” Tsen, an artist who has been active in numerous civic initiatives in Boston’s Chinese community and the Fall 2017 Knaster Artist-in-Residence at Tufts University, received funding through a “Creative City” grant from the New England Foundation of the Arts, and his work appeared at 12 locations in Chinatown for a ten-day period throughout September 2016, in some cases in the vicinity of “These Words.”
The connection between Tisch College’s work in public humanities and our Chinatown partners continues to develop through a Tufts Collaborates grant. This grant is supporting an interdisciplinary team to study the Pao Arts Center, a new arts space in a socially and culturally contested location that strives to use arts to combat the negative effects of gentrification in Boston’s Chinatown. Carolyn Rubin of the Tufts University Department of Public Health and Community Medicine and Felicia Sullivan of Tisch College are conducting empirical research with an element of community-based, participatory research, investigating the impact of the Pao Arts Center on social cohesion. Noe Montez and Yizhou Huang from the Department of Drama and Dance are studying the performances and exhibitions of the Pao Arts Center, interpreting and assessing them as humanities scholars. This team, led by Tisch College's Associate Dean Peter Levine, is coordinating closely with the Pao Arts Center itself and also with another Tufts research group, Susan Koch-Weser and Virginia R. Chomitz of Public Health and Community Medicine, who are focusing on the impact of the Pao Arts Center on health outcomes.
The Program will continue to create opportunities for exchanges on topics in the public humanities that invite participation from across the University and from other scholars in the field. Among events scheduled for the upcoming semester is a program on “Public Amnesias” featuring Tufts faculty members Kendra Field, Kerri Greenidge, and James Rice, along with Aditi Mehta (Urban Planning, MIT). The program will be co-sponsored with the Center for Humanities at Tufts and the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.
Spring 2018 Course
Public Amnesias and Their Discontents
This course considers the consequences of forgetting as one of the challenges and provocations to work involving the humanities in public spaces. By extending the histories of memory into discourses of amnesia, we will identify origins, effects, and the possibility of a return for material that has been forgotten or, more significant for the context of this course, made forgettable. "Public humanities" has a particular stake in these questions and this course will offer ways to identify and reveal blind spots that occur in the field of civic vision. In the first half of the semester we will focus on constructions of amnesia from a variety of perspectives and then turn to examples of how acts of forgetting have been subverted. Monuments, memorials, and museums, all locations for the work of recollection, also function as sites that can be either complicit or resistant to the erasure of meaning and value. The topics covered in this class offer opportunities to bring objects and places back into view, but an equally compelling undertaking is the possibility of giving language to the mechanisms that made them invisible in the first place.
North East Public Humanities Consortium
As part of our commitment to public humanities, we are honored to serve on the Steering Committee of the North East 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 will host NEPH’s annual meeting in 2019.