Defining Public Humanities

The Brown Center for Public Humanities defines public humanities through our teaching, projects, and publications. This is an important, ongoing, project as we change the field and the field changes us.

Brown was the first university to offer an M.A. program in public humanities, and so constructing a curriculum required identifying the methods and topics that are central to this emerging field.  The program aims to produce thoughtful, skilled public humanities practitioners who can get the jobs they want when they graduate, and who will possess the knowledge and understandings they need to shape the profession in significant ways.

Our curriculum has three parts: theory, content, and practice. Theory includes considerations of community, commemoration, and representation. Content covers the whole of the humanities, giving students a strong background in their chosen academic areas. Practical skills include techniques of recording, presenting and interpreting, from oral history to museum collections and exhibits; ways of working with communities, from cultural policy to measuring impact; and ways of working in organizations, from governance to management to fundraising.

Part of the challenge of defining public humanities is striking the right balance of theory, content, and practice. For one recent consideration of that balance, see Steven Lubar’s talk to the entering class of 2014.

Our programs and projects manifest our definition of the public humanities. Students and faculty have reinterpreted historic houses, worked with communities to preserve and present their past, curated artists in site-specific work, organized museum exhibitions, and helped reshape government cultural policy.  Through such projects, participants enact public humanities on a local level and shape the larger field by exploring the methods and impact of community-based cultural work. 

In addition to exhibitions and public programs, the Center uses digital and print publications to disseminate findings from its educational and hands-on initiatives and to help shape best practices in the field. Faculty and fellows of the Brown Center for Public Humanities regularly present at professional conferences and publish in Oral History Review, Curator: The Museum Journal, Museums, Public Historian, and History News, as well as other journals. The Center's blog addresses these issues; so too does Steven Lubar's blog, On Public Humanities. The Center circulates a weekly paper with news of interest to public humanities students and professionals, the Public Humanities Weekly.

The Center is a cosponsor of a new book series, Humanities and Public Life, published by the University of Iowa Press.  The Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa also supports the series; The Obermann Center’s director, Teresa Mangum, and Anne Valk from the Brown Center for Public Humanities serve as series editors.  The Humanities and Public Life series spotlights the work of artists, scholars, and activists immersed in publicly engaged projects in which the humanities, arts, and culture inspire community building and civic change.  The Humanities and Public Life series meets a pressing need of current and future publicly engaged scholars and partners: documentation of projects that model rigorous work, critical thinking about best practices, and strategies for assessing the value and impact of public art, design, and scholarship.  

Working with others to define the public humanities
In affiliation with the national organization, Imagining America, the Center has joined with twelve university-based centers and one state humanities council to understand the varied approaches that are shaping the public humanities.  Since 2010, Anne Valk has served as a facilitator of the Public Humanities Institutes & Centers Working Group.  The group is examining the missions, activities, and potential of public humanities centers and initiatives to support and inspire a range of publicly engaged practices, from research grants and residencies for students and faculty to lectures, workshops, exhibits, and collaborative research projects.  

Public Humanities Events