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 collaboration with colleagues at Brown and in the community, the Center sponsors a series of interdisciplinary and innovative conferences that bring together students, scholars, practitioners, and local arts and humanities organizations.

In spring 2014, as a concluding event to the Lost Museum exhibit on campus, the Center joined with faculty and students at Brown and RISD to sponsor Lost Museums: A Symposium on the Ephemerality & Afterlives of Museums & Collections, a two-day meeting that included tours as well as presentations by thirty curators, scholars, and artists.

The New Tour: Innovation in Place Based Storytelling will be held in September 2015 and feature six national speakers joining a similar number of local presenters responsible for Rhode Island and Massachusetts guided tours.  The Center for Public Humanities, the Providence Preservation Society, and a range of local preservation groups will sponsor the first Providence Heritage UnConference in March 2016, based on a similar project in Baltimore.

A conference on Asian and Asian-American public humanities projects is in the planning stages.

Public Humanities Collaborations

The Center for Public Humanities is a founding member of the Northeast Public Humanities Collaborative, which met for the first time at Yale in April 2015.  We were founding members of the Humanities Action Lab based at The New School in New York, participated in their 2014 project Guantanamo Public Memory, and now work with them on the States of Incarceration and the Initiative on Migration, Climate Justice, and Environmental Justice.  Our deep connection with the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities have helped us think through many issues facing those who attempt to define Public Humanities.  In addition, we continue exchanges with the MA in Cultural Management Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.