A Public Humanities Semester Abroad

November 15, 2013

When I first walked into the UNESCO headquarters in Paris at the very beginning of the summer, stomach in knots and passport in hand, I had never thought I would still be here, five months later. But as fate would have it, here I am…

My job in Paris began as a summer practicum –three months at UNESCO, working on the Creative Cities program. I learned about Creative Cities through research for a cultural policy course I had taken my first semester, and thought it gave an interesting view on cultural policy from a global perspective. Once here, I became intoxicated with the work (and of course the city), and when the opportunity came up to extend my stay beyond the summer, I ran with it! I now work four days a week at UNESCO. I’m also doing two independent research classes for Brown, by correspondence.   

The Creative Cities Network was established in 2004 to create a “global platform for local endeavor”. It connects cities from around the world, providing a place to share knowledge about best practices for developing creative industries.Cities join the Network based on their expertise in a field of the creative industries, which UNESCO defines as design, literature, media arts, gastronomy, music, film, craft and folk arts. The idea is that cities work together on collaborative creations, joint research projects, conferences, exchange programs – and any other capacity where they can learn from and work with each other.

I started work on the Creative Cities at a pivotal time in its history. Until about the time I started, the program had been on hiatus due to funding cuts. Two member cities provided funds to restart it, and the bulk of my responsibilities over the summer was to work through the backlog of applications. Our team of four evaluated over forty applications, providing each city with detailed feedback on their applications and advice on areas that needed further expansion and development.

Applicant cities are asked to demonstrate how they support their creative industries as well as how the cities intend to contribute to the Network as a whole. These are the two core areas of the application – and often these are the areas that are most obviously lacking. My colleagues and I provide guidance on how the city can support their industries and how they then can become an active, contributing member of the Network. We by no means spoon-feed cities with directives around their policies, but rather we shift their thinking and ask the key question of: “what more can you do?” in the specific context of each city.

Now that all applications have been evaluated, and the new call for applications for designations in 2014 is open, my main task is the writing of an Application Handbook. The manual is a step-by-step guide for applicant cities, providing advice on all elements of the application from “who should write the application” to an explanation of the evaluation criteria.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at UNESCO, which in four short weeks will come to a close. I have appreciated working with a highly talented, international set of colleagues and I still get a kick out of walking past the enormous Picasso mural that graces one of the building’s foyers. While the organization is beset with financial woes, it remains an inspiring place to work.

Being in Paris has also been great fodder for one of my research classes – for which I am investigating the role of culinary heritage in city branding, cultural tourism and UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage designations. I am interested in how foodways shape the cultural identity of place and the dynamics of how this identity plays into a tourism proposition. Paris is a fine example: a city whose culinary identity has been mythologized. I am interested in unpacking this paradigm, particularly in a globalized context where the latest food crazes in the city are gourmet burgers and food trucks selling tacos, burgers and Vietnamese noodle bowls.

As my time in Paris draws to a close, I am racing to make the most of the time I have left here. It will be the little things that I’ll miss the most – like smelling the horses as I walk past École Militaire on the way to the office, or hearing no fewer than three languages spoken amongst my colleagues as I get my morning coffee. It has been a wonderfully rewarding experience. 

Guest Blogger May Wijaya is a second-year student in Public Humanities, much missed by her colleagues and fellow students in Providence.  The Center for Public Humanities allowed May to extend her summer practicum and complete some coursework at a distance to afford her this opportunity.  May will return to Brown in the spring and graduate in May of 2014. 

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