Beyond Brown: Legacies of Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities and Future Opportunities for Strengthening Regional Public Humanities Connections

The Center for Public Humanities and the garden, May 2023. Photo: Stephanie Fortunato. (Full caption at the end of this blog)
May 25, 2023

Stephanie P. Fortunato (MA 2008) and Julia Lazarus (MA 2007), both alumni of Brown’s Public Humanities program, work with clients on arts, cultural, and public humanities strategy, public engagement, and collaborative creative processes.

The Center for Public Humanities graduated the inaugural cohort of graduate students from its first-of-its-kind Masters in Public Humanities program in 2007, and the class of 2023 is the last. Over the course of these past eighteen years, 208 students have earned their MA in public humanities, including 35 students en route to a PhD in American studies, along with seven PhD students in other fields who earned a Doctoral Certificate in Public Humanities. An additional nine MA candidates are expected to graduate this spring. Many undergraduates have also participated in the program, as have numerous graduate students in other departments, postdoctoral fellows, as well as visiting scholars and faculty.

From the beginning, the Center for Public Humanities’ core work of training students was intentionally intertwined with a broad network of relationships. These were forged with local, national, and international cultural partners, with organizations and practitioners working across the cultural sector in a number of areas: art, history, and anthropology, in venues from museums to schools to government agencies. These community partnerships served two purposes. They provided student training, and they fostered professional networks for its emerging graduates. MA students were required to complete two practicums: hands-on field experiences in preparation for careers working in cultural organizations. Alongside this, the academic curriculum included a robust program of visiting practitioners and practical workshops intended to showcase public humanities theory and methodology in practice. These programs also served the Center’s partner organizations. Such connections reflected the Center’s mission and the heart of public humanities methodology: the collaborative, community needs-centered work of creating bridges between academic humanities and public life.

When the Center for Public Humanities entered its final, sunset semester, it commissioned the Beyond Brown project to offer these partners – in particular, the local public humanities community of practice in Rhode Island (excluding Brown University), as well as those in southeastern Massachusetts and the Connecticut border towns – a framework for a kind of transition planning. It was an opportunity to collectively reflect on how the Center has been useful to its partners, survey anticipated ongoing needs for this kind of work in the local public humanities ecosystem, and suggest approaches the community of practice may want to pursue going forward.

Looking “beyond Brown” was a good prompt and persistent reminder of our audiences and scope of work for this project. We tried hard to focus on the most generative precedents from the array of the Center for Public Humanities’ community partnerships, and to highlight what public humanities professionals envision as the greatest potential legacies of the Center’s time and the people who contributed to it.

The project included two components: an audit of the Center for Public Humanities records to document its partnership reach and scope, and a series of facilitated discussion sessions with local community partners. It also builds on outcomes of a conversation convened by Rhode Island Humanities in October 2022, when Brown first announced the closure of the Center.

Beyond Brown identified 410 community partners with whom the Center engaged (from 2005 to 2023), including many local relationships that were characterized by frequent and enduring engagement. From the perspective of the Center’s local partners, it has been most useful in three key areas:

  1. Field Leadership - From the program’s earliest days, the Center for Public Humanities staff was a leading voice in the public humanities. Partners particularly valued its thought leadership, amplification of critical issues in the field, innovation, creativity, and support of research and development; and project-based practice.
  2. Peer Networking - The Center for Public Humanities helped to network the community of practice. Partners particularly valued the partner network that was built and sustained, its network reach, and its convening activities.
  3. Sector Capacity-Building - The Center for Public Humanities added to the capacity of the local cultural sector. Partners particularly valued its contributions to the creative workforce, its excellence of practice, and its role as an academic anchor for the local community of practice.

The Center’s many meaningful partnerships were grounded in its organizational culture, its public humanities methodology of willingness to center community, its demonstration projects, and its resources in staff expertise, space, and funding.

Each of the three “pillars of usefulness” reflects areas of strategic focus that made the Center for Public Humanities successful. These “lessons learned” present opportunities for replication – and innovation – in the local region and elsewhere. They also offer framing for ideas for community action surfaced during the partner discussion sessions, which build on the legacy of the Center for Public Humanities, ameliorate the impact of its closing, and advance a vision of a thriving future for the local public humanities ecosystem. The report outlines three key goals for this future work, along with a set of actions related to each, from establishing a regional public humanities center to designing a more formalized network linking the local community of practice to pursuing more cross-sector collaborations and impacts.

It’s not just the public humanities, nor the public humanities at Brown, that need space for regenerations. Changes are a constant challenge for every part of our society. Widespread disruptions in how cultural organizations operate, a recalibration of assumptions about audiences, technological disruption, the advancing climate crisis, systemic injustices and harms wrought, particularly for historically marginalized communities, and the overall decline in academic humanities and careers worldwide are just a few. With or without Brown’s Center, public humanities will have new challenges and opportunities for the field to enrich our public life, including new university-based public humanities centers, new work being undertaken by state humanities councils, new community partners and practitioners who may or may not have participated in the Center’s programs in the past, a new cultural plan in Providence, new stories to be told, new learnings to help us retell others, new creative impulses and aesthetic approaches, and potentially even new allies on campus to help steward public humanities methods and collaborations. Creative, humanities-based problem-solving and public humanities methodologies give us ways to approach all this relational complexity and address crises locally and globally.

When the Center for Public Humanities closes on June 30, the local cultural ecosystem will be different. The region’s public humanities community of practice has been presented an opportunity to shift focus toward a vision beyond adapting to Brown’s culture and systems, toward creating community-owned systems and structures that are potentially more resilient and just, to allow the local public humanities ecosystem to flourish. For the interdependence and knowledge shared across the community of practice will not disappear, nor will the tangible and intangible legacies of the Center for Public Humanities, in Providence and beyond.

The successes of the Center for Public Humanities show us that good work is guided by generosity, by collaboration, by respect. We are hopeful and curious in looking beyond Brown to the projects that community partners will undertake together to support the public humanities in flourishing.

*Image Caption: The Public Humanities Center and garden, May 2023. The Center may be closing, but blossoms and projects are still blooming. At the site of the construction cone (right), alumni and friends of the Center who gathered for this month's Destruction & Regeneration conference and ceremonial farewell to the public humanities program buried a time capsule they created. It is now marked with a memorial plaque. Photo credit: Stephanie Fortunato.