A Busy and Useful Semester

Installation by Asya Gipson (photo: Steve Lubar)
May 5, 2023

Steven Lubar is Interim Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities & Cultural Heritage and Professor of American Studies and History.


As we bid farewell to the spring semester and the John Nicholas Brown Center prepares for a new mission, it is worth reflecting on some of the work that the Center has done these past few months.

It has been a busy semester; we are making a graceful exit. More than that we continue to showcase the vitality and potential of public humanities. The Center’s students, faculty, and staff have engaged with art, archives, scholarship, the built environment, and community,

JNBC_Archival Voices_MP-3406_Poster_0.pngThe Center explored the scholarship of public humanities in lectures that brought a diverse group of speakers to campus. Kristen Iemma, Ally LaForge, and Katarina Weygold, Ph.D. students in American Studies, helped us organize “Archival Voices” with speakers on the history of Haitian, Philippine, Armenian, and Native American archives. What struck me as most “public humanities” about these talks was that they all dealt with both “the archive,” a theoretical construct, and an actual archive as a physical collection, a place of work, and a site of research. We also sponsored lectures on public scholarship, ecology, and aesthetics (co-sponsored with IBES) and curating anthropology (with the Haffenreffer), and a conference, Rethinking Catharsis: Virtual Narratives and the “Empathy Machine” (with Italian Studies and the Center for Digital Scholarship).

The Nightingale-Brown House is home to a variety of wonderful art installations; if you haven’t seen them yet, please drop by. Site-specific projects include two installations by MA student Traci Picard that honor the workers behind the scenes at the House. She set the dining room table with places for the workers, enslaved and free, who worked for the Nightingales and the Browns. New portrait photography celebrates the workers at Brown today whose invisible labor makes academic work possible. Visiting artist Diana Limbach Lempel’s “Revival Archival Revenge” engaged many participants in bringing alive the artifacts and books—and even the air: think sourdough starter—of the Nightingale-Brown House. Undergraduates Asya Gipson and Béatrice Duchastel de Montrouge’s installations remix the Center’s wallpaper, and offer insight into the life of the Brown family. Thanks here to as well to RISD graduate student Pryiata Bosamia for the wonderful design. The Center will be publishing Jazzmen Lee-Johnson’s artist’s book based on her installation NOT NEVER MORE at the Nightingale-Brown House. Masters students organized RE/GENERATE, a semester-long series of workshops engaging with themes of regeneration, creation, and remix. The work created during these workshops will be gathered into a culminating exhibition that will open in the Center’s Gallery in the evening of May 12.

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Instalations by Traci Picard and Béatrice Duchastel de Montrouge (photos: Steve Lubar)

The Center supported classes on various public humanities topics. Students in my “Methods in Public Humanities” collaborated with RISD students in Francesca Liuni’s course on exhibition design to create plans for the new National Park Service site at the Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut. Students in Janet Zweig’s “Public Art: History, Theory, and Practice,” (co-sponsored with RISD) are working on projects that will appear around campus and throughout Providence in the next few weeks. Renée Ater’s courses on monuments and memorials examined both the theory and practice of memory. Jackie Delamatre’s “Promise of Informal Learning” course engaged students with projects useful to local organizations.

The Center's engagement with our local community is coming to an end, as befits the conclusion of the program. One final public event: we are helping to sponsor Jane’s Walk in Providence on May 6 and 7. Organized by alumna Caroline Nye (MA’16) of Doors Open RI, Jane’s Walk, named in honor of urbanist Jane Jacobs, offers walking conversations across the city, as well as city-making games for kids: a perfect public humanities event!

Our community as a program, on the other hand, remains strong. Alumni have met with university leaders to advocate for the continuation of public humanities work at Brown. Many contributed to a memory book, now at the printers, and responded to a survey that captured the strengths of the program. Our thanks to Kate Duffy (MA’15) for editing the book, to Bryn Pernot (MA’18) for conducting the survey. And many alumni will be gathering next week for a reunion, “Destruction & Regeneration in the Public Humanities.” Credit for organizing this goes to Rica Maestas (MA’18) and Jasmine Chu (MA’19).) I am eager to see many of my former students!

I continue to be hopeful that public humanities will find a new home at Brown. The Center commissioned a report on the ways in which it’s been useful to local community organizations; we found deep support for this kind of work. (Thanks to alumnae Stephanie Fortunato (MA’08) and Julia Lazarus (MA’07) for suggesting this, and taking on the project.) The Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice is at work on a plan for public humanities teaching and engagement. Support for public humanities work is growing among scholarly organizations, foundations, and many universities, and I feel certain that this important work will continue at Brown.