Steven Lubar is the Faculty Director of the Center for Digital Scholarship, Professor of American Studies, and Professor of History. He teaches in the master’s program in Public Humanities at Brown.
Fall semester I taught AMST2540, “Methods in Public Humanities,” a course that I’ve taught many times before. That said, this version was different – and not just because it was online and we were in a pandemic. I decided to try an experiment, one that involved working together with a Rhode Island School of Design course. Students from Brown and RISD teamed up on exhibit projects, as curators and designers, respectively, and did a fantastic job!
Our “Methods” class is a required course for public humanities students and has, over the years, covered many topics, from museum work to community arts engagement to nonprofit management. This year we focused on exhibitions.
I specifically chose this focus because it allowed for the RISD collaboration. Prof. Francesca Liuni teaches INTAR-2380-03, “Introduction to Design Studio II” in the MDes program in Exhibition and Narrative Environments. We worked together to design our courses so that they would overlap in a way that would make it possible for students to work together on exhibition plans.
We decided that we would turn our attention to “memorials,” a subject very much in the news this past year. More than that, this focus would allow me to spend the first third or so of my course on an important public humanities topic, providing some essential theory in the field. We read foundational texts in public humanities, including Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, as well as some important new writing that pushes ideas about memory and memorialization in new directions, including Monica Martinez’s “Racial Forgetting and Remembering,” and Christine DeLucia’s “Recovering Material Archives in the Native Northeast.” (The syllabus is here.)
My students paired up to create exhibitions projects based on their own interests; the only rule was that they had to be about memorials, in some way. The RISD students then selected from among the projects the one they wanted to design. There were 21 students in my course, and 10 in Francesca’s. We ended up with eleven projects (one designer worked without a curator, and one team of curators worked without a designer).
The students could either imagine a new museum or fit an exhibit into an existing museum. We didn’t require the exhibit to be constrained too much by practicality: the general rule was that they could imagine borrowing whatever they wanted from other museums, and they didn't need to worry about, say, costs for packing. Designers needed to take into account practicality, but not too much. No budget constraints, but we did our best to keep the projects of a size that could be curated and designed in a semester. We didn't worry about asking permission from the museums where exhibits would be displayed. Many of the students were interested in community connections and input, but for both practical reasons in a pandemic year, and not wanting to take advantage of communities for an imaginary project, most of the students did not make those connections.
I designed the course so that skills were scaffolded to meet the needs of the project, with classes in memorials, exhibit conceptualization, script writing, and visitor studies falling appropriately to the ongoing exhibit project. Francesca designed her course similarly: creating a successful exhibit requires that curator and designer work together, each adding their specialized knowledge in the service of a larger project. We hoped that the exhibits would say interesting things about memorialization and memory, and that they would work as exhibits - interesting to potential visitors, more-or-less practical as an exhibition space, thoughtful selection and use of objects and well-written labels, ethical and appropriate connections with community. Like any successful exhibit, they should do a good job of using objects and images to tell a visitor a story in space.
And I believe that all of these exhibit projects succeed, both in process and in the end result. You can see the catalogs of the projects here. I have also included images and captions from three of them, and the header to this post gives you a sense of all of their title pages together. They are remarkable, I think - a fact attributable to the collaboration inspired both curators and designers. I asked curators to include the big idea of the exhibit, write a main label and some section and object labels, and choose a few representative objects and images. Many went further and created entire exhibitions. The designers too went beyond what was required, some of them completing graphic design for labels and construction details!
My students were enthusiastic about these projects because they combined theory and practice, because they could choose topics they cared about, and because their collaboration with the designer pushed them to think about space and visitors in a new way – and because the designers could create such gorgeous realizations of ideas and plans. The RISD student designers were enthusiastic, too; they had real materials to deal with, and exhibits that took on important themes.
And together, they did great work.
“Weetamoo Woods: More than a Name”
Curators Felicia Bartley and Larissa Nez and designer Alice Cole developed a plan for a memorial and museum for the seventeenth-century Pocasset woman sachem, or tribal leader, Weetamoo, set in the Weetamoo Woods park in Tiverton, Rhode Island. Exhibits in three pavilions tell her story, describe traditional Pocasset ecological knowledge, and display artwork by contemporary Native artists that “challenge audiences to recognize the struggles, reality, and beauty of their existence.” They write: “Her life and death speak to the complexities of erased and silenced histories of Native women. This exhibition pays tribute not only to Weetamoo, but also to seventeenth-century Wampanoag women and contemporary Native American women. Weetamoo Woods tells all of their stories: the stories of enslaved Wampanoag women, the way they used and preserved the woods, and the ongoing effects of violence against Native women.”
“Status: Occupied/Unoccupied/Work in Progress: Alcatraz Island in Public Memory”
Curators Sophia Ellis and Kate Hao and designer Mengning He explore public memories of Alcatraz in an exhibition placed in one of the abandoned industrial buildings on the island, now a very popular national park. The exhibit shows how government, Hollywood, and media shaped ideas about the prison; it examines the National Park Service’s changing approach to Alcatraz; and highlights the persistence of Indigenous peoples on Alcatraz to underscore the significance of unofficial Indigenous memory-making.
“Empty Pedestal: Looking Beyond Removal”
Curators Ariel Lynch and Alyssa Trejo and designer Seongah Kang set their exhibition in the Parthenon Marbles room of the British Museum. Projection mapping returns the original colors to the Parthenon frieze. The center of the space is occupied by the bases that once held memorials to heroes of white supremacy on which the curators place artworks by contemporary artists of color. “Removing statues,” they write, “is not enough.” The image shows the pedestal of the J. E. B. Stuart monument removed from Richmond, Virginia, with an intervention by Simone Leigh, and the pedestal of the Edward Colston statue from Bristol, England, with an intervention by Yinka Shonibare, CBE.