How Public Humanities Expanded My Ethnographic Practice (and Helped Me Get a Job)

Visitors to the National Gallery of Art gathering around “Museo del Prado 7, Madrid 2005,” a photograph by Thomas Struth showing a school group sketching Diego Velazquez’s “Las Meninas.” National Gallery of Art photo by Phil Roeder
May 7, 2019

I’ve always been deeply curious about human thoughts and behavior, how we translate and communicate our interior lives to others, but it wasn’t until college that I realized anthropology and museum studies could be a way to pursue this curiosity. I learned that museums are not neutral spaces that present straightforward facts, but are political institutions that actively work to shape public perceptions of science, history, culture, and art. In my classes, I posed questions like: “How and why do people participate in cultural activities?” and “What makes for a transformative cultural experience?” As an anthropology major, my main tool for answering these questions was ethnography, what James Clifford described as a process that “translates experience into text.” He said:

There are various ways of effecting this translation, ways that have significant ethical and political consequences…One can present this textualization as the outcome of observation, of interpretation, of dialogue…One can feature multiple voices, or a single voice. One can portray the other as a stable, essential whole, or one can show it to be the product of a narrative of discovery, in specific historical circumstances.

Throughout my undergraduate coursework, I conducted ethnographies in museums, observing and interviewing visitors and staff, noticing how exhibition designs affected how people maneuvered through these spaces, and comparing visitors’ experiences to staff’s intentions. In all this work, I didn’t really question the idea that my anthropological observations and conversations would become written documents. But after college, when I was designing visitor research studies, I realized that just writing about people’s experiences in museums wasn’t satisfying. I came to the Public Humanities program at Brown because I wanted to tell stories that would use ethnography but also dynamically capture what it feels like to walk through an exhibit, look at an object, or play with an interactive. While all of my courses helped me hone my storytelling and research skills, two experiences particularly impacted me: Museum Interpretation Practices with Sarah Ganz Blythe and Critical Ethnography with Jasmine Johnson.

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Muhammad Ali, 1970
Yousuf Karsh

In Museum Interpretation Practices, we were tasked with researching an object on display at the RISD Museum and producing new interpretation materials. For my object, I picked Yousuf Karsh’s 1970 portrait of Muhammad Ali, shown here.

Before taking this photograph, Karsh wrote:

Within every man and woman, a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world.

To me, Karsh’s statement about his role as a photographer felt very similar to the work of ethnographers: trying to uncover the deeper meaning behind people’s behavior. But I was also intrigued by how photographic subjects could resist these readings and was curious about how self-portraits might reveal other aspects of people’s lives. For my final project for Museum Interpretation Practices, I decided to explore the overlap between photography, ethnography, and self-expression by using Instagram as an ethnographic and interpretive tool. Using Picodash (a tool for analyzing Instagram posts), I pulled public Instagram posts that had been geotagged at the RISD Museum. I examined what the photos highlighted (objects, galleries, people), where in the museum the photos were taken, what textual descriptions accompanied these photos, and how the subject matter, composition, and descriptions differed from posts on the RISD Museum official Instagram feed. For me, these Instagram posts were a way to see visitors’ experiences in-context, to get a better understanding of what they thought made an object worthy of their attention and how their views aligned and diverged from what RISD Museum staff presented.

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A selection of images from public and institutional Instagram feeds from the RISD Museum that I analyzed as part of a project on Instagram as an ethnographic and interpretive tool for the course “Museum Interpretation Practices.” I was curious about what visitors chose to highlight in their posts and what these decisions revealed about their reactions to the RISD Museum.

My project in Museum Interpretation Practices had me yearning for a deeper dive back into ethnography and more opportunities to explore people’s experiences in-context. My second year, I landed in a course in the Theater and Performing Arts department called Critical Ethnography that looked at ethnography as a performative practice and interrogated how experiences get translated into text and what the ethical stakes for this translation are. For my final project, I conducted a self-reflexive ethnography of “Look at Art. Get Paid” (LAAGP) a blended artist-research program that I developed with colleagues at Brown and RISD (Maia Chao, Josephine Devanbu, and Maria Paula Garcia Mosquera). LAAGP paid people who rarely, if ever, go to art museums to visit the RISD Museum, look at art, and serve as guest critics, sharing their thoughts on the Museum, its collections, and its visitors. LAAGP combined semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and art education techniques to understand art and museums from the perspectives of those who choose, for one reason or another, not to visit. For Critical Ethnography I used videos, interviews with my colleagues and participants, and critical ethnography theories to understand the different contexts that all the stakeholders brought to LAAGP. This was the first time that I had done an ethnography on a project I was directly involved in and it pushed me to interrogate how my value systems, as someone who is familiar and comfortable with art museums, compared to participants’ values.

I mention these experiences to showcase the range of work that falls under the umbrella of “public humanities.” Public humanities expanded my ethnographic practice by pushing me to use new tools like photography and video to explore people’s behaviors, motivations, and values (including my own). Public humanities helped clarify my identity as a creative researcher, someone who is deeply invested in using anthropology and ethnography but who also wants to tell compelling stories that can have a positive impact on society. After graduation, I knew I wanted to build my storytelling and research skills even more and continue using photography and video to understand why people do the things that they do.

 

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A photo of the dscout office space, where I currently work, showcasing our People Nerds motto and an illustration featuring the company values. Photo by Timo Kuhn, Design Director at dscout.

 

I ultimately found a job as a Research Analyst on The Studio team at dscout, a Chicago-based qualitative research company that gathers participant insights through a smartphone app, with a heavy focus on video and photographic data. Based on my experience, my advice for those entering the job market would be: reflect on your projects, courses, and jobs focusing on what you’ve learned and what skills you’re interested in further developing; think creatively about the spaces where you can use public humanities; and look for institutions that share your values. In my job search, I looked for organizations that had a research mindset (and were especially strong in qualitative research), people-centric missions, and offered opportunities for growth. I might not have gone to Brown planning to end up at a startup software company, but dscout immediately struck me as a place where curiosity about human behavior is celebrated and where I would be able to study the public in places other than museums. I think dscout’s goals align well with public humanists’ goals: telling nuanced, rich, detailed stories about real people and real experiences. At dscout, I’ve been able to apply my training in public humanities to a new environment to inform the development of products and services that people use on a daily basis. For more on how ethnography translates to consumer and user research, I’d highly recommend checking out EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Community), whose annual international conference will be held in Providence in November (https://2019.epicpeople.org)


Bryn Pernot is an interdisciplinary researcher, educator, public programmer, and administrator who combines detail-oriented strategic thinking with creative, collaborative approaches to encourage positive social change. She graduated from the Public Humanities program in 2018.

 

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