Letter from the Director

July 1, 2020

Dear Students, Alumni, Colleagues, Fellows, Partners, and Friends of the JNBC,

As I begin my role as the new Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, I would like to introduce myself and outline some of my goals. I truly look forward to working with everyone – the faculty, staff, students and the many partner organizations.

In the light of recent events, I want to begin by saying that all of us at the Center firmly stand with those who peacefully demonstrate against police brutality and racism of any kind. We believe that Black Lives Matter, Black and Indigenous history matters and that the Public Humanities have a powerful role to play in telling a fuller story of our country’s complicated and fraught heritageWe mourn the lives that have been lost to racism and to the genocide and displacement of the Indigenous people who inhabited this land before the white settlers arrived. We are hopeful that this current momentum will lead to substantial, systemic change.

Public Humanities can make a lasting difference. Its mission is both to bring the work of academia to the public and to have public experiences inform, sharpen and engage our scholarly thinking as well as our work in the world. We have a responsibility to be part of current debates and to take initiative in the public sphere. This work needs patience, empathy, a willingness to engage with and show compassion for those who think differently and, above all, it needs perseverance.

I have begun talking to many who are currently involved in the Center’s activities and will continue those fruitful conversations throughout the summer and of course, greatly look forward to welcoming the incoming class of graduate students in the fall and getting to know the current cohort. I am happy to build on the excellent work of the previous Director, Prof. Susan Smulyan, of the Department of American Studies, with which we will continue our collaboration. My own interests in architecture and urban issues, in public art and history will lead to an increased engagement with those departments at Brown and with the Rhode Island School of Design and its museum as well. I hope that this will open new areas of engagement for our students and expand the presence of the Center in additional areas of the University and beyond.

I also cannot emphasize enough how much I love the house (cared for with great dedication by Ron Potvin, Assistant Director for Professional Programs). I spent a lot of time there poring over the Brown family papers in the mid 1990s, when we were working on the exhibition about Windshield, the house on Fishers Island, which John Nicholas Brown commissioned in 1936 from modernist architect Richard Neutra. (Elissa Brown, who made a wonderful film about the project, was one of my students.) In my eyes, the home of the JNBC is not just the second oldest building on our campus, but also, by far, its most fascinating and evocative. Very few, if any, universities can point to one single building that reminds us of its complicated history as profoundly as this one. I intend to spend much time researching many of its lesser known aspects. I look forward to sharing my interests and learning from those who have lived, worked and studied here.

We hope to continue and strengthen the Center’s role as an inviting and inclusive meeting space for both the academic and the urban community through a rich program of lectures, conferences and exhibitions, accompanied by engaged discussions and convivial gatherings (… as soon as it is considered safe again). I look forward to working closely with Marisa Brown, Assistant Director of Programs, who has done such a fantastic job for many years. (Just yesterday she led a truly inspiring zoom conversation with the artist Karyn Olivier … it will be online soon – not to be missed.) We will continue to work closely with many centers and initiatives on Brown’s campus and cultural and historical organizations in Rhode Island. We also look forward to continuing our architecture lecture series (sponsored by the Pritzker Foundation of Chicago) in honor of J. Carter Brown, former Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the last family member to (occasionally) stay in the house.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to me with questions and suggestions (either directly or via our wonderful manager Sabina Griffin), and I hope to meet most people who read this in person or at least via zoom in the months ahead.

Dietrich Neumann is a professor in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown. His publications and classes deal with aspects of the global built environment from the 19th Century to the present, and in particular with questions of architecture, politics and memory. For the past six years, he has served as Director of Urban Studies, he founded his department’s Architecture Concentration and he chairs the University’s Public Art Working Group. His Public Humanities projects (often developed with students in his classes) include a smart phone App for the architecture of Brown’s Campus, called FACADES (also similar Apps for IIT and MIT), the organization of 36 Urban Studies Bus Tours of Providence, maps of the Jewelry District, and of Murals and Graffiti Art in Providence.