Day of Public Humanities
May 9, 2017 was the first ever Day of Public Humanities (DayofPH). The John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanity’s post-doctoral fellows Robyn Schroeder and Jim McGrath, and Inge Zwart (MA ’17) curated, organized, and hosted three events on Brown’s campus and an elaborate online discussion in order to raise the profile of the public humanities with specific attention to questions of labor within the field. In this blog post, we share our reflections on the events, show some behind-the-scenes preparations, and introduce tentative future plans.
Before the first plans for DayofPH were fully developed, we generated a list of public humanities ‘luminaries,’ soliciting suggestions from students and alumni of the Public Humanities program. Adding up to over 100 artists, scholars, educators, curators, EDs, CEOs, and civil servants, the list included the former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus; actress and artist Miranda July; local museum educator Jackie Delamatre and Brown professor Monica Martinez. Wanting to reach out to these luminaries in one way or another, we ended up sending letters to them, with a stamped postcard in the envelope. In our note we announced they had been named public humanities luminaries, and asked them to visualize a standard day in their busy lives on the postcard and return it to us, hoping to better understand, and to help us show, the work that makes up public humanities. The results are amazing. We received to-do lists, graphs, quotes, and drawings. The postcards point to emotional labor of public humanities work, give insight into the precarious balance between office administration and public engagement, and highlight the intensely collaborative nature of all our luminaries’ work.
Many of the people we reached out to do not self-identify as public humanists and some of them had never heard of the field - as Robyn mentions in her intellectual historical account of the term ‘public humanities’: “there are still many more public humanists than the very small proportion who now claim the name explicitly.” In her essay, published on our website, she offers an answer to the question, “What are the public humanities?” by providing an overview of the usage of the term throughout history. Looking back on the Day of Public Humanities, we realize that our postcard project allowed us to imagine another way of answering the seemingly gigantic question of definition. Simply looking at the vast diversity of professions, institutions, and people represented on our luminaries list, we now better understand how public humanities can be translated into different professions throughout the world, involves work that touches upon the hyperlocal and global, and makes people engage with arts, culture, social justice and each other, off- and online. We continue to reflect on what this project can tell us about a definition of the public humanities, a line of inquiry we are using for an upcoming writing project.
Back to May 9th. On this day, we invited the luminaries to join our online conversation, curated by the DayofPH team on twitter and documented through #DayofPH. We discussed questions like ”What was your first paid Public Humanities job?,” “What has been your favorite form of humanities advocacy in 2017?,” and “What work does the term “public humanities help you do?” Through TAGS, we were able to document over 800 engagements with our hashtag (original tweets, likes, or RTs of other accounts using the hashtag), spread across almost 300 accounts. Not bad for our first time out! We learned a lot about how to engage (and not engage) through this process: some questions hit the mark, while others seemed too complicated or tricky to pin down in a brief amount of space.
To raise the profile of the public humanities at our own university, we hosted three events on Brown’s campus. Perhaps the most public of the three was our art installation “Doing Public Humanities.” We placed a fully equipped desk – with corkboard, hole puncher, stapler, picture frames and calendars – on the main green, in the middle of campus. Eventually relocated because of rain to the Faunce Arch, we hosted five sets of performers. Emily Sellon, Bryn Pernot, Maggie Goddard, Marisa Angell Brown, and the Public Humanities Center Staff all worked at the desk for an hour. Behind the exhibit label of the installation, public humanists wrote, held meetings and researched. Together, we created our own to-do list, which included curriculum editing, participation in the Public Humanities Center weekly staff meeting, writing a blog post, researching queer oral history projects, and eating a scone. Passers-by stopped to watch, talk with and ask questions to the performing public humanists. People were excited and surprised to see a desk in the middle of campus.
During lunch on May 9th, we transformed the garage of the John Nicholas Brown Center of Public Humanities into a temporary art studio. Twenty people, staff and students from Brown University came to paint, stencil, and decoupage canvases into art with various advocacy messages. Artists wanted “trans rights now,” “more art,” and for you to “pay your interns” and enjoyed the time spent making art and socializing with others from across campus. We are especially happy with engaging university affiliates from areas we infrequently collaborate with, including the School of Public Health and the University’s admissions office.
We closed the day with a panel titled “How to Advocate for the Arts and Humanities in the Age of Trump,” organized and chaired by the Director of the Center for Public Humanities, Professor Susan Smulyan. Panelists included the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Elizabeth Francis; the Executive Director of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, Randall Rosenbaum; Karen Mellor, Chief of Library Services at the Office of Library and Information Services at the Rhode Island Department of Administration; and president, CEO, and general manager of Rhode Island Public Radio, Torey Malatia. This great group of regional public humanists shared their best advice about advocating for the humanities. The advice they gave was to share your art or humanities stories with your state representatives, support your local art community by joining events or perhaps donating to their organizations, and invite your friends in red states to do the same. Do you want to read more about advocacy efforts? Take a look at the advocacy page on our DayofPH website.
Students enrolled in Robyn's undergraduate course, Public Humanities: History, Theory & Practice, used the Day of Public Humanities as a platform to launch three events, themed around “The Public Humanities and Ways of Knowing.” Their projects picked up on larger course themes like the accessibility of knowledge, participatory practices, and contemporary attempts to recuperate histories of colonization and white supremacism in the rise of museums, libraries, and non-profit institutions. They brought back to campus the goal that students had set for themselves at the outset of the class and pursued through ethnographic research: to de-center Brown University in their understanding of Providence’s knowledge economy and to valorize local sites and ways of knowing beyond the gates on College Hill. One installation was a mailbox that invited passers-by to write a note to their past selves reflecting on what the university had and hadn’t taught them. The second was a conversation project in which large and small groups discussed the possibility of decolonizing higher education over treats in a campus meeting space. The third was a pair of passed notebooks, which traveled through the main (Rockefeller) and science libraries on campus, asking students to answer, anonymously, the question “What have you learned this year that would not be valued by a university?” De-centering Brown, at Brown, during the hubbub of the end of reading week, provided challenges in their approach and some surprises in implementation. Responses which were variously thoughtful, comic, and impassioned, came from more than 100 participants.
Now, at the start of the new academic year, we look back at a successful event. Day of Public Humanities allowed us to introduce new people across campus to our field and provided an online platform for (young) professionals and public humanities organizations to talk about their work. Through these efforts, we learned that the public humanities is a well-known enough term to attract and interest a variety of people in online conversations and offline events, and an unknown enough field to warrant attempts to raise its profile and actively engage more
people with our work. In addition, we have seen how public humanities work happens simultaneously in the confines of an office space and in the public eye, and how an event like Day of Public Humanities might help make visual all aspects of our work. Ultimately, the project leaves us particularly interested in elaborating on the following questions:
- How do the public humanities translate across borders, professions and environments? What remains the same and what changes?
- What are the processes of definition embedded in our project? How can the list of public humanities luminaries, the various to-do lists, the Twitter conversations and the “doing public humanities” art installation help us better understand how to define -- and who should define -- the public humanities?
- How might we see the term public humanities change in the future?
For the first-ever Day of Public Humanities, we set modest goals of engagement, which we exceeded. It was heart-warming to see the global reach of our online conversations, to be able to (re)connect with public humanists we know well, and learn about new projects around the United States. Its success convinced us to organize again next year. We hope to expand the day by inviting colleagues to host events in their own communities, thereby raising the profile of the public humanities and engaging more people with our fluid field. Plans will be further developed in the following months; keep an eye on this website and the Day of Public Humanities website for more information. Of course, we welcome any suggestion and ideas for the next iteration of the Day of Public Humanities, scheduled for April 4th, 2018.
Inge Zwart is a 2017 graduate from the Public Humanities M.A. program and since then returned to the Netherlands where she continues to work in the field of the public history of Dutch slavery and colonialism. Robyn Schroeder (Postdoctoral Fellow in Public Humanities) and Jim McGrath (Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities) contributed to this blog.