Mellon Assemblages Project

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and the RISD Museum are pleased to announce the Assemblages project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The Assemblages project is a four-year pilot program that includes Faculty Teaching Fellows, Postgrad Photography Fellows, innovative courses, teaching workshops, and academic seminars. It is the first major collaboration between our two museums. We hope it will serve as a basis for future collaborations and as a model for collaborations between other university-based anthropology and art museums.

The organizing concept for our dialogue is the idea of "assemblage." This term has a variety of meanings derived from its many uses in the disciplines of art history, literature, archaeology, anthropology, and sociology, among other fields. We seek to work across these different meanings as we explore the shape and contours of key topics in art and society. Our method involves breaking down the digital/analog divide through collaborative research and innovative teaching practices and by exploring the use and interpretation of collections in their real and virtual contexts. We are interested in developing ways in which faculty and students can form deep relationships with museum objects and their representations that are multivalent and expansive.

Our project is directly linked to the distinctive missions and strategic plans of our two institutions. It enhances Brown University's commitment to intellectual creativity, collaboration and social purpose to achieve greater levels of academic distinction by uniting innovative education and outstanding research to benefit the community, the nation and the world. It contributes to RISD Museum's mission to interpret works of art and design representing diverse cultures from ancient times to the present. It also furthers RISD College’s new initiative to provide increased opportunities for faculty research.


Art Museums and Anthropology Museums are deeply entangled in a series of seminal debates about culture and society (Layton 1991, Morphy and Perkins 2006, Phillips and Steiner 1999, Schneider 2006). One line of investigation has addressed art and aesthetics. In this case, art is valued because it facilitates the contemplation of transcendent human values. A second focus is art and civilization. Here art is approached as an index of cultural progress or evolutionary stage. A third focus is on art and commodification. This perspective is reified by the art market and the development of connoisseurship.

These approaches have been and continue to be critiqued from a variety of perspectives and in an increasingly globalized art environment. For example, in many indigenous cultures there is no category that corresponds to art in its Western sense. This situation calls into question the idea of art as a universal or transcendent value. Similarly, anthropologists have challenged the idea of art as an expression of cultural progress and effectively decoupled cultural practices from the idea of civilization. Finally, artists and art historians have questioned the commodification process as representing the "end of art" and examined changing local and global contexts and new social relations as creative processes in their own right.

Recently, artists and anthropologists working across the boundaries of their respective disciplines have emphasized the generative potential of each other's "fieldwork" practices (Schneider and Wright 2010). These scholars are exploring the techniques of artmaking and the methods of engaging with communities as inspiration for new art/anthropology collaborations. We seek to build on this movement by interrogating the kinds of interpretive and semiotic practices that characterize our associations with objects, broadly defined. We are particularly interested in examining the relation of objects to their representations and digital dissemination. For example, some of the most interesting contemporary work involves visualizing patterns of dissemination after art objects are created, and studying the diverse networks they enter into (Horst and Miller 2012, Joselit 2012). This is a key topic in David Joselit’s book After Art, and constitutes what he calls a new "epistemology of the search" defined as "the formatting and reformatting of existing content."

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology is one of the leading university-based anthropology museums in the country. Founded in the early 1900s, it holds more than one million ethnographic objects, archaeological specimens and images from all parts of the world, with particular strengths in the Americas, Africa and Southeast Asia. The Museum seeks to inspire creative and critical thinking about culture by fostering interdisciplinary research and education to increase our understanding of the material world. It provides opportunities for faculty and students to work with collections and the public, teaching through objects and programs in classrooms, in the gallery in Manning Hall on campus, and at the Collections Research Center in Bristol, RI.

The Art Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design is an internationally renowned university art museum. Founded in 1877, it houses over 90,000 works of art. Its mission is to acquire, preserve, exhibit, and interpret works of art and design representing diverse cultures from ancient times to the present. The Museum also educates and inspires artists, designers, students, scholars, and the general public through exhibitions, programs, and publications. For example, the Department of Costume and Textiles consists of over 15,000 objects, dating from antiquity to the present. The Department of Contemporary Art oversees a collection of painting, sculpture, video, mixed media, and interdisciplinary work, dating from 1960 to the present.

The Haffenreffer and RISD Museums have a long history of past collaboration. However, these collaborations have typically occurred on a small scale and mainly in the context of exhibition loans, individual class visits and K-12 curricular collaborations. Our proposed project is the first major academic partnership between our museums. It has the potential to redefine museum practice, break down existing boundaries, rethink collections, and create new modes of collaboration and exhibition. Programs that blur the line between objects and their representations, between the museum and the internet, and between teaching and research, suggest exciting possibilities for the future of university-based art and anthropology museums.


The goals of our project are to challenge traditional academic fields in the humanities and social sciences by examining their margins and interstices as productive areas of research in this globalized and technologized world. Increasingly, these margins and interstices are becoming more central as they are incorporated into emerging digital networks created by the circulation of virtual images. And yet, the objects themselves still retain considerable authority and museums gain even greater significance as the unique sites for the close examination of the physical object in all its materiality. It is precisely this interplay between objects and their representations that we wish to explore.

Our project has four components:

1) We will create a group of Teaching Fellows drawn from both of our institutions, who will make use of our collections (often mediating both objects and digital forms) in their teaching pedagogy. A significant number of students (approximately 100) will be involved in these innovative courses over the term of the project.

2) We will establish annual teaching workshops led by our staff to introduce fellows and interested faculty to best practices related to object-based teaching. Fellows will also lead a workshop reporting on the outcomes their pedagogical experiences at the end of their appointment.

3) We will establish an annual "high profile" seminar engaging the fellows, undergraduate and graduate students from Brown and RISD, and nationally recognized scholars on significant problems or questions related to object-based teaching and the digital interfaces of art, anthropology, and society.

4) We plan to communicate the teaching and research outcomes of the project to the public, interested scholars and museum professionals both online and in collaborative publications and projects.