Mellon Foundation grant initiates ‘Assemblages’ collaboration: Haffenreffer Museum and RISD Museum to further object-based education and research

May 15, 2014

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University and the RISD Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) have each received grants totaling $500,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for “Assemblages,” a four-year collaborative initiative focusing on the new and evolving field of object-based teaching and research.

The Mellon Foundation grant makes possible the first major academic partnership between the two museums, led by Robert Preucel, Director of the Haffenreffer Museum, and John W. Smith, Director of the RISD Museum. The grant supports Faculty Teaching Fellows, Postgraduate Photography Fellows, innovative courses, teaching workshops, and annual academic seminars during the years 2014 to 2017.

“The goals of our project are to explore how objects and digital media can be used to interrogate the boundaries of academic fields in the humanities and social sciences,” says Preucel.

Smith adds, “We are interested in developing new ways in which faculty and students can foster deeper relationships with art objects, artifacts, and digital representations.”

The Haffenreffer and RISD museums, located on neighboring campuses, have a long history of partnerships on a smaller scale, including exhibition loans, individual class visits, and K-12 curricular development. As the first significant alliance between the two museums, “Assemblages” will help break down existing boundaries, rethink our collections, and create new modes of collaboration and exhibition.

Between 2014 and 2017, “Assemblages” will:

    • Create a group of Teaching Fellows, drawn from both institutions, that uses both collections (both objects and their digital forms) in their teaching pedagogy. About 100 students are expected to benefit from these innovative courses over the term of the project.
    • Establish annual teaching workshops led by museum 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.
    • Create an annual 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.
    • Communicate the teaching and research outcomes of the project to the public, scholars, and museum professionals through online material and collaborative publications and projects.

About the Partner Museums

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. For more information, please visit

The RISD Museum is an internationally renowned art museum distinguished by its relationship to one of the world’s leading colleges of art and design. Founded with RISD in 1877, the Museum houses seven curatorial departments and more than 91,000 objects ranging from 3700 BCE to the present day, and featuring major figures in the history of visual art and culture. Highlights include one of the nation’s finest collections of costume and textiles, with more than 26,000 objects created since 1500 BCE; the world’s largest collection of Gorham silver, housed in the first museum wing devoted to American decorative arts; a 12-century seated Buddha, one of the largest Japanese statues in the United States; and significant collections of ancient Egyptian objects, Impressionist paintings, contemporary British art, 20th-century design, and more. As the only comprehensive art museum in southeastern New England, the RISD Museum is a vital cultural resource with a rich and varied program of exhibitions, lectures, workshops, special events, and publications to educate and inspire artists, designers, students, scholars, and the greater community. For more information, please visit

About the Museum Directors

Robert Preucel is Director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology and Professor of Anthropology at Brown University. Trained as an anthropological archaeologist, he is particularly interested in the relationships of archaeology and society. His fieldwork projects include the archaeology of a utopian community in Massachusetts (the Brook Farm Project) and a post Pueblo Revolt community in New Mexico (the Kotyiti Research Project).

Preucel received his B.A. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1978, his M.A. in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and his Ph.D. in archaeology from UCLA in 1988. He was the 6th Annual CAI Visiting Scholar at SIU Carbondale in 1989 and organized a conference on the Processual/Postprocessual debate. In 1990, he took an Assistant Professor position at Harvard University. In 1995, he left Harvard for an Associate Professor position at the University of Pennsylvania. There, he was appointed Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Professor of Anthropology in 2009 and served as Chair of the Department (2009-2012) and Gregory Annenberg Weingarten Curator-in-charge of the American Section at University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (2010-2012).

John W. Smith joined the RISD Museum in September 2011, and has devoted his attention to strengthening the Museum’s relationship with RISD and the greater community, increasing access through free admission policies, overseeing the design and development of new online initiatives, and expanding the Museum’s curatorial expertise. From 2006 to 2011, Smith served as Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, the world’s leading research center devoted to the study of the visual arts of America. During his tenure, the Archives significantly increased online access to the collection and established its first programs for publications and traveling exhibitions.

Smith previously served for 11 years at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as assistant director for collections, exhibitions, and research—and, in 1995-1996, as interim director. He organized numerous exhibitions for the Warhol Museum, and published extensively on Warhol and his circle. Smith has also held positions as chief archivist at the Art Institute of Chicago (1990-1994), visiting archivist at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London (1991), and founding curator of special collections and archives at the Chicago Park District (1988-1990). He received his B.A. in English at Southern Illinois University, and did graduate work at the University of Illinois.

About The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation currently makes grants in four core program areas: Higher Education and Scholarship; Scholarly Communications and Information Technology; Art History, Conservation, and Museums; Performing Arts. Within each of its core programs, the Foundation concentrates most of its grantmaking in a few areas. Institutions and programs receiving support are often leaders in fields of Foundation activity, but they may also be promising newcomers, or in a position to demonstrate new ways of overcoming obstacles to achieve program goals. The Foundation’s grantmaking philosophy is to build, strengthen and sustain institutions and their core capacities, rather than be a source for narrowly defined projects.