Excursions: Michigan

Last week I talked about a wonderful conference I attended in Michigan. Today I’ll tell you more about my adventures in Michigan itself.

I spent most of my time in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. With its funky restaurants and eclectic shops, it reminded me of a larger version of Burlington, Vermont, a city I frequented during my days at Shelburne Museum. It’s more than twice the size of Burlington with a population of 100,000 though, so there was a lot to see and do.

The campus itself, at least what I saw of it, is also quite lovely, with lots of old building in a variety of architectural styles. You’ve got plenty of neoclassical facades, of course, as at the art museum, but you’ve also got more eclectic Victorian styles such as Richardsonian Romanesque, as is the case with the Archaeology Department at Newberry Hall. Lake Forest College, my alma mater, has an anthropology department housed in a building similar to this one.

And did I mention there are multiple used bookstores?

As fun as Ann Arbor was to explore, however, the real highlight of my trip outside of the conference itself was my excursion to Detroit to see its Institute of Arts. I hadn’t initially planned on going, but when one of my fellow presenters reminded me it was less than an hour away, I knew I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.

Golly, am I glad I went; what a collection!

One of the salient points of the collection is its fresco cycle from Diego Rivera. Painted between 1932-1933 and commissioned for the museum by Edsel Ford, the cycle depicts modern manufacturing in Detroit, specifically the famed assembly line at the Ford factories. Rivera was fascinated with modern industry and it really shows in this piece, with the artist carefully weaving complex yet legible compositions from steel, rubber, and other modern materials. Rivera being Rivera, there’s also class commentary and critiques of capitalism going on here, as he reflects on both the positive and negative products of modern manufacturing, from pharmaceuticals to poison gas, to workers who become increasingly indistinguishable from the machinery they work.


Given the size of the museum, it has over 65,000 objects, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see everything, but of what I did see, I was impressed. I was really excited to encounter this Charles Sheeler, for instance. While probably best known today for his Precisionist renderings of industrial cityscapes, he also painted several interiors of his historical farmhouse in Bucks County. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and others praised his paintings for embodying a modern interpretation of vernacular America. After only encountering these paintings in photographic form, it was really exciting to see one in person. What struck me, aside from the variety of abstract patterns going on in the rugs and the repetition of shapes in furniture and cast shadows, is the sense of warmth from the painting. He does an excellent job of using reflected light and imperfect brushstrokes as rendered in the some of the rugs to both convey the texture of woven fibers and a sense of invitation. This may be a Precisionist-inspired composition, but it is by no means cold or unfeeling.

The contemporary collections are also outstanding, particularly the contemporary African American material, shown in the bottom image. The same fellow presenter who recommended I check out the museum had suggested this gallery to me, and again, I’m glad I went. The pieces in this gallery all conveyed a variety of complex emotions and experiences, from the grief of losing a loved one to resilience in the face of systemic racism and oppression. Anyone interested in American art, especially contemporary materials, should definitely check out this space.

There’s also plenty of material for more visitors with more historical tastes, as is the case with this Gothic family chapel, brought over from France in the years immediately following WWI. Brandon especially enjoyed this picture when I showed it to him, so if we ever go to Detroit together we’ll definitely be spending some time here.

What’s funny is that I could have worked here at one point. In 2017, when I was still at Roswell and beginning to research graduate programs, one of the curators reached out to me to apply for the Prints and Drawings Curator position, then open at the time. She had seen my CV on the Association of Print Scholars website and contacted me. After thinking it over I went ahead and applied, had a phone interview, and got invited out for an on-site session. I turned it down, however, because the Hurd/Wyeth retrospective I was working on at the time was less than a year from opening and I didn’t want to abandon the project.

In retrospect, I’m glad I went through with the graduate school applications. I’ve no doubt that working at the DIA would be immensely rewarding, but I probably would have also shelved my research on art centers indefinitely and not gone back for my PhD. The great thing about museums, however, is that no position is ever occupied forever, so who knows, maybe our paths will cross again. And if not, it’s definitely a fantastic place to visit and I heartily recommend it.

All in all, this was a great trip, and I got a lot out of it both professionally and personally.

Conference in Ann Arbor

I have a habit of ending my academic year somewhat frantically. At the end of my first year at Williams, I turned in all my papers a week early so that I could start a summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society. The following year, barely a week after graduating, I moved from New England to Wyoming to commence an internship at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. This year, I drove 12 hours to Michigan the day after I turned in my last paper to present at a conference.

But what a conference! As harried as I may have felt preparing for it, I’m really glad I went.

The conference in question was “Making History Public(s): Presenting the Collective,” sponsored by the University of Michigan’s History Department. The topic of the conference, as the title suggests, was public history. Many of the papers addressed the practical side of teaching public history, with examples including a paper describing the collaborative process of reinterpreting of a historic farm space on a limited budget, or a paper describing a potential class syllabus on police brutality. Others dealt with more historical instances of public-building, as was the case in a paper describing the infrastructure needed to transport live giraffes to the United States during the 19th century, or a presentation exploring the racial and gender implications of teeth whitening during the 18th century.

Looking into the main galley. The exhibition on view includes plates from the Index of American Design, on loan from the FAP, with antiques from local residents, giving the community a role and presence in exhibition content.

My paper fell into the latter camp, as I was talking about the Roswell Museum’s public building during the WPA era. Essentially I explored federal art centers as venues for both art education and community-building through a case study of the Roswell Museum and Art Center in New Mexico, as it’s the art center I still know best at this point. I argued that from its inception, the Roswell Museum navigated ongoing tensions between the expectations of its local sponsors and federal staff regarding public outreach and engagement, as federal personnel and local supporters often had different expectations for the museum. Despite these disagreements, the museum consistently attempted to address multiple audiences by inviting visitors to contribute objects to exhibitions, offering classes at different locations in town, and acting as a performance space. After providing an overview of these activities, I then shared a few pages from my Scalar book as a means of showing how digital scholarship can begin to render the publics affiliated with these institutions more readily visible.

One building, many publics.

This was a great conference for me for several reasons. From a topical standpoint, this was the first time I participated in a conference in a discipline other than art history or museum studies, so it was a good way to test whether my work really is interdisciplinary enough to engage other academic fields. It had also been about two years since I last presented in this type of academic setting, so it was a good opportunity to refamiliarize myself with that process.

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The museum’s role as a meeting and performance space offered some of the most interesting efforts in public-building.

Most importantly, I got some good feedback about my work, received helpful suggestions or recommendations for moving forward, and made some great new contacts. As I mentioned in a previous post, I participated in a lot of conferences when I was working, but the papers usually related to an exhibition I was working on at the time. As soon as the show opened, my research on it usually ceased so that I could move on to the next thing. I’m going to be living with my art center work for a long time though, so conferences will be a good way to present ongoing work and new ideas as I keep digging into the subject. If nothing else, the reception I got at this conference was a good reminder that the work I’m doing is interesting and worthwhile to people other than myself.

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Among the most significant performances to take place at the Roswell Museum during the WPA era was the staging of a Mystery Play, Los Pastores, by Roswell residents, all in Spanish. Here’s a picture from the cast, late 1938.

The conference was good for more than academics, however. Stay tuned next week to learn about my adventures in Michigan itself.

Semester Project #1: Modern US

My last day of classes was on April 26th, and I turned in the last of my projects on May 8th, so I’ve officially wrapped up my first year at William and Mary. Even though I’ve turned everything in, I’d like to tell you what I worked on, beginning with today’s post for Modern US.

In addition to completing all of the class readings, for our final project we had to pick a topic pertaining to Modern US history, read several books addressing it, and write a historiographic essay analyzing the works we read and how they related to one another. Since the objective of this course wasn’t just to read about historical topics, but to analyze how historians construct their arguments, this assignment is an exercise in seeing how history is practiced as an academic discipline. After all, history is never simply a review of facts, but an argument about the past and how it influences us today.

For my essay, I decided to focus on the development of highways and related roads. Since I’m interested in travel infrastructures more broadly, I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some more background information on this subject, as well as learn about some of the key social and economic questions associated with it.

The books that I read approached roads from a variety of angles. Some texts, such as Mark Rose’s Interstate, explore the federal government’s role in developing the federal highway system, one of the largest public works projects ever completed. Other books such as Eric Avila’s Folklore of the Freeway consider the ethnic communities impacted by highway infrastructure, and how they have used artwork and other forms of creative expression to reassert a sense of agency over their community structures. Still other works such as Christopher Wells’ Car Country approach highways from an environmental perspective and examine how interstates have shaped human ecology in the twentieth century. A related work, Paul S. Sutter’s Driven Wild, looks at the idea of roadlessness and its significance in defining the modern wilderness. All of these texts are interested in examining how interstates have shaped American society, but they approach the question from different perspectives, resulting in a rich variety of answers to the same basic inquiry.

One question or topic can go in many directions, it’s a matter of deciding where you’d like to go.

What all of these books taught me is that there is no singular history of the interstate system, and that the interests and concerns of the historians who wrote these texts resulted in significantly different works. I know it sounds obvious, but it was good to read about the same topic from these different vantage points because it underscored for me the different ways I can approach my own research. Regardless of how my final dissertation turns out, it will not be the definitive, final work on community art centers. Rather, the angle I’ll take will simply provide opportunities for other scholars to approach them from different perspectives and further enrich their scholarship.

Compared to the other two essays I’ve been working on, this one is least concerned with my own research, but it’s still been a very valuable project for me. From a purely informational standpoint, it’s been a great opportunity to learn about an infrastructure system I didn’t know very much about. More importantly, perhaps, it’s encouraged me to think about different angles for my own work. While this project may not have addressed my interest in art centers directly, it has been a valuable exercise in exploring research questions from different vantage points.