So What Exactly is a Dissertation Prospectus, Anyway?

At the beginning of this year, a time that feels like a million years ago now, I wrote a post called “So How Exactly Do You Get a Ph.D., Anyway?” In that post, I described the basic steps you go through to get a degree in American Studies at William & Mary. Today, I’d like to take a closer look at step three on that list, the prospectus.

What is a prospectus? Essentially it’s a roadmap for a larger project such as a book, or in the case of a Ph.D. program, a dissertation. Over the course of 15-20 or so pages, you discuss what you want to write about, what chapters or organizing themes you plan to draft, which authors or methodologies you intend to use, which archival sources you’ll rely on, if applicable, and most importantly, the argument or intervention you want to make in your fields of choice. While it’s understood that the dissertation will change and evolve as you get a better grasp on the subject, the prospectus is there to demonstrate to your committee that you’re not delving into the process completely clueless about what you’re doing.

This is where I’m at right now. Over the next few months, I’ll put together my own prospectus, and plan on having my colloquium next semester.

So how do you go about writing a prospectus? On the advice of several of my more advanced cohorts, the first thing I did was get myself a dissertation journal, a place where I can write down any questions, organizing ideas, and other thoughts relating to this project. Admittedly I’ve never been a consistent journal-keeper outside of special trips, but then again I’ve never written a dissertation, so this seemed like as good a time as any to start a new habit. I ordered my journal online from Jenni Bick, a locally-owned stationer based in Washington, DC.

My new dissertation journal. I got the Leutturm 1917 Master Notebook (A4+) in red, basically the biggest journal in the boldest color for big, bold ideas. The pen is a Lamy fountain pen, as I’d read they require less pressure for writing than a ballpoint, which I figured would be good for long-term hand health. So far, so good.

Journaling aside, I’ve been doing more reading.

More reading? Didn’t you just read 200 books for exams? Yes, but those readings were primarily intended to get a broad understanding of the academic fields that engage my interests and work. With prospectus readings, your aims are a bit more focused. Rather than aim for a broad understanding of a field, you’re seeking out the authors whose methods or areas of research closely engage your own work, and decide how their work could inform yours. All scholarship is inspired by other scholarship, after all, and a big part of the dissertation is demonstrating that you’re familiar with current research and can dialogue with other authors. So I’ve been reading about museums, New Deal art, and current events, as they all engage my interests in art access, public education, and the role of the state in culture.

Just as I moved 2,000 miles away from Roswell to seek out new intellectual opportunities at William & Mary, my goal with the prospectus is to craft an outline for a project that goes well beyond the Roswell Museum to address other places, time periods, and subjects.

Two issues in particular have been preoccupying me since I started this process, based on feedback from both my exam committee and personal reflection. First, I want to take my dissertation beyond the Roswell Museum. RMAC has been a recurrent case study in a lot of my term papers and projects because I was already familiar with the materials, but I’ve never envisioned the dissertation being a New Mexico-centric project. At most, I see Roswell forming a chapter, but moving forward, I don’t see it being my primary focus.

The second idea is to link my interests in the Community Art Center Project, and more broadly museums, to the cultural crises of the present moment. As many scholars have observed, there are a lot of uncanny, often uncomfortable parallels between the current moment and the Great Depression in terms of economic difficulties and social unrest. Yet the way in which the current administration has approached culture is markedly different from the New Deal era, with museums and other cultural institutions struggling to remain financially solvent in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. At the same time, museums have also been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy, colonialism, and other infrastructures of inequality, with many people asking whether museums are equipped to encourage radical social change. Given my own experience working in museums, I’m familiar with how daily operations, donor relations, and institutional policies, can often detract museum workers from addressing social change, and the dissertation could be a good opportunity to discuss some of these systemic issues.

In short, my goal over the next few months is to take my various interests and coalesce them in a bigger project that can sustain my interests for the next few years. Whether it focuses solely on the Community Art Center Project and its descendants, or more broadly looks at museums, public education, state culture, or something else, whatever I write should be multifaceted, engaging, and beneficial to those who read it.

The journal is a place to write down ideas, questions, and anything else that comes to mind as I make my way toward the prospectus.

It’s a tall order, but then again, that’s why I got myself a big journal.

This Year’s Assistantship: The Equality Lab

A new academic year means a new assistantship at William & Mary, and while conditions are very different from previous semesters, I’ve still got plenty to do for the College. Today then, I’d like to talk about my assistantship with the Equality Lab.

Race, Memory, and the Digital Humanities | ASA

The Equality Lab, as the name implies, is an organization on campus focused on providing equitable opportunities for students of all backgrounds and interests. It encourages collaboration and interdisciplinary research through the digital humanities, and explores questions of representation, intersectionality, and the nature of equality as a concept. It’s open to both undergraduate and graduate researchers, and hosts various symposia, workshops, and other opportunities throughout the year.

I first got involved with the Equality Lab during my first year at William & Mary. Elizabeth Losh, the professor teaching my digital humanities seminar, encouraged me to start attending events and activities because she thought my interests in representation and labor as rendered through my archival research resonated with the overarching objectives of the Lab. Over the past couple of years, I’ve attended various workshops and talks, and have had the opportunity to meet such seminal digital scholars as Amy Earhart and Lauren Klein, among others. Since I was still in coursework, I didn’t get to attend everything, but I knew I’d want to get more involved once I was finished with classes and comps. When it came time to pick a new assistantship then, I put the Equality Lab as my first choice.

The Equality Lab typically has two graduate fellows per year. My cohort is Laura Beltran-Rubio, who also started W&M’s American Studies Program in 2018. She’s a fashion scholar researching colonial dress in 18th-century Latin America, specifically Colombia, and is interested in questions of labor, maker-based modes of academic research, representation, and ethical practices. She’s a highly engaged scholar participating in seminars, podcasts, the digital humanities, and other media, and you should definitely check out her work on her website.

Naturally, the pandemic has changed the way we do things, at least for the fall semester. As a graduate fellow, one of my duties pre-Covid would have been to hold office hours at the Equality Lab’s space in Morton Hall, a place where students can come to work or projects, study, or ask questions, but that’s unavailable for the foreseeable future. In-person workshops and seminars are also out of the question for the sake of safety and public health. Instead, we’re organizing virtual symposia and workshops for at least the fall semester, and possibly into the spring. So instead of working in Morton Hall, I’m at home, but there’s still plenty to do in terms of reaching out to potential speakers, organizing workshops, updating the website, and all-around thinking of ways to be available to students.

The pandemic has also informed the underlying themes and questions of the events we’re organizing this year. The flagship event is a series of symposia centered on the concept of home and its many connotations, from a sanctuary or shelter to a place of confinement or violence. We’ve got at least three events planned. The fall will focus on home as explored in the spatial humanities, while the spring will delve into questions of representation through disability studies, indigenous studies, and other critical frameworks. In addition to the symposia, we’re also planning different workshops throughout the year. We recently had Ravynn K. Stringfield give an excellent presentation on crafting an academic presence through Twitter, for instance, and Laura is planning on doing a similar session with Instagram in November. Given my experience with virtual conferences, I plan on putting together a workshop on conference videos in the spring.

Even though things are different this year, I’m excited to be working at the Equality Lab. I appreciate that the American Studies program endeavors to diversify the professional experiences of its students, and as much as I enjoyed TAing last year, I’m glad to be trying something new. Especially given how easy it is to isolate these days, I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to meet and interact with other students and scholars, virtually or otherwise, and to continue working on expanding my network. Most of all, I’m happy to help foster an environment of safety, acceptance, and intellectual curiosity for students, which is more important than ever now.

Comprehensive Exams: Reflecting on my Experience

On September 9, I officially passed my comprehensive exams. In terms of degree requirements, this means I am ABD: All but Dissertation. Mind you, I still have a ways to go before completing the degree because I still have to research and write the dissertation, but finishing the exams is a major milestone as it’s one of the last things you do before being cut loose to research and write. Today then, I’d like to reflect on the exams and the process I took to prepare for them.

For graduate students: I’ve included my lists as downloadable PDFs at the end of this post, so if you’re putting together your own reading lists and seeking inspiration, please feel free to download and consult them.

How I felt after finishing my written exams.

In the American Studies Program at William & Mary, the exam consists of both a written and oral portion. The written section is taken at home over four days, one day for each list. On the morning of each day, you receive a set of questions for a specific reading list. You then select two questions to answer from that list and spend the next six hours writing two essays. This means you write a total of eight different essays over four days, with the length depending on your typing speed and loquacity (I wrote about 88 pages total). Most of the questions lend themselves to a standard essay format, but there are usually a few creative options as well, such as drafting a proposal for an exhibition or undergraduate course. Regardless of the format, you’ll answer the question by citing appropriate readings from your respective lists.

The oral section is considerably shorter. Once you hand in the exams, your committee reads the essays. About a week later, you’ll come together for an hour or so to discuss the essays in more detail. I’ve heard of some programs having pretty intense orals, but my experience at W&M was more laid-back. It’s less an intellectual grilling than an opportunity to expand on your arguments or discuss points that you wanted to address but didn’t have time to delve into due to time constraints. Historically this part is done in person, but given the circumstances of COVID-19, we did it over Zoom.

I’ve heard nightmare stories about exams, but mine went about as smoothly as one can hope. I had little difficulty answering the actual questions or thinking of appropriate readings to reference, and I was able to articulate myself during the oral part. My committee was also positive and supportive of my work and ideas, which made the process much easier. The hardest part was maintaining the physical and mental stamina to complete the essays, as sitting and typing for hours on end is pretty draining. For each day of writing, I found that setting aside one of my allotted hours to outline each of my two responses really helped. Writing the introductions and conclusions for each essay first also made things easier, as it meant that regardless of how much I wrote, I had an articulate beginning and end to each piece.

What else enabled me to pull this off?

A significant part of my success stems from privilege, which made the whole process easier for me to complete. As a white, able-bodied, childfree, cisgender woman with a decent economic standing, I could focus on reading without worrying (relatively speaking, given the state of everything) about my personal safety, my bills, the well-being of any children, and so forth. Since Brandon does most of the cooking and grocery shopping, moreover, I didn’t have to spend all of my downtime on domestic labor, which meant that I could recharge from my reading through exercise, pursuing different hobbies, or resting (again, relatively speaking, all things considered). All of this meant that I entered the exams feeling adequately rested and prepared.

Previous experience also influenced my results. I’ve had to discuss my academic work before at committees, whether for my undergraduate thesis (not necessary to graduate but I was an overachiever) or the qualifying paper for my M.A., so the idea of talking about my work with faculty doesn’t intimidate me as much as it could. My work experience at museums has also demonstrated that I am capable of doing a lot of different things, whether supervising the day-to-day logistics of a curatorial department or conceptualizing and completing a large exhibition, so I felt confident that I could handle this too. In other words, the more you do, the more comfortable you feel with doing other things.

The most significant contributing factor to my ability to complete the exams though, was the preparation itself. I spent eight months getting ready, with the last month alone focused on reviewing, so I had a good amount of time. I’ve always been pretty good about scheduling my work time and staying on task, so setting up a regular reading schedule and sticking to it was also doable. To keep myself from burning out, I worked only during the week, taking the weekends off to relax and spend time with Brandon. My previous coursework had also helped my refine my note-taking skills. For each book or article, my notes included subsections discussing argument, methods, evidence, and relations to other readings, an approach I picked up in my Mobilities seminar last year. In addition to these notes, I wrote flashcards that I later used for daily reviewing. Readers of this blog will also remember that I wrote posts about each of my reading lists and the sublists within them, which let me reflect on the readings both individually and as a group.

The month I spent reviewing was especially helpful. I reread the notes I took on each text, which enabled me to get reacquainted with general arguments as well as remember key details or case studies. I also reviewed my flashcards regularly, which meant that for the last month, I reviewed each text at least once a day, five days a week. I also created mindmaps identifying major theoretical or topical frameworks connecting readings not only within individual lists, but across the four lists as well, encouraging me to think through a more interdisciplinary lens. This meant that when I was writing my essays, I could not only connect them to their specific reading list, but could also discuss texts from other lists, or even previous courses, which demonstrated that I was not thinking about these readings in isolation.

Perhaps most significantly, I knew what to expect from the various members on my committee. Throughout the reading process, I met with each faculty member at least three times, with each meeting discussing a different group of readings. During these meetings, we would brainstorm potential questions in addition to discussing the texts, which gave me a sense of the angles each faculty member would likely take. Some sent me practice questions to get me thinking about how to group readings, and for my infrastructure exam, I actually wrote my own questions, a process that really encouraged me to think about the major themes and ideas of that list. In short, by the time I took the exam, I was confident that I could answer the questions because I knew what to expect and had plenty of time to get comfortable with the readings.

So what did I get from this process, aside from reading about a lot of cool different subjects? Basically the exams are there to help you get acquainted with the major questions and debates of your fields of interest. You won’t come out knowing everything, of course, but you’ll have a better sense of the context for your academic work. Since all research builds off of other scholarship, it’s important to have this contextualization. Beyond the broad strokes of the field, you’ll also a better sense of how different scholars put their arguments together, what evidence they use and how they use it, and so forth. You’ll also start noticing which scholars you tend to admire or not, and which ones you’d like to reference or emulate moving forward. Basically, the exam preparation helps you to better understand your place in the field, and what kind of intervention you’d like to make. Of course, this process is ongoing, but it’s an important beginning.

At least, that’s what I’ve gotten from it. I can’t speak for everyone who has undergone this process, but for me, it was worthwhile. After spending years working on exhibitions, focusing on day-to-day museum tasks, or more recently completing required coursework, it was a refreshing change to just read and think about scholarship that speaks to me and my specific research interests. I was definitely ready to be finished once I took the exams, but overall I’m glad I did it. Now on to the next phase, writing the dissertation prospectus!

Reading list downloads for anyone interested:

Thinking (and Reading) About Cultural Politics

When I was an intern at the Dallas Museum of Art, the museum attempted to buy at auction A Grand View of the Seashore, a large seascape painted around 1774 by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). This wasn’t any ordinary art purchase. A Grand View of the Seashore is actually the companion piece to another Vernet painting, Landscape with Approaching Storm, which is part of the DMA collection. The paintings meditate on the interactions between humanity and nature. A Grand View of the Seashore offers a peaceful scene conducive to human commerce and other activities, with its warm palette of peach, yellow, and pale blue underscoring its sense of calm. Landscape with Approaching Storm, by contrast, explores the more tempestuous side of nature, with craggy mountains, a darker palette of blues and grays, and diagonal rainclouds bringing a foreboding, energetic quality to the scene and sending its tiny humans running for shelter. Commissioned by Lord Lansdowne, the paintings had been separated since 1806 after being sold to separate private collections. The upcoming auction represented a rare opportunity to reunite the paintings for the first time in over two hundred years.

I was there when the bidding for A Grand View of the Seashore took place. I remember crowding into my supervisor’s office with my fellow interns in the European and American art departments to watch the auction online. We were excited because we thought the museum had a good chance of getting the painting, which would be a boon to scholars and art enthusiasts alike. To have these paintings reunited in a public collection; how art historically significant!

The DMA’s bidding limit was two million dollars. Think about that for a minute. Two million dollars for one painting. For comparison, that was double the entire annual budget of the Roswell Museum and Art Center when I was working there. Despite our optimism, the DMA never stood a chance. Within a minute of the opening bid, private collectors annihilated our prospects, and the painting ended up going for about 8 million dollars. While the painting was loaned for a temporary exhibition, that day was one of the most disheartening of my museum career up to that point, and it underscored the significance of money to the art world for me. While museums and other institutions often downplay the monetary value of their collections to the public, the truth is, money is key to their success as cultural institutions. Whoever controls the purse strings arguably controls the culture, or at least the ones considered mainstream or normative.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot as I’ve been working through the final section of my art history reading list, which focuses on cultural politics. Several of these readings focus outright on the significance of money to the art world, and the influence that private and government donors alike exert over culture when they’re the ones funding it. Mark Rectanus’s Culture Incorporated looks at corporate sponsorship as a significant means of cultural production in globalization. He examines how corporate sponsorship influences culture through a variety of media, including museum exhibitions, advertising campaigns with artists, supporting cultural events, globalizing museums, or advocating for technology. In Artwash, artist and activist Mel Evans considers the connection between big oil and the art world as articulated through the various branches of the Tate Museum in the UK. In the wake of declining government support, big oil has stepped in to provide funding to museums and other institutions, an act that is ultimately self-serving on the part of the businesses doing philanthropy. Evans argues that BP uses art and museums as a way of legitimizing its business practices by distracting the public from their operations to focus on their art sponsorship, a process she calls artwashing. As a result, art institutions not only implicitly express their support for an ecologically and socially destructive business that reinscribes colonial inequality while destroying ecosystems, but also constrain their ability to speak out against social injustices because they allow such industries to influence their programming through the money they give.

While many of the texts I’ve looked at focus on private sponsorship, others consider government funding. In Federalizing the Muse, Donna M. Binkiewicz looks at the history of the National Endowment for the Arts and its antecedents. Her overarching argument is that the arts benefited from federal involvement, and that while much-maligned today, the NEA actually accomplished quite a bit given the constraints it experienced. She also complicates our understanding of both the NEA and the politicians who supported it. For example, she posits that the NEA was a more moderate institution than conventionally portrayed by neoconservatives. She notes that it often supported projects aligned with Abstract Expressionism, an art form that by the 1960s was no longer avant-garde in the way that say Pop Art, Feminist art, Black art, and other postmodern forms were. Instead, the NEA took an uplifting approach that aimed to educate viewers in the forms of high art rather than popular culture, while simultaneously espousing such supposedly American ideals as individual liberty and freedom, qualities that were believed to be best encapsulated by the individuality and seeming apolitical nature of Abstract Expressionism.

I’ve also been reading about the so-called culture wars, or the debates over arts funding that took place in the 1980s and 1990s in response to backlash over exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography or Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. Art Matters offers an anthology of essays from artists, activists, as well as scholars. Each of the chapters explores the culture wars from a different vantage point, including the AIDS crisis, race, or the privatization of culture. While there is no singular argument underpinning this text other than the culture wars changed art funding in America, arguably for the worse, two themes recur throughout the text. First, the authors argue that the people defending artists during the culture wars oversimplified matters by focusing primarily on the First Amendment. In other words, by stating that artists were entitled to say whatever they wanted because of the First Amendment, a counter-argument stating that the arts should not be funded if they do not express the majority opinion could be mounted. In other words, you are free to say what you want, but not on my dollar. Instead, defenders should have explained the importance of the art, demonstrated to audiences how it conveyed the message it did, and how they address broader social issues such as systemic inequality. Second, the authors argued that the culture wars reflected an ongoing conflict between white supremacy and underrepresented voices. By focusing on the culture wars as a question of taxation, conservatives diverted attention away from the oppression that was taking place with regard to LBGTQ voices, and other perspectives. As a result, decreased funding made these underrepresented voices even less likely to be heard. These authors conclude that a democratic form of arts funding in the United States would be a model that enabled artists to create the work they need or want to do, regardless of content or potential offense to the government, conservatives, and other groups.

Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America, written about twenty years after Art Matters, takes a different perspective reflecting the passage of time. He offers an intellectual history underpinning the debates regarding religion, education, feminism, race, and other prominent subjects within the culture wars. He takes special care to explore the intellectual underpinnings of both sides of the debate, from the arguments of the New Left and the neoconservatives of the 1950s and 1960s, to the new social history,  to the growing presence of fundamentalist Christians on the political right. Through these different explorations, Hartman argues that the culture wars represented an ongoing debate between two different versions of America. The conservative version, or the normative one, espoused white, middle-class values regarding race, class, gender, and religion, while the liberal view supported pluralism. He concludes that while liberals and conservatives alike have largely recognized the new pluralistic vision of America that developed out of the 1960s, the pluralism we experience today was by no means guaranteed during the culture wars period. Published in 2015, Hartman originally concluded that the culture wars were finished, but he has since published a second edition in the wake of the 2016 election.

While the culture wars arguably represent one of the most dramatic national manifestations of the ongoing debates over art in America, cultural politics can also influence on the regional or local level. When I was in Roswell, local cultural politics definitely influenced the way I curated shows. As a municipal museum, we could and did exhibit controversial content, but we had to be mindful of where we placed exhibitions or individual pieces. Given Roswell’s overall conservative political culture, I usually had to make sure that the most visible galleries in the museum, particularly those that were located near classrooms, had so-called family-friendly content from a cisnormative perspective. Any works with violence, nudity, or critiques of religion and other institutions were exhibited in less prominent spaces, and with plenty of signage so that visitors could choose to avoid those galleries.

The most subtle instance of cultural politics within the museum happened when I curated Power: New Works by David Emitt Adams. Based in Phoenix, Adams is a photographer who uses historical methods like wet collodion printing and other techniques to take images of landscapes. His work channels the great landscape photographers of the 19th century, but whereas those pieces endeavored to present a seemingly pristine version of nature, Adams exposes that myth by examining the interconnectivity between culture and environment. One way he does this is by printing his images on cans, metal, and other detritus he finds in the landscapes he photographs, for example.

The exhibition I worked on, Power, featured a new body of work Adams had made focusing on oil refineries. Traveling around the American South and Southwest, Adams had photographed various refineries and printed them on used oil drum lids, with the streaks and other imperfections of the wet collodion process suggesting the liquid nature of oil itself. When I saw these images, I personally interpreted them as a commentary on the obsolescence of oil as an energy source. By using an antiquated printing method, in other words, Adams’ photographs seemed to meditate on our reliance on a fuel source that is itself finite and out of date.

Yet even as I read these photographs as a critique of the oil industry, I didn’t want to alienate local visitors by making this the official interpretation. After all, southeastern New Mexico’s economy has relied on the petroleum industry for decades, and a lot of Roswell’s prominent leaders and influencers are involved in oil in one form or another. The Roswell Museum also owes much of its existence to oil, with nearly all of its most prominent donors and philanthropists making their money through petroleum. So while I saw a critique when I viewed these photographs, I knew many of our local visitors would interpret these works through a more nostalgic or celebratory lens. When I wrote the exhibition text then, I focused primarily on the wet collodion process and the works’ dialogue with the history of photography, which Adams himself focused on when discussing his artistic practice. In essence, I deliberately left the actual interpretation of the works up to the viewers. An activist like Mel Evans would likely interpret my decision as enabling artwashing, but given Roswell’s cultural politics, encouraging viewers to produce their own interpretations provided the most leeway with regard to showing these pieces.

An example of one of Adams’ photographs. This depicts a refinery in Artesia, a town about 40 minutes south of Roswell.

Cultural politics will also play a substantial role in my dissertation research. Throughout its run, the Community Art Center Project and other endeavors from the FAP faced criticism for using federal money to support the arts, a seemingly frivolous expenditure compared to roads or infrastructure (the Leftist sympathies of many of these artists didn’t help). Local politics also shaped the programming of individual institutions. As I’ve noted in previous posts, the Roswell Museum and Art Center was a site for debate between the FAP and the local A&H Society, as they both had very different visions for the institution. Whereas the FAP wanted the museum to be an art appreciation space, with a focus on producing and consuming contemporary art from around the country, the A&H Society wanted the museum to be more site-specific by concentrating on the history and culture of Roswell itself. Undoubtedly other art centers experienced their own cultural politics, and getting to know these better will only enrich my understanding of this program.

Well, that’s a wrap on my posts about reading lists. I have to say, working through these different texts has been an enriching experience. I’ve learned a lot about a variety of subjects, and more importantly, have gotten a better sense of the major scholarly arguments within my fields of interest. While I’m looking forward to being finished with exams and getting started on the dissertation in earnest, the comps preparation process has been enjoyable in its own way. And hopefully, all of you readers have also gotten something out of following me on this journey.

Thinking (and Reading) About Museums

Last week we explored the art of the New Deal era, from Holger Cahill’s exhibition writings to more recent works exploring the political dimensions of 1930s art. Today, we’ll be considering a topic that has played a seminal role in my professional and personal life: museums.

Celebrating the completion of my very first exhibition, the culmination of my internship at the Dallas Museum of Art back in 2010-2011.

Most broadly, the texts I’ve been working through are asking two interrelated questions: what functions do museums currently serve as cultural institutions, and just as importantly, what kind of work should they be doing? With the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others, museums have been rightly called out for their complicity in maintaining white supremacy. As museum professionals reevaluate their missions and ongoing roles in society, it’s important to examine the values these institutions espouse through their exhibitions, programming, and outreach. In other words, what kinds of stories do museums choose to tell through the objects they display or the educational programming they put together?

While the phrase “museums are not neutral” may seem to be the latest hashtag on the cultural scene, scholars have long recognized the politicized nature of museums. As Steven Dubin and Timothy W. Luke both observe in their respective books, Museum Politics and Displays of Power, museums are inherently politicized institutions because of the authority we associate with them. Since museums are traditionally portrayed as preservers of knowledge and culture, they’re ascribed with an aura of trustworthiness that makes them ideal places for reifying social values or beliefs. To put it another way, museums sacralize the objects and ideas within them, providing a sense of legitimacy to whatever or whomever is brought within them. In the words of Indiana Jones, an object is in a museum because it belongs there, and in the eyes of society, museums are supposed to reify so-called normative values. When they depart from that objective to question longstanding beliefs, as the 1995 exhibition The West as America at the Smithsonian did when it critiqued a romanticized version of American Western history, they become controversial.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the values traditionally ascribed to museums in terms of education and aesthetics are strongly linked to class, as Alan Wallach explores in his book, Exhibiting Contradiction. During the 19th century, art museums in particular became a means of affirming the taste of upper class patrons who supported them through philanthropy. As temples of objects, museums essentially sacralized the tastes of the wealthy by disconnecting works of art from their historical contexts, presenting them instead as seemingly timeless examples of beauty and good aesthetics. As our expectations of museums have shifted from the temple of art to the education/activist model, art museums in particular have slowly adopted revisionist histories with mixed results, as they are now expected to undo the timeless mythology they constructed during the 19th century.

More recent texts like Patricia Banks’s Diversity and Philanthropy at African American Museums complicate Wallach’s discussion of class by examining intersecting identities of race or gender. Focusing specifically on African American museums, Banks argues that upper-middle and upper-class donors support museums for different reasons depending on their race, gender, age, and involvement with culture. Donors working in the for-profit sector, for instance, tend to support museums because of the positive association it projects onto their business, as well as for the opportunity to network with related professionals, whereas nonprofit donors get involved for more individualistic reasons. White donors perceive African American museums as spaces for integration, whereas Black philanthropists value them as specifically Black spaces telling Black narratives. Art collectors specializing in Black artists patronize museums as a way of legitimizing their private collections while simultaneously confronting the overly white, male canon of art history. In short, the kind of work a museum does for the community largely depends on the person you’re asking, underscoring that museums participate in a dialogue with their audiences.

Yet other authors take a different angle to museums by examining their potential as sites of resistance or questioning. In Decolonizing Museums, Amy Lonetree explores several case studies of indigenous museums performing decolonizing work, with the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways being considered especially successful. In particular, she explores how these institutions either do or do not center indigenous voices, including the use of indigenous frameworks of history, and confronting the ongoing trauma of genocide and other atrocities. In Lonetree’s scholarship, indigenous museums should be more than memorializing or reifying institutions. Rather, they should act as sites of healing by willingly confronting the traumas of white colonization.

While not overtly resistance-oriented in its subject matter, the contributors to the anthology Defining Memory make a case for smaller museums as alternatives to the imposing model of major institutions like the Met or the Field. By emphasizing a localized sense of place, highlighting quirky subject matter, or displaying collections with minimal interpretive texts due to limited staff or budgets, small museums, inadvertently or otherwise, can offer visitors greater autonomy in their own interpretive experiences. Additionally, they often highlight objects or subject matter that go against the perceived norms associated with larger institutions. Whether it’s a video recording of an Elvis sighting or the skeleton of a two-headed calf (or in the case of the Isle of Wight County Museum I visited before the pandemic, the world’s oldest ham), small, local museums often celebrate difference, an approach unintentionally in keeping with queer theory.

Still other authors argue for the potential of museums in taking a more radical approach to their work. In Curating Community, Stacy Douglas posits that museums should question and interrupt such western, liberal ideals as community, sovereignty, and autonomy. Focusing specifically on museums in South Africa, she posits that museums conventionally affirm individual autonomy as articulated in constitutions. Whereas constitutions are obligated to maintain questions of borders and sovereignty due to their role as legal documents, museums can and should actively question these ideas in order to get people to think about the interconnected, interdependent nature of existence.

As you might expect, I found this part of the list quite engaging. Given my interest in the Community Art Center Project, questions regarding what kind of work museums and galleries can and should do resonate with my research. As I’ve learned from the Roswell Museum’s early history, local and federal supporters had different answers to these questions, which affected the exhibitions and programming that took place there. Moving forward, I’ll definitely remember these readings as I continue delving into the museum history field.

More importantly, these readings have helped guide my ongoing thinking about museums as institutions. Whether I’ve visited them for fun, worked in them as a curator, or researched them as a scholar, museums have played a substantial role in my professional and personal life (especially my personal life, given that I met Brandon through the Roswell Museum). Yet as recent articles have pointed out, museums are problematic institutions given their complicity in white supremacy, colonialism, classism, and sexism. Should I decide to return to museums after the program, I’ll need to confront these issues in my work, and do my part to create more inclusive institutions. As I work on my dissertation, I know I’ll keep thinking about, and acting on, these questions.

Thinking (and Reading) About the Art of the 1930s

We have reached the final list for my comprehensive exams: American art history. For the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at what I’ve been reading about art history, beginning with today’s post on the 1930s.

 Many of the works I have been reading have delved into the political nature of 1930s American art. As both Cécile Whiting and Andrew Hemingway point out in their respective monographs, art historians have tended to understudy the art of the 1930s in favor of postwar art such as Abstract Expressionism. They posit that the art of the interwar period gets dismissed because it’s regarded as formally regressive and overtly political, rejecting the abstraction of the 1910s for a more conservative, social realist style. Yet as both authors point out, the seemingly timeless, individual aesthetic attributed to Abstract Expressionism is itself a historical idea, and simply dismissing the art of the 1930s as political and regressive oversimplifies the cultural complexity of this period. Just as Michael Denning argues in his seminal volume The Cultural Front that the creative output of the Popular Front was more innovative than traditionally believed, so these authors argue that the art of the 1930s is more aesthetically and politically complex than conventionally thought. So Whiting points out, for instance, that antifacist art could be as subtle as Stuart Davis creating abstractions inspired by jazz or electric signs, celebrating the vivacity and diversity of American culture. Likewise, Andrew Hemingway posits that not all artists were hardcore Communists during the 1930s, and that they engaged with leftist ideas to varying degrees. 

While the majority of the books I’ve been looking at focus on the United States, I’ve also been reading about Mexican Muralism, since the work of Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, among others, significantly influenced both artists working in the United States and the federal government in terms of sponsoring a national art. As the authors contributing to the anthology Mexican Muralism point out, muralists had to navigate a lot of logistical and ideological challenges, including the negotiation between maintaining a radical art versus appeasing the interests of the state providing sponsorship. Indeed, Mary K. Coffey explores this question more deeply in her book, How a Revolutionary Art Became Official Culture, arguing that artists such as Orozco and Rivera underwent a conventionalizing process through their placement in museums. In other words, by commissioning artists to paint new works in museum spaces, institutions that have historically been associated with the state and official iterations of culture,  the Mexican government endeavored to domesticate the more radical politics presented in Mexican muralism. Throughout the New Deal era,  artists working in the United States faced similar issues. On the one hand, working in public spaces provides you the opportunity to express your messages to a wider audience. At the same time, however, when it’s the state that’s sponsoring you, it’s questionable whether you’ll be able to get any radical content out there. Indeed, a lot of critics of the New Deal at the time made this very argument regarding art, suggesting that art was better served when left to its own devices in a free market because it didn’t have to acknowledge or appease government oversight.

Given my interest in the New Deal, naturally a lot of the readings I’ve been looking at focus on the Federal Art Project, or share similar ideas. In Democratic Art, for instance, Sharon Ann Musher frames her study around the following questions: how did art advocates temporarily secure a New Deal for the arts, and what lessons does the past offer about government funding for the arts today? Looking at the political and cultural history underpinning the New Deal art movements, Musher goes beyond the standard critiques of middlebrow or radical content to explore the relationship between art and the state. Examining both renowned, federally-operated projects such as Federal One as well as smaller, more merit-based projects, Musher considers how the various institutions and projects associated with the New Deal functioned in society, and how both their critics and participants responded to them. Rather than lump them collectively into either conservative or liberal reactions, she instead considers local as well as national responses. Her discussions of community responses to various projects is particularly thorough, as when she describes different local reactions to community art centers. Rather than simply dismiss them as conservative or reactionary, she examines and identifies a variety of responses reflecting local politics, from the aversion toward nudity at the Phoenix Art Center, to the discomfort toward Communist politics at the Oklahoma City Art Center. 

If Musher concentrates on the political aspects of the Federal Art Project, Victoria Grieve highlights the educational side of the FAP in her book, The Federal Art Project and the Creation of Middlebrow Culture. She argues that FAP administrators emphasized the importance of public art education and appreciation to the various art projects they sponsored, because they believed that educating citizens in art appreciation helped to cultivate a critically engaged citizenry. Influenced by the writings of John Dewey, John Cotton Dana, and other Progressive Era thinkers from the turn of the 20th century, she posits that art administrators believed that teaching citizens to critically engage works of art would influence other behaviors. In other words, teaching visitors to look at a painting and assess its quality by analyzing such formal aspects as line, shape, or color, would encourage them to be more proactive thinkers in other aspects of their life, because they were being taught to actively engage their surroundings. Additionally, teaching visitors to appreciate art would not only demystify it and make it appear more approachable, but would also encourage visitors to view themselves as art consumers, making them more likely to purchase works of art for themselves. In this way, the FAP served an economic as well as educational dimension, enabling an active approach to art appreciation that fed into both capitalist and democratic ideals. This book has been particularly influential in my own work up to this point, because Grieve talks explicitly about community art centers and their role in cultivating citizenship, not only through teaching art appreciation through exhibitions, but also through participatory, hands-on art-making classes.

Lauren Kroiz also reconsiders the significance of art education in the 1930s in her work Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era. Looking at the careers of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, she argues that education not only comprised a vital part of their work, but also reflects broader questions about art, citizenry, and the development of a distinctly American visual culture and identity. At the heart of this ongoing debate, according to Kroiz, is the question of who gets to teach art and its appreciation to the public, and by extension, use art to cultivate a more robust democracy. For Wood and Benton, artists should be the instructor because they possess the practical experience with the medium that enables them to pass that interest on to amateur makers. For art historians such as H.W. Janson, it is art historians who should be the primary teachers, as they can provide the historical and stylistic context to inform citizens while still enabling them the freedom to choose which styles to emulate. Museum directors and educators, in turn, argued that they were crucial because they possess the repositories of works that enable viewers to study them first-hand.  More than petty conflicts between clashing personalities, Kroiz argues that the educational efforts surrounding Regionalist artists and their respective institutions reflect ongoing debates regarding the role of art education in the cultivation of an engaged, democratic citizenry. Although her work doesn’t specifically address the Federal Art Project per se, her focus on the pedagogy of Regionalism shares affinities with the FAP’s educational interests.

While the books I’ve been reading focus on what would be called the so-called fine arts, such as painting and sculpture, also been reading text focusing more explicitly on what we call folk art or vernacular art. Given my previous curatorial experience at Shelburne Museum, which is renowned for its vernacular art collection, I’ve been especially interested in exploring this topic more deeply. Among the texts I’ve been reading is the seminal catalog,  Folk Art in America: Art of the Common Man, by Holger Cahill, future director of the FAP itself. Accompanying an exhibition of the same name that was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1930, this project was one of the first shows to elevate such objects as trade signs, cigar-store figures, vernacular paintings, and other objects to the status of so-called fine art. Cahill’s curating and writing would prove immensely influential on the development of folk art as a field, and continues to inform us today. Reading this text is illuminating because you get to see what kinds of objects Cahill is designating as art, and just as importantly, what isn’t.

The omission of objects from the folk art canon it is a particularly driving theme in a related work, Kentucky by Design. This catalog accompanied an exhibition of the Kentucky submissions to the Index of American design, one of the FAP’s biggest undertakings. Consisting of thousands of illustrations hand-painted by American artists and illustrators,  the index attempted to document American design through a selection of vernacular objects such as textiles, furniture, toys, and so forth. Yet as numerous scholars have pointed out, the Index, while claiming to offer a comprehensive view of American visual culture, was in fact highly selective. The vast majority of its objects originated from Eurocentric immigrant cultures, for instance,  while works originating from Native American or African American traditions were essentially ignored. While Cahill argued he wanted to avoid repetition because Native American objects were already being documented through ethnographic projects, the mere designation between ethnographic object and fine art is illuminating, offering insight into the ways that the Federal Art Project classified different visual cultures. In other words, American works originating from a European tradition were more likely to be regarded as art, whereas works coming from indigenous cultures were labeled as artifacts. All of these observations remind me of one of the first books I read for comps, Sorting Things Out, which argues that for every designation made in a classification, something has to get left out.

Since I’m interested in the Community Art Center Project, all of these readings are also relevant to what I’ll be working on. Even if I’m not addressing post office murals directly, or overtly political art, it’s important to be familiar with the visual culture of the period, and how it might have influenced the selections made in the Community Art Center Project exhibitions. I’ll definitely be keeping all of these works in mind as I start putting together my own prospectus. 

Thinking (and Reading) About Urban Segregation

I’ve been thinking recently about one of the first jobs I  had after I finished my Master’s degree. From the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2011, I was a curatorial intern at the Dallas Museum of Art. During those nine months, I gave tours, curated my first exhibition, helped write a couple of grants,  all while getting to know the city of Dallas. It was a fun time, and I got to see a part of the country that I never expected to visit.

Yet what I’ve been thinking about hasn’t been the actual job I had at the museum, but the commute I used to take to get there. Since the stipend was relatively modest, I couldn’t afford the swanky apartments downtown, so I rented a room from a woman living in one of the neighboring suburbs. Because I didn’t have a car at the time, I relied on public transit to get to work. Every morning, I would ride a bus for about 45 minutes, and then walk an additional 15 minutes to get to the museum.

During the course of that bus ride, I watched the demographics of the city change. When I would get on, I was usually the only white person on board. Everyone else was Black or Latinx, and the suburb I lived in, originally built in the 60s, had similarly shifted from a predominantly white population to people of color. By the time I arrived at the museum and the neighboring arts district downtown, nearly everyone was white. The closer I got to the so-called nicest parts of the city, the whiter its residents became.

When I look back on my time there, what also stands out to me is how much walking I had to do to reach public transit centers. Although there was a bus stop very close to my house, getting to the museum was another matter. Aside from a quaint trolley going to Uptown, there was no light rail station or bus stop going directly to the museum. In order to get to work, I needed to walk at least half a mile. It was as though the city didn’t want any kind of bus station near the museum. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but in retrospect, it makes me wonder what kind of audiences can really access the museum in its related spaces.

The exposure I got to the demographics of cities while living in Dallas, limited and brief as it was, has helped me appreciate the final group of readings in my history list, which have focused on urban segregation.

Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law explores residential segregation through the lens of government action. The author argues that, as the title implies, residential segregation was promoted and enacted by the government on all levels, through legislation, Supreme Court rulings, and federal programs such as the CCC and the Affordable Housing Act. The book centers the significance of racism to government policy on all levels, local, state, and federal. It advocates for a much more aggressive stance toward desegregation, arguing that residential segregation is not only symptomatic of institutionalized racism, but is unconstitutional. Jessica Troustine’s Segregation by Design looks at segregation as practiced on the municipal level. Taking a more local perspective, she argues that city governments have played a seminal role in the segregated nature of American urban environments by giving precedent to white property owners concerned with maintaining their property values while also benefiting from public goods. She posits that white property owners should acknowledge their privilege by supporting the construction of multiunit complexes and other forms of public housing in their neighborhoods. She also suggests that the federal government should take a stronger role in promoting desegregation practices, positing that when flight is not an option, whites are more likely to willingly integrate with other populations.

While The Color of Law and Segregation by Design focus on urban segregation as a broad national problem, other texts have focused on specific cities. Colin Gordon’s Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of an American City looks at urban decay through a case study of St Louis. In addition to the monograph, Gordon has also done a digital mapping project enabling viewers to visually follow along with St. Louis’s changing demographics. Gordon focuses on the intersections between the anxiety of white homeowners and the codification of real estate practices intended to protect those rights. He is particularly critical of the idea of home rule, or enabling cities and suburbs to legislate themselves, as he believes this encourages communities to view one another as competitors for resources rather than collaborators. As a result, the communities with the most financial resources at hand, white suburbs, are more likely to get what they want, while black populations are increasingly constrained to decaying, urban areas. While Gordon concentrates on real estate practices, Tyina Steptoe’s Houston Bound looks at the culture of urban segregation. She looks beyond the black-white binary to focus on race relations and culture within Jim Crow communities, with a focus on the 1920s through the 1960s. Concentrating on Houston’s East Texas, Creoles of color, and ethnic Hispanic populations, she argues that the concept of race in the segregated parts of Houston are culturally complex, impermanent, and changing throughout the 20th century. She looks specifically to cultural forms, such as sounds and music, as well as the physical experience of urban spaces. Through these explorations, she complicates Houston’s racial identities by looking beyond legislative definitions to consider cultural exchanges.

With regard to my research on the Community Art Center project, these readings have been relevant when thinking about the kinds of buildings used for these spaces and where they were situated. A particularly striking contrast is the one between the Roswell Museum and the South Side Community Art Center. The Southside Community Art Center is based in the southern part of Chicago, which is a historically Black community. It is housed in an old Brownstone mansion, which was built in the 19th century. When it was built, it was part of a white neighborhood, but during the 20th century, as whites moved out of the city center, the community became predominantly Black. The South Side Community Art Center then, architecturally attests to the history of the changing demographics of the neighborhood. By contrast, the Roswell Museum and Art Center was a brand new building when it opened in 1937. Additionally, it was built in the northern part of town, about a block or two from the New Mexico Military Institute and adjacent to what is now designated as the historic district. Roswell, for those who are familiar with it, know that the white population primarily lives in the northern part of the city, while the southern part of town is mostly Hispanic. The Roswell Museum then, is actually housed in the white part of town, and not surprisingly perhaps, attracting Hispanic visitors has been an ongoing challenge.

Thinking about urban segregation and housing has also extended into my personal life as well. Brandon and I happily rent a townhouse in New Town, but like a lot of people, we have talked about buying a place of our own someday (emphasis on someday, given the state of things). As part of those conversations, one issue we have talked about is whether we would rather buy a single-family home or a condo. While we both acknowledge that single-family, detached homes hold a lot of appeal, not least because they have been touted as the ideal in terms of the homeownership dream, they also bother us for a lot of reasons. While you get the benefit of privacy and the space to indulge all your hobbies, from an ecological standpoint single-family homes are inefficient and demand more space than you need. Looking at housing from the perspective of the readings I’ve been doing, moreover, single-family homes have historically been the privilege of white people. Not only have suburbs preferred white residents over people of color, but suburban neighborhoods have also used their financial and legislative powers to limit affordable, multiunit housing. As a result, the housing that is available remains expensive and unavailable to the majority of working-class people because there is a finite amount available. The single-family home that has been touted to us as the dream in terms of ownership relies on the exploitation of other people, while the finite supply of housing due to an overwhelming cultural preference for the single-family home further contributes to high housing prices overall. When we talk about housing, Brandon and I can’t help but think that aspiring to the single-family home perpetuates this exploitation. At the very least, we agree that we should actively support the construction of multiunit and public housing in our neighborhood, wherever we eventually settle.

Our neighborhood in New Town.

Not that I haven’t thought about these kinds of issues before. When I was in Roswell, I can remember attending a City Council meeting where the councilors debated getting rid of one of the polling centers to save money. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this polling center was located in the Hispanic part of town, and the counselors who supported its removal were white. With American studies though, you realize that if you’re going to deal with the United States and its culture, whether in a historical or contemporary context, you have to deal with race. Everything about our history and our infrastructure, whether it’s the housing markets or art markets, inevitably comes back to race in one form or another.  The main thing that I’ve learned from these history readings isn’t so much the idea of systemic inequality, but rather the subtlety of its pervasiveness, and the hard work it will take to dismantle it. Based on what I’ve seen, that will be very hard work to do indeed, but vital to our future.

Thinking About Public Histories

One of my first museum jobs was a summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society in York, Maine. I held this position during the summer of 2009, between the first and second years of my Master’s program at Williams College. I remember it as a pleasant summer overall. I made some great friends, and I did a lot of different things. I gave tours of various historical buildings, did research on early 19th century processions, and perhaps most memorably, participated in a bit of costumed reenactment. While my subsequent career has not gone down the road of the house museum, that summer was still an important time for me, as it anticipated my eventual shift from medieval and early modern European painting to American art and culture.

Me in a replica 18th-century costume. As part of my summer fellowship at the Old York Historical Society, I participated in historical reenactment. In keeping with the norms of the period, I wore a head covering when I was actually working.

I have been thinking about this summer more recently because a lot of my readings on my history list address public history, whether in the form of living museums and reenactments, or historic preservation. in addition to tracing the historical development of these practices, a lot of these texts are addressing the social and economic impacts of these public histories for various communities. In History Comes Alive for instance, M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska argues that during the 1970s, public history and developed alongside a growing interest looking to history to advocate political agendas. Taking the 1976 Bicentennial as a launching point, Rymsza-Pawlowska explores how a variety of individuals and institutions, from the federal government to more grassroots organizations, looked to historical episodes in an effort to find parallels with the present. Their objectives ranged from promoting patriotism to protesting current policies, as when indigenous groups protested a reenactment of a 19th-century wagon train. Whereas the 1950s and 1960s seem to regard history as both finished, and distantly located in the past, this book posits that the 1970s collapsed the distinction between past and present by appealing to more affective ways of experiencing history, a practice that we continue to see today, whether in the form of living museums, or political invocations to a previous historical era. 

Other texts, like the essays in Giving Preservation a History, focus on historic preservation, both as a historical practice and a means of providing economic stimulation to different communities. A key argument in this book, as well as related texts, is that historic preservation is not a neutral activity. The histories that get preserved and just as importantly, the ones that get erased in the form of demolition, say a lot about the society that deems them significant. If public history is a way of cultivating citizenship, then it matters which stories get to be told to which communities. Additionally, many of the authors argue for balancing the economic stimulation that often accompanies urban revival, with cultivating a sense of community. Too often, downtown areas get revitalized architecturally, only to have the people who lived there be driven out due to rising real estate prices. not surprisingly, it is often Black people and other people of color who bear the brunt of this displacement.

The texts on historic preservation have resonated with me in particular, not least because I actually got to experience a little hands-on historic preservation back in college. During my  sophomore year, I took a seminar called “Lake Forest College as Cultural Landscape.” Over the course of the class, we studied different architectural styles within the history of college campuses, with our own college campus serving as the primary case study. A significant assignment entailed doing a survey on a specific building. This meant that we needed to look at a specific building on campus and visually document all of its architectural features. We then needed to go to the college archives, do research on the buildings, and document what kinds of changes took place. 

I was assigned a building called Moore Hall, one of the older surviving dormitories on campus. Built around 1892-1893 by the architects Pond & Pond, the dorm was originally intended as a second-class dorm for male college students. In other words, it was nice, but not quite as elaborate as a first-class building. Originally the structure was three stories high, but after a fire during the 1920s, it was rebuilt with a fourth story, because by that point the college was experiencing a housing shortage and needed more room. Over the next several decades, the building would undergo subsequent changes that gradually stripped away its original features. As a result, by the time I was surveying it in the early 2000s, a lot of the architectural features that made the building distinctive to its period, the qualities that we call architectural integrity, were gone. Moore Hall had also developed a somewhat infamous reputation as one of the least desirable dormitories, offering very little in the way of modern amenities. A few years after I took that class, the building was demolished to make way for a more modern, suite-style dormitory.

It was a very interesting project, but if I were to do it again, I would pay more attention to the histories of the people who actually lived in that dormitory. The main thing I remember about Moore Hall was that the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke once lived there as a student, but I don’t recall all that much about the demographics of the building. What were the demographics of the Moore Hall community, and did that change over the years? How did people actually live in the building? What sorts of spaces did they use for social activities, if at all? In other words, I was so preoccupied with documenting the architectural history of the building, that I  neglected its social histories, which were just as important.

It’s important to delve into the social histories because neglecting them can lead to real consequences in terms of living spaces. During that same seminar, we took several field trips to different college campuses in the Chicagoland area to explore other case studies that we could compare and contrast with the Lake Forest campus. One of these places was IIT, and more specifically one of its most famous buildings, Crown Hall by Mies Van der Rohe. Initially affiliated with the Bauhaus, he relocated to the United States and became one of the most important proponents of the International Style. He settled in Chicago, so a lot of his most famous buildings are in the city. I’ll admit, it was very cool being able to see this structure after learning about it in class.

What I did not know about was the history of this site before Crown Hall, something I only learned about recently while reading “Mecca Flats Blues,” one of the essays in Giving Preservation a History. Before Crown Hall, there used to be an apartment building called Mecca Flats. Built in 1892, it served as a hotel during the Columbian Exposition of 1893. A distinguishing feature of Mecca Flats was its open-air lobby, which provided access to a communal space from the individual apartments. After the fair, it became a working-class apartment building. By the 1920s, African Americans primarily inhabited the building, and it was an important site for jazz and other kinds of performance. During the mid-twentieth century, IIT decided to take over this area in order to build a new campus in the International Style. Despite being an important living space for the African American community, as well as architecturally significant due to its distinctive lobby and multiunit living accommodation, Mecca Flats was ultimately cleared out and demolished.

If we ever discussed this history in class, I don’t remember it, which suggests that we didn’t discuss it nearly enough. If I were to take this college class again, I would hope that we would discuss this. Better yet, if I were to design a course like this, I would be sure to include this history and others like it.

Studying this history matters because we continue to live with its repercussions. If we don’t contextualize current living conditions within historical frameworks, and see how past actions have enabled present inequalities, it becomes tempting to look at the past through the lens of nostalgia. We wish for a sanitized version of yesteryear that never existed.

Contextualizing our histories is also important for accountability, something I’ve been considering with regard to the Northeast’s role in promoting systemic racial inequality. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my very first museum job. During the summers of 2006 and 2007, I served as a tour guide for the Victoria Mansion in Portland, Maine. Built between 1858 and 1860, the house is an architectural gem, as it represents the earliest and most complete interior design commission for the Herter brothers, important American designers. Constructed in brownstone and emulating the Italianate style then popular in Europe, the house is a marvel, with more than 90% of its original interior features and furnishings intact (they’ve also been doing a lot of conservation since I worked there, so it looks even more spectacular now). When I gave tours of this house, I would talk about these features, from the symbolism of the paintings, to the hotel-like layout from which the homeowner, Ruggles Sylvester Morse, took inspiration.

What was only mentioned in passing was the house’s connection to slavery. Though originally from Maine, Morse was a hotelier based in New Orleans; the Portland house was his summer home. As far as I can recall he didn’t own any enslaved people himself, but as a businessman based in the South, his work benefitted from slavery as an institution. During the Civil War, he actually spent little time in New England because he was a southern sympathizer. While we would mention Morse’s southern sympathies during the tour, it was never a primary focus. Thinking back on the readings I’ve been doing, I wonder now what a tour centered on Morris’s role as a southern sympathizer and hotelier benefiting from slavery would look like. No doubt, the tour format has changed since I was a guide there, but if I ever revisit Victoria Mansion, I’d be curious to see what kind of content they address now.

The readings have especially resonated with me this time because so many of them connect to previous experiences, both as a college student and early career professional. While I cannot change the way these courses were taught or the way I conducted my tours then, moving forward, I can be more mindful of the kinds of issues these texts raise.

The Multifaceted World of Cultural History

Some of the most engaging readings that I’ve explored on my history list so far belong to the genre of cultural history. This is partly because cultural histories tend to encompass unusual subject matter (see my recent post on toilet paper advertising), and over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to read about everything from amusement parks and gas station architecture to television. Beyond exploring the quirky stories behind certain these ideas or things though, cultural histories consider broader social or economic issues through the lens of these specific objects or technologies. Through an intimate consideration of a particular concept or object, in other words, cultural histories offer insight into the culture from which that thing originated. Today then, we’ll take a look at some of these readings and what they have to say about American society at large.

Gustave definitely merits his own cultural history.

An overarching theme connecting a lot of the cultural histories I’ve been looking at has been the adjustment to modernity. In other words, a lot of these historians have explored how the specific objects they study enabled American citizens to adjust to modern life, with its emphasis on speed, instantaneity, mass culture, and a reliance on technology. That is the major theme of the monograph Electric Dreamland, by Lauren Rabinovitz. Focusing on the popularity of electric amusement parks and movies during the early 20th century, she argues that these technologies helped audiences adjust to the unfamiliarity of modern life by taking the sense of danger associated with modern machines and other developments and converting it into entertainment. Concentrating specifically on somatic experience, she posits that roller coasters and other thrill rides encouraged visitors to yield bodily control to machines in order to achieve a sense of excitement. This experience, she posits, played out in other facets of modern society through the growing popularity of the automobile, the increasingly complex infrastructure of cities, and so on. Far from a frivolous pursuit distinct from the more “serious” aspects of modernism, Rabinovitz argues that amusement parks played a crucial role in the shaping of modern life. 

I appreciated this book for a couple of different reasons. Rather than focus exclusively on famous urban sites such as Coney Island in New York, Rabinovitz concentrates on amusement parks in more suburban and western areas to demonstrate that the kind of modernity these places promoted was not limited to major metropolitan areas. I also thought that her somatic grounding of the modern experience was intriguing, as it reminded me of Diana Taylor’s discussion of bodily ways of knowing in The Archive and the Repertoire. I also connected with Rabinovitz’s argument on a personal level because I had the opportunity to experience amusement parks first-hand. Last December, Brandon and I went to visit his family at Universal Studios in Orlando. Consequently, I was able to draw on my own experiences of riding roller coasters and walking around fanciful architecture when reading the book. 

(For the record, I’m a terrible amusement park visitor by somatic standards; the rides either scare me, make me nauseous, or both. Hot butterbeer at Diagon Alley though? I am totally fine with that.) 

Other books take a subject matter regarded as nondescript and emphasize its significance. That is what Gabrielle Esperdy does in the book American Autotopia, which focuses on gas stations and other structures related to the automobile. She argues that these places, far from insignificant, played a key role in the development of modern architecture, not just through style, but rather through space. She posits that the car and its need for wider, paved roads encouraged architects and urban planners to think about cities differently, as they conceptualized spaces adapted to cars. As such, the look of modern architecture, with its emphasis on clean lines and accessible spaces for cars in terms of both driving and parking, is very much informed by the automobile. Consequently, she argues that we should pay as much attention to gas stations and other roadside stops as much as we do the more iconic skyscrapers and other structures.

Still other books highlight new facets of technologies that we thought we understood. Such is what happens in Lynn Spigel’s book TV by Design. While authors such as James L. Baughman have explored television through its relationship with other entertainment mediums such as vaudeville and movies, she focuses on television’s relationship with modern art. She argues that television as it developed in the 1950s and early 1960s maintained an ongoing dialogue with modern art, whether through the abstracted animations of early commercials, the appearance of modern abstract paintings in the backgrounds of television shows, or the hiring of modern artists to design film sets. Through this multi-faceted exploration, she offers new insights into television by aligning it with another medium that often gets analyzed separately from it.

A lot of these readings bear the influence of a specific scholar, Raymond Williams, who introduced a sociological aspect to the study of culture. In early essays like his 1958 “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams advocates for a more anthropological take on culture that considers everyday practices as well as art or theater. He wasn’t the first scholar to argue for scholarly considerations of the ordinary, but the way he synthesized these different ideas has proven quite influential.  He would further explore this idea in his 1977 monograph Marxism and Literature, which argues for taking a Marxist scholarly framework and reconsidering it through the lens of material culture. In other words, the state of our material surroundings says a lot about a society. This idea in particular has influenced a lot of scholars, who have explored capitalism, institutional racism, gender norms, and other big concepts through the lens of specific objects.


These writings have definitely intrigued me in a lot of different ways, and I appreciated the multimedia, interdisciplinary quality of these works. Given my own peculiar taste in art, as my blog post on Seal and Polar Bear suggests, I could see myself doing a cultural history on Victorian business cards and their relationship with nineteenth-century painting, vernacular or otherwise. With regard to my interest in the Community Arts Center project, I could also see myself exploring the kind of art shown through a cultural history lens. So for instance, what kind of subject matter was especially popular among viewers in different regions, and what might those subjects suggest about society at large? How about the history of typewriters and other communicative technologies in museums? What my cultural history readings have underscored is that nothing exists in a vacuum and any topic is fair game so long as you have strong questions that connect your topics back to broader social issues or concerns.

Rethinking the New Deal

Last week’s post explored some recent texts that examine the growth of the federal state. Today, I’d like to take a look at some works that address the period frequently credited with the development of the modern State: the New Deal.

The driving questions underpinning these texts is assessing the historical impact of the New Deal, a question that’s as historically specific as the WPA itself. During the 1960s, for instance, many assessments were positive, reflecting the optimism of the proposed reforms associated with the Great Society. During the 1970s, in the wake of stagnating wages and the oil crisis, scholars associated with the Marxism of the New Left took a more critical position, arguing that the New Deal didn’t so much transform society as maintain extant capitalist structures. During the 1980s, the New Deal’s influence was further questioned in light of President Reagan’s neoliberal policies and the resurgence of free-market advocacy. 

Today, the results continue to remain mixed. On the one hand, scholars working through feminist, critical race, and other lenses have rightly pointed out that the New Deal supported white male workers over all other populations, reflecting the nation’s white supremacy.  As a result, the questions have shifted somewhat from asking whether the New Deal was effective, to asking what kinds of structural preferences or inequalities shaped its outcomes. At the same time, the New Deal remains a paragon for the government as service provider and security net because its the most extensive American example we have. Democratic politicians in particular continue to invoke the New Deal when seeking to provide government aid to citizens, a phenomenon that we’ve seen most recently with the Green New Deal as well as Government stimulus checks.

One of my readings, Beyond the New Deal: Politics from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, is itself a response to an earlier volume, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, published in 1989. Edited by Gary Gerstle (the same person behind one of last week’s books, Liberty and Coercion), this book offers a very different outlook on the New Deal than its 1989 predecessor. Whereas that earlier volume argued that the New Deal era ended as a result of the political and social unrest surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, Gertsle now argues that the conservatism associated with today’s political moment has had a much stronger presence historically than previously believed. In short, the conservatism we see nowadays is a legacy of the New Deal, because there was resistance to it from the beginning.

This seems to be the angle Jefferson Cowie takes in The Great Exception. He posits that the New Deal didn’t signal the onset of a new political era, but rather represents an anomaly within an otherwise conservative political and social history. He argues that the only reason the New Deal worked at all was that the working-class population was more homogenous than usual. This in itself stemmed from restrictions on immigration, policies that favored white male working people, and the continuation of systemic racism in light of FDR’s willingness to ignore the Jim Crow policies of Southern Democrats. As a result, the working class was more open to progressive, labor-focused policies because white men were the primary benefactors. As soon as you started introducing other demographics, the population became fragmented and less willing to agree on different issues. 

Other works are decidedly more optimistic about the New Deal, particularly Nick Taylor’s American Made. Published in 2009, the book appeared in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Whether he anticipated the recession while writing the book or not, I always find it interesting that the New Deal gets brought up whenever we entered a new economic crisis. The Green New Deal, for example, has been a lot of attention for the last couple of years, and I have no doubt that the New Deal will get renewed attention in the wake of COVID-19.

Most of the texts I’ve read take a more ambivalent stance, reflecting the complexities that intersectional scholarship seeks to underscore. While a lot of scholars know that the New Deal did accomplish things, they also argue that it was systemically flawed due to policies that favored white men over other populations. As a result, the long-term impacts of the New Deal were always going to be limited because its reforms maintained the social status quo. 

At the same time, we still live with the ongoing effects of the New Deal, even if a lot of the social programs associated with it have been dismantled. Typically we think of Social Security when we think of ongoing New Deal legacies, but Jason Scott Smith takes a more concretized approach in Building New Deal Liberalism, which focuses on the actual infrastructure that was developed during this time. He argues that we continue to live with, and rely on, New Deal infrastructure, including roads, dams, and other projects, for better or worse. As somebody interested in traveling to structures and their role in the production and consumption of our, I found Smith’s book particularly interesting.

In terms of recent scholarship the most interesting work doesn’t address the New Deal itself directly, per se, but rather the response of conservatives. As scholars such as Angus Burgin observe in works like The Great Persuasion, the conservative strain in American politics was not a radical outlier during the New Deal and Great Society eras. On the contrary, it remained a prominent part of American politics throughout these eras of reform and government expansion.

So why study the New Deal then? In terms of urgency, a lot of historians continue to look to this era, and the conservative response, for the roots of Trump and his policies. Trumpism, they argue, is not anomalous, but has developed from decades of conservative mobilization in terms of advocating free market, neoliberal policies and courting a disenfranchised white male population. Looking at The New Deal and the Great Society through the lens of conservatism reveals that this approach has been an underlying current throughout America’s political, cultural, and economic history. In this regard, the emphasis in recent scholarship is not so much the growth of big government (although that is still a prominent aspect) but rather the growing conservative reaction against such expansion. It’s not so much an abandonment of one topic for another as it is a shift in perspective from the New Deal’s supporters to its opponents.

As someone interested in the New Deal era, I naturally found these readings interesting, even if my own focus is on the arts rather than politics per se. Nevertheless, it is important to understand these political arguments because they impacted the Community Art Center Project. The broader arguments about political reforms, big government, and individual liberties, moreover, continue to affect the current cultural landscape, something that I’ve been following through the museum world in particular.

As a lot of smaller museums and cultural institutions struggle financially in the wake of COVID-19, difficult questions are being asked regarding whether some museums will ever reopen. On the one hand, the idea that a museum should be able to sustain itself financially reflects classical liberal ideas of the free market taking its natural course. Museums that cannot support themselves, according to this line of thought, should be phased out so that better, more efficient institutions can take their place. Conversely,  non-profit museums require a substantial donor base in order to subsist, and such donor bases usually only exist in larger cities. Consequently then, allowing smaller museums, especially those in rural or otherwise underserved areas, implies that poorer populations don’t deserve museums, an attitude that runs counter to the philosophies of the Community Art Center Project. To complicate things further, museums themselves are problematic institutions (art museums are particularly complicit in white supremacy, given their collections), so we need to have some difficult conversations before we scramble to save them. In short, like everything in our society, the issue is complicated and raises all kinds of questions about what kinds of institutions we need.

Ultimately this narrative is still ongoing, but having a better sense of the political background of the New Deal, and especially the conservative reaction to it, will provide context for my future research.