We welcome all of our new faculty members to Tappan Hall and were able to speak with some on their research, first semester, and experiences during a time of COVID.
Deirdre L.C. Hennebury
Museums, in their many manifestations, represent permanence and steadfastness in the care for and sharing of “the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity” (ICOM Museum Definition, 2007). This strength has certainly been tested in 2020. It seems fitting, as this unusual semester winds down, to recognize the strength and resilience of our students in the Museum Studies Minor. Working within less-than-ideal circumstances this fall, we have 9 students completing internship practica and a new cohort of 12 declared students.
The internship placements ranged from positions at the Missoula Art Museum and Mackinac State Historic Parks to our own UM campus with engagements at the Kelsey, the Natural History Museum, and the Research Museum Center. Our students have written blogs, designed online exhibitions, supported “Get out the Vote” initiatives, participated in Zoom museum staff meetings, and catalogued digital collections. Due to the pandemic, all internships completed during the 2020 Summer and Fall Terms have been remote. The Museum Studies Program is deeply thankful for our strong and adaptable institutional partners and very proud of our students for rising to the occasion.
Affirming the appeal of the Museum Studies Minor’s multi-disciplinary curriculum, the newly declared students represent a wonderful cross-section of UM’s undergraduate programs. These include American Culture, Anthropology, Art (BFA), Classical Languages and Literature, Earth and Environmental Science, History, History of Art, and Political Science. We are delighted to welcome these students into the Minor and look forward to nurturing them through our program. Moving forward, the Museum Studies Program will be expanding our MUSEUMS course offerings so that we can more meaningfully engage with faculty, programs, and opportunities across campus.
In my Zoom conversations with students over the past few months, there have been expressions of frustration and resignation regarding the limits that the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced to their lives. Most pronounced, however, have been the statements of gratitude – for the opportunities, for the flexibility of the museum staff in working with them to make memorable and educational experience, for the learning that has been achieved. In my first term as the Associate Director of the Museum Studies Program, I, too, have felt vexed with the situation. The overall feeling, however, is a positive one I share with our students. I am thankful for my colleagues, my research and teaching, and, especially, the dedicated, curious, and resilient students I work with every day.
This semester, our departmental community has risen to the challenges posed by the pandemic and moved more fully into virtual spaces. The daily rhythms of life that usually play out inside Tappan Hall have necessarily changed as we all migrate online, but thanks to increasingly digitized collections, we are better equipped than ever before to consider the lives of art objects as we pivot to remote online learning. Despite our immersion in the immaterial expanse of the Zoom Room, though, we are, as ever, embedded in a material world. I write this as Ann Arbor recovers from a windstorm (fallen tree branches have severed the power lines at home, cutting off my access to the electrical grid and the internet) on a laptop computer whose dwindling reserve of power relies in large part on the silvery, featherweight metal lithium (a significant proportion of which is extracted from the high deserts of Northern Chile).
Such meditations on the material world are in some ways natural to art historians. For the past several weeks on Monday mornings, participants in the introductory seminar for our department’s first-year graduate students have convened virtually to consider how object-oriented disciplines have addressed materials in the past. This rich legacy is augmented today by new ways of conceptualizing our perpetual entanglement with matter, with scholars turning to an incredible range of thinking—the writing of the ancient Roman poet Lucretius (d. mid-to-late 50s BCE); the work of contemporary Indigenous artist Will Wilson (Diné/Bilagaana, b. 1969) – to open doors to diverse art historical futures. This sense of possibility has guided my preparations for an undergraduate lecture course which uses a material lens to rethink the artistic production of early modern Europe (c. 1500-1800). Each week will focus on a different material as we follow its path from an extra-European point of origin to the workshops where it was used to create art objects that were then consumed throughout the continent. Thinking with materials like elephant ivory, kaolin clay, and cochineal (a potent crimson pigment derived from insects domesticated in Mexico) helps to situate the work of familiar European artists in networks of knowledge that connected them viscerally to people across the globe.
My own path to this materialist pedagogy was paved by the iridescent substances—feathers, shells, mineraloids, and fabrics which appear to change color with shifts in the angle of illumination or view—that are the subject of my book manuscript. In it, I argue that their unique properties made them especially useful to think with for artists and authors in the seventeenth-century Spanish world. Observing their hues flare, flicker, alter, and fade prompted questions about matter itself (was color a property of things or just a mere trick of the light?) that helped people in that context make sense of the rapidly changing world around them and the world they believed was to come.
For these observers, iridescent things blurred the dividing line between the immaterial and the tangible. As we forge ahead into new, ineffable digital spaces, their thinking, as with that of art historians past and present, serves as a reminder of our constant connection to the material foundations upon which those spaces rely.
Among the multiple themes in my upcoming book Xiongnu: The World’s First Nomadic Empire (Oxford University Press), the most pervasive thread is a concerted effort to bring to light the sophistication of steppe nomadic societies, in their political institutions and in their material culture. It is this latter theme that will run through my seminar on Arts and Cultures of Steppe Nomads next semester, winter 2021. This winter I will also give a department Flash Talk on developments in artistic components of political culture, as the nomadic regime of the Xiongnu forged and maintained a supra-regional empire, and as it fundamentally changed through the regime’s assertions on the global stage and interactions with the rest of Eurasia during the early era of the Silk Roads. In the vein of giving greater agency to often-marginalized cultures, I have focused on the complex cultural dynamics at play within communities of central Eurasia in my Arts of the Silk Roads seminar this semester, presenting students with case studies of “hybrid” art in an increasingly “globalized” world. The central theme in this course has been to dissect numerous media of visual material culture, and their converging components, and to reveal the ways in which cultures in the heart of the continent took an active part in shaping both their worlds and the worlds around them, from Rome to Persia to China. This manner of attention toward cultural dialogues and conflicts between numerous regimes across greater Eurasia brings to the fore comparisons of their varied traditions and trajectories of material culture. Such cross-cultural comparisons will guide my lecture course on Archaeology of Empires offered in the coming winter semester. I hope to carry into the Empires class the kind of cross-cultural discourse that was so successful in Arts of War this semester. In response to challenges of engaging students with art in an environment of remote learning, I also aim to employ the kinds of in-depth examinations of specific examples of art (via on-line resources) that students in my Arts of War lecture course enjoyed.
At this point, it’s a cliche to say that starting a new position in a pandemic is difficult. Fortunately, my transition to U-M was made easier by the welcoming Tappan community. My first three months in Ann Arbor have largely been devoted to conceptualizing my first book project, a rethinking of my dissertation on New Deal post office murals in the American Great Plains. Opportunities to present my work for the Department’s “Flash Talks” series, at the Society of Fellows first-year colloquium, and informally in discussions, facilitated new approaches to my material, which was welcome after spending so much time with my case studies over the past few years! Ironically, working on this project during the pandemic has also given me a different perspective on my subject. How did living through an unpredictable disaster with no apparent end affect these artists and communities? While my dissertation focused on the environmental history of the Plains with some attention paid to the Dust Bowl, the book will engage more specifically with environmental disaster as a framing device. Now I am starting to look down the road towards new chapter drafts and a book proposal.
Undoubtedly, the most exciting project that I’ve been working on this past term is my course for winter 2021, “Environmental Art History,” a fourth-year seminar in the History of Art and the Program in the Environment. My goal for this class is to introduce students to a wide range of art historical work that engages with environmental topics and frameworks. More importantly, I want students to see how much room there is for their own work to shape this young field. I’m hopeful that this interdisciplinary course can also open up art historical methodologies for environmental studies students. Topics will include critiques of landscape painting, histories of material and extraction, the visual culture of industry, and the art of environmental justice. I am looking forward to these conversations shaping my own thinking next term, when I also plan to begin early work on a second project on American art and coal mining.
My first semester with the History of Art Department has been filled with online experiences, conversations with inspiring colleagues, and adjustment to this new institution. During these past months I have been working on my book manuscript Memorials and the Cult of Apology, which is based on my dissertation. My work examines how contemporary memorials have come to embody more than memory. It begins with a simple observation of the growing demand for apologies across the globe and the related proliferation of memorials that aim to atone for past injustices. In effect, apologies are being materialized into memorials, a phenomenon of global importance, which presents a major shift in national self-representation. In the broadest terms, my research is an intervention into the cultural history of the built environment. My manuscript builds an empirical and theoretical understanding of multiple aspects of apology and memorialization, of their material forms, the actors involved, and the diverse effects built apologies produce. It uses five representative case studies located in Berlin, Buenos Aires, and San Francisco, to develop this argument. An essay on what I have termed ‘the cult of apology’ was recently published by e-flux.
In its essence, my research is about how minority groups strive to be heard, respected, and recognized by a dominant majority. During the past ten years, I have worked with memory and human rights activists, and survivors fighting against past and present racism, bigotry, prejudice, and antisemitism in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and San Francisco. My work sheds light on the role that materiality, art, architecture, and urban design can play in shaping communities, and increasing our sense of belonging to the world and to our past. Among the many things I have learned from this experience is that collective memory, and in particular memorialization, are critical tools to deepen justice, diversity, and inclusion.
In the Winter semester I will be offering Architecture and Memory, a course that incorporates some of these issues by examining the ever-fluctuating relationship between memory and the built environment in light of recent associations between memorialization and hegemonic racism. The vanquishing of monuments in the US and across the world, speaks to the welling up of rage and discontent against them—Confederate, patriarchal, colonial, racist, genocidal—, all spatial reminders of structural and representational inequality. It also reveals a special affinity between social protests and monuments; between citizens occupying the streets to demand justice and the dead bronzes standing in their way. Simply put, our monuments no longer reflect who we are. (I wrote a short piece about this for PLATFORM). Acknowledging that the way we represent our past is changing, this course asks: How do current monuments “stand up,” and what can we do about it? Reading widely across history, memory studies, and the built environment from the late-nineteenth century to the present, the seminar will give students the ability to trace memorialization as an historiographical artifact and to analyze its role in contemporary cities. In addition, students will visit and study local monuments, memorials and museums to develop individual research projects.
Besides teaching, I look forward to two conferences in the first half of 2021. I will present new research about a clandestine detention center in Buenos Aires at the Society of Architectural Historian’s conference, as part of a session co-chaired by Ana María León, and I will be co-chairing the session “Queering Memory” at the College Art Association conference. The latter will contribute to an edited volume about memorialization and gender that I am working on, tentatively entitled Breaking the Bronze Ceiling.