In early 1932, if you went looking for artist Diego Rivera, you might have found him on the production line of the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Michigan.

He wasn’t assembling front-end suspension parts or pouring molten steel into molds. Rather, he was roaming the megafactory, researching the mass production techniques for his latest commission: a series of murals depicting modern industry for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Rivera and artist Frida Kahlo, recently married, journeyed to Detroit for the mural commission. Despite spending only a year in the city, they each left an indelible artistic legacy and completed some of their
best-known works.

Eighty-eight years later, the History Department and the DIA are collaborating on a virtual field trip for Detroit Industry, the now-iconic murals Rivera painted in the museum’s courtyard.

“This exciting partnership has been years in the making and will represent our very first HistoryLab explicitly designed to benefit K-12 school teachers and students across our region—and the wider
world,” said History Department Chair Jay Cook.

In January 2021 a class of graduate students will engage directly with the DIA to provide historical context and assets for the project, including photos and other media. The DIA will work with their vendor to incorporate these materials into a digital platform that will launch
in the 2021-22 school year.

The project leverages the expertise of U-M History faculty and PhD students in the histories of labor, corporate capitalism, immigration, race and ethnicity, the city of Detroit, and 1930s politics and radicalism.

“For us, this is an ideal vehicle to place U-M History in the public service, simultaneously working to build transferable skills for our talented PhD students, while also creating something of great value for diverse communities beyond our own campus,” said Cook.


Detroit Industry Worker, Diego Rivera, Detroit Institute of Arts. (Photo: Gregory Parker)


“U-M graduate students are full-fledged researchers in the DIA’s interpretive planning process,” said Jason Gillespie, director of education programs at the museum. “The final product will be an
innovative digital resource that will share Detroit Industry with teachers and students throughout Michigan and the nation.”

History graduate students Irene Mora and Richard A. Bachmann spent the summer doing preliminary research for the project, which will contextualize this world-famous work of art within its home community. Their work will kick-start the project in January.

We’re seeing what’s out there, undertaking the primary selection of materials for students taking the course, so they have something to work with right from the start,” said Bachmann.

“It’s important to emphasize the fact that this is a Detroit institution,” said Mora. For her, the project also offers an opportunity to bring Latinx history to a larger audience, as many schools ignore the topic.

“Folks don’t know the long ties that Latinos/as have in Detroit,” said Mora. “I view Diego’s and Kahlo’s art as a mark on the city. Through their art larger publics are informed of the long historical genealogy that Latinx communities have in Detroit.”

Professors Anthony Mora and John Carson are the project’s faculty directors. “Part of the learning experience for the graduate students is learning how to present concepts to a wide audience, from sophisticated high school students to something a fourth-grader can understand,” said Carson.

This project is the latest History Department effort to diversify training for graduate students, preparing them for a variety of careers inside and outside of the academy. In 2019 the department launched a HistoryLab partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where graduate students work with museum professionals to curate online exhibits for educators using materials from the museum’s archives. 

Beyond the practical benefits for graduate students, programs like these bring benefits to the wider public.“

We have a unique opportunity to partner with the DIA’s exceptional staff and collaborate on a digital history platform that will help make these iconic murals come alive for thousands of school kids who might not have the chance to interact with Rivera’s work,” said Cook.“This project will ultimately give students a fun and stimulating introduction to the amazing stories that are within the Latinx community,” said Anthony Mora.