Material culture research provides outreach platform
A punch bowl in the China trade; citizen
soldier monuments; lynching memorials
remembering a dark past.
These and other fascinating artifacts
populate the syllabus of the "Objects as
Cultural Artifacts" class at UD's Osher
Lifelong Learning Institute in Wilmington.
Presented for four years running by UD
graduate students in the humanities, the
course involves collaboration between UD's
Center for Material Culture Studies and the
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the
University of Delaware, a member-based
teaching and learning program for those
The graduate students' individual presentations are an outgrowth of their participation in UD's Public Engagement in Material Culture Institute (PEMCI), funded by a grant from National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to encourage and train graduate students to communicate their research to the public. To be renamed this year as the Delaware Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI), the institute gives graduate students hands-on experience in public speaking, interviews, media training for radio and TV and writing press releases.
Developing public engagement skills
Sarah Beetham presented her research on
the emergence of the 'citizen soldier
monument' as public sculpture after the
Civil War. "The PEMCI workshops really
helped develop my skills in public speaking.
I enjoyed presenting at the lifelong learning
program," said Beetham, who is completing a
Ph.D. in art history at UD. "The art
historian plays a crucial role in working with
the public to come up with new ways to
think about and preserve public art. Much
more so than art in museums, public works
are accessible for people to visit and learn
from, and they are owned by the
community. Art historians who specialize in
public engagement can convey why that
process is so important."
The Osher presentations serve as an excellent
opportunity for the graduate students to
practice what they've learned in the PEMCI
training, and fulfill the outreach
requirements of the NEH grant, said
Deborah Andrews, English professor and
director of the Center for Material Culture
Studies. Osher members, in turn, learn about
research taking place at UD, she added.
For her Osher presentation entitled "An Ocean of Punch," art history graduate student Emily Casey discussed the cultural and political symbolism of porcelain punch bowls brought back on the Empress of China American trade ship and displayed in American parlors. "While my background in museum education has always made me committed to public education, I struggled to find a way to connect my graduate research with non-academic audiences," commented Casey, whose research centers on the material culture of the early American China trade. "It was through the experience of the PEMCI program, where I practiced describing my work to different people in numerous contexts, that I grasped how exciting my research could be to the general public."
"Learning about different objects and art
takes you places you never thought you'd go,"
commented Norling. "This course continues
to attract an audience of 60 or more each
week, many of whom come back every year."
Siegell added, "We are delighted that
previous presenters have returned this
semester to update us on their research."
Seeing research with fresh eyes
La Tanya Autry is one of the repeat
presenters, a doctoral student in art history studying the history of lynching in America
by examining lynching memorials. She's
given many outreach presentations in
addition to the ones at Osher. "I find it
helpful to present my research to people
from various backgrounds. In addition to
encouraging me to see the project with fresh
eyes, the comments and questions often
point the way to other approaches or
research sources," commented Autry.
"Although working on the dissertation is
rigorous, it feels good to know that many
people are interested in my project."
Initially reticent about blogging and tweeting, Autry credits PEMCI with helping her understand the outreach potential of social media. "Now I'm an avid fan of various social platforms, and I understand how social media can vastly broaden my reach to diverse people," said Autry.
And while she's always had a great interest in sharing her topic through outreach, Autry says the PEMCI experience solidified the concept of public engagement for her: "I now I consider it an integral part of my identity as an emerging scholar and a vital component of a democratic society."