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Public Humanities Lab to feature student-curated exhibits

Month-long initiative will showcase work by Brown, RISD, Providence community members

The John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage will host its first annual Public Humanities Lab from Feb. 20 to March 20. The new iniative will transform the Carriage House Gallery of the Nightengale-Brown House into a venue for student-curated exhibitions, installations and pop-up experiences.

The Public Humanities Lab was devised by an eight-member graduate student committee headed by Marisa Brown, the assistant director of programs  at the center. The student curators are all graduate students completing a degree in Public Humanities.

The Lab aims to give Public Humanities students an opportunity to develop hands-on curatorial experience, Brown said. “A lot of our students go on to work in museums and galleries and places where they do exhibition work. ... (The Lab) is a nice way to give the students a chance to curate their own exhibitions in a gallery, not work as assistants on an exhibition or do it as part of a class project,” she added.

The idea for the Public Humanities Lab “came out of a discussion about wanting to showcase student projects and think more about student work-in-progress,” said Bryn Pernot GS, a member of the committee and co-curator of  the program’s first scheduled exhibition.

The experiential exhibition curated by Pernot and Alyson Myer GS, “Escape the Haffenreffer: Behind the Scenes,” showed from Feb. 20 to 22 and was an escape-room prototype centered around ideas about anthropology and archaeology in practice. The Lab offered Pernot and Myers an “opportunity to test out the narrative elements of the game” before its finished product comes to the Haffenreffer Museum this spring.

In designing the exhibition, “the fun part (was) thinking about how to gamify education while also being aware of the ethics and particular questions that are facing anthropology museums,” Pernot added.

This week’s exhibition, entitled “Monument-Worthy: Personal Memory Markers,” challenges commonly held ideas about monuments, memory and meaning. The installation was curated by Hannah Mooney GS and Molly Pailet GS, two first-years in the Public Humanities program who are interested in pursuing careers in public history and museum education.

“There are all these monuments and memorials everywhere that people just walk by, or interact with, and are these places all meaningful? Maybe not,” Mooney said. “So what are actual meaningful things for people?”

This question drove the curation of the exhibit’s content. The artwork was supplied by Brown undergraduates, graduate students, Rhode Island School of Design students, some community members — including an artist-in-residence at AS220 — and friends of the curators from as far away as Denver. Each “monument” has a distinct character and voice.

“Some are broad to the human experience, others are important to (the artists) and their personal experiences,” Pailet said. One work, called “A Monument to Capitalism,” features United Airlines’ MileagePlus air awards card and an iPhone in adjacent bejeweled temples. “The glow from our iPhone’s apps illuminates our lives in the way that churches’ stained glass once did” begins the monuments’ accompanying statement. Another work, a “Monument to Wellness,” features a bouquet of flowers inside of a biohazard waste container, functioning as a monument to “the spiritual death” that the artist experienced on the day of her diagnosis with Crohn’s disease. Furthermore, two works addressed the Charlottesville incident.

“It’s a great thing the gallery is open to the public — not just the Brown community — and a lot of the things that the students are working on are really timely, interesting and provocative,” Brown said. “We didn’t know quite what we were going to get, or what the programs would look like, but I was just really excited when we put it all together. The gallery features “such a diversity of points of view and kinds of projects,” he said.


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