An Introduction to the Bard Graduate Center: Dean Peter N. Miller

Dean Peter N. Miller talks about why the Bard Graduate Center is a unique intellectual institution. The video transcript below is excerpted from a recent BGC Open House, and gives a sense of the mission and vision of the work of the school.

"...but it's also very nice, as you saw when you walked in—and we actually thought about this when choosing the date for this Sunday afternoon—it's very nice for you to see an exhibition in progress. What you saw downstairs is the readying of one of the gallery spaces for the next show which we're having here, which will open on Wednesday night. And our exhibitions and our exhibitions program is really an integral part of the Bard Graduate Center and an integral part of what makes the kind of education we get here unique.

In the context of the study gallery that I mentioned, the importance for us [is] of joining the kinds of questions professors typically ask about context and history with the kinds of questions that curators typically ask about the object itself in front of us. Very often curators and professors talk past each other and one of the things that we really aspire to here is creating a new category of students who are bilingual, who can speak both languages and maybe even create a language in which these two approaches, the object aptitude of the curator and the context-centeredness of the professor, no longer seem so opposed as they often do now. And our various exhibitions that we put together here are really dedicated to that end.

In particular we have a series of programs with partner institutions in what we call our "Cultural Sciences Campus," and I'll talk about the term in a moment, but these institutions, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New-York Historical Society, and the American Museum of Natural History are a ten-minute walk from here, shorter than across many a college campus that you may have attended. But all of them represent—if you think about the spectrum of the material world—objects made by human beings for all sorts of purposes, from the desire to ornament the everyday, to the desire to have another tomorrow. All of these institutions in a sense position themselves along the spectrum, from objects of high aesthetic intention to objects really of everyday life or spiritual purpose. And with these institutions we have an exhibition program, each of a different sort. Our project with the Metropolitan is the most long-lasting of them, and what is being put together downstairs is in fact a result of that. We have, in all of these arrangements, projects where curators from our partner institutions and professors on our staff come up with the idea of a program, put together a mini-curriculum, and then there's an exhibition at the end, so students are involved in the thinking process of the professors and the curators and see professors and curators working out their different perspectives.

The one downstairs is a project on late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth-century English embroidery drawn from the collection of the Met, objects that will never see even the half light of the conservator's permissible gallery but which here will be on display in their entirety. There's a wonderful catalogue that's being produced by Yale University Press, who do our catalogues, and it really represents the kind of fusion of horizons that we look for. In addition, it's a good model for our belief, our very strong belief, that teaching at the graduate level and the research of the professors go together and even really are mutually fructifying; students benefit from being in an environment where the faculty are pursuing high-level interrogation of sources for the purposes of expanding, advancing, and learning. And we think also that the process of doing research from the professors point of view is invariably enhanced and insights [are] gained from the need to convey these points to students, not just to other people at the same advanced level of inquiry, but to explain why it matters.

And so a leitmotif of our curriculum is in fact this balance between being a graduate-training program and being a place which we think of as a research institute. There are lots of research institutes in art history and history but very few if not none—at least my last check on Google showed none—call themselves a "graduate research institute." Assumedly there are many many places where you could get graduate training, but departments in the university are unable and often unwilling to style themselves a research institute. So what you get here is something unique in terms of that, and unique in terms of our real dedication and belief that teaching and research go together and benefit from the different perspectives of both students and faculty.

Now when we talk about the cultural sciences that really points us back towards the history of the institution much much longer than one whose official formal birthday is the fall of 1993, which makes this our fifteenth year of operation. In fact when we talk about cultural sciences we're really going back to the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century in Germany where the idea of a polydisciplinary approach to culture, culture being the various ways in which human beings intervene upon and transform the natural world around them. Culture in that sense is related to artifice, it's related to the idea of constructedness; that everything that falls into the category of culture is something that's made, whether it's a concept or a tool or a costume. It's made by human beings at a time, at a place, for a purpose. And that fact really governs what we are interested in, and so, like our forebearers a hundred years ago, who reached for the tools made available by what then were very recent, new, avant-garde disciplines like anthropology, or sociology or history of religion, or even art history, we too, here, draw on approaches from archaeology, anthropology, art history, sociology, history of technology, philosophy....I'd say "you name it" but what's really important in our approach, and this I think also marks us off from much more disciplinarily hidebound institutions, is that our approach is driven by questions not by disciplinary agendas.

Some of you may know, depending on your background, that most intellectual life is a function of students and then professionals interacting with literature produced by people in the same guild: historians react to historians, art historians react to art historians, anthropologists to anthropologists. And so in all these fields this very happy collision of past and future advances learning, but it's also true that rarely, in any discipline, rarely do research agendas get formulated on the basis of what is the most interesting question to ask, rather they get formulated dialectically against whatever the current perceived view amongst the members of the club happens to be. And so here, because we're not in a big university, we're not a department, what we do, the Cultural History of the Material World, is really a kind of second-order perspective on what happens in lots of different disciplines.

You can come here with a background in art history, or history, or literature, or anthropology, or economics, and find approaches from these disciplines represented here. But we don't represent them in order to perpetuate disciplinary agendas. Approaches from these different disciplines are present here because they offer us resources for tackling questions of importance having to do with societies living today and past societies around the globe. Our encyclopedic purview geographically, chronologically also allows us an encyclopedic purview methodolically.

And so in fact when you come here, you can come here to study a question, not just a field, and we think that coming here to study a question, with the resources that we have—and we may seem like a small institution and indeed were we in a large university our fifteen permanent faculty would be small compared to fifty or sixty in an English or economics department. But if you look around New York City, if you wanted to find an institution that had fifteen people, all of whom study the material world, and the way in which it's made and used by human beings, you would have a hard time finding another institution with that many people working on the same question. So there is a dialectic of large and small, which you will encounter the more you explore an institution, small in many ways but rich in many ways, with a depth on a focused field of vision, that often surpasses that of many larger institutions.

One of the things that characterizes us, when you come here you get an exposure to a question in depth but also in breadth, because as you'll hear in a moment from my colleagues—and hear also between the lines of what they say, not only in the words that they utter—what we have here is a faculty drawn from many different backgrounds, archaeologists, historians of technology and craft, social historians of art, architectural historians, design historians, people who work on material culture, historians of scholarship, decorative arts specialists, historians of painting, people who come at the question of how do human beings transform their material environment from a variety of backgrounds. And so coming here as you do, not only do you get depth but you get breadth, you get to see the way in which the questions that you're interested in could be asked from a variety of perspectives.

One of the things we really take very seriously here is the avoidance of a monoculture. We're not interested in dogmatically perpetuating ourselves; the very notion that what we do is the Cultural History of the Material World is designed to forestall that. Because if you go to Google—again, an easy way to the modern version of the Clapton omnibus—if you go to Google and just type in "cultural history of the material world" you'll find that nobody else uses the term. We are the references in the world of Google and the reason for that is not to simply to coin a neologism, it's to avoid being trapped into the hidden agendas of other disciplines and other research methodologies; by adopting what is explicitly a second-order approach, we're not saying don't do any of the things you want. There's material culture, there's design history, there's decorative arts, and many other kinds of approaches that you may be interested in, all of which are subsumed ultimately under this idea of cultural historical approach to the material world. And that's really very much what we stand for, a variety of voices and approaches, which I think makes the experience of coming for potential, and for the students who do decide to come, a very rich one, because you can immerse yourself in a very deep, but also a very broad approach to the kinds of questions that interest you. And then you leave here, hopefully after a happy two years, with a toolkit, full of tools that you didn't have before, understandings you didn't have, perspectives that you didn't have before, and then you can go off to whether it's further graduate training, or a job in a museum or a gallery or in publishing or wherever people go in this day and age to find a job, with all of these skills and perspectives acquired.

And so I think, as you contemplate the variety of options that you have for what you want to do next year, I think what we offer is this very nice combination of depth and breadth, of small size—the fact that you're meeting us, this is a good reflection: every single person who constitutes the bureaucracy of the Bard Graduate Center is in this room right now and you can chat with us afterwards. It's a face-to-face culture, it's not a gigantic amorphous institution. We don't do our applications by machine and that's by intention. So your approach to us from today through your application, should you choose to apply, all the way to your admission is done actually with a live human being. There's no call center somewhere in a different time zone, there's no machine-readable documents, there are just people. We're small, and that's I think a value; it means that when we have people come to speak here, whether it's curators or faculty through the many different seminars that we sponsor, you can meet them, you can shake their hand, you can ask them a question, either in the receptions before or after. The intimacy, which is a really necessary part of learning—as some of you may know, often a lot more learning is transacted informally at formal events that at the explicitly formal part of them. So you have that kind of access that you would have in a small place, but at the same time, it's an institution whose ambit, whose scope—the cultural history of the material world—is vast, and allows us and therefore you access to a range of questions, a range of scholars, a real depth of resources in our library (it's nice to have in the back our chief librarian, Heather Topcik, who's here this morning), a range of resources both in house and across New York City through the various contacts we have, contacts that are important while you're a student here, for internships, for doing research, but also afterwards of course in the quest for employment.

This idea that you have the best of a small institution, the face-to-face culture, the access to people you can talk to, and at the same time that you're part of an institution that is itself linked, through the city. I mentioned our partners at the Met and New York Historical Society and the Museum of Natural History, and also overseas, we do exchange programs that will be starting actually next fall with the Royal College of Art / Victoria & Albert Museum and the Art History faculty of the Humbolt University in Berlin, and there are other international partnerships in the works as well. So I think, if I have to sum up, which I do, because my time is up, I would say that the most important things about our institution to remember are bound up with this idea of a dialectic between large and small, and of the idea of pursuing questions in a liberated, free way, which is true both for the intellectual questions but also institutionally. This is a place that doesn't need to and doesn't operate by the conventions of institutions but is actually committed and able to really create an intellectual future for the field that we care enough to study. So those are really I think the most important principles, there are a lot of details about the institution, some of which will come out over the course of today, others of which you can cull from our website, or indeed from conversations with any of us, from today, through the application process...."

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