What We Are
At the Bard Graduate Center our focus is on Cultura. This ancient Latin word referred to the class of activities in which human beings acted on, and so transformed, their natural surroundings. Studying the traces of this effort is, of course, cultural history, but of a specific sort. It directs our attention to the substances intervened upon, the processes used to make these interventions, and the consequences of these interventions. Cultural historians can then construe their pursuit narrowly or broadly.
Our commitment to the cultural history of the material world lies at the crossroads of two great historical projects of the 20th century. When Aby Warburg created his Warburg Library for the Cultural Sciences, in Hamburg, he emphasized the interaction between art history, archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, and history of religion and so focused on artifacts of both high art and utilitarian function. But when he died in 1929, the material dimension of cultural history was deemphasized. In the same year, 1929, Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded a new historical journal in Paris, Annales d’histoire économique, devoted to material and social history—as if “hard” sciences purged a soft and flimsy intellectual history. While the Warburg Institute (after its relocation to London in 1933) and the “Annales school” were the most dynamic influences on the global shape of historical scholarship in the 20th century, that gap between cultural history on the one hand, and social and economic history on the other, was never bridged. The dream of a “cultural science” in which new kinds of evidence could be sifted to discover new kinds of questions about the past remained just that, and the cultural history of the material world remained an institutional orphan.
The founding of the Bard Graduate Center in the fall of 1993 changed all that. There is finally an institutional home for the study of the material past as a key for understanding the human creation of culture. Combining the object-centered vision of the curator with the question-driven horizons of the university professor, the curricular approach of the BGC evades the professional and disciplinary boundaries that so often keep the most interesting questions obscured from view.
Our graduate program (MA and PhD students take the same courses, with the former completing their course work with a qualifying paper, the latter crowning theirs with general examinations before proceeding on to dissertation writing) is designed to offer an encyclopedic approach to the material world, drawing on methodologies and approaches from art and design history, economic and cultural history, history of technology, philosophy, anthropology, and archaeology. This range, in fact, reflects the different approaches of our faculty; some look at Cultura through the lens of the decorative arts and others that of architectural history, some from the perspective of design history and others from that of art history, some as social history of art, and others as material culture. This methodological pluralism is our strength, for it provides students with a rich, kaleidoscopic, and almost encyclopedic approach to the ways of studying the material past. While from one angle we look like an institute focused on a single area, from another we look like a division of a university, with many different disciplines represented under a single conceptual umbrella.
Students at the BGC, just like its faculty, start with questions—about past societies, practices, and peoples—and seek precision in the material world. Students are trained to think about text and context, objects and questions.
This happens in the classroom, of course. But it also takes place in our world-renowned gallery, which over the past 17 years has presented exhibitions ranging from the ancient world to the present, and from the Americas to the Far East. Three exhibitions are presented annually, some produced by the Center and some brought in as part of a vigorous traveling program. The gallery is designed in compliance with the standards set by the American Association of Museums and is open to the public six days a week. This diet of in-house exhibitions creates ideal conditions for regular close looking, and also for student participation in the exhibition process from behind the scenes.
Our student exhibition programs represent an important concretization of this perspective. With The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New-York Historical Society, we have organized exhibitions in which professors and curators not only work together as curators, but also direct a three-semester mini-curriculum sequence. Students, in turn, receive a 360-degree exposure to the conceptualization, making, and mounting of an exhibition. Exhibitions with the Metropolitan have focused attention on neoclassical pots (Vasemania, 2004), medieval bronze tableware (Aquamanilia, 2006) and 17th-century English embroidery (’Twixt Art and Nature,’ 2008), and with the New-York Historical Society, Margrieta van Varick, a Dutch Woman in Seventeenth-Century New York (2009). A retrospective of collector Georges Hoentschel was on display in spring 2013.
We are pleased also to announce a new relationship with the American Museum of Natural History, built around a multiyear postdoctoral fellowship dedicated to the study of anthropology in the museum. Our first fellow worked on the history of Franz Boas’s Northwest Coast Hall at the Museum and taught at the BGC about how material culture looks, thinks, and sounds when approached by the practicing anthropologist. An exhibition of Northwest Coast materials and a scholarly symposium, both at the BGC, called Objects of Exchange, were part of our 2011 events. Our second BGC/ AMNH Fellow taught here about Burma and about anthropological expeditions, culminating in an exhibition in spring 2013. Our third Fellow, with a focus on pre-Columbian Peruvian textiles, led a research and teaching program that culminates in a Focus exhibition, "Carrying Coca", opening in spring 2014.
These collaborations with three great institutions anchor our Cultural Sciences Campus. A 10-minute walk (shorter than across many a college campus) connects the BGC to world-class collections that span the meanings of Cultura, from art to history to nature. Our students have a regular experience of looking at objects that communicate the range of human history, and working with some of the most knowledgeable curators in the world, all in the context of an intellectual program committed to integrating, and not separating, these different realms. A century ago the “cultural sciences” – the term marked meeting place of archaeology, anthropology, art history, history of religion and sociology – represented the aspiration of the Humanities for a new world of learning and a new realm of questions. Our commitment to Cultura marks a renewal of this vision, on a different continent, in a different century, and with different materials.
If all this does not offer enough range or depth, we have agreements with Columbia University, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Graduate School of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University that allow BGC students to take courses for credit at these neighboring institutions, with faculty approval.
For all of these reasons, we are confident that curious and driven students fascinated by the study of the material world will want to make graduate training at the Bard Graduate Center part of their intellectual future.
Peter N. Miller
Dean and Professor
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