The fall is always exciting on West 86th Street, as you can see elsewhere in this newsletter. Looking a little to the future, I’m pleased to be welcoming Mei Rado to the new faculty. She is the first of our own PhDs to return, in her case, from curating at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to teaching and research on the Upper West Side. Still further into the future, I’m very excited that with the generous help of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, we will be able to hold the second of our collaborative summer schools in 2023 with the Alliance of Museums and Galleries of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The first of what we plan as an every-other-year collaboration launched in 2021.

Right now, as we mark the tenth birthday of Bard Graduate Center’s book series, Cultural Histories of the Material World, and prepare for the publication of its thirteenth volume, a subtle redesign is being planned. This offers us an opportunity to reflect on a decade’s worth of accomplishment and review the contribution of CHMW to BGC’s intellectual persona.

Let’s start with the name of the series. It is a neologism and was chosen because it was a neologism. Instead of trying to adjudicate between what were then the various competing sub-narratives of BGC, whether decorative arts or art history or design history or material culture, cultural history was a way of slicing through the past that could employ any number of practices or methods. Material world, too, spoke to what we took as our substrate without taking a stand on method (“world,” in this case, emphatically not synonymous with culture). Thanks to Google, we could be sure then, as we can be now, that this phrase is used nowhere else in the world, not even in the more likely singular.

In terms of content, the series has always functioned as a leading edge, pushing beyond the BGC of the classroom and the BGC of the gallery. Explorations of topics like “the sea” or the “technical image” were ways of planting our flag on new intellectual territories, laying claim to a mandate without yet having the students or professors populate the topic. Then there were projects that took a subject already of interest at BGC, like the history of collections and museums, and focused it on research topics that enabled BGC to intervene in the global discourse. Titles include The Museum in the Cultural Sciences and the about-to-be-published volume on Andrei Leroi-Gourhan. CHMW has also let BGC publish edited collections emerging from the conferences it has sponsored. The logic is clear: if the topic is worth bringing people together to talk about, it is probably worth publishing, too. One such topic-conference book now in the works, The Archaeology of Free African Americans in the Nineteenth Century, came into existence at a conference here in February 2020. Other collections, such as those on “Votive Objects,” “Expeditions,” and “Active Matter,” were part of the research run-up to exhibitions later held in the BGC Gallery. Having a book series also enables us to host important lecture series with an offer of publication. The multiple award-winning Art of the Jewish Family came into life in just this way. Finally, starting a book series, like starting a residential fellows program, is one of the ways BGC remade itself from a teaching program with exhibitions for the public into a graduate research institute that integrated teaching research and exhibitions.

But looking back, I also recall some ideas we have been unable to realize. For one, the series was intended to publish “born digital” content. But this has been extremely hard to come by. We hoped it to put BGC at the vanguard of digital long-form scholarship—but no one wanted to give up publishing on paper. And a digital sidekick to the printed book that was more than a pdf turned out to be a lot more expensive than a printed book. Second, at a certain point, we wanted to seek out and publish short monographs that would fill the niche between journal articles and books. But we never got the submissions, and frankly, I’m not sure that authors want to write a book of that length (Cambridge’s Elements and Oxford’s Very Short Introductions are very publisher-driven).

We began, Dan Lee and I, back in 2009, thinking that the world of scholarly publishing was changing fast. In fact, at least on the surface, it hasn’t changed that much. If we have had to put some of our wildest ambitions back in the drawer, the passage of time has also reinforced our core commitment to serious scholarship, driving the creation of new areas of study. This is where the close connection between the book series and the teaching, research, and exhibiting vocations of the institution has offered enormous opportunities for making each book an agent of change in much the same way that a new faculty appointment can reshape an institution’s physiognomy. The enormous accomplishments of the last 10 years, not to mention the last 30, make any predictions about the BGC’s future a dangerous game. But it’s a likely bet that alongside its award-winning exhibition catalogues, BGC will still be supporting innovative thinking and scholarly communication in a handy 6” x 9” package.