As an institute for advanced study of the cultural history of the material world, Bard Graduate Center is defined by the way it relates teaching, research, and exhibitions.
Graduate training in small group seminars is integrated into faculty-driven research programming, and exhibitions both emerge out of faculty research and serve as the subject matter for independent research seminars. At the center of our field of vision is the material world, the way in which objects and the human relationships fostered by objects enable us to understand the human past in new or unexpected ways.
Bard Graduate Center traces its history back to the innovative historical schools of the 1920s founded by Aby Warburg in Hamburg, as represented in the work of the London–based Warburg Institute, and by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch in Paris and incarnated in the journal Annales d’histoire économique (now Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales). Between cultural history from things, and social history from things, Bard Graduate Center takes its vocation . But even further back lies the foundational work of connoisseurs and antiquarians—the first to take objects seriously as both evidentiary and aesthetic documents. This deep genealogy is as true of China as it is of Europe, and it underpins the global reach of our field of study.
Teaching – Research – Exhibitions: Bard Graduate Center’s scope is encyclopedic, articulated along the axes of geography, chronology, and methodology. Faculty members are drawn from the various fields of art history, history, anthropology, and archaeology, and students come from an even wider range of undergraduate majors. Visiting researchers and speakers connect students and faculty with colleagues and like-minded institutions around the world. Exhibitions originating at Bard Graduate Center travel to major venues, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Summer travel programs based at the École du Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum anchor a series of international internships. This global vision is supported by an active digital presence, such as projects directed through the Digital Media Lab, co-teaching through video link, and programs disseminated across the web through BGCTV, extending Bard Graduate Center’s footprint well beyond West 86th Street.
With the freedom and focus of an institute, and with the teaching, research, and exhibiting resources of larger and more spread-out institutions, Bard Graduate Center represents the most advanced state of object-based learning with cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary inquiry.
Peter N. Miller
Dean and Professor
Bard Graduate Center opened its doors in the fall of 1993. Early on I expressed my conviction that “the aspirations and habits of civilization are revealed through the decorative arts, which are fundamental to the lives of all individuals,” and my hope that the Center would help “advance the recognition of the decorative arts as one of the primary expressions of human achievement.” Since then, Bard Graduate Center has more than fulfilled these original aspirations, uniting innovative degree programs with path-breaking museum exhibitions to create a new context for the study of a significant portion of the artistic heritage of human history. As we have added new faculty and new foci, we have also broadened our horizons and our self description. Our even more ambitious aim now is to become the leading center for the study of the cultural history of the material world. Bard Graduate Center’s first two decades were truly amazing. And all of us here—faculty, staff, and students—eagerly look forward to what the next decades will bring. We hope you will want to join us.
Founder and Director
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Elena Pinto Simon
Dean for Academic Administration, Student and Alumni Affairs
Unique among American graduate programs, Bard Graduate Center studies the cultural history of the material world in all times and places, from distant antiquity to the developments of yesterday and tomorrow. Within this global sweep, our rich faculty resources and worldwide institutional partnerships make us particularly strong in the seven areas of focus listed here: New York and American Material Culture; Modern Design History; History and Theory of Museums; Early Modern Europe; Global Middle Ages; Archaeology, Anthropology, and Material Culture; and Cultures of Conservation, an Andrew W. Mellon-funded initiative. Each of these areas draws on the special interests and expertise of several of our permanent faculty members, as well as postdoctoral fellows and visiting instructors from our New York cultural campus; each represents an area of study in which it is possible, though not required, to focus as part of a degree program. Rather than constituting defined or official tracks through our curriculum, these seven areas of focus offer students productive points of reference for a broad exploration of history through its tangible and material traces.
New York and American Material Culture
Bard Graduate Center offers a rich range of programs and resources for the study of New York and American material culture from before European contact to the present. Drawing on faculty with expertise in American decorative arts, the history of art and architecture, craft and design history, museology, the history and theory of collecting, taste and aesthetics, cross-cultural encounter, anthropology, cultural landscapes, native peoples, visual culture, photography, digital humanities, and philosophy, this area offers a culturally inclusive, multi-disciplinary approach to the relationships between people and things.
Courses expose students to methodologies that include hands-on object study and connoisseurship; ethnography and oral history; folklore; and techniques of visual, material, spatial, and textual analysis. Faculty-student collaborations have included Focus Project exhibitions such as Objects of Exchange: Social and Material Transformation on the Late Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast, American Christmas Cards, 1900-1960, Visualizing 19th-Century New York; and Revisions—Zen for Film. Digital projects include Visualizing New York, a collaboration between Bard Graduate Center and the New York Public Library and the Bard Graduate Center Craft, Art and Design Oral History Project, an online digital archive of oral history interviews of contemporary craftspeople, artists, and designers.
History and Theory of Museums
This area of study approaches museums not only as repositories of objects to be analyzed with a historical lens, but also as complex social, economic, and even political institutions that must be approached from broad theoretical and contextual viewpoints. As princely and aristocratic collections of fine arts and natural history entered the emerging public sphere between the 16th and 18th centuries, they were asked to perform different functions for different constituencies and were accompanied by new paradigms of description, cataloguing, exhibition, and display. More recently, industrialization, colonialism, mass travel and tourism, and the emergence of new media have had profound implications for museums of all types—including those devoted to fine and decorative arts, ethnography and anthropology, and natural history and science.
Students choose from a variety of courses that might include topics in the history of collecting, the origins of museums as institutions, the conservation of objects, strategies of museum education and outreach, and the art market. Courses in this area span the temporal and geographic range of our faculty and the broad variety of objects studied at Bard Graduate Center. Rather than simply acquiring a particular skill set, our students emerge with the tools to think about the museum as a protean institution at the center of contemporary cultural policy.
Modern Design History
The industrial revolution and the huge expansion in “the world of goods” in Europe and North America offer a starting point for the history of modern design. However, this is not simply an exercise in social and economic history. The boom in consumerism created widespread anxiety about how things were designed, prompting questions about “good” and “bad” design, the proper values that should be encouraged, and what it meant to be “modern.” As a result, many designers and critics formed opinions that, with the expanding mass media, created a public and international discourse on the role of design in society. How can wallpaper foster good moral values? Why are certain materials and processes felt to be “honest,” while others are “corrupt” or “backward”? And, how do the things that surround us affect the way we live our lives?
These and other questions underlie the teaching of modern design history, which allows students to concentrate on such disparate topics as new materials and technologies, questions of style and function, national identity, gender, and domesticity, as well as the conflicting tendencies of industrialization and handcraft. Studying design requires us to consider some of the fundamental changes in modern society over the past two centuries, and to engage with the vital questions of how and why our world looks the way it does.
Early Modern Europe
Students wishing to specialize in the art and material culture of early modern Europe and the colonial Americas between about 1400 and 1800 will find a wide roster of thematically and methodologically diverse courses. This interdisciplinary concentration draws on the research interests of faculty from the fields of art and design history, intellectual history and historiography, anthropology, philosophy, and aesthetics. Object-based courses address aspects of craft production ranging from the elite to the ephemeral, including metalwork, textiles, woodworking, ceramics, and print, while theoretically driven topics include the history of object-based scholarship and the changing social, cultural, and ideological uses and understandings of objects in domestic and courtly cultures.
Specific concentrations include the history of the book, food history, the early history of collecting, the impacts of Europe’s overseas colonization and trade, cross-cultural exchange, and religion and the arts. Courses are often team-taught or tied to exhibition projects in which the students are actively employed. These include English Embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ca. 1580–1700: ‘Twixt Art and Nature and Dutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick. Recent and ongoing PhD topics include Renaissance armor and its 19th-century afterlife, the life and work of a 17th-century alchemist, and Tudor court ceremony and dress.
Global Middle AgesThis concentration offers a global and comparative approach to the study of material culture in the Middle Ages, broadly defined as the formative period between the ancient and modern worlds. Emphasizing connectivity rather than disjunction, exchange rather than isolation, and accord rather than bloodshed, this area of focus suggests a complex cultural, economic, and even political context for the study of material things. With a focus on broad geographical domains such as the Mediterranean or the Eurasian Steppe, our concentration investigates the making, circulation, and changing meanings of material objects and images in a wide variety of temporal and geographical contexts. Offerings range from tightly focused investigations of specific media, regions, and periods to thematic, issue-oriented seminars that take a cross-cultural, trans-regional, and trans-historical viewpoint.
Archaeology, Anthropology, and Material Culture
This area includes archaeology and the arts of the ancient world from the Paleolithic onward in the Old World, New World, Central Asia, and the Far East. Courses include materials-based topics such as ancient jewelry and metalwork, ceramics and glass, and furniture, as well as revivals of interest in antiquity and contemporary ethics/issues in the study of ancient art. Inquiries relate to the science of archaeology and the importance of archaeological context, ancient history and art history, archaeological conservation, ancient art in museums and private collections, and the early history of technology—topics of intrinsic interest that also provide a background for many other related subjects taught at Bard Graduate Center.
Anthropology, from its origins in comparative social thought to its role in documenting indigenous peoples under European colonial expansion, has long focused on material culture in a systematic and holistic fashion. Bard Graduate Center offers introductions to the history and theory of anthropology, intensive primers on ethnographic methods for students working with present-day communities, and topical or regional approaches to global cultures. Anthropological and cross-cultural perspectives also inform courses on folklore and heritage, colonial encounters, craft and photography, and conservation. Our institutional partnership with the American Museum of Natural History supports postdoctoral fellowships in museum anthropology and provides students with research opportunities in one of the world’s premier ethnographic collections.
Cultures of Conservation (An Andrew W. Mellon-Funded Initiative)
At its core, this program is an attempt to connect the perspective of conservation to an interdisciplinary notion of the human sciences. “Conservation,” in the best sense, conjoins data derived from instrumentation and technology, long experience of hand and eye, and scholarly understanding of how and why things were done in order to bring an object back to life. In the past, this knowledge has been harvested mostly in museums and galleries and harnessed largely to curatorial practice and exhibitions. We wish to bring our cross-disciplinary perspective on the study of objects into a conversation with conservators’ questions for the benefit of students and professors.
In this area, we build on our long experience working between museums and universities by incorporating the concepts and practices of “conservation” into our curriculum. We explore the various meanings of conservation as we define them—that is, the study of materials, techniques of making, and practices of use and re-use. For three-dimensional objects especially, the conservation process is often the only way one can learn about how something was made. Through curricular innovation and post-graduate fellowship research at Bard Graduate Center, the students and scholars of the future are being educated in this creative new outreach.