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Chatham Square, New York, 1853–55. Daguerreotype. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005 (2005.100.17 3)

Project Content

This National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute 2017, American Material Culture: Nineteenth-Century New York, is a four-week program of seminars, visits to historic sites and museum collections, walking tours, and workshops devoted to hands-on engagement with objects. Organized thematically, each week is co-led by the Project Directors (Catherine Whalen and Katherine C. Grier) and guest faculty. Special attention will be paid to material culture studies, methodology, and pedagogy. Readings highlight key texts in the field alongside New York City case studies. During the Institute, Summer Scholars will have individual consultations with guest faculty and the Project Directors. Instruction in digital media applications and resources is available and encouraged. Participants will have the opportunity to share their own work in a lively, collegial setting.

The Institute will kick off with an introduction to nineteenth-century New York and American material culture studies. The first week (July 3 & 5–7) will commence with a guided exploration of the city’s history and environs, including a walking tour. Librarians will orient participants to the academic collections at Bard Graduate Center in addition to other local research repositories. Jesse Merandy, Director of the Bard Graduate Center Digital Media Lab, will provide a survey of digital tools and online resources for material culture scholarship and teaching. Project Directors will lead a seminar on the historiography of American material culture studies and a range of approaches drawn from art history, decorative arts studies, social and cultural history, and anthropology. They will also conduct an artifact analysis workshop utilizing the Bard Graduate Center Study Collection. At the New-York Historical Society, guest faculty member Debra Schmidt-Bach, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts, will lead a hands-on session on New York silver. She will demonstrate methods of material and stylistic analysis while conveying her extensive knowledge of production techniques, the interrelationship of craft and industry, and social and cultural import of these objects. There will also be a tour of the reinstalled Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture and new Center for Women’s History.

Herter Brothers. Wardrobe, 1880-85. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Gift of Kenneth O. Smith, 1969 (69.140a, b).

The following week, “New York, High and Low” (July 10–14) will begin with a seminar led by the Project Directors on new modes of domestic interiors vis-à-vis issues of class, gender, ethnicity, and race. They will pay close attention to consumerism, immigrant culture, and the rising bourgeois; the spatial, performative, and ideological centrality of parlor culture; and specific practices of “parlor making” with artifacts and texts. The Project Directors will conduct a hands-on workshop delving into more strategies for analyzing, researching, and teaching material culture. Instruction in digital media applications will also be available. Site visits to museums and historic sites will showcase a wide range of nineteenth-century material culture. Curators and educators will present their exemplary collections, approaches to display, and interpretive goals. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amelia Peck, Curator of American Decorative Arts, will share her expertise on the American Wing’s redesigned period rooms and galleries. A behind-the-scenes tour of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum led by David Favaloro, Director of Curatorial Affairs and the Hebrew Technical Institute Research Fellow, will offer special insight into how this grass-roots institution imparts the story of 97 Orchard Street’s immigrant working class residents. Additionally, a full-day field trip to nearby New Jersey will introduce participants to several cultural institutions of outstanding value for the study of nineteenth-century American material culture. These are the Newark Museum, noted for its outstanding collections and innovative interpretation of the adjacent Ballantine House; and Glenmont, the home of Thomas Edison, where Curator Beth Miller will lead an in-depth tour. These two residences reveal the stratified social and labor relations among owners, designers, tradespeople, and servants, further fluctuating with the implementation of new household technologies ranging from central heating to refrigeration to electricity. These sites also highlight this region’s historical importance to the greater New York metropolitan area.

Nicolino Calyo. New York Street Cries: The Oyster-Stand, 1840–44. Watercolor on paper. Museum of the City of New York.


“Space and Place” will be the theme of week three (July 17–21). Here the focus will be on New York’s increasingly complex social and spatial differentiation over the course of the nineteenth century. Guest faculty member Bernard Herman, Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, will guide this week’s instruction along with the Project Directors. Herman will lead two seminars, the first of which will address cultural landscapes and vernacular architecture, emphasizing the far-reaching impact of the city’s grid pattern and the growth of middle-class row houses and artisans’ dwellings. The subject of his second seminar will be the study of material culture studies from the vantage points of historical archaeology and foodways. Three sessions with other guest faculty will explore the histories of diverse New York communities while modeling how participants can use site visits in their teaching and research. Jack Tchen, Associate Professor of History and Asian/Pacific/American Studies at New York University, will lead a walking tour of Chinatown’s Chatham Square and a trip to the Museum of the Chinese in America. Tchen will speak about his research on nineteenth-century New York’s Asian American community. Public historian Cynthia Copeland will guide a visit to the Seneca Village site in Central Park, and discuss how archaeological and archival research helped resurrect this African-American and Irish immigrant enclave, displaced by the Park’s construction in the 1850s. At the American Museum of Natural History, Professor Ivan Gaskell of Bard Graduate Center will conduct a behind-the-scenes workshop on Native American material culture collected during the nineteenth century. This session will highlight issues surrounding the formation of these collections and the foundations of museum anthropology.

The fourth and final week (July 24–28) will begin with a focus on visual culture, led by guest faculty member Joshua Brown, Professor of History at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. He will conduct two seminars, one on the burgeoning literature of visual culture studies and its relation to material culture, and the other on specific print genres, including woodcuts, lithographs, photographs, half tones, cartoons, illustrated periodicals, and newspapers. Here they will address production techniques, circulation, and pluralities of cultural meanings. In addition, Brown will lead a hands-on session at the New-York Historical Society’s Print Room, with special attention to the changing visibility of immigrant communities in prints and serial publications. He will also discuss how to use new media to research and teach American material and visual culture, drawing upon his ample experience with the American Social History Project. Rounding out the Institute is a full-day field trip to the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, where guest faculty member Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, will lead two material culture workshops. These will be held in the Gallery’s Object Study Classroom and the Furniture Study. Summer Scholars will work directly with the collections while Cooke provides instruction about changing modes of production in nineteenth-century American ceramics and furniture. The Institute will conclude with a review of Summer Scholars’ projects, wrap-up session, and plans for future work.

Sample projects include but are not limited to the following: a research project; a digital project; a syllabus for a course incorporating material culture studies; or, a module on material culture studies that could be integrated into multiple courses. Summer Scholars will present their projects in a workshop format, highlighting new developments based on their Institute experience and plans for integrating the results into their teaching or other venues.

Please view Recommended Readings.

Please note that the schedule of events is subject to revision. See Project Faculty and Staff for instructor bios.

Please direct all application inquiries to: nehinstitute@bgc.bard.edu, and for more details visit the Application Instructions and Contact Information page.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.