Material culture grad students focus on outreach
Pictured are, from left, La Tanya Autry, Amanda Norbutus, Andy Bozanic, Josh Calhoun and Amber Kerr-Allison.


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11:30 a.m., May 12, 2010----When Josh Calhoun shows kids at summer camp how to make paper using an old shirt, or Amanda Norbutus writes her blog for the “Rescue Public Murals” website, or Andy Bozanic begins a talk by picking up a familiar object and accompanying himself on a few bars of the song Guitar Man, they're all using a skill they learned as University of Delaware graduate students.

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That skill -- which they and other students demonstrated at a presentation called “The Public Lives of Things” on campus last week -- is outreach. The students are part of a group that has received special training and mentoring in ways to engage the public in their research and share their findings with a wide community audience.

“We get support from the public for our research, and it's only fair to give back,” said Deborah Andrews, professor of English and director of UD's Center for Material Culture Studies, as she introduced the five featured students at the presentation.

The students took part in last summer's Public Engagement in Material Culture Institute (PEMCI) at the University, a two-week workshop in which they learned how to use accessible language and new digital technologies to involve and inspire the public in their research. Among other activities at the institute, they practiced delivering informal talks, giving sound bites for a quick interview and explaining their research to a media professional while being videotaped for a later critique.

They also have been mentored during the current academic year, continuing to interact with the public through presentations to undergraduate classes, in local community organizations, at museums and in a course for UD's Academy of Lifelong Learning.

“Objects are our starting point,” English graduate student Josh Calhoun said of the way the students seek to engage their audiences in interpreting and preserving our cultural heritage. The process includes developing the ability to move “from dissertation to blog [and] from academic research to public presentation,” he said.

Wearing a favorite old shirt of his own, Calhoun explained how he's learned to talk about his studies of English Renaissance literature, old books and papermaking, while interacting with different audiences in ways that are meaningful to each group. With young children, he sets up numerous stations where they can make their own paper without having to wait too long for their turn, while adult audiences are likely to bring old books for him to examine after his talk.

Amanda Norbutus, a preservation studies graduate student, examines outdoor murals and researches ways to preserve and protect them using specialized materials and coatings. She described talking to artists, community leaders, building owners and residents who live near murals to get their input and offer advice. Making use of networking technology, she also writes a blog, has a Facebook page and maintains a Twitter account, all designed to assist artists and others working to preserve murals.

La Tanya Autry, in art history, is researching memorials that have been created to remember incidents of lynching in the United States. She acknowledged that the subject is so emotional and disturbing that, she said, many people in her audience become unable to concentrate on what she says after first hearing the word “lynching.” As a result, Autry has developed new ways to convey information, including writing a blog and designing a lesson plan that can be used by teachers of school-age children.

For Amber Kerr-Allison, in art conservation, working at the Smithsonian American Art Museum allows her to use her PEMCI training to be “an ambassador of art conservation.” She described a variety of outreach activities at the museum, including interactive websites, programs in which visitors are invited into the conservation labs to see ongoing projects, and sessions when conservators come out from behind the scenes to meet with the public and discuss how they “connect science with art.”

History student Andy Bozanic began his talk by playing the object he is studying, an acoustic guitar, demonstrating the instrument's versatility as he moved from folk to country to jazz to rock in a matter of a minute. His audiences are already familiar with what he called an “iconic American image,” but Bozanic explained that his role is to discuss how the guitar changed and fit into history as an instrument that was “easy to play, hard to break and extremely portable.”

PEMCI is part of a range of activities that began in 2007 when UD was awarded a $500,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which must be matched at a 4-to-1 rate. While those matching funds are being raised, the College of Arts and Sciences is supporting activities that will eventually be funded by the endowment. Those activities include summer fellowships for competitively selected graduate students, allowing the students to focus year-round on their dissertation research.

“The Public Lives of Things,” sponsored by the Center for Material Culture Studies with the support of a grant from the Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center at UD, was scheduled to coincide with the annual meeting of the Consortium for American Material Culture. The University hosted the meeting this year, the first time it was held outside of New York City.

Article by Ann Manser
Photo by Kathy Atkinson