posted on 24 Oct 2013 17:44 by Elena Pinto Simon
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I recently had a chance to catch up with Professor David Jaffee, one of our Americanists here at the BGC. Prof. Jaffee has just returned from a leave of absence…..
EPS: David, welcome back from your leave. Tell us what you were working on at Harvard last year.
DJ: I was fortunate to have a fellowship at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard. I was working on my project “Envisioning Nineteenth-Century New York: New York as Cultural Capital, 1840-1880” which is a study of five key urban manufacturers and entrepreneurs who brought a new visual culture of “seeing in the city” into being in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. in the context of their overall trade. New York was the site of production and distribution of this new domestic culture, with its formulaic vocabulary of upholstered parlor furniture, center tables piled high with photographic albums, stereocards, and illustrated periodicals, along with sculpture on pedestals and colorful prints on the walls, as well as its critical subject with well-known images of its urban landscape. Visually, the project will focus on genres such as the bird’s eye view, the “instantaneous” stereoviews of the urban street, and the illustrated periodical woodcut of city life along with the material forms that emerge from these new technologies and promised new visions of the spectacle of modern life.
The theme of the Warren Center for 2012-13 was Everyday Life: The Textures and Politics of the Ordinary, Persistent, and Repeated so our seminars and conversations focused on a host of interesting topics related to how to study and write about everyday life. Also, I had the chance to obtain further training in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) at the Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis. Increasingly, I am seeing this as a spatial project and thinking hard about what the best way to present this fascinating material might be to “readers.” I am exploring a multitude of ways to represent the work in print, exhibition (see below), and digital forms. So I am bringing back all this exciting work to the BGC for my courses on the material culture of New York and new media.
EPS: You just completed another enormously successful NEH Institute here this summer. Tell us a little about that.
DJ: We were so excited at the BGC to receive another grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to host a four week summer institute in July of 2013 for college teachers and other participants. Our theme was American Material Culture: Nineteenth-Century New York. Eighteen college teachers and others involved in undergraduate education joined us. Our goal was to bring this exciting field into wider use for teaching and research in the humanities. We were able ot bring a wonderful group of leading scholars and practitioners in this interdisciplinary field of study to join us as faculty; our weekly leaders included the BGC’s Catherine Whalen, Bernard Herman, Catherine Grier, and Joshua Brown to lead us each for a week on themes such as craft and industry, Space and Place, High and Low, and finally Visual Culture. Best of all, we could take advantage of visiting some of the wonderful collections in and around New York City for our hands-on work with artifacts, including trips to the Yale University Art Gallery, Lyndhurst, the Museum of Chinese in America, and the Merchant’s House Museum,. We also took full advantage of our amazing Digital Media Lab and its Director Kimon Keramidas to offer exposure to new digital tools for research and presentation of scholarly work. Many of our participants enjoyed their time in New York by staying in Bard Hall and all were thrilled with their time at the BGC.
EPS: You are also getting ready for a Focus Gallery exhibition on Nineteenth-Century New York. What can you tell us about that?
DJ: I am working with BGC students to design an exhibit for our Focus Gallery project that will open in the fall of 2014. The exhibit follows the general themes and materials in my Envisioning New York project but we are working together in the exhibit form to explain how New York City entered visual and material consciousness in the nineteenth century, how urban manufacturers and residents made sense of the city and its new spatial organization. We’ve been looking at engravings, lithographs, daguerreotypes, stereoviews, and woodcuts among other objects together in class and in local collections such as The New-York Historical Society. We have been considering what the themes of the exhibition should be, what materials should go into the exhibition, and how do we communicate our understanding of the visuality of nineteenth-century New York through the exhibition medium. We’ve decided to focus on to promote on Broadway, which stood at that emerging visual corpus as well as being the site of the commercial activity. There will also be digital interactives in the gallery along with a digital exhibit online. So there is lots of work to be done and we will be continuing our work together in the spring as we begin our meetings with the BGC Gallery staff.