questions for Dean Miller

posted on 28 Aug 2012 16:57 by Elena Pinto Simon
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The Dean of the BGC, Peter N. Miller, has been on academic sabbatical for a year. He’s back now, and I had a chance to ask him a few questions about the academic year ahead…

EPS: Dean Miller, welcome back from your leave! Tell us some of what you worked on this past year?
PNM:I had two book projects to work on; one was a rough manuscript that had grown over the years out of a class I’ve been teaching at the BGC on the history of the study of objects as evidence from the Renaissance to the Present. The core of it, a series of seminars linking work done by Renaissance antiquaries around 1600 through some now obscure but then super-important German historians c. 1900, I turned slowly, each time I taught the course, into something more refined. I spent a few months making it into a book. I think it’s close, but not quite there yet. I’ll use it as a text in the course I’m teaching in Spring 2013 and hopefully that will finally “put me over the top.”
The other book project brings to a close my 20 year relationship with Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc, the French antiquarian whose work has inspired much of what I’ve done as a scholar and , even, as an administrator these last years. Using his vast surviving archive I’ve tried to model what a historical scholarship would look like that tried to write cultural history from documents of material history.

EPS: Are you excited to be back? What are you looking forward to in the upcoming academic year?
PNM: Very much so. I really like working with the team that has been assembled here over the years. I feel like we have gotten to the starting line—we’ve got the players, we’ve practiced together, we have the strategy in place, and we know what works and what doesn’t. The next step will be the fun one: mobilizing all this in a smart, efficient way.
What—in addition to all the usual great things like seminars and symposia—am I excited about? I’m really pleased about the two, two-year post-doctoral fellowships that start this year. There’s no other place in the country with a dedicated post-doc for Islamic material culture. We have a great first Fellow and I am confident that this will be a great project for us. And our third BGC/AMNH Fellow brings us—finally!—an expert in the South American continent and pre-modern textiles. In the bargain we also get a course on archaeology and material culture which I have felt as a gap in our program for some time now.
And then of course there’s year 1 of the Mellon grant….

EPS: Can you give us some hints about plans for the Mellon grant?
PNM: Well, this year is really just a preliminary. Ivan Gaskell will roll out the first iteration of his new purpose-built course on conservation and its philosophy, and there will be a first-time presence of conservation in the Survey. But the main event will be a planning conference later in the year with professors and conservators from around the world. They will help us not only “plan” for the remaining years of the grant but sharpen our thinking about the rest of our program, which in upcoming years will include public seminars, post-doctoral fellowships, visiting professors and Focus projects. That’s a lot to think about!

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EPS: The faculty had a great conversation during Orientation about the BGC as a “home” for post-disciplinarity. Does that have any resonance for you?
PNM: Oooh. Well, it’s something complicated. The interesting questions are and have always been at the margins of the controllable. If you stop to think about it, that of course makes sense. It means, fundamentally, that educational institutions must give a kind of training which in turn must be, in some strict Hegelian sense, “negated” so as to reach to new domains not yet understood. Otherwise it is always about filling in the blank bits on an already demarcated canvas. Important work, for sure, but which Kuhn quite rightly described as “normal science”, not the paradigm-busting work that creates the new.

EPS: Why do you think the Focus Gallery has become such an exciting opportunity for our students in such a short period of time?
PNM: I think there’s nothing quite as exciting as seeing ideas in action. The Focus Project takes the entire gamut of an exhibition, from the initial question to the last wall panel and makes it visible, and makes it something one can stand outside of and ask “why?” It’s also really interesting to see a team in action, and for this project we assemble such a range of local assets as to make it a real, visible team project. Finally, since so many of our students are interested in the history and theory of museums as both an intellectual and vocational venture, the Focus Project offers a really invaluable education.

EPS: How do you think someone best prepares for applying to the Bard Graduate Center?
PNM: Preparation is a tough word. Our job is to do the preparation. Your—the student’s—job is to want to know more about how we learn about any of many pasts from objects. And of course, as a teacher of mine once told me in high school, “a good question is more than half an answer.”

EPS: You’ve often said that the BGC is object centered and question-driven. Why do you think that is important?
PNM: Because learning is about learning something you don’t know, or didn’t understand, You can only do this if you ask a question. There’s a good reason why the rabbis two thousand years ago, in enumerating different types of learners, put in last place the one who did not even know to ask. Without that, there’s no hope of moving forward. But it’s also the case that following the question, rather than the contours of the known, or the accepted, or just the familiar, can define for us what really was the case, before the professionalization of learning intervened with its own categories. Questions, then, allow us to slip past those whom Aby Warburg, one of our heroes, once described as the “border guards” who zealously policed the legitimate confines of disciplines. As a place whose work spills over these, and in fact which only exists at the crossroads where disciplines like art history, archaeology, anthropology and history, meet and mingle, it’s only good questions that can help us move freely.

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