Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

The Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University and the RISD Museum at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) received grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for “Assemblages,” a four-year collaborative initiative focusing on the new and evolving field of object-based teaching and research.

The Mellon Foundation grant made possible the first major academic partnership between the two museums, led by Robert Preucel, Director of the Haffenreffer Museum, and John W. Smith, Director of the RISD Museum. The grant supported Faculty Teaching Fellows, Postgraduate Photography Fellows, innovative courses, teaching workshops, and annual academic seminars during the years 2014 to 2017.

The organizing concept for this dialogue was the idea of "assemblage." This term has a variety of meanings derived from its many uses in the disciplines of art history, literature, archaeology, anthropology, and sociology, among other fields. The Haffenreffer and RISD museums sought to work across these different meanings as we explore the shape and contours of key topics in art and society. Our method involves breaking down the digital/analog divide through collaborative research and innovative teaching practices and by exploring the use and interpretation of collections in their real and virtual contexts. The museums were also interested in developing ways in which faculty and students can form deep relationships with museum objects and their representations that are multivalent and expansive.

The project is directly linked to the distinctive missions and strategic plans of the two institutions. It enhanced Brown University's commitment to intellectual creativity, collaboration and social purpose to achieve greater levels of academic distinction by uniting innovative education and outstanding research to benefit the community, the nation and the world. It contributed to RISD Museum's mission to interpret works of art and design representing diverse cultures from ancient times to the present. It also furthered RISD College’s initiative to provide increased opportunities for faculty research.

The Haffenreffer and RISD museums, located on neighboring campuses, have a long history of partnerships on a smaller scale, including exhibition loans, individual class visits, and K-12 curricular development. As the first significant alliance between the two museums, “Assemblages” helped break down existing boundaries, rethink their collections, and create new modes of collaboration and exhibition.

Between 2014 and 2017, “Assemblages” aimed to:

  • Create a group of Teaching Fellows, drawn from both institutions, that uses both collections (both objects and their digital forms) in their teaching pedagogy. About 100 students are expected to benefit from these innovative courses over the term of the project.
  • Establish annual teaching workshops led by museum staff to introduce fellows and interested faculty to best practices related to object-based teaching. Fellows will also lead a workshop reporting on the outcomes their pedagogical experiences at the end of their appointment.
  • Create an annual seminar engaging the fellows, undergraduate and graduate students from Brown and RISD, and nationally recognized scholars on significant problems or questions related to object-based teaching and the digital interfaces of art, anthropology, and society.
  • Communicate the teaching and research outcomes of the project to the public, scholars, and museum professionals through online material and collaborative publications and projects.