Oh, the (Public) Humanities!

Austin Clark, MA Candidate, UMass Amherst

The heat beat down, while an endless stream of tour busses filled the air with an ambient grinding noise. The air also smelled faintly skunky (thanks to recent legislation in Massachusetts). But between it all, I managed to keep the twin speakers booming out the words of Frederick Douglass, rendered in 56 different voices.

This is Boston Common, July 3rd, 2017, and clustered around the 54th Massachusetts Memorial are almost 250 people, gathered to participate in “Reading Fredrick Douglass.” Every year Mass Humanities, the organization where I interned this summer as a Hyde Fellow, coordinates the public reading of Fredrick Douglass’s speech “What is the Fourth of July to the Negro” in almost twenty locations across the state. Boston Common is the flagship event, where people line up to take turns reading a paragraph from the famous speech, or to simply follow along on a on smartphones or printed copies. This program is public humanities in action.

Mass Humanities, like the public humanities, is deceptively complex. When asked to explain what the organization is, I usually start by saying that Mass Humanities is the Massachusetts Humanities Council. If that doesn’t clear things up, I move onto the technical definition: Mass Humanities is a small non-profit organization that distributes grant money from the National Endowment for the Humanities and numerous other sources (both public and private) in support of public humanities programming throughout Massachusetts. With a description like that, you might be fooled into thinking that the organization is larger than it is. But as it stands, Mass Humanities is 10 employees working out of an 18th century farmhouse in Northampton, MA. It used to be less.

Austin Clark in front of the Mass Humanities farmhouse


Two of those employees were my supervisors, Abbye Meyer and Rose Sackey-Milligan. They worked as Grant Program Officers, in various capacities, and with them I completed most of my work as an intern. It was a diverse array of work, from working out how to giveaway 11,000+ books to editing grant applications, but it all asked the same question, again and again. What is public humanities? Understanding Mass Humanities internal definition of humanities, as well as honing and coming to understand my own, helped make my experience vibrant.

Like this Manatee


The process of understanding began my first week on the job when I was assigned to do a trip report. Trip reports entailed attending events funded by Mass Humanities, asking question, talking to the people in charge, noting whether our logo is prominently displayed, and then coming back and writing a summary. This was not usually long, just a quick overview of what the program was and how well it went, but includes judgment (either tacit or explicit) about whether or not the event fell under the purview of “humanities” and thus deserving of the level of funding Mass Humanities gave.

For my first trip report, in my first week, I had the extremely good fortunate to do something fun! I drove forty minutes to the hilltown of Ashfield to witness the Ashfield Town Spectacle, put on by the uniquely creative Double Edge Theatre. It was, in a word, engaging. Double Edge Theatre essentially took over the main street, town common, town hall, and several other buildings to stage an all day fair with near constant performances about local history and grassroots democracy. Memorably, I witnessed “The Ballad of Shay’s Rebellion” performed on the town hall steps, sung to fiddle, accordion, and banjo. Afterward, they held an actual “town hall” meeting in the town hall, followed by a romp around the main street with a few mimes (and a very vocal chef!). Between events, actors from the theatre roamed the area as living historians and interacted with the public in the first-person. The entire day ended on the shore of Ashfield Lake with (what else?) speeches and singing.

The Ballad of Shays Rebellion, courtesy of Double Edge Theatre’s Twitter – @DoubleEdgeThtr


It was thrilling. The next week, I wrote a fairly glowing trip report and clicked “Submit.” I was optimistic.

How could anyone not be after seeing this when they hit submit?


My supervisors, Abbye and Rose, were happy to hear this. Apparently, there had been some discussion about whether or not to fund the Spectacle, revolving around the worry that it might focus a little too much on, well, the spectacle. Mass Humanities typically funds programming that is active and engaging. There is typically a heavy emphasis on audience participation and discussion, and with so much of the Ashfield Town Spectacle hinging on performance, some wondered whether the public might just be passive observers. Fortunately, this proved not to be the case and the Spectacle proved to be active and participatory enough to merit funding. But until I went to witness (and participate!), it existed in the greyest of areas.

            Unlike this manatee


This question of how to define public humanities continued to come up in nearly all of my tasks over the summer. Abbye and I debated it when we read grant applications. I contemplated it as I made edits for entries to The Public Humanist. And, most pivotally, I discussed it with four very bright, very engaged teenagers we hosted.

As it turns out, I was (for four non-consecutive days), not the only intern at Mass Humanities this summer. Four high school students spending their summer at the immersive Encampment for Citizenship joined us as impromptu interns to learn about public humanities engagement. All of us in the Grant Programs office wanted to take their experience beyond the email writing and staple-pulling that usually defines such intern work (and office work in general) and crafted a mini “Humanities Boot Camp” to keep their experience immersive. Abbye worked with them to create a Civil Rights curriculum for kids, while Rose set up film and project discussions. I led two museum visits, one to Smith Art Museum and the other to the Joseph Ruggles Center in Florence.

To cap it off, we all agreed to get together and discuss what “public humanities” actually was. Part of the reason was to see what they took away from our immersive internship experience. But even more, we were curious to hear how they made the abstraction of “public humanities” real.

We were not disappointed. They had synthesized their time brief time at Mass Humanities in a creative way. All the museum trips, discussions, and curriculum design they went through led them to a simple but brilliant conclusion – humanities is information, and public humanities is helping to provide access to that information.

This is a very Digital Age way of thinking about it, but it is hardly wrong. After all, what is the humanities if it is not the history, literature, philosophy, and ethics that we use to make decisions and move forwards? It is data in the human sense, the raw stuff of our lives. But like all information, critical engagement is often crucial to making the most of it. And far more frequently than should be the case, access to that information is in uneven and challenging. Which is where the work of Mass Humanities comes in.

The line to read a paragraph of Fredrick Douglass’s speech “What is the Fourth of July to the Negro?” out loud on Boston Common


Attempting to photograph the length of line at Reading Fredrick Douglass that hot Boston afternoon, I noticed on the opposite side of the crowd a father and son sitting on the ground. They were dressed in identical clothes, (ballcap, white shoes, denim shirt) and the little boy had a huge Fredrick Douglass picture book on his lap. As the speech wore on (and the day got hotter), they continued to listen attentively, opening and closing the book, taking in the scene. This, I now realize, is why Mass Humanities does what it does. This event, this moment, had become part of their experience. They, and everyone else who stopped by, even just to listen, shared in the stuff of history. Free of charge.

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