Exploring Public Humanities at the University of Michigan Museum of Art

By Michael Pascual, Doctoral Student, American Culture

I have been in school for as long as I can remember. Except for one small break during my undergrad, I have been enrolled in every semester and quarter and class since I entered into preschool in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. I’m qualified to call myself a lifelong learner and, at this point in my journey, a researcher.

My research begins with my interest in the representation of Filipinos in America. I look at how the live display of Filipinos in the early 20th-century US shape current understandings of race, gender, sexuality, nation, and power. I examine contemporary Filipino-American cultural production to see how writers, filmmakers, and artists, like Marlon Fuentes and Aimee Suzara, engage with this history to reactivate and decolonize this vestige of American imperialism to reimagine the relationship between cultural institutions and communities.

In my work I approach museums as potential sites for community building, education, and identity formation. My work on museums has helped me see how my intellectual interests can be pursued in other careers. When I applied for the Mellon Public Humanities fellowship at University of Michigan Museum of Art, I was interested in the position because I wanted to gain experience in museum work, and to see what education in the museum context looks like and how it is done.

For my internship at UMMA I worked with Dave Choberka who is the Andrew W. Mellon Manager of Academic Outreach and Teaching. During the fellowship I built a collection of teaching material using the museum’s new collection manager, The Exchange, which allows users to build multimedia resources using UMMA’s collection. While browsing existing resources I saw an opportunity to create a collection of resources that is a broad survey of art representing Asian America. The work I was doing for the fellowship also fit within UMMA’s plan to address the University’s five-year strategy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. When creating the collection I wanted to provide an analytic to think about Asian-American representation more broadly, not just one about minority identity, but one also about nation, borders, diaspora, immigration, war, displacement, etc.

Michael Pascual, Department of American Culture

The first resource I created for the collection was about Patrick Nagatani’s Japanese Children’s Day Carp Banners, Paguate Village, Jackpile Mine Uranium Tailings, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico (1990). As someone unfamiliar with writing about art, I basically found myself using my research skills to find out more about the artist, his work, and how others have written about him. When writing about the image I asked myself: What do I see? What does it mean? What should someone know to help guide their observations? And, how would I teach it? I also began to see how my pedagogical training was informing the resource and how I imagined the reader.

Other resources I created looked at art from the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project. A lot of the art in these resources dealt specifically with labor history and anti-Asian racism in the early 20th century, especially considering the amount of Asian labor and the concurrent establishment of a legal apparatus limiting and barring Asian migration and settlement into the US. For example, Anton Refregier’s murals History of California depict scenes of anti-Chinese violence in San Francisco and the contributions of Chinese laborers in building the transcontinental railroad. Also, David Chun’s Chinese Shrimp Camp (1939) depicts a scene from an industry that was severely impacted by laws targeting Chinese immigrants in the Bay Area.

While working on the collection I realized that education is one of the many ways that the museum interacts with the public and that it required a lot of the skills I have picked up in school. Museum educators make the collection relevant to the public by building curriculum for visitors and classes, acting as mediators between the public and museum through digital interfaces, like The Exchange, or in the classroom. On several occasions I was able to observe Dave teach classes that came to the museum. For each of these sessions, Dave would choose art that was relevant to the subject matter of the class coming in and he would facilitate an open conversation about the art. Having the chance to observe these teaching sessions taught me about different pedagogical strategies and to think of cultural institutions, like UMMA, as a complement the classroom—UMMA and Dave are both wonderful resources to have access to on campus.

I knew going into the internship that I wanted to gain work experience in the Museum, but I didn’t expect how much it would teach me about the skills I already have and how relevant they would be. I think that being in a PhD makes it hard to see that there are career options other than the tenure track, and I think that the Mellon fellowship really helped me see how I’ve been prepared with a transferable skill set through grad school.

More From Our Blog