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Students Collaborate with National Park Service

04/14/2011

In honor of National Park Week (April 16-24, 2011), an exhibition of work by RISD students opened at the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, the Long Island home of America’s 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. More than 25 original works of art – ranging from small handcrafted books to large-scale furniture pieces – will remain on view through June 5 at the Old Orchard Museum. The objects all emanated from a creative partnership and unique interdisciplinary course spearheaded by Dale Broholm, a senior critic in Furniture Design.

Several years ago, when Broholmtook his family to Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania, he came back with a lot more than scenic snapshots. The seeds of his radical new idea began to grow after his friend and fellow traveler, National Park Service historian Louis Hutchins, told him about “specially designated trees that were there in the landscape during [the battle of Gettysburg] and are still standing.” When Broholm asked what happens once these “witness trees” die, he “learned how by an act of Congress, they have to be destroyed.... They literally just get put in the chipper” – a loss that seemed like a natural opportunity.

It was: Teaming up with Associate Professor of American Studies Daniel Cavicchi and the Park Service’s Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation, Broholm carved out an experimental program at RISD called the Witness Tree Project. Part furniture design studio, part American history seminar, the course – about to enter its third year – invites students to explore a period in US history and material culture by making objects with hallowed wood. They first visit the site in question, research its history, explore the landscape and conceive of objects that somehow convey some of the history the tree has witnessed. At the end of the course, the work they create is shown in an exhibition at the historic site.

“This is an incredible way to teach American history to art and design students, who understand material culture and understand objects,” Cavicchi says. “It has gone far beyond what we expected in terms of the students’ engagement, and this is entirely unique in that the Park Service has teamed up with a school in a potentially long-term agreement to use the wood for educational purposes.”

So far students involved in the Witness Tree Project have transformed wood from a huge pecan tree at a Maryland slave plantation and silver maples at Sagamore Hill. In March Cavicchi and Broholm watched as an iconic 200-year-old elm was felled at Fairsted, the home of legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead in Brookline, MA. The tree will provide literal source material for the next course in Fall 2011, which will revolve around Olmsted’s ideas about industrialization, cities and public space. Future courses are slated to work with witness trees from Springwood, the home of Franklin Roosevelt; Val-Kill, the home of Eleanor Roosevelt; and Lindenwald, the farm of Martin Van Buren.

The first project, in 2009, confronted one of the most raw chapters in US history: the economy of a southern plantation. The Maryland site, known as Hampton, triggered an unexpected dialogue between students and site preservationists, whose tours had focused on the mansion’s owners and period Georgian architecture. Searching for the missing stories of slave life, students began to see how history could be as crafted and interpretive as a designed object.

“Because the tree was planted by slaves, RISD students became fascinated with trying to make sense of the very complex social history of this plantation,” says Hutchins. “They asked, ‘Why aren’t you exploring the issue of slavery more?’ And it was right when the site was putting money into interpreting the slave quarters for the first time. So the students could see how the interpretation had changed, and they became part of the process of that interpretation evolving.”

Once the students begin wrestling with that history, Broholm says, the wood of the witness tree confronts them with a basic but daunting question: What am I going to make? One student, Rebecca Manson 11 CR, interpreted the story of slavery by crafting a 13-legged stool with hanging bells: imbalanced, never at rest, and setting off rhythms that recall both slave songs and a slave’s constant state of alarm.   

“Part of what was really new was how well students digested the material learned in the seminar and how they used it in the formation of these objects,” Broholm says. “Behind that polyrhythmic stool are some powerful ideas about how a slave was always on guard, always at the master’s beck and call. And those objects then invited audiences at Hampton to have a very different kind of conversation.”

links:
Witness Tree Project website
Tree Hugging is Back in Style(related Huffington Post article)


tags: Furniture Design, interdisciplinary, History, Philosophy + the Social Sciences, local/global, partnerships + collaborations, public engagement, research, students, sustainability

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The façade of the Chace Center, a new multipurpose hub that opened
in 2008, offers an interesting contrast to the historic campus
buildings that surround it.