How is Mellon Transitioning Universities Towards a Material-Based Approach to the Humanities?

There was time when research and scholarly work dominated the field of humanities at universities across the country. Professors would lock themselves in their rooms, immerse themselves in academic interpretations of, say, Joyce, and produce scholarly documents. And while pure, text-based research remains important, the nature of the work is evolving to embrace what we'd like to call "material culture" — collections and archival works.

As a result, humanities departments are beginning to resemble laboratories where arts and humanities researchers increasingly interface with museums, archivists, and related fields.

The Mellon Foundation is at the forefront in leading this "material turn" in the humanities and the arts. It's been on a kind of spending spree of late, doling out a $1 million challenge grant to the University of Delaware Art Conservation a few months ago, and giving $90,000 to a partnership between the College Art Association and the Society for Architectural Historians.

Now we learn that the foundation has awarded a $1 million grant to the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) to "endow and sustain the museum's humanities initiatives." $750,000 will support a challenge grant to endow the museum's Academic Coordinator position, and $250,000 will support UMMA's Collections Assistant and UMMA History of Art Fellowship for three years.

A closer look at the press releases suggests that this grant is about more than simply propping up administrative positions.

Universities that embrace this material turn in the humanities must nonetheless adhere to traditional market dynamics — supply and demand, if you will. That is, a humanities department seeking to further integrate material collections into its curriculum can only do so if it has the actual materials with which to do it.

And how, exactly, can universities procure these materials? For an answer we turn, once again, to Mellon, which initially awarded the UMMA with a 40-month grant to support "new efforts in collections-based teaching and learning" back in 2011. This grant created the pipeline of collections-based material that would serve as the foundation for its transition towards a more material-based model.

So what's the missing link in this process? That would be someone to manage the procurement and vetting process, which is where the UMMA's Academic Coordinator position, Collections Assistant, and fellowships come into play.

UMMA’s Collections Assistant works closely with the Academic Coordinator to build relationships with faculty at UM and other area colleges and universities to stimulate use of the Museum’s research and study resources, and guess what? The approach is working. The museum saw a 95% increase in collections use last year alone.

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