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Announcing the Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellowships

Three Young Humanists from Harvard Arrive for a Year of Practical Learning and Career Preparation
Announcing the Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellowships

Rebecca Rosen, Priyanka Menon, and John Wang

Dumbarton Oaks is launching a new fellowship program this academic year designed to bridge the gap between college and career for three talented young humanists. The Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellowships will place each of three recent graduates from Harvard College at a partnering cultural institution in Washington, D.C., for the fall term, where they will acquire skills relating to their long-term interests. In the spring term, they will return to Dumbarton Oaks to collaborate on a project that applies those skills for the remainder of the year.

“We felt that the humanities needed special support and attention” among the postgraduate opportunities already available at Harvard, says Jan Ziolkowski, director of Dumbarton Oaks. “One of the distinctive opportunities that we can afford is the chance to learn through working. There are many undergraduates who crave to know what goes on behind the curtains in a number of extremely attractive fields, like publications, museums, and archives—and we’re uniquely positioned to assemble a group of people to learn from mentors at a variety of career stages.”

In this inaugural year, Dumbarton Oaks’ partners include the National Gallery of Art, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum. Fellows live at Dumbarton Oaks and participate in weekly research reports as well as the other events for the institute’s fellowship community. In addition, the institute will host a series of six talks throughout the year where notable humanists—including documentarians, archivists, writers, and scholars—will speak about their own career paths and the state of the humanities now.

The first cohort of Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellows’ interests range widely. Rebecca Rosen, who will begin the year at the George Washington University and the Textile Museums, is interested in conservation and curation, as well as questions of gender and the distinction between art and craft as they pertain to textiles and the decorative arts. She majored in neurobiology in college, but by her senior year found herself wanting more and more to work with culture. She grew up sewing with her mother, and in her junior year took a course on quilts and quilt-making that helped her see textiles and craft works as objects for serious inquiry: “It was very accessible, but we were also doing real intellectual work.” By her senior spring, she was considering leaving science to work with culture instead. “I read an article about how conservators repaired a Monet painting that someone had punched a hole in, and I knew, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do!’” she recalls. “I love fine detail work and working on one square inch of something for hours and hours, as well as being able to bring art to an audience.” Rosen comes into the fellowship after spending a year after graduation working in jobs that included furniture repair and ephemera acquisitions for a vintage art company. She adds, “I’m really looking forward to looking at how museums work and learning what I can be a part of, as well as bringing to light art and stories that might otherwise go unseen and untold.” At Dumbarton Oaks, Rosen will be working with museum director Gudrun Bühl.

Priyanka Menon, who will be embedded at the Folger Shakespeare Library this fall, is equally at home in the worlds of mathematics, social thought, and intellectual history. She wrote a thesis in math on ultrafilters—a concept important to the subfields of logic and topology that she describes as “a structured way to capture all the elements in a set.” Menon worked on a theorem about voting on ranked preferences called Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which uses ultrafilters in its proof—varying it to apply to contrasting kinds of sets, such as finite vs. infinite sets. Although the math is very abstract, the implications affect major questions in social and political thought, like whether the decisions of the living can or should bind the not-yet-born. “What I like about that thesis is that you’re working on very technical math at the foundations of logic, set theory, math itself,” Menon notes, “but you somehow still end up having knowledge that relates to ethical and normative questions directly or indirectly.” Menon also studied with historians Samuel Moyn and Sunil Amrith, and has done extensive work on twentieth-century Indian intellectual history, particularly on the concept of nature in the writings of both Gandhi and his critics. She is interested in the possibility of future work in history, political thought, and the legal academy. “I like math because it’s so abstract and the ideas are so pure,” she says, “and that blends so easily with intellectual history. I hesitate to say that I’m moving from the sciences to the humanities, or moving away from any field permanently. I’m interested in the middle ground, what I call the ‘fruitful cross-pollination’—finding unexpected connections and applications.” During her fellowship, Menon will work on Dumbarton Oaks’ ongoing project on mapping the history of cultural philanthropy and its effects on the city of Washington, D.C., with archivist James Carder.

John Wang, who grew up in Hong Kong, says that after taking mainly math, science, and language classes in high school, the first real humanities class that he took in his freshman year at Harvard transformed him: a class on American art and modernity taught by art historian Jennifer Roberts. “That was the first time that I saw art as not just about taste, but also society, culture, history, economics; I think the whole idea of ‘modernity’ first came to me through that class, too.” Though his strong interest and extensive coursework in social theory and intellectual history at first led him to declare a major in social studies, in the end he settled on art history, where he pursued the specialized track in architecture studies, taking architecture classes at the Graduate School of Design along the way. For Wang, who will be working at the National Gallery of Art in the first half of the year, both scholarship and artistic practice are entwined with questions of ethics and society—as are museums and the role they play in communities. “In the Renaissance or Imperial China, humanistic questions were thought to be part and parcel of how society should be—not a scientific or administrative question, but rather issues of how and what we should think,” he explains. “I see museum-going as more than just a recreational activity. I think there’s a strong civic dimension to it that fosters better citizenship and helps us be better people.” A practicing architectural designer in his own right, Wang’s design for a garden installation on the grounds of the Radcliffe Institute was recently selected from more than forty submissions. It uses granite blocks and wooden benches to echo the footprint of houses that Radcliffe College once used as classrooms—“an attempt to approach design practice with a more historical and humanistic bent,” he says. Wang also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity at Harvard, as well as the Phillips Brooks House Association’s Chinatown afterschool program. At Dumbarton Oaks, Wang will work with John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies.

Ziolkowski says that Dumbarton Oaks wants the fellowship to open up opportunities of all kinds, but impart a lifelong love of the humanities in particular. “If we get people to go into the humanities, that’s great. If they go into something else, but carry away good experiences, have learned from it, and can advocate for a liberal arts education who have an impact on other people, that’s great as well. We want to do everything Dumbarton Oaks can to help present the case for the arts and humanities, which is best presented by fostering people who love them, are willing to commit to parts of their lives to them, and speak about them.”

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