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As of yesterday, and for the next six weeks, I am in New York as a short term visiting research fellow to Bard Graduate Center (or BGC). And as much as I am already smitten by the city (what I’ve seen of it on my daily commute walking the Upper West side) the research institute is what has impressed me the most so far. As an outsider, I will not attempt to explain what the institution stands for, but refer instead to this introductory presentation by Dean Peter N. Miller (transcript) and Dean Elean Simon’s brilliant blog Learning from Things. I will say, however,  that this place is every bit as amazing as I had imagined.

As the video shows, it is a beautiful site with a thoroughbread academic vibe; the academic section taking up two tastefully decorated brownstones on West 86th Street. Not luxurious but exclusive, or, as my sister put it, a place of the happy few, the privileged. But in this case the feeling of privilege also brings out an aspiration to work hard; inspires a respect for both the material culture studied and the multidisciplinary research carried out here as well as for academic endeavor in general.

Straight away, it reminded me of the ‘sanctuary’ feel of Statens Værksteder for Kunst in Copenhagen, an artist recidency program offering fully equipped workshops and studios for artists and artisans. During my own recidency there back in 2005, I learned that the attractive surroundings and the ideal conditions offered were indeed intended to inspire residents to be their best and produce outstanding work. I sense a similar spirit here at the BGC, and look forward to participating in the institution’s events next week when the students return and courses resume after the spring break.

Before loosing myself in the academic debate, I will need to work on my lift pitch though! Being in awe of this place, I imagine everybody to be exceptionally gifted, and so get a little starstruck, ending up rambling something incoherent about my project. So even if everybody I’ve met so far have been very friendly and patient with me, I do hope that I will manage to present myself and my subject field in a better light over the next few weeks.

Although I am not sure if it is feasible for me to attend courses (or whether I have the time), I am  intrigued by the catalogue of subjects covered as well as by the didactic approach taken here. Capping  the course size to a maximum of 10 students allows for true dialogue to take place, reflecting the institution’s belief that research and teaching are mutually beneficial. As research based teaching (and teaching based research) is also a requirement of my own institution, it would be interesting to experience how it is practiced here.

Reading room at the BGC

And then there’s the library. I’m so impressed I don’t even know where to begin. With 50.000 volumes on subjects related to decorative arts, design history and material culture (which includes museology, fashion and cultural studies, critical theory, art history, exhibition catalogues and periodicals) it seems like this place has every book I could need for my project, as well as access to online materials. Stacked on open shelves, I can read an article, look up interesting references in the online catalogue, and go and find the book or journal there and then to take out to my office. Being able to immerse myself in my project like this is truly helpful – today I finally got to read Malraux’s ‘Museum Without Walls’ (which turned out to be not quite as relevant for my projects as expected, but that in itself was a useful discovery) and hoarded a stack of pdf articles on fashion curation from the journal Fashion and Theory. Being free to put in long hours helps too, a luxury I don’t normally have. So even with all of New York to explore, I am quite happy to be spending most of the time here holed up in my office.

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Last week, I received an invitation from Bard Graduate Center in New York to become a short-term research fellow for a six week period next spring.

Having waited anxiously for their decision since applying in August, I was (am!) exhilarated to receive this news, and feel truly privileged to be given to opportunity to take part in the strong research community at the BGC.

The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, is a graduate research institute of Bard College. As implied by the title, the institution studies cultural history through its material manifestations, or, in the words of Dean Peter N. Miller:

At the Bard Graduate Center our focus is on Cultura. This ancient Latin word referred to the class of activities in which human beings acted on, and so transformed, their natural surroundings. Studying the traces of this effort is, of course, cultural history, but of a specific sort. It directs our attention to the substances intervened upon, the processes used to make these interventions, and the consequences of these interventions.

Museum theory, fashion history and media/materiality matters are all represented in the course offerings, making it a perfect institution for research into my project field. The library and Digital Media Lab look simply brilliant, and the symposia and seminar series – open to the public – very inspiring – hopefully the program for the course of my stay will be as interesting. The institution publishes the book series Cultural Histories of the Material World and the journal West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture as well as publications related to their exhibitions. Yes, there is a gallery too! opening up the field to the general public and making the insititution a vibrant part of NY cultural life as well as hub for intellectual discussion.

So this really is a remarkable institution. What excites me the most is the prospect of taking part in the academic community, and really immerse myself in its approach and discourses as well as in my own project. I find BGC’s emphasis on object-centered, question-driven work [which] unites the best approaches of the museum curator and the university professor’ (as put by founder and director Susan Weber) most inspiring, and look forward to take that lead. I will also be doing a presentation to staff and students, hoping to receive some critical feedback and just get stuck into some brilliant eyeopening conversations along the way.

It goes without saying that I am also exited by the prospect of spending six weeks in New York. I look forward to explore the world class museums, pick out a couple of good plays, find a favourite second hand haunt, and just wander through the city like modern day flâneur (or flâneuse, I guess), reserving the touristy bits for when my husband and boys come to visit. This will be my first visit to NY, and studying at the BCG and living in Bard Hall, both in Manhattan, I really get the chance be a part of it (New York, New York). Awesome news indeed.