Going Public outside the box  

By Karen Herland

A group of Concordia scholars are inviting their peers to make connections Outside the Box.

The group, calling themselves Going Public, formed this year to invite scholars to think together with non-academic culture workers, invited for ‘residencies’ combining lectures and workshops. Their goal is to find ways to translate scholarship into public dialogue and engagement.

Members of the Going Public research team, and Liz Sevcenko, Director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, were given a private tour of the collection at the Ecomusée du Fier Monde in Centre-Sud. Magnifying glass

Members of the Going Public research team, and Liz Sevcenko, Director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, were given a private tour of the collection at the Ecomusée du Fier Monde in Centre-Sud.

“We came together with a shared interest in doing,” says Erica Lehrer, one of the four members of the research team who comprise Going Public. Trained as an anthropologist, Lehrer teaches in the History Department and holds the Canada Research Chair in Post-Conflict Memory, Ethnography & Museology.

On Oct. 22, Lehrer hosted Liz Sevcenko, whose work at New York’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum led to her directorship of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. This 10-year-old network includes over 200 museums around the world that harness the power of a historic site (like a former gulag in Russia or a stop for slave traders in Senegal) to inspire dialogue and action around pressing contemporary issues, such as immigration, xenophobia, or human rights.

In her introduction to the lecture, Lehrer stressed how Sevcenko’s ability to “find innovative ways to combine social and historical research with meaningful public cultural work,” had influenced her own practice.

Sevcenko joked about how the term ‘innovative’ is often applied in hindsight to work that is initially considered marginal. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum began at a moment when the concept of museums as defined solely by their collections was being challenged. “Our collection was really our stories, the stories of people who had lived in the building we occupied.”

The museum used the stories of former immigrants to stimulate conversations among the diverse immigrant communities in the neighbourhood today. After learning of resources available to (and lacking for) immigrants decades ago, a group of new arrivals researched and developed a handbook of resources for new immigrants in the contemporary context.

The museum also used the history of clothing production “sweatshops” that had occupied the apartments a century ago to develop a dialogue between garment workers, industry and designers about today’s labour conditions. Sevcenko stressed the “neutral ground” of the museum allowed these diverse stakeholders to take part in a wide-ranging conversation.

That connection — between history and action — underlies Sevcenko’s international work. She spoke of coordinating and learning from the efforts of local projects around the world through the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, around shared issues like incarceration – whether in gulags, residential schools, or Guantanamo.

Sevcenko’s lecture was also the history department’s annual Public History lecture. Lehrer credits the dynamism of the five-year-old public history program at Concordia with much of the impetus for the Going Public project. “We were interested in the possibility of doing publicly engaged scholarship and collaborative research.”

During Sevcenko’s visit, team members and students joined her in a tour of the Écomusée du fier monde, described by its director, René Binette, as Montréal’s only museum dedicated to the city’s working class population. Sevcenko also offered a workshop to interested students and researchers the next day.

In addition to Lehrer, Going Public includes team founder Steven High, from the Department of History, Liz Miller, communication studies, and Ted Little, of the theatre department. Given the team members’ diverse disciplinary training, developing the project has itself been a dialogue.

“Different backgrounds mean we sometimes have different language to describe what we’re trying to do “ said Lehrer. “But the very productive area of overlap includes searching for a broader definition of scholarship that can both contribute and seek knowledge collaboratively with practitioners working beyond the walls of the academy.”

The next lecture in the series will be held on Nov. 19.


Concordia University