Humanities Labs Project Sampler

Christina Chia
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
Christina Chia
FHI Associate Director Christina Chia

[See our Humanities Lab CFP here - deadline Jan 27, 2020]

At the risk of revealing my institutional vintage: it really does feel like yesterday when the Haiti Lab, the first Humanities Laboratory at the FHI, hosted its standing room-only Open House in late August 2010, with Smith Warehouse construction still in progress right outside its doors. Over their 10-year history, the FHI Humanities Labs have gone through several forms and emphases, and have evolved to focus on faculty and graduate student research with a global reach (“global” is conceived broadly here, as we note in our latest CFP).

With the deadline for the latest call for proposals coming up (1/27/20), I thought it might be helpful for prospective applicants to see a diverse sample of Lab projects from the past decade, including publications, exhibitions, digital projects (even an alternate reality game), and often combinations thereof. In distinct and creative ways, these featured projects have taken advantage of the versatile form of the Lab – as an intellectual hub of faculty and graduate students, a host of events, the meeting point of interconnected courses, a platform for collaborations with internal and external partners – to enrich or extend a variety of scholarly undertakings. (This list is far from exhaustive - we encourage you to follow the links to individual Labs on this page to explore the full scale of their activities.)To “tease” the list, here are two recent examples of multi-year Lab projects from the Social Movements Lab (wrapping up its final year in 2019-20) and the Global Brazil Lab (2014-17).

Cover image (cropped) of the journal South Atlantic Quarterly, featuring an abstract image of blue, purple, beige, and black paint swirls
South Atlantic Quarterly issue featuring "Mediterranean Passages," a dossier of short articles on migrant struggles in Southern Europe - one of several issues of the journal linked with the Social Movements Lab.

A key goal of the Social Movements Lab  is to unsettle the theory/practice divide in the analyses of contemporary social movements, from the International Women’s Strike, to migrant and anti-racist struggles in Europe, to the organization of platform workers (e.g. Uber drivers, food deliverers). To that end, the Lab engages regularly with activist-scholars who theorize the work of movements, inside and outside of universities, even as they take part in them.

What this entails practically is a series of coordinated discussions, dialogues, and publications. On Mondays, Lab faculty facilitate discussions of pre-circulated readings (“mapping sessions”) with a regular group of fellows as well as “drop-in” participants interested in specific topics. Each session is intended to prepare the group for a Dialogue, held on Wednesdays, with activists and scholars involved in the social movement in question (in person or via video-conference). You can browse Social Movements Lab dialogues on their website .

Select interlocutors from these weekly sessions also serve as editors for “Against the Day,” a regular thematic section of the Duke University Press journal South Atlantic Quarterly  (edited by Lab co-director Michael Hardt) that engages topics of contemporary political importance. As of November 2019, five such dossiers of short essays have been published, on the Women’s Strike, refugee squatters in Greece, student movements in South Africa, migrant crossings in the Mediterranean, and indigenous struggles in Canada.

[Read more about the Social Movements Lab here.]

The Global Brazil Lab was built on a tripartite intellectual structure reflected in its full name: Global Brazil: Culture, Nature, Politics. Each co-director led a major project under one of these three key terms. 

During the Lab’s 3-year tenure at the FHI, under the banner of “Culture,” co-director Esther Gabara began research and planning for what would become Pop América: 1965-1975 – the Sotheby Prize-winning exhibition that has traveled to the McNay Museum of Art in San Antonio, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke, and the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. The lab provided a structure for scholarly exchanges (e.g. workshops with leading scholars and curators), pedagogical experiments (undergraduate courses with online exhibit projects), internal and external collaborations (with the Nasher and McNay), as well as resources for research travel to key museum collections in Latin America. The Lab was able to secure additional funding from other University sources for a Postdoctoral Fellow, Natalia de la Rosa, who proved to be a critical collaborator.

The post-Global Brazil Lab development of Pop América included a “Lab-like” portfolio of undergraduate courses (supported by the Vice Provost for the Arts) on critical contexts of Pop Art in the Americas, on museums and the invention of Latin America, and on print-making. Former Lab graduate RAs contributed to the bilingual (English/Spanish) exhibition catalog (Camila Maroja, now at McGill) and presented Gallery Talks at the Nasher (Rosalia Romero, currently at Pomona College).

[Read more about Pop América here.]

Photo of "Pop America" art exhibit, with curator Prof. Esther Gabara and postdoctoral scholar Dr. Natalia de la Rosa, both in festive dresses, posing at gallery in front of several art works
Pop América at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University: Curator Esther Gabara, E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of Romance Studies (right), poses in the gallery with Natalia De La Rosa, a postdoctoral associate in the Franklin Humanities Institute, who assisted with the exhibition. Photo by J Caldwell / Nasher Museum of Art

 I hope these examples give you a more vivid sense of the permutation of scholarly, pedagogical, and public projects that are possible in this flexible, generative structure we call “Humanities Lab.” At Duke, there’s an abundance, a sometimes dizzying array of opportunities for faculty interested in interdisciplinary, collaborative work.

(There are even two kinds of Humanities Labs! The Department-based Labs, launched in 2017 through the Mellon Humanities Unbounded initiative, are intended to spark curricular innovation within arts, humanities, and interpretive social sciences departments, particularly for undergraduates.)

If you have any questions about the humanities lab proposal process, feel free to email me at