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Strength in Numbers

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

CROWD SCENES: Schnapp wanted projects to engage the public in new ways, such as the Cantor exhibition.

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By Linda Weber

Out of a disappointment, a vision came to Jeffrey Schnapp about seven years ago. The professor of Italian and comparative literature thought the humanities were missing out on the kind of innovation going on in science and the art world—large-scale, multidisciplinary, team-based research projects. Humanities scholars still worked mainly in isolation, scouring libraries and archives, conducting interviews and publishing their findings in single-author manuscripts. Schnapp, PhD ’83, says he felt “an increasing sense of impatience both with the lack of any real experimentation with non-print-based models of scholarship and with the increasingly hermetic nature of disciplinary debates within the humanities.”

So he started thinking about how to change things. What about creating a research center that functioned as an incubator for collaborative scholarship in the humanities? A lab where academics could learn new technologies and obtain seed money to produce humanities research in exciting new ways—including film, animation, websites, performances, multimedia presentations and exhibitions—to new audiences, while giving undergraduates hands-on experience usually offered only at the graduate level.

By 2000, Schnapp’s what-ifs launched the Stanford Humanities Lab. “The key ambition was to develop a Big Humanities model of scholarship, based on Big Science,” he explains. “Long-term, ambitious team-based projects that build upon the expert knowledge of a wide array of fields and subfields—often involving partnerships both within and outside the academy. These are projects of such scope and ambition that they are inherently of interest to broad audiences.”

SHL began with five pilot studies that first year and has spawned 21 so far. One of the first—on the role of crowds in the modern era—is currently reaching outside academe through a major show at the Cantor Arts Center. Revolutionary Tides: The Art of the Political Poster 1914-1989 demonstrates how, in its heyday, this medium served as a “language” that both incited and interpreted the masses in political movements around the world, from bolshevism to pacifism, Poland’s Solidarity to China’s Cultural Revolution.

The posters are arranged not chronologically or geographically, but in three broad categories—figures, numbers and symbols—that represent different graphic techniques for depicting crowds, or appealing to them. Three media kiosks offer the sights and sounds of landmark crowd scenes such as the 1963 civil rights march on Washington; other props include the same make and model of radio through which people heard Hitler’s speeches, and a sizeable chunk of the Berlin Wall.

Schnapp curated the show, collaborating with the Hoover Institution and the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, whose collections furnished 120 posters, as well as Cantor Center staff, and students and faculty from Stanford, UC-Berkeley and other universities. Revolutionary Tides runs through January 1 before moving to Wolfsonian-Florida in Miami Beach, where it opens February 24 and continues through June 25.

Like the exhibit, the parent project brought together a large cast—professors, graduate fellows, affiliated researchers, undergraduate assistants, web developers and web animation experts—who contributed perspectives from psychology, literature, painting, photography, cartooning, film, history and sociology. The Seaver Institute in Los Angeles contributed funds. As Schnapp anticipated, their research results are the antithesis of the “manuscript-only” model, encompassing print, visual and electronic media.

The Crowds website contains a number of “galleries” with text, audio and images that explain crowd-generating phenomena or events, from sports to riots. There are short essays distilling the ideas of major crowd theorists; semantic histories of crowd-related words like mob and multitude; and an image bank.

Over the course of the five-year project, three associated research seminars have been offered. The latest, French/Italian/Comp Lit 319: Revolutionary Tides, taught by Schnapp last fall, concentrated on developing the exhibition. Jason Glick, ’05, for example, researched methods of counting crowds for a website gallery on crowd size, then took on additional projects. “I created narrative labels for the exhibit catalogue, edited gallery content, compiled quotations and located obscure images,” he recalls, adding that the best part is seeing his work published.

A book is forthcoming, to be published next year by Stanford University Press. It includes essays by the project participants as well as other international experts, interspersed with first-person testimonies by witnesses to related milestones over the past 50 years. For example, rock historian Greil Marcus writes about his experiences at the infamous Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert in 1969, immortalized in the film Gimme Shelter. The publication is supported by a searchable digital archive of hard-to-find commentary about crowds published between 1850 and 1915 and a databank of images and film clips illustrating the crowd phenomenon.

SHL’s other projects cover a wide range of interests and periods—communities in medieval Spain; the body language of 20th-century Russian society; the impact of interactive simulations and video games; a history of Asian-American art; a multilingual, multimedia installation at the San Jose Public Library inspired by the Rosetta Stone. Their common thread is experimentation with interdisciplinary teamwork on and off campus, and broad dissemination of scholarship through new technologies and media.

Schnapp, who co-directs SHL with classics professor Michael Shanks and Henry Lowood, curator of Stanford Libraries’ history of science and technology and Germanic collections, considers his brainchild a success. “SHL is being looked at and imitated worldwide—not as a substitute for traditional humanities training and research, but as a future-oriented complement.”


LINDA WEBER is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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