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New master's degree program in material culture and public humanities brings multidisciplinary focus, career opportunities


BLACKSBURG, Va., Jan. 22, 2013 – People interested in careers in museums, cultural organizations, and heritage tourism can now pursue a new Master of Arts degree at Virginia Tech.

Faculty in the departments of Religion and Culture and History in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Art History in the School of Visual Arts in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies have collaborated on a new masters program in material culture and public humanities. The degree has been approved by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and is accepting applicants for fall 2013.

This new degree is a cross-disciplinary program with two interrelated emphases that share common intellectual issues and employment goals. By combining the study of material culture and the study of public humanities, students will learn to interpret physical objects and historical artifacts within historical and cultural frameworks, preparing them for a broad range of careers in museums, historical societies, humanities foundations, and community or cultural organizations.

Material culture is the study of physical objects and the placement of those objects in critical, theoretical, and historical perspectives as the products of distinct cultures. This study involves multiple disciplines including art history, folklore, museum studies, interior design, architecture, industrial design, archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, and economics. Given that material culture analysis is most closely aligned with cultural anthropology or cultural studies, no attempt is made to place aesthetic value on the objects themselves, but rather to consider all objects as representative of particular cultures.

The study of public humanities bridges the divide between academia and the public by encouraging dialog on cultural and social issues. This area of scholarship also educates humanists to present complex ideas to general audiences in engaging ways. Public humanities programs promote learning in fields such as history, literature, comparative religion, culture, and philosophy.

In addition to coursework in both areas, the curriculum will include required hands-on experience through internships or practicum projects in museums, historical societies, or cultural organizations.

By combining both material culture and public humanities, graduates will be well prepared to pursue careers related to historic preservation, material interpretation, and curatorship as well as educational programming for museums and historical societies. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, these career areas are prime for growth. The employment of curators, for example, is anticipated to grow close to 25 percent by 2020.

“This is an applied, practical degree, and there are real jobs out there. The training these students receive has the potential to serve current and future needs in the commonwealth, the nation, and world at large, through the promotion of cultural heritage tourism — which also creates opportunities for economic growth — and by protecting and preserving historic and cultural assets and the interpretation of vernacular culture,” said Elizabeth Fine, a professor in the Department of Religion and Culture and one of the principal faculty members behind the new degree.

The response from administrators and directors of regional and state museums regarding the curriculum, as well as internship and employment opportunities for its students and graduates, has been overwhelmingly positive. The response has included letters of support from the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation, the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Historical Society of Western Virginia, the Montgomery Museum and Lewis Miller Regional Art Center, the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the Smithfield-Preston Foundation, the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation, the Taubman Museum of Art, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

And while there are comparable degree programs offered at other universities, the collaborative, multidisciplinary nature of Virginia Tech’s program makes it stand out from the rest.

“With our strength in architecture, interior design, and industrial design along with art and humanities, Virginia Tech is uniquely positioned to offer this new degree,” said Bailey Van Hook, professor of art history in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and another principal faculty member for the new degree. “Most material culture programs are attached to American studies or anthropology, so its very unusual that its coming out of a college of architecture, but not only that, the partnership with Liberal Arts and Human Sciences creates an opportunity for a dynamic, multifaceted program.”

In addition to the strengths offered through Virginia Tech’s own departments, the university's location in Southwest Virginia, with its rich tradition of Appalachian folk objects, railroad and coal cultures, and African American communities, also benefits to the program. According to Fine, Virginia Tech is well positioned to become the leader in the study of Appalachian material culture and public humanities.

Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies is composed of four schools: the School of Architecture + Design, including architecture, industrial design, interior design and landscape architecture; the School of Public and International Affairs, including urban affairs and planning, public administration and policy and government and international affairs; the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, which includes building construction in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and construction engineering management in the College of Engineering; and the School of the Visual Arts, including programs in studio art, visual communication and art history.

The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech includes programs in the arts, humanities, social and human sciences, and education. The college seeks to illuminate human experience and expression by creating works of lasting scholarly, cultural, and aesthetic value; empower individuals to engage critically with the complexities of a diverse, global society; and foster the inquiry, innovation, and growth that produce individual and social transformation.