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Global Thinking on Arts and Humanities

01 July 2019 – A conversation at the CHCI Annual Meeting in Dublin with CHCI President, Sara Guyer, and the Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, Jane Ohlmeyer, on why arts and humanities matter.

Hello and congratulations to you both on a really excellent programme for this year’s annual meeting. I was very interested in yesterday’s panel ‘Advocacy for Arts and Humanities’ so I’d like to talk a bit more about that. But let me start by asking about CHCI – the Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes – what does it do, who are the members, how long has it been around?

Sara: CHCI was set up in 1988 with the mission of supporting the future of the humanities by building a network of humanities centers and institutes. In its first years it was very much a North American organisation, although it did have international members from the start – in Australia, UK and the Netherlands, for instance.

Around 2009 the Board made a deliberate and concerted effort to hone in on the international dimension. That has meant developing a new approach to everything - from thinking about languages, to redefining what we mean by a humanities centre. We’ve gone from 150 members in 2009 to nearly 270 members a decade later.

Jane: The Trinity Long Room Hub joined CHCI in 2010, just a few years after we were founded. From the start we’d conceived of the Hub as a global institute, and membership of CHCI has been instrumental in furthering that mission. I’m also on the international advisory board of CHCI - well as the annual general meeting we have regular board meetings where we agree our priorities and how to achieve them.

Sara Guyer and Jane Ohlmeyer 

Sara Guyer and Jane Ohlmeyer at the opening ceremony of CHCI 2019 Annual Meeting in Trinity College Dublin.

What are some of CHCI’s priorities?

Sara: A key mission is to make this a truly global project and that’s not just about expanding our membership, but really developing and experimenting with international research collaborations as a model for the humanities now and in the future.

Jane: Yes, the project ‘Crisis of Democracy’ [funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and organized by CHCI] is a great example of this. The Hub is the lead partner – the other four partner institutes are in Zagreb, São Paolo, New York and Delhi, so it goes across four continents. We’re involving academic and non-academic partners from numerous disciplines to look at global issues like populism, cultural trauma, colonialism and migration.Jane quote

Sara: Yes, ‘Crisis in Democracy’ exemplifies our new approach. It will be our first of five Global Humanities Institutes and not only has it brought new voices and institutes into the Consortium, but new conversations, methods, and questions. We identified “democracy” as a theme, because there is nowhere in the world right now, including countries where democracy has been taken as a given, where democracy’s future is not being tested. We need to understand this in a global context that recognizes regional and local distinctions. An historical and imaginative approach – that is, a humanities approach – can reveal commonalities and contradictions. This isn’t just an abstraction though. It requires institutional models, and that too has been part of CHCI’s contribution – creating a model for administering and funding international, institutional collaborations. 

Jane: Yes, backing up high-priority strategy with attention to process and detail.

Sara: A key priority is Africa. CHCI started focussing on this before my presidency began in 2016. We realised there was tremendous intellectual and scholarly work being done in Africa that wasn’t entering our network. We’ve put a lot into this, engaging with scholars and projects especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and establishing a programme for early career academics. The 2017 annual meeting in Cape Town was transformative.

It was clear from yesterday’s panel that advocating for the arts and humanities is a central mission of CHCI – that’s not just advocacy to governments and funding bodies but to the public. Why is advocacy so necessary?

Jane: Traditionally the arts and humanities haven’t been good at measuring the impact they make or telling the story of that impact. Yet humanities research and graduates are essential to understanding and dealing with everything that confronts us today – technology, climate change, health, migration, you name it – but we have to get better at calling out our unique role, what we bring to issues that other disciplines can’t.

Sara: If you don’t know what health is, how are you going to be a productive doctor? A focus on the clinical without a sense of the cultural or the conceptual will cause failure on both sides.

Jane: Yes, to give a practical example, someone pointed out on yesterday’s panel that huge investment was put into understanding the Ebola crisis in west Africa, but it wasn’t until humanities people came on board that a light was shone on the role in that crisis of west African burial practices like washing and kissing the body of the deceased.


Sara: All of us engaged in the humanities – in centres, universities, scholarly societies, funding bodies – have recognised that for the humanities to survive we have to survive beyond graduate level research. We have to re-think the modern career trajectory of both undergrads and graduates. When I was an undergraduate, if you were talented and engaged, you were encouraged to go to grad school. But with more graduates than jobs, it’s become unethical to encourage students that way. Further, it is not only the student s but also our societies that are harmed when we don’t have pathways that move between the universities and the worlds that surround it in government, technology, activism, and the professions.

Jane: And that’s a big shift in the US, I know. In Trinity the majority of our arts and humanities early career researchers are self-funded and the expectation is that many will not go into academia. Very early on you have to prepare them for other careers. We’re starting to get much better at that. The imperative is driven by need to make them ready for the ‘marketplace’, for want of a better word.

Sara: My feeling is that we need to develop a more holistic sense of our students. They really compartmentalise – you might be activist in the evening, a chef in the afternoon and a scholar in the morning. And you might not think about how those come together. But actually, if you’re serious about activism and good at research and knowledgeable about food, that could all come together in, say, advocacy on food security. There is a whole world of jobs and careers out there that we have to recognize and help our students to recognize.Sara quote

Jane: We’re living more and more in a tech dominated world and tech companies themselves realise that what is missing is the human. Already tech companies are coming to us, looking for graduates. They want creative, critical thinkers with an understanding of culture, the arts, and languages, along with issues of gender and equality. The nature of the workplace is going to change very radically over the next few decades. And the arts and humanities have to make sure that we’re ready to grasp that opportunity. That said, what I would hate is for the workplace to be dictating the research agenda.

Sara: Yes, there’s a danger about advocating solely in terms of economic impact and what the humanities bring to science and health sciences. What the humanities does so brilliantly is to reveal what’s exciting about the world and the ways that we live now and how we lived in the past. Really exciting revelations aren’t simply around economic impact, the excitement lies in seeing the world differently. That’s what arts and humanities do.

When it comes to advocating, some CHCI members face more challenges than others. In Europe and North America, it seems like members are in a relatively strong position because academic freedom is set in stone and there’s a tradition of valuing arts and humanities. Can you talk about some of the challenges other members and regions might face?

Sara: I would say the challenges are all the same but all very different. In some countries, like for instance Brazil, arts and humanities struggle to get investment because they’re seen as superfluous and not practical.  In other countries, there might be high investment in humanities but it can be directive, where governments set the agenda.

Jane: Yes, and particular disciplines can come under attack – like Gender Studies. In a way, the fact that authoritarian governments seek to control the agenda is proof of the importance of humanities – when history departments become ‘propaganda departments’, that shows just how vital it is to do academic history that’s sourced and verifiable.

Sara: Going back to our earlier conversation about graduate career trajectories, there is a danger that we support a thriving labour force in Europe and North America but not elsewhere. Which would mean you had Europeans and north Americans asking the high-level policy questions, with other regions doing pure programming or service. That’s not a desirable outcome. 










Jane: CHCI is about creating dialogue and collaboration between members in all five continents so that we can advocate for arts and humanities consistently and coherently across the world. We need centres of excellence everywhere. Of course, each centre is tremendously local - you draw on the archives, culture and research of your city and region - but the local becomes international. That, for me, has really come in this Annual Meeting. Something like Field Day, which started in Derry at the height of the ‘Troubles’, grew out of the local conflict but was determinedly international in scope – the second play they performed was by the South African playwright, Athol Fugard. And what was achieved with Field Day now resonates in other conflict zones in the world. The local is global.

Sara and Jane, thank you so much for a truly stimulating conversation. Last question: where is your own research in all this?

Sara: I write about romanticism and its legacies – I’ve a book in the pipeline which is part intellectual history, part theory of anthropomorphism. One of the amazing things I’ve found is the way that serving as president of CHCI has transformed my ideas about research. Because in this kind of role you’re always thinking across other disciplines. It would be fascinating to track down people who’ve served as directors of humanities centres and ask them what has happened with their own work – how do they think now about writing and the audience, about research questions? For me, this role has a truly transformative effect, in a way that becoming, say, a department head, just doesn’t.

Jane: Like Sara, being the director of a cross-disciplinary research institute has proved very enabling for my own research.  For example, I’m writing an article on ‘Women, war and sexual violence’ with colleagues – one a human rights lawyer and the other an historian of Civil War America - involved in the ‘Crises of Democracy and Cultural Trauma’ project.  This feeds into a related project, ‘Shape-ID’ or ‘Shaping Interdisciplinary Practices in Europe’, funded by European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, where I’m the Principal Investigator (2019-21), which explores how we can place the Arts and Humanities the centre of multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary research. Finally I’ve been invited to give the Ford Lectures in Oxford in 2021. I hope to present chapters from my forthcoming book on Ireland and Empire, which explores the extent to which Ireland served as a laboratory for empire. Here again, CHCI’s global perspective has helped shape my thinking around this.   

Find out more about Cultural Interventions, CHCI Annual Meeting 2019 held in Trinity College Dublin.

- Interview by Bridget Hourican for the Trinity Long Room Hub

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