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The Energy of the Street Meets the Curiosity of the University in the SNF Public Humanities Initiative

“Why public humanities? Because they should be public, because the humanities should be available for everyone and not shut away, and not just for those who can pay,” says Mark Mazower, Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Public Humanities Initiative (SNFPHI) at Columbia University.

SNFPHI aims create a collaborative bridge across the Atlantic, activating latent creative potential in Greece while drawing on the intellectual traditions of one of the United States’ premier research universities. The result is innovative projects that engage the public in new ways of approaching, discussing, and acting on ideas about the world around us.

“Nowhere is this sense of creative response to the world more alive, more vital than it is right now in Greece, where grassroots organizations and groups have been producing incredible work with few resources or support,” says Mazower.

In the diverse Athens neighborhood of Victoria Square, for instance, one project will guide young people in turning oral histories into a hip-hop album. On the Aegean island of Tinos, another project is capturing local folk song and translating the sounds into a pattern that will be woven into a wall tapestry.

SNFPHI events include “Extra-Terrestrial Ethnographies of the Future Present,” a pair of workshops by The Athens Zine Bibliotheque project through which participants create a “collaborative sci-fi ethnography” that takes an alien look, from the outside in, at our life under the pandemic.

With support from SNFPHI grants, Columbia undergraduates and graduate students are collaborating in these projects, a component of the initiative’s two-way design. “Even the greatest university these days can be shut away, too far from the energy and the edge of the street, from the sharpness of communication that comes from not taking things for granted,” says Mazower. “So we can learn, and at the same time we can share.”

Established in 2019, SNFPHI is exclusively supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). In addition to making grants to increase access to world-class arts and cultural resources for a wider public, the Foundation also supports a number of projects that seek innovative ways for the public to join in the project of exploring our shared humanity. Project What If, a new exhibit at We the Curious in Bristol, used 15,000 questions submitted by residents to create exhibits and works of art on broad themes from “Invisibility” to “Soul.” Theater of War Productions invites members of the public with “skin in the game” to take part in discussions, based on dramatic readings of ancient plays, on difficult, timely topics, from racial injustice to immigration. SNF also provided support for Columbia’s Institute for Ideas & Imagination, a close collaborator of SNFPHI inaugurated in 2017.

As the initiative matures, true to its name, SNFPHI will make materials available from the projects online to give the public access to the results of the transatlantic collaborations formed.

“These partnerships,” says Mazower, “are all about fostering human connections, creating a new public, and helping us to see the world in new ways.”