November 5, 2019
As the newly named Director of the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History, and the Environment (CHE) and Bradshaw Knight Professor of the Environmental Humanities, Anna Vemer Andrzejewski is working to bring the Wisconsin Idea to the forefront through public humanities. A professor in the Art History department, Andrzejewski studies the history of North American vernacular architecture, especially of the post-World War II period, but is equally passionate about connecting the public with a greater understanding of how human cultures impact the natural world.
“I am hearing from my colleagues and graduate students in CHE that they want to be involved in public facing humanities work,” Andrzejewski said. “My passion for public facing projects has me really excited about investing time and energy into this and I expect to see CHE involved in this work in Madison, in the state, and around that world because we have so much to offer.”
As a part of the interdisciplinary Nelson Institute, CHE welcomes faculty and students from across campus. Humanities scholars, social scientists, and scholars from the physical and biological sciences participate in what they call the “CHE-Space: a shared intellectual context in which conversations across disciplinary boundaries are eagerly sought and shared.” Additionally, to incorporate a greater sense of community and engage the public in the humanities, CHE hosts affiliate members called community associates, which can be anyone in the community invested in CHE’s mission to study environmental change in its historical and cultural contexts.
“I really want to continue to bring interested parties into CHE, especially young scholars, people working in the natural and physical sciences, as well as the broader community,” Andrzejewski said. “I love that CHE has a category of affiliate known as the community associate and one of my goals is to reach out to the community and seek new partnerships.”
In addition to the ways in which she hopes to impact CHE, Andrzejewski also reflected on the ways CHE has impacted her journey.
As a high school student, Andrzejewski says she became very interested in art history, an interest that grew as she completed her bachelor’s degree in art history and her Master’s degree in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Art and Theory at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. As she worked on her doctoral dissertation at the University of Delaware, Department of Art History, Andrzejewski was working in historic preservation, but when she graduated, she decided to try a two-year position at the University of Wisconsin in academia.
“I realized that I could bring my academic interests together with my interest in the public humanities,” said Andrzejewski, who soon after accepted a tenure track position in the Art History department at UW-Madison. “The Art History Department was really open to me continuing to do that public facing work. I feel in many ways coming to Madison, with the Wisconsin idea, was a great fit and made really good sense to me.”
Within a few years, Andrzejewski became associated with CHE and the Nelson Institute, often attending workshops and serving on committees.
“I came to CHE because of the word environment. When I try to explain to people what I study, I often say I study the built environment which refers to the human-made things (buildings). I thought- culture, history, and the environment- that’s architectural history,” Andrzejewski said. “But, when I came to CHE, my interests expanded, and I began thinking about how buildings relate to their natural contexts. . . CHE provided a tremendous, new area of interest for me. It helped me to think about my own research in new ways.”
As the CHE experience has transformed Andrzejewski’s understanding of the environment it has also transformed her research.
“I study the post-World War II building industry, and how they built massive subdivisions,” Andrzejewski said. “I never really related that to the natural environment, but for the last few years, I’ve been working on researching a builder who built massive coastal vacation and retirement communities across south Florida. Due to my involvement with CHE, what was once a project about assembly line construction and labor, became a story about a builder struggling against the natural world – in this case, a marshy landscape. Now I’m looking at flood mitigation, dredging, and it’s clear that just in my own research CHE has impacted the direction I’ve gone.”
Andrzejewski hopes that through her new role she will help others to be impacted by what CHE has to offer, looking for new opportunities to spread the reach of CHE and the Nelson Institute.
“CHE is at a point, 12 years in, where I think it is ready to think about new opportunities,” Andrzejewski said. “CHE is stable, we’ve established ourselves, so I want to be a part of thinking about the next 10 to 20 years and our strategic decisions.”
Photo courtesy of Anna Andrzejewski