“Witness Trees,” as designated by the National Park Service (NPS), are long-standing trees that have witnessed key events in the history of America. The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, Md., recently partnered on a project that allowed students to create objects from a fallen Witness Tree, a large pecan tree from Hampton. This historic collaboration marks the first time that wood from a Witness Tree has been used as a teaching tool.
The initial inspiration for the endeavor came from a visit to another property of the NPS by Dale Broholm, senior critic of furniture design at RISD. “During a visit to Gettysburg National Military Park, I was made aware of Witness Trees. After inquiring about the possibility of using the historic material, I immediately saw the potential for an educational collaboration between RISD and the National Park Service.”
After consulting with the NPS’s Olmstead Center for Landscape Preservation, Broholm was put in touch with Paul Bitzel, chief, resource management and horticulturalist for Hampton NHS. Bitzel informed Broholm about Hampton’s sad loss of a venerable pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis), a former State Champion (recorded as the largest pecan tree in the state). It had stood for more than 170 years until falling in a gale in 2007. Fortunately, the wood from the tree had been preserved and milled into boards. After further consultations, an agreement was drawn up permitting Hampton’s pecan wood to be used by RISD students, and proposing an exhibition of the resulting objects.
The project began in earnest in fall 2009 at RISD in linked studio and liberal arts courses taught jointly by Broholm and Daniel Cavicchi, associate professor of history, philosophy, and social sciences. The courses included an initial field trip to the tree’s site at Hampton, seminar discussions about the history the tree “witnessed” over a century and a half, classroom visits by historians, and studio-based construction of objects out of the pecan tree’s wood. The students were asked to explore how the tree’s provenance, location, and material properties can reveal meanings of refinement, slavery, and preservation.
Hampton NHS was an ideal site to be the focus of such an innovative history- and design-oriented project. An NPS property established in 1948 for its architectural merit, the 62-acre park is today one of the country’s best preserved estates. It includes Hampton Mansion, a five-part Georgian house that was one of the largest private residences in the United States when completed in 1790, plus numerous outbuildings; a farm site with elaborate dairy, barns, and standing slave quarters; and formal terraced gardens and other significant landscape features. The site commemorates major phases of American social, cultural, and economic history across three centuries through the occupancy of seven generations of one family (the Ridgelys) and their large and diverse labor force.
Inspired by the rich cultural history “seen” by the tree, students created objects for three specific assignments:
- An implement that could have been useful to someone at Hampton.
- A small vessel or container that “holds” a particular meaning reflecting material culture at Hampton.
- The final project representing the students’ research, readings, and seminar discussions throughout the class.
Twenty objects were selected for the exhibition at Hampton, with each of the ten students in the class represented. The varied objects, deeply informed by both the students’ visit to Hampton and 19th-century American history and culture, range from a writing desk to slave stools, dolls to corsets, game boxes to baskets, tea cups to memorial urns. The labels for all the objects are the students’ own words, expressing wide-ranging interpretations and insights.
The Witness Tree Project challenges us to think seriously about the enduring importance of landscape, the interpretation of material objects, and the creation of collective memory. “Working with the tree from Hampton shows how history informs objects and provides deeper understanding of culture,” Dale Broholm says. “This has been an enriching experience, and our hope is this project will enrich the learning of others as well.”
With this first-of-a-kind course and exhibition, the Witness Tree Project has been a successful example of collaborative work which could become a prototype for other historic sites nationwide. Gay Vietzke, superintendent of Hampton NHS and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, reflects: “Our national parks are natural classrooms, and a primary goal of the NPS is making relevant connections between people and resources. This project demonstrates both ideas so beautifully and with such powerful results. We were so honored and pleased to be the first NPS site to host this incredible collaboration.”