In Fall 2009, the departments of Furniture Design and History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), in conjunction with the Hampton National Historic Site, developed a new collaborative model for teaching and learning. In a linked set of studio and liberal arts courses, students were given the unique opportunity to study and work with a fallen, historic, pecan tree, shipped to RISD from Hampton. The Project included an initial field trip to the tree's site in Maryland, seminar discussion about the history the tree "witnessed" over a century and a half, classroom visits by historians, and studio-based building of a series of objects out of the tree's wood.
Working with the historical world of the tree, as well as its actual material, evoked not only significant historic events, but also the enduring importance of landscape, the interpretation of material objects, and the creation of collective memory. By combining the disciplines of American history and Furniture Design, students in the course were able to experience a depth of insight and understanding that would not have been possible within a single discipline or department. Specifically, meanings of refinement, slavery, and preservation were enhanced through concrete investigation of the tree's provenance, location, and material properties. Students' designed objects-a rustic stool, a courting bench, or a gaming table, to name a few-were deeply informed by readings and lectures in 19th century American history and culture. And, overall, students offered insightful recommendations regarding the Park's ongoing efforts at preserving and interpreting plantation culture in the Upper South.
Based on the success of the Hampton witness tree, the founders of the Witness Tree Project, RISD professors Dale Broholm (Furniture) and Daniel Cavicchi (History), received funding from Rhode Island School of Design's Kyobo Fund to continue the curriculum into its second year. In Fall 2010, students will work with wood from both the George Washington Birthplace National Monument and the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (the homestead of Theodore Roosevelt), basing their seminar and studio study on the memorialization of presidents in American history. With funding, the Project will focus on a new tree from a national historic site each year.