Frost Opens Center for Humanistic Inquiry
Issue   |   Wed, 09/16/2015 - 01:27

The Center for Humanistic Inquiry held its opening ceremony on Thursday, welcoming faculty and staff to its space on the second floor of Frost Library.

Completed over the summer, the center was constructed in a previously unrenovated space with the goals of facilitating research in the humanities, organizing talks and activities for faculty and staff, and bringing research in the humanities to the public.

“I love the fact that the center sits in the heart of Frost Library, which is already a vibrant hub for the campus community,” said Martha Umphrey, a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought and director of the center.

The center, which is roughly 5,000 square feet, both acts both as a space for faculty and fellows to conduct research and as an open “think tank” area for meetings and workshops. A seminar room was also built to host talks and meetings. During evenings and weekends, the think tank area and seminar room are available to students as study spaces when not in use for scheduled events. The seminar room is also used as a classroom for some Amherst courses, such as Law and Love, an analytical seminar taught by Umphrey.

The Center of Humanistic Inquiry underwent a name change before its completion and the opening ceremony. It was originally called the “Humanities Center,” but Umphrey said the college wanted to give it a more inclusive name.

“Humanistic thinking can occur in any discipline, including the social sciences and sciences,” Umphrey said. “And we wanted to be clear that the center was not focused solely on what might traditionally be called ‘humanities’ departments and content.”

The center was built with the hope of providing spaces both for privacy and collaborative work, according to Tom Davies, the college’s director of construction and design.

“The aesthetic is really intended to be forward-leaning, but comfortable,” Davies said. “Keeping with the sensibilities of Frost Library while also being very current and responding to the fact that it’s 2015.”

The center also has an abundance of glass surfaces, some of which are intended for writing.

“We have, by putting a lot of glass in the seminar room and around the center itself, brought a bunch of light from the south side of the building into the core of Frost Library that really weren’t there before because there were stacks and carrels blocking the light,” Davies said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the glass writing surfaces function when people are writing on them and you’re seeing that from the back side.”

Minor modifications had been made to the space before renovations for the center began in order to adjust for differences between decades-old diagrams of Frost Library and its actual construction. The interior underwent extensive reconstruction, including the replacement of mechanical systems and lighting. The structure of the building is still largely original to its 1965 form.

The bulk of the construction was completed in May and June of 2015, with minor finishing touches applied in the following months. The center was completed on time and on budget.

The completion of the center marks the end of more than 15 years of planning for a humanities center on campus. In 2011, President Biddy Martin expressed hope that a humanities center would be built on campus during her tenure. Later, in August 2013, the Humanities Center Building Committee, comprised of Amherst faculty members, gave a report outlining the proposed center.

The decision to build the Center for Humanistic Inquiry was controversial among some members of the faculty. In a letter to The Amherst Student last year, Professor of Classics Rebecca Sinos argued that the center would deprive faculty of much-needed open stacks and carrels.

According to Umphrey, the center has already begun to plan for the future. Under the year-long theme “Mattering Lives,” the center will begin to house fellows and program events. Included in the programming will be a weekly discussion for staff and faculty.

“For the entire community, we will bring in writers via our new partnership with the MacDowell Colony, a nationally-known artist’s colony in New Hampshire,” Umphrey said. She plans to “host events and speakers invited by departments across the college, begin an initiative on public art at Amherst and maybe produce some surprises for the campus.”

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