Anthropology students hit the streets of Hamilton in search of art

By Stacey Gabitous, March 7, 2017
    Photos taken by students in Rebecca Plett’s fourth-year Anthropology course – Practicing Anthropology: Ethics, Theory, Engagement – who took to the streets of Hamilton armed with cell phones, cameras, tablets, pens and paper to explore and document the street art in five West Harbour neighbourhoods.

Public art can be a powerful tool to engage communities. It can spark positive change by opening up public dialogue, triggering mobilization and activism, and helping to build community capacity and leadership.

Recently, a group of McMaster Anthropology students took to the streets of Hamilton armed with cell phones, cameras, tablets, pens and paper to explore and document the street art in five West Harbour neighbourhoods.

This community exploration was part of Rebecca Plett’s fourth-year Anthropology course Practicing Anthropology: Ethics, Theory, Engagement, designed to give students hands-on experience conducting research using anthropological methodologies to investigate social problems, and how these methods can be applied to positively impact society.

As part of the course – developed in partnership with Social Sciences alumnus, Jay Carter, Hamilton Project Manager for CityWorks, part of Evergreen CityWorks, a local not-for-profit organization – students were asked to examine how art in public spaces and on private property contributes to the vibrancy of Hamilton and to identify artistic gaps and opportunities in five neighbourhoods across the City.

To do this, students were split into small groups to explore the neighbourhoods of Strathcona, Central, North Ends East and West, and the Beasely neighbourhood where they took pictures of the art they found and conducted interviews with community members about the artworks.

Students also talked to residents about some of the cultural activities in the area, asked what the neighbourhoods were like in the past, and what changes community members felt would benefit their community.

“There is great value in being able to apply anthropological theories and methods to investigate social problems and engage in the public sphere,” says Plett. “It allows students to see first-hand the potential their anthropological knowledge has for engagement – particularly beyond the University.”

When their research was completed, students presented their findings at CityWorks in downtown Hamilton to Plett, Carter and Ken Coit, Program Manager of Public Art and Projects for the City of Hamilton.

The students identified gaps and incorporated research on how communities in other cities have transformed vacant or underutilized spaces into culturally vibrant civic commons. They also proposed ways to integrate more art into Hamilton’s neighbourhoods including artwork on chain-link fences, organizing a chalk art festival and a fire and water show to draw community members to the waterfront, as well as a pop-up theatre.

“I was so impressed with the students’ commitment to the process, and the creativity and scope of their recommendations to our community partner Evergreen,” says Plett.

Anthropology students, Stanley Lui and Cassandra Hutt who took the course, say they benefitted from the experience.

“What I learned is that we can take the ideas, concepts and theories from the classroom and create something that has a tangible end result,” says Lui. “It allowed me to think outside the box, to really think about what that community needs and how they can benefit from the theoretical knowledge I have.”

“The feedback we received from Ken and Jay was helpful because they put our project into perspective,” says Hutt. “It made me realize that to have a program actually implemented, a lot of leg work needs to be done.”

Through various initiatives such as the Cultural Policy & Plan and Public Art Master Plan, the City of Hamilton is increasingly exploring the role of art, music, culture, and creativity as crucial components to healthy cities.

The students’ research and proposals will be reviewed by Evergreen and the City Hamilton over the coming year and some of these ideas could be implemented in West Harbour communities.

To view the existing public artworks across the city and to suggest new ones, visit the City of Hamilton Public Art Map.