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Aislinn Pentecost-Farren is an interdisciplinary artist and curator, and a dual degree student in Fine Arts and Historic Preservation at the Weitzman School. In this interview she speaks about her background, her time at Weitzman, and the work spurred by her Historic Preservation thesis, which tackles the legacy of historic sites foundational to the climate crisis.
What is your background? What made you want to pursue the dual Master of Historic Preservation (MSHP) / Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree? Which one did you do first, and what brought you into the other?
My background is in public art. My work in Philly has been mostly with public art nonprofits like Philadelphia Mural Arts. I've also worked as an artist, mostly on commissions with parks and historic sites.
I knew wanted to get a master's, but I couldn't decide whether I wanted to lean into the art side of things, or history. I had just done a multi-year project with Bartram’s Garden in southwest Philly that confirmed I was interested in historic sites as a place where we, as a society, confirm or construct the meaning of where we live. So I wanted to work more with historic sites as an artist or the arts.
I was really on the fence. I applied to a bunch of Philly-area MFA and public history programs. I applied to both Weitzman's MFA and MSHP programs, because it has a public history of the built environment track. When I got into Penn they asked, Would you like to try both as a dual degree? Instead of doing one of them in two years, you could do both in three. And I was like, great, I don't have to pick. I think my work is very much on the edge between those ways intervening in historic places, between public history and art.
I started my first year in the Fine Arts program. Because art is conceptually flexible and expansive, I wanted that to frame my study in historic preservation, and not the other way around. Then I did all my Historic Preservation credits. I did some part-time during the pandemic, and it took an extra year. Now I'm finishing up my Fine Art credits to cap it off and I’ll graduate this May.
What are you involved in outside of class? How does your interdisciplinary perspective affect how you approach art and preservation?
I just finished a two-year residency with a greenway and park organization in Northeast Philly called Riverfront North. They're building a recreational trail along the Delaware River. The riverbank in North Philly is almost totally taken over by industry, so this trail is the first river access that many neighborhoods have had in a couple generations. Riverfront North hired me to create art projects that introduced residents to the idea of being a riverfront neighborhood again and build a sense of connection to the river. My work was a way to introduce the park before it was built, so that people would use it as soon as it opened.
As a public artist, I get invited into projects at the intersection of culture, history, city planning, and community engagement. I have done a series of projects, from a community history project delivered on pizza boxes, to working with a walking artist who led a lantern parade that retraced maritime underground railroad routes. The built environment hides a lot of histories that don’t always speak for themselves, or speak to everyone. You have to reveal them with activity and interpretation and story.
What have been your favorite class or opportunity from your time at Weitzman?
My favorite classes have been the ones where I get to do my own thing, like MFA critique class, where we exhibit the self-directed art we’ve been working on and get feedback from peers and professors.
Or an example from historic preservation would be a thesis class, a series of courses to help you refine your thesis topic, structure your research and writing, and stay on schedule. I decided to do a project on the public history of the climate crisis, a topic that I loved.
I was a fellow with the Lenape Heritage Project at PennPraxis for my summer internship. We partnered with tribal leadership to develop culturally sensitive recording methods for pre-colonial structures. That was an incredible project. The other fellows were landscape architecture students, and it was amazing integrating our skill sets from different disciplines. Incredible peers are one of the best things about being here.
Can you tell me a little bit about your thesis topic?
My thesis investigates The Elms, coal magnate Edward Berwind’s 1901 mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, as a case study for interpreting the history of the climate crisis at historic sites. As climate change effects increase, historic sites with connections to the fossil fuel industry assume new meaning. More historic sites are talking about how climate change is affecting their site, but almost none interpret how their site was part of the problem’s origin. My thesis is a proposal for how historic sites can navigate their evolving role in helping the public make sense of the crisis.
The thesis class encourages you to start research over the summer, which I tried to do. I had a couple of topic ideas going into the fall semester. Meanwhile, I enrolled in Laura Keim’s course Historic Site Management. It was the first class I had taken at Penn that addressed interpretation and contextualizing historic sites, and it clarified a lot of things. One class we were discussing how more historic sites are finally interpreting their connections to slavery and I started to wonder what unacknowledged aspect of history would be next. Climate crisis seemed like a likely option, very related to slavery through histories of capitalism and exploitation, etc.
I spent the whole fall refining the idea, researching different sites, picking a site, and cutting things off my idea. Everyone who’s asked me for advice about writing thesis, I encourage them to make it a quarter of the size you think it should be. Because you're going to over-promise. Ideas always grow. Some students in my year wrote theses where what they thought was going to be the first chapter became the entire thesis. In the spring, I visited the mansion, I researched its connections to the coal industry and those of its owner, and I wrote the thesis and an example script for tour stops that the mansion could add to their existing tour program.
And how do you hope your research gets applied?
Climate crisis heritage has become my work. I’m exploring the topic in my art practice now, as I finish my MFA degree. I just created a black velvet slipcover for a 54-foot obelisk of anthracite coal that the state of Pennsylvania exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The obelisk no longer exists, so the slipcover is displayed on the floor as both resurrection and memorial, a marker of the long shadow of coal.
And I’ve started the Climate Crisis Heritage Project, to prototype climate crisis history interpretation with historic sites and provide resources and tools. I received a grant from Weitzman's Kleinman Center for Energy Policy to work with Lowell National Historical Park and develop a new school field trip program that includes climate crisis history. The HSPV department is funding me to present my thesis and the Lowell project at the National Council for Public History's annual conference, at a panel I’m organizing with public historian Donna Graves. I can’t believe my thesis topic has led to an opportunity to work with one of my idols in the field! After I graduate, I would love to work for a consultancy, public history or preservation advocacy organization that supports historic sites in pursuing new projects, and would be interested in having like a new thematic area around climate crisis heritage. But regardless of where I end up, I’ll continue this work. Sometimes preservation doesn’t feel urgent to people outside the field and I think climate crisis history connects heritage work to something extremely important and current.