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Carolyn Gennari: Community Connections Through U-M Collections

Sometimes, the most beautiful discoveries contain a breathtaking element of surprise. Such is the case when one cracks open one of the many industrial-sized filing cabinets at the University of Michigan Herbarium.

Housed in an unassuming, low brick building on Ann Arbor's south side, the space itself is still, nearly silent, containing rows upon rows of identical industrial-sized filing cabinets. Inside the cabinets: magic. Well, almost.

Photo by Matthew Foltz

"There are just hundreds of thousands of pressed plant specimens in the cabinets - some are from the early 19th century, some are more recent," said Carolyn Gennari (Stamps MFA '17). "The pressed plants rest on old, thin paper pages, many of which have handwritten notes from the researchers of yesteryear. Aside from being an incredible research tool, the specimens are just really beautiful objects."

While the University of Michigan Herbarium may be one of Ann Arbor's more hidden gems, it played a major role in Gennari's decision to pursue her MFA studies at the Stamps School. Home to 1.7 million plant specimens, the herbarium is one of the finest botanical collections in the world. And as an artist with a strong interest in the intersection between community engagement and creative practice, Gennari saw huge potential in the collection: "The university's archives and collections really got me thinking about ways I could create a bridge between the knowledge of the university and the community-at-large."


Gennari's first major MFA project, Mobile Herbarium, aims to bring the magic of the U-M Herbarium to Michigan residents statewide. A beautiful miniature covered wagon fixed to a bicycle, Mobile Herbarium is filled with artifacts, ephemera, and stories about the role of the natural world in our lives. Recipient of the 2016 Susan Smucker Wagstaff and Reid Wagstaff Graduate Award - a project-specific award for Stamps MFA students - Gennari currently has a $3,000 budget to share the Mobile Herbarium with Michigan residents this summer.

"I'm currently in the process of building partnerships and relationships around the state," said Gennari. "These relationships will help me plan what happens when I take the project on the road; it is important to me that the activities are defined by the needs and interests of the people in the community. I need to ask a lot of questions and be a good listener to figure out how this project will benefit people the most."

Carolyn Gennari's dedication to meaningful, collaborative community engagement is a critical component to her artistic life. Prior to her MFA studies at Stamps, Gennari's creative practice in her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island focused heavily around work in youth centers and juvenile detention centers - as well as with museums and libraries, where she co-created performances with community members around specific moments in history. "When looking at grad schools, Stamps stood out to me because it's a place where multi-disciplinary work could happen, where I could come as an artist but be interested in many other subject areas, and a place where community engagement was understood and welcome."

In addition to her MFA studies at Stamps, Carolyn Gennari is an Engaged Pedagogical Initiative Fellow at the University of Michigan. A collaboration between University of Michigan's Center for Engaged Academic Learning (CEAL), in partnership with the Arts of Citizenship program, the Residential College, and the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, EPI is selective semester-long program for graduate students across a variety of disciplines brought together by their collective interest in articulating best practices around community engagement. "I'm really invested in learning the theoretical and pedagogical skills that could be applied in bringing the community and the university together," says Carolyn. "That's really what the EPI program is all about and really at the crux of what I do as an artist."

To learn more about Carolyn Gennari's work and for an upcoming Summer 2016 Mobile Herbarium exhibition schedule, visit


Story by Truly Render. Herbarium cabinet photo by Matthew Foltz, other images courtesy of Carolyn Gennari.