A Witness Tree is a very old tree that has “witnessed” great events in history. There are such trees all over the world, which are treasured by those who know them. One example is a honeylocust tree in Gettysburg, which is the only tree still standing that was there when Abraham Lincoln dedicated the battlefield cemetery in 1863. Witness trees are living links to the past, yet they don’t last forever, and it’s always sad when we lose one to storms or disease.
In 2009, two professors at the Rhode Island School of Design, in collaboration with the Hampton National Historic Site, created what would become the Witness Tree Project, now in its third year. Professors Dale Broholm (Furniture) and Daniel Cavicchi (History) and the National Parks Service designed a program where students study and produce artworks from witness trees that have recently fallen. It is interdisciplinary learning at its best, as students study the history and culture surrounding the tree, and use that to inform their work.
As their website explains: “In addition to classroom study, the Project variously involves field trips, guest lectures, exhibitions of students’ objects, and other events that highlight the significance of material culture, landscape, and design in learning about American history.”
The first tree used in the program was a pecan tree that had lived for over 150 years at the Hampton National Historic Site, a former plantation near Baltimore (see photo above). In 2010, they worked with trees from both the George Washington Birthplace National Monument and Sagamore Hill (the homestead of Theodore Roosevelt). This year, students are working with an historic Elm from the Olmsted site.
Below are just a few of the pieces created by students from 2010, and you can see many more amazing pieces here. Artwork from the current year’s project will be posted to their website later this year.
Additional reading: Students Collaborate with National Park Service (article).