Witness Tree Project

Since 2009, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the National Park Service (NPS) have worked to develop a collaborative model for teaching and learning centered on witness trees, long-standing trees that were present for key moments in American history. The Witness Tree Project arranges for fallen witness trees to be shipped from NPS sites to RISD, where, in a joint history seminar and furniture studio, students interpret the history of a given tree's site and make relevant objects from the tree’s wood. In addition to classroom and studio work, the Project variously involves field trips, guest lectures, and exhibitions of students’ objects.

The Project has been funded by awards from Rhode Island School of Design's Kyobo Fund (years 2009 and 2010) and by a portion of a Windgate Foundation Grant to RISD's Department of Furniture Design (years 2011, 2012, 2013). It is currently supported by RISD’s Office of Academic Affairs. While the course has been situated according to the home departments of its originating faculty (Dale Broholm, Furniture/Daniel Cavicchi, History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences), it has, in terms of the students it has served and the work created, been a truly multidisciplinary learning experience, cutting across Architecture, Ceramics, Furniture, Industrial Design, Textiles, Glass, and Graphic Design, among others.



Student Witness Tree Instagram Feed

“RISD students are so good at making objects that are both beautiful and steeped in layered meaning. This class enhances the ability of students to generate ideas and understand the important role history plays in making storied creations.” –Dale Broholm

“Witness trees have stood for a century or more, while around them battles have been waged, presidents have lived and died, and whole industries have peaked and declined. Now each of these trees serves as an axis from which students can expand the scope of their thinking outward, from specific events to more complex questions about time and place, nature and culture.” – Daniel Cavicchi

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Give to WTP

The Witness Tree Project is a special interdisciplinary curriculum, involving a field trips, sawyering, shipment, and drying of wood, and exhibition costs, all of which requires funding beyond the capacities of Rhode Island School of Design or the National Park Service. While we have identified new potential trees from National Park Service sites, the running of a future course depends on outside support, and we are currently seeking interested donors. Contributing to this Project would be a useful way to fulfill philanthropic, educational, and public service mandates, and we would work with you to appropriately acknowledge your gift.



We are happy to answer questions and/or describe the project in more detail to interested educators, craftspeople, and journalists.


Daniel Cavicchi is Vice Provost and Professor of History, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences at Rhode Island School of Design. His scholarship includes numerous books and essays on topics in American studies, history, and music, as well as exhibits and curricula for museums and non-profit organizations.  

Email: dcavicch@risd.edu

Dale Broholm is a Senior Critic in the Department of Furniture Design at the Rhode Island School of Design. His work as a furniture designer has been featured in numerous collections and publications and he has spoken on furniture design at workshops and conferences around the world.

Email: dbroholm@risd.edu


Rhode Island School of Design

2 College Street, Providence, RI 02903



“Fallen Witness Tree Sparks Interpretive Project.” National Trust for Historic Preservation Forum News, April 2010. http://forum.savingplaces.org/viewdocument/fallen-witness-tree-sparks-inter

“Students Collaborate With National Park Service.” RISD Press Release, Spring 2011. http://www.risd.edu/news/stories/students-collaborate-with-national-park-service/

“Saying Goodbye To The Historic Olmsted Elm.” WBUR Radio, March 29, 2011. http://www.wbur.org/2011/03/29/olmsted-elm 

 “Legendary Tree Taken Down in Brookline.” WBZ-TV Boston, March 30. 2011. http://boston.cbslocal.com/2011/03/30/legendary-tree-taken-down-in-brookline/ 

“Tree Hugging Is Back in Style.” Huffington Post, April 1, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charles-a-birnbaum/tree-hugging-is-ok-again_b_843240.html

“Exhibit Features Furniture Inspired By History.” Fine Woodworking, April 15, 2011. http://www.finewoodworking.com/item/36654/exhibit-features-furniture-inspired-by-history

 “A Witness Reborn.” Boston Globe, October 9, 2011. http://archive.boston.com/news/local/articles/2011/10/09/projects_aim_to_restore_the_spirit_of_brooklines_historic_olmsted_elm/

“The Witness Tree Project – Art Inspired By Nature.” The Untended Garden Blog, October 20, 2011. http://untendedgarden.com/2011/10/the-witness-tree-project-art-inspired-by-nature/

A Witness Tree Reborn.” American Spirit Magazine, November/December 2011.

 “Witness Project Bears Witness to History Through Art.” Boston Globe, August 31, 2012. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/theater-art/2012/08/31/risd-witness-project-creates-sculptures-from-old-olmsted-elm/bNnmEbiByCLya32eDJeY3J/story.html

“Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site Commemorates Its “Olmsted Elm.” National Park Service Press Release, August 2012. http://www.olmsted.org/storage/images/Newsletters/Artwork/2012_August_Images/olmsted-elm.pdf

“The ‘Olmsted Elm,’ Reincarnated.” WBUR Radio, September 13, 2012. http://radioboston.wbur.org/2012/09/13/olmstead-elm-reincarnated

“Art doesn’t fall far from the tree: Felled Olmsted elm becomes exhibit.” Wicked Local Brookline, August 30, 2012. http://www.wickedlocal.com/brookline/features/x1405836605/Art-doesn-t-fall-far-from-the-tree-Felled-Olmsted-elm-becomes-exhibit?zc_p=0&img=1 - axzz259LKiEvB

“Witnessing History.” RISD Media Story, August 29, 2014. http://www.risd.edu/news/stories/witnessing-history/

This Tree Can Talk: Thomas Edison’s Trees Teach History.” RISD Media Press Release, 2014.

“If Thomas Edison’s Trees Could Talk.” Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2014. https://www.wsj.com/articles/if-thomas-edisons-trees-could-talk-1409255463

“Unearthing the Past.” RISD Media story, June 23, 2015. http://www.risd.edu/news/stories/unearthing-the-past/

“Carving Out a New Identity.” RISD Media Story, May 23, 2017. http://www.risd.edu/news/stories/carving-out-a-new-identity/

“RISD’s Witness Tree Project.” RE-CO Brooklyn Blog, June 8, 2017. http://recobklyn.com/blog/risds-witness-tree-project/

"Rhode Island School of Design and Prospect Park Alliance Partner on Cultural Study and Object Creation from Fallen Witness Tree." RISD Media Press Release. August, 2017. http://www.risd.edu/news/for-press/press-releases/rhode-island-school-of-design-and-prospect-park-alliance-partner-on-cultural-study-and-object-creation-from-fallen-witness-tree/

"A Fallen Brooklyn Elm Shaped into Objects That Reflect on Immigration." Hyperallergic, September 15, 2017. https://hyperallergic.com/397259/the-witness-tree-project-transforms-a-fallen-brooklyn-elm-into-objects-that-reflect-on-immigration/

"Reconstructing the Past." RISD Media story, June 8, 2018. https://www.risd.edu/news/stories/reconstructing-the-past/

“National Park Service Works to Save Mulberry ‘Witness Tree’ by the Washington Monument.” New American Journal, June 20, 2019. https://www.newamericanjournal.net/2019/06/national-park-service-works-to-save-mulberry-witness-tree-by-the-washington-monument/

Exhibit Announcements

RISD Student Work to Be Displayed at the Hampton National Historic Site,” RISD Press Release, Spring 2010.

“Witness Trees.” Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, March 31 – July 8, 2012. http://www.brattleboromuseum.org/2012/02/08/witness-trees/; Catalog pdf.

"Witness Trees Exhibit." (2012). http://oysterbayenterprisepilot.com/2012/08/witness-trees-exhibit-ends-august-19/

"Echoes of the Olmsted Elm." (2012). http://www.gardenclubbackbay.org/2012/08/19/friday-august-31-sunday-september-30-echoes-of-the-olmsted-elm-works-from-risds-2011-witness-tree-project/

Lindenwald Mulberry Exhibit (Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, 2015). http://imby.com/kinderhook/article/witness-tree-project-lindenwald-mulberry-exhibit/comment-page-2/

Lindenwald Mulberry Exhibit NPS Press Release, 2015.

"Prospect Park Exhibit Will Display Objects Made From 150-Year-Old Fallen Elm Tree." Untapped Cities, August 14, 2017. http://untappedcities.com/2017/08/14/prospect-park-exhibit-will-display-objects-made-from-150-year-old-fallen-elm-tree/

"Tapping Historic Roots." RISD Media Story about Prospect Park exhibit, "The Witness Tree Project." September 8, 2017. http://our.risd.edu/post/165121777009/tapping-historic-roots

Talks and Presentations

“Witness Tree Project.” Furniture Society Conference. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, MA. June 2010.

Witness Tree Project.” New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, 2011 Arts in Education Partnership Conference., Bretton Woods, NH, October 2011.

“Roundtable: The Witness Tree Project.” Joint Conference of the Organization of American Historians and the National Council on Public History, Milwaukee, WI, April 2012.

"Witness Tree Project: Teaching History and Material Culture Through Object Creation." Material Culture Lecture Series, American and New England Studies Program, Boston University, October 22, 2012. http://www.bu.edu/amnesp/files/2016/01/Material-Culture-Symposium-PDF.pdf

Audio: http://www.bu.edu/amnesp/files/2012/09/Object-Lessons-and-Material-Culture-Part-1.mp3

"Witness Tree Project." The John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Brown University, April 1, 2013. https://www.brown.edu/academics/public-humanities/events/witness-tree-project

“Witness Tree Project.” Omi International Art Center, Ghent, New York, August 22, 2015. http://imby.com/valatie/article/lindenwald-witness-tree-project-lecture-august-22-at-omi-in-ghent/