In September 2020 the Block Museum welcomed Bethany Hill as a 2020-2021 graduate fellow. Block Museum Graduate Fellowships are offered to two graduate students annually, one from Art History and one from any department within the Graduate School. Fellows are integral members of the museum staff supporting projects through exhibition and collection research, curating, writing and catalog production. We took a moment to sit down with Hill, a PhD student in the Department of Art History, to discuss her background and forthcoming work.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your field of study?
As an undergraduate I majored in Art History with minors in German Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. With a two-year research fellowship, I explored relationships between hand gestures and gendered performance in German gothic cathedral sculpture. As a graduate student at Northwestern my research brings together African American Studies, twentieth century histories of urbanism, Black feminist methodologies, and Art Historical analysis of material culture. My dissertation uncovers previously unstudied spatial design theories by Black women authors who have been predominantly known as poets and novelists. I’m also asking larger questions about how black women writers in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s mobilized literary fiction and their embodied experiences of the social world to outline revolutionary relationships between Black people and urban space.
Can you tell us about some of your previous research at Northwestern?
Within the last year I have become involved in several digital-humanities and oral-history archival projects that have continued to push my thinking, in and beyond academia, on how educational institutions grapple with how digital platforms can amplify. For example, I am involved in an ongoing collaborative oral history and educational project between the nonprofit group Unsilence and The Sisterhood, an activist and support group of mothers on Chicago’s South Side who have lost children to gun violence. My work with this project has included assisting with interviewing The Sisterhood members and designing an online educational and photographic exhibition. The exhibition celebrates the incredible work these women have been doing for years to raise awareness about gun violence while always celebrating their children. Currently I’m working on a digital StoryMap project that focuses on Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center. The SSCAC was open in 1940 as one of a hundred art centers established by the WPA and it is the only center still open! The StoryMap will link locations across the South Side to artists, artworks, events, and archival materials significant the SSCAC’s history.
What interests you about working within an art museum?
As an art historian I always find it surprising how infrequently we spend time directly working with art objects. I think the material life of an artwork opens onto questions that you might not necessarily explore if you’re only thinking about the object’s historical context. I love the opportunity curatorial and museum education practices provide to refine how we conceptualize what meaningful and impactful dialogues through art look like. I’m also interested in ways that art museums can become stronger community partners, using their resources and visibility to uplift activist concerns of local communities.
What will you be focusing on while you are here?
I will be working on two digital pedagogy tools that respond to shifts in the way that museums think about engaging viewers during this moment of remote learning and continued reckoning with the violence of anti-Black racism. The first project explores how the Block can deepen community engagement with the museum’s online collection. Our goal is to develop a virtual tool that serves the teaching and learning tools of many different disciplines and community members. The second project will be a component of the Block’s upcoming exhibition A Site of Struggle: Making Meaning of Anti-Black Violence in American Art and Visual Culture. Here we’re thinking very carefully about what it means to employ a practice of care for viewers at an exhibition that focuses on this country’s ongoing history of racial terror. My project will center ways that artists in the exhibition have used art not only to protest but also to a mourn the history of anti-black violence in the United States.
What museum exhibitions or programs (outside the Block) have inspired you lately?
There is a very exciting exhibition that recently debuted at the Nasher Museum of Art that I’m really inspired by. The museum has partnered with contemporary artist Carrie Mae Weems, Duke Arts, and Duke Health to create a public art installation that addresses the disproportionate effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on communities of color in the U.S. The project also uses large posters to with information about preventing the spread of the virus accessible to those communities most affected by the racial inequities of this country’s health care system. It’s inspiring for me to see an art exhibition thinking about an exhibition as a public awareness campaign that moves beyond the walls of the museum.
Is there anything upcoming at the Block Museum or Northwestern you are particularly excited about?
I really am excited about A Site of Struggle, which I think is going to make significant contributions to museum practices in the United States and be such an important conversation for the Northwestern community to engage with. Additionally, the forthcoming exhibition Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts will present necessary questions and critiques about the role of museums play in how modes of institutional power shape constructions of history.