In September 2017 the Block Museum welcomed Beth Derderian as a 2017-2018 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. Graduate Fellows are integral members of the museum staff and support projects through exhibition and collection research, curating, writing and catalog production. We took a moment to sit down with Derderian, a PhD candidate in Anthropology, to discuss her background and forthcoming work.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and your field of study?
I’m a cultural anthropologist, currently in my 6th year in the anthropology department here at Northwestern. Prior to coming to Northwestern, I earned an MA in Museum Studies and Near Eastern Studies at NYU. My undergraduate major was English Literature, and I worked at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles afterwards. While at the Institute, I worked on a number of heritage conservation projects in Southeast Asia and Tunisia, and ever since then, I have been particularly interested in the art and cultural heritage of the Middle East.
My dissertation research began as an investigation into the new Louvre Abu Dhabi (opening this November; announced in 2007) and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, both in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). I was intrigued by the process of taking museums that come out of a particular Western intellectual history and creating branches of them elsewhere. Once I arrived in the UAE to spend a year conducting fieldwork, I became much more fascinated with artists and arts organizers working there. My dissertation is about what it means to be an artist in the UAE and the ways that more global, contemporary art standards intersect with local artistic practices – revealing competing ideas of what constitutes art, how it should be displayed, and the role it plays in society.
My field research involved meeting with a lot of artists, often at their studios, and interviewing them. It also included trekking through the desert in a jeep with an artist as she took photo-sketches for an upcoming work, attending openings, talks and art fairs, and helping to translate wall and catalogue text into English. One of my favorite moments in fieldwork was attending a talk where an Emirati artist criticized the way an expatriate curator had presented her work, and that of her peers, in an exhibition featuring Emirati artists of the 80s and 90s. The artist’s critique led to a vigorous, animated discussion about the nature of what it was like to make art in there at that time, how the country’s art history should be presented, and questions of translation between English and Arabic. In the end, the curator changed the exhibition to reflect the artist’s critique. It was a really fascinating moment to witness, because it crystalized so many of the debates I am interested in.
What particularly interests you about working within an art museum?
As an anthropologist who has also trained in museum studies, I know that academics can tend to be a bit theoretical about the way objects are displayed. I think working in an art museum will help me to better understand the everyday realities and struggles over display that practitioners negotiate, so that I can understand both the theoretical, academic critiques of display as well as the lived limitations and practical realities of putting things on view.
What will you be focusing on while you are here?
While on my fellowship, I’ll be curating an exhibition on Chicago artist Ed Paschke which will align with a larger, Chicago-wide series of exhibitions celebrating Chicago artists and designers (the Terra Foundation’s Art Design Chicago). As most of my experience focuses on Middle Eastern artists, I’m excited to focus more on this local context.
What drew you to the Block Museum mission, exhibitions, and collection?
I appreciate that the Block is engaging a university community as well as a wider public. I think the visual realm in general provides an exceptional learning resource, and I appreciate that the Block maintains a diverse focus on media and time periods, allowing scholars and fellows to draw connections between seemingly divergent works and to benefit from the variety of scholars’ and students’ interests.