The Block Museum expands student docents’ role


Daily file photo by Sean Su

The Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Dr. Student docents saw their role expand throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Olivia Alexander, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor

The Block Museum’s cohort of student docents typically facilitate discussions on art, but the role is now expanding to involve directly advising the staff at the museum. 

Erin Northington, the Susan and Stephen Wilson associate director of campus and community education and engagement at The Block, said student docents act as student ambassadors.

“(We’re) thinking with our docents about how to make inroads and new communities on campus,” Northington said. “To reach students who may not first think of The Block as an important resource during their time at Northwestern.”

Northington said student docents can really shape The Block. Their role, which was formerly focused on facilitating dialogues, now includes serving as in-house advisors and engaging in seminar discussions with colleagues about The Block’s mission. 

Student docent and Weinberg junior Chayda Harding said they’ve worked other jobs on campus, but they feel much more involved at The Block. 

“(The Block staff) really care about the docent community, and having them be a really integral and equal part of the museum and how the museum works,” Harding said. 

Harding said student docents give “freeform” talks on topics of their choice, and they have written labels for actual museum exhibitions. This quarter, they were directly involved in the acquisition of an exhibition.

Docents researched six artists, narrowing the list to three finalists, whom the docents themselves interviewed. The students then selected an artist and a corresponding piece. 

Harding also said their role at The Block furthered their presentation skills, which they said they had always wanted the opportunity to work on. 

“My (history) major is not really conducive to those kinds of presentations or big projects that require you to show other people things,” Harding said. “This was a cool opportunity to do so.”

McCormick junior Ayinoluwa Abegunde is a student docent and chemical engineering major. She said her time working at The Block allowed her to step outside the “very small bubble” of students within her major. 

Abegunde said one of her interests is exploring how Black hair is present in artwork, and she became a docent in hopes of exploring that as well as museum work in general. 

“Being a student docent, we learn so much. We…think about so many other perspectives than I would have been able to think about in McCormick,” Abegunde said. “That’s why I started doing it –– for my interests, but also just to expand my shores beyond engineering.”

Northington said the skills docents learn at The Block are transferable. Students do some practical museum work, but also engage in critical thinking, navigating challenging conversations and embracing multiple perspectives. 

Northington also said student docents learn to be comfortable with ambiguity. 

“Particularly at a place like Northwestern, where sometimes there can be that focus on the right answer, museum spaces resist that,” Northington said. “We’re resisting a single interpretation, and we can be open to others’ ideas.”

América Salomón, Block Museum engagement coordinator and educator, said the cohort is a dynamic and diverse group, and students benefit from being in dialogue with one another and colleagues across levels within the museum. 

Salomón said she is glad the student docent community remained strong in the remote setting. Going forward, she looks forward to seeing the program’s possibilities beyond just their service as student guides. 

“I have been really excited by how the distance (has) helped us to re envision what the program is,” Salomón said. “We have a lot to learn from distance even just thinking about the future of this program. I think it’s constantly in evolution.”

A previous version of this story misstated Ayinoluwa Abegunde’s major. Abegunde is a chemical engineering major. The Daily regrets the error.

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Twitter: @oliviagalex

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