Head of engagement department at the Block continues to impact Northwestern community


Photo courtesy of Darrick Northington

Erin Northington became the head of the engagement department at the Block Museum in 2020. Among other responsibilities, she helps orchestrate public programming and campus and community initiatives.

Cassandra Ratkevich, Reporter

Erin Northington did not spend much time in art museums growing up — she originally thought she would become a doctor.

Now, she’s the head of the engagement department at the Block Museum of Art.

It was only after enrolling in an introductory art history course at the University of California, Berkeley, to fill a degree requirement that Northington became interested in the study of art history and museums.

“I was flipping through this huge art history textbook, and I opened it up randomly to a work of art by the Italian artist Giotto of the lamentation of Christ,” she said. “It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”

Her class never covered the artwork, so she enrolled in the next one –– specifically focused on medieval art –– and got hooked. 

Northington joined Block in 2020 as the Susan and Stephen Wilson associate director of campus and community education and engagement. Previously, she spent nearly a decade at Harvard Art Museums leading co-curricular student engagement initiatives and projects across Harvard University’s campus. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and English from UC Berkeley.

“There was a real opportunity when Erin arrived to think about what our priorities were and what our goals were, (and) to define who we were as an Engagement Department and what we were doing,” said América Salomón, manager of public programs at Block.

Northington now works with Salomón and Engagement Coordinator Isabella Ko to orchestrate public programming as well as campus and community partnerships. She also oversees the Block Student Associates, a group of students who lead tours, facilitate public conversations and act as student advisers to museum staff.

As a college student, Northington wanted to learn more about professional pathways in museums but received rejection letters from every curatorial internship she applied to. She turned to her love of literature and medieval art for guidance. 

 “I got curious about how art and visual culture helps people have a religious experience and form communities,” Northington said.

Northington enrolled in Harvard Divinity School and received a master’s degree in theological studies, religion, art and visual culture. In 2011, she began working in the Division of Academic and Public Programs at Harvard Art Museums — a museum which rejected her undergraduate curatorial internship application years earlier.

In June 2020, Northington moved to Evanston to begin at Block. 

“(Northington) is a great educator, generous and empathetic,” Salomón said. “That carries over into the work with the student associates and how much they admire her and have flourished under her guidance and mentorship.”  

Northington has expanded the roles and responsibilities of student associates since her arrival at Block. The current cohort of 21 associates is the largest the museum has ever had.

These expanded roles include student associate-led art talks, where associates lead a group of museumgoers around the current exhibit, explaining artworks and facilitating conversations.

Highland Park, Illinois, residents Carol Willis (Weinberg ’68) and her husband Paul Willis (Feinberg ’80, ’84) come to Block, which is free to the public, at least once a month. The two have attended many student associate art talks, including one in February on the museum’s current exhibition, “The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto.” 

“Erin has done such a great job promoting (the art talks),” said Carol Willis. “When we began coming, there were only about five to six attendees.” 

At “The Heart’s Knowledge,” the Willises were part of a group of 20 attendees. Student associates will conduct another art talk on the collection April 29.

“It’s a great joy and irony that I’ve ended up where I am in museums,” Northington said. “They are now a space that I feel called to and a place that I get so much personal and professional joy from.” 

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Twitter: @cassandraratke1

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