How do artists, artworks, and museums shape and challenge our understanding of the past?
In 2020–2021 Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art celebrates its 40th anniversary with a year of “thinking about history” through the lens of its permanent collection. A year of events, exhibitions, and conversations reflect on the crucial role that artworks and academic art museum collections can play in multidisciplinary teaching and learning and in our understanding of historical narratives.
Leading up to this milestone year, The Block introduced a major initiative to acquire works of art that encourage critical thinking about the representation of history. This initiative and The Block’s anniversary celebration culminates with Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection, an exhibition inviting visitors to think critically about how artists, artworks, and museums engage with narratives of the past.
Highlighting more than seventy modern and contemporary artworks recently acquired by The Block Museum of Art, the exhibition considers our constantly changing understanding of the past through the lens of artistic practice. It features works by a wide-ranging selection of artists exploring the idea of history, such as Dawoud Bey, Shan Goshorn, the Guerrilla Girls, Louise Lawler, Kerry James Marshall, Catherine Opie, Man Ray, Edward Steichen, and Kara Walker. The exhibition also includes a student-led acquisition for The Block’s collection, the focus of a Spring 2020 undergraduate seminar investigating museum collecting practices.
This project finds inspiration in the 2017 book Thinking About History, by Sarah Maza (faculty member in Northwestern’s Department of History) which highlights the inherent tensions and questions around how history is written. The exhibition also draws its name and an entry point from a work in The Block’s collection by conceptual artist Louise Lawler, Who Says, Who Shows, Who Counts (1990), questioning the value, meaning, and uses of art.
Organized around challenging questions of historical representation within artworks and institutions, the exhibition asks:
- How can art help us reflect upon, question, rewrite, or reimagine the past?
- Who has been represented in visual art, how, and by whom?
- How is history etched onto a landscape or erased from it?
- How do museums and galleries shape our view of history?
An accompanying publication deepens the exhibition’s exploration of The Block’s collection. Showcasing the depth and breadth of recent acquisitions, more than 50 short essays reflect the perspectives of over seventeen different academic departments. Further essays illustrate the museum's commitment to collecting works of art that connect to Northwestern's broad curriculum and deepen representation of global modern and contemporary culture from multiple perspectives.
Including voices from students, faculty, and alumni, Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts invites visitors to reflect on the ways in which art can facilitate multidisciplinary connections, ask challenging questions, and tell stories about issues relevant to our lives.
Curated by Essi Rönkkö, Associate Curator of Collections and Kate Hadley Toftness, Special Projects Associate. This exhibition is supported by the Alumnae of Northwestern University, the David C. & Sarajean Ruttenberg Arts Foundation, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, and the Mary and Leigh Block Endowment.
Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection
Essi Rönkkö (Editor) Kate Hadley Toftness (Editor) | Published by The Block Museum of Art | Distributed by Northwestern University Press | January 2021 | 144 pages | Softcover | ISBN 978-1-7325684-2-6 | $25.00