Cultural historian, writer named director of UIC’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
The College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts at the University of Illinois Chicago has announced that Liesl Olson has accepted the position of director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, effective March 1, pending approval by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.
Olson is a respected scholar, cultural leader and social justice advocate who most recently built and directed the Chicago Studies program at the Newberry Library. This innovative series of public events, institutes for teachers, workshops and seminars leveraged the library’s unique archival collection to bring Chicago’s rich and complex history to life. It is distinguished by its many partnerships and far reach and has focused on such historical subjects as the neighborhood of Hull-House, the legacy of protest and riots in Chicago, the Great Migration, and the history of artists, writers and performers in Chicago and the Midwest.
Rebecca Rugg, dean of UIC’s College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts, hailed Olson’s appointment.
“The promise of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in the 21st century relies on the stewardship of Addams’ prescient ideals and public practice through visionary programming for diverse audiences. Liesl Olson has demonstrated her leadership in this capacity through the Newberry’s Chicago Studies program, and she will do the same at UIC. We are thrilled to welcome her,” Rugg said.
A commitment to social justice and public engagement is a fundamental component of Olson’s work to date. Her writing has amplified and yielded new insights to the contributions of women and makers of color in Chicago, past and present. Olson extends her research and perspectives far beyond the academy into robust public practice through her service as board member of and participant in the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, workshops for teachers, and lively talks on PBS and NPR.
In 2020, Olson helped spearhead Chicago 1919: Confronting the Race Riots, a programming series in partnership with 10 Chicago cultural organizations that explored the history and legacy of Chicago’s red summer. Recognizing the Chicago 1919’s ambition and accomplishments, Olson and her Newberry colleagues were awarded the 2020 Outstanding Public History Project Award from the National Council on Public History.
“I am honored and thrilled to lead the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum into an exciting new era. I have long admired Hull-House for the way it exemplifies the historic intersection between the arts and activism in Chicago,” Olson said. “I hope to bring the distinctiveness of this city’s cultural life into conversations that help us broaden our understanding of the city’s history and its contemporary challenges. I look forward to working with the extraordinary staff at Hull-House, with students, faculty and staff at UIC, and with neighborhood partners across the city. Together we can carry forth a vision of social justice that inspired one of my great heroes, the feminist, activist, and champion of the arts, Jane Addams.”
Important exhibitions and projects led by Olson include the fall 2021 Newberry Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time exhibition and catalogue about remarkable women — Gertrude Abercrombie, Gwendolyn Brooks, Katherine Dunham, Ruth Page and Katharine Kuh — who made indelible contributions to 20th century art history. Since 2013, Olson has directed five National Endowment for the Humanities summer institutes that explore the art and culture of Chicago, including the summer 2022 institute Making Modernism: Literature, Dance, and Visual Culture in Chicago, 1893-1955.
Olson is also the author of the award-winning “Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis and Modernism and the Ordinary” and is frequently invited to write and speak about Chicago cultural history for scholarly journals, magazines, newspapers, television and radio. She was awarded a Public Scholars Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2022.
Lisa Yun Lee, a former Hull-House Museum director and current National Public Housing Museum executive director, is on the faculty of UIC’s art history department and served on the search committee.
“UIC students, faculty and the Chicago public will be the beneficiaries of Olson’s appointment,” Lee said. “She espouses the values that Jane Addams embodies and the commitment to social justice the museum advances every day. Her proven ability to bring history to life and make it relevant for diverse audiences distinguishes her in the field.”
As director, Olson will work closely with the dean of the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts to serve internal UIC audiences and external constituencies, while activating the mission and collections of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum.
The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum serves as a dynamic memorial to social reformer Jane Addams, the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and her colleagues whose work changed the lives of their immigrant neighbors as well as national and international public policy. The museum preserves and develops the original Hull-House site for the interpretation and continuation of the historic settlement house vision, linking research, education and social engagement. The museum is located in two of the original settlement house buildings — the Hull Home, a National Historic Landmark, and the Residents’ Dining Hall, a beautiful Arts and Crafts building that has welcomed some of the world’s most important thinkers, artists and activists.