17 Sep Martha Hill reflects on 16 years of educating Eiteljorg visitors
By Bryan Corbin, Storyteller magazine editor
Martha Hill, Ph.D., is seen here with the 1917 oil painting The Grand Canyon by Thomas Moran. Martha, who is retiring as Eiteljorg vice president for public programs and Beeler family director of education, spent her early museum career in the Grand Canyon region.
After 16 years leading the Eiteljorg Museum’s programming and educational efforts, Martha Hill, Ph.D., is retiring. Through the public programs that she has organized and managed, thousands of visitors have met artists, toured the museum, experienced festivals and learned about Native American cultures and the West.
Across her 40-year career in museums, Martha has concentrated on engaging adults and children through programs in informal learning environments. “That is really what the focus of the museum is: to continue the lifelong learning for adults, and to provide additional experiences for children outside traditional classrooms,” she said.
That interest began early for Martha, who remembers taking art lessons as a child at a local museum while growing up in South Charleston, West Virginia. The woods down the street were an inviting place to explore on long summer days. “It was a childhood spent outdoors,” Martha recalled.
Her interest in science and nature led Martha to Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where as a biology major in the late 1970s, she worked as a tour guide and curator of the mammal collection at the student-run Joseph Moore Museum. “That really set me on a career in museums,” she said.
Earning a master’s degree at the University of Florida and later a doctorate at Purdue University, Martha along the way worked at museums and nature centers in Delaware, Florida and Ohio, sharing natural history with visitors through exhibits and outdoor nature programs. As the educator at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff in the early 1980s, Martha managed youth programs, summer camps, and adult travel programs throughout the Colorado Plateau. Experience at MNA also solidified her interest in Hopi and Navajo cultures – launching her into a new interest: Native American arts and cultures and the Southwest.
Family-friendly museum focus
Her background in Arizona, and her doctoral research on family learning at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, eventually led to Martha’s joining the Eiteljorg in 2003, just ahead of the 2005 building expansion. In its early years, the Eiteljorg certainly appealed more to adults; so to broaden its audience, Martha’s charge was to make the museum more inviting to families with children. Martha oversaw creation of the Nina Mason Pulliam Education Center and R.B. Annis Western Family Experience that features interactive exhibits for all ages. She was part of the team that conceived and launched Jingle Rails, the museum’s holiday model train attraction that draws thousands of families and school groups each year.
The increased family attendance is reflected in many ways. Shortly after the opening of the Annis Western Family Experience, Martha overheard a conversation between a mother and her young child enjoying the “raise the totem pole” activity. The young visitor was so fascinated by it that her mother could barely pull her away when it was time to leave for the day. “And I thought, ‘We’ve really made it, if we’ve got a mother trying to get a child out of the museum,’” Martha recalled with a laugh.
As vice president for public programs and Beeler family director of education, Martha manages the team that produces the annual Indian Market and Festival, the community celebrations of Juneteenth and Day of the Dead, the Summer Under The Sails concert series, the Guide program, school tours, Artist in Residence visits and other events that bring visitors to the Eiteljorg to broaden their cultural horizons.
Indian Market “is a time when all the friends we’ve made over the years reconnect at the museum,” Martha said. “Many artists return year after year, and it’s a chance for us to host and to see friends that we’ve made over many years.”
Looking to the future
Martha has created and maintained collaborative relationships in Indianapolis and beyond in support of programming and exhibitions. Whether it’s been with the IUPUI Museum Studies program, the Indianapolis Public Library, community centers in Indy’s Near West side, Purdue University’s Native American Educational and Cultural Center, Spirit & Place or other cultural venues, the museum and community have benefitted from these partnerships. Martha is particularly excited about what the future holds for the most recent partnership with the Indiana Blind Children’s Foundation and their “No Limits” initiative that will help make the Eiteljorg more accessible to visitors who are blind or visually impaired. It’s a start in increasing the overall accessibility of the Eiteljorg.
Martha is retiring in September; her husband Michael is a retired Purdue veterinary professor. Son Charles is pursuing his interest in classical archaeology while son Thomas just graduated from Earlham College. In retirement, Martha plans to volunteer, travel and tend the vegetable garden on the Hills’ 54 acres outside Colfax, Ind.
“Engaging Eiteljorg visitors through programming has been very rewarding,” she added. “The staff has been remarkable and very creative in developing diverse programming which has allowed us to effectively engage so many people with our mission.”
Martha Hill is seen here with the “whirlwind of weavings” installation in the Eiteljorg exhibit A Sense of Beauty.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Storyteller magazine.