AMBER N. WILEY
Assistant Professor of Art History, Rutgers University
Tell us about yourself and the work you do.
I’m an assistant professor of art history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Right now I’m teaching two courses, an undergrad survey called “African American Art” and a graduate seminar on Washington, D.C., focused on the theme of City and Symbol, a nod to a former long-standing exhibition at the National Building Museum. Next semester I’m teaching “19th Century American Architecture,” as well as an honors seminar entitled “Investigating and Documenting Hidden Landscapes of Slavery.”
Outside of teaching I’m actively engaged in public history as well preservation policy and advocacy work. This includes serving as a consultant for museum exhibitions and other projects, and serving as a member of the National Park Service Advisory Board Landmarks Committee.
How long have you been a member of SAH and why did you decide to join?
I’ve been a member of the national SAH organization since 2008, so 10 years now. I decided to join so that I could apply for the Richard Hubbard Howland Fellowship to participate in the Louis Kahn Study Tour. Happily I was one of two study tour fellowship recipients. I’ve maintained my membership since then.
What advice would you give to emerging professionals in the field?
When I applied for the fellowship I had finished my 3rd year in my doctoral program and was excited for an opportunity to expand my education in a more engaged way. I was nervous when I got to the tour hotel, as I was the youngest person on the tour by about 2 decades (plus or minus) and the only person of color. By the end of our trip I had created new friendships and felt a stronger connection to the national SAH organization. (I had already been a member of the Jefferson student chapter at the University of Virginia School of Architecture and local Washington D.C. Latrobe chapter).
So APPLY APPLY APPLY to the opportunities provided by SAH. To be clear, I apply for things all the time. I am rejected from things all the time. I’ve been rejected from many things offered by SAH, but that has not stopped me from continuing to apply. You know what they say, shoot for the moon...
Photo taken at the SAH Austin Conference in 2014. Left to right, Dell Upton, who taught me while at University of Virginia, myself, Christy Anderson, who taught the first architectural history class I ever took while in undergrad at Yale, and Richard Longstreth, my dissertation advisor at George Washington University.
What have you gotten out of being a member of SAH?
The connections forged on that trip made me want to attend the national SAH conference, which I’ve done as regularly as possible over the past decade, as my schedule allows. The conference is a fantastic way to meet other people in the field, from other emerging scholars to well-respected and established colleagues. Over the last 10 years there’s been an increase in the opportunities offered to graduate students, and that was especially important as I was finishing up my doctorate.
While in my first job as a visiting assistant professor I applied for a Membership Grant for Emerging Professionals to help cross that monetary bridge between student and regular membership fees. The jump is substantial, and for contingent faculty, it can be restrictive and burdensome, especially if they cannot apply for support at their institution.
What has been unique about your SAH experience that you might not have gotten elsewhere?
By far the most unique experience that I’ve gotten out of being a member of SAH is the ability to travel the world through the H. Allen Brooks Traveling Fellowship. I was still contingent faculty when I applied for and received that fellowship. It challenged me to think outside the box, be open to learning experiences beyond my control, and be extremely responsible about my own education. I was able to travel to Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam with that fellowship, all places I had never visited before, and that were not emphasized in my own architectural education.
Visiting the Temple of Kukulkan, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico, in 2014 as the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow.
In your opinion, what is SAH’s most important work or role?
I certainly see keeping scholarly standards high as central to the work of SAH—from the papers given at the conference to the publications, as well recognition of outstanding scholarship. What is most important to me actually happens outside of that realm—the access that the SAH can provide to people who have no other means of pursuing their interest in design.
Some examples—the fellowships and grants that I’ve mentioned already. These allow for people with limited income to broaden their horizons, and those opportunities (a result of access that the SAH provides) are exponentially beneficial for the scholar, his or her community and students. From travel expenses, membership expenses, to access to buildings that are often closed to the general public—private residences of the elite, clubs that require membership, buildings mid-construction, extremely popular destinations that have limited ticket access (I’m thinking specifically of the tour of the NMAAHC I just participated in), access and opportunity is key. Access to networks, from scholars to professionals working in the field, those leading the tours, advocating for preservation, etc.
The American Architecture and Landscape Field Trip program is a continuation of the type of outreach that is going to be pivotal to the future of the field of architectural history. By providing organizations with the money to engage primary and secondary school children, many of whom attend public schools, a young and broad demographic begins to have close and critical encounters with their built environment. Access to those trips can help plant seeds in a young person’s mind about the value of the built environment, regardless of whether or not they become an architect or a scholar.
What would you like to see SAH achieve in the near future? In the long term?
More work like the fellowships and grants that help engage young people and people from diverse backgrounds with the architectural field. The recent pushes to do so have been exciting to witness.
Amber N. Wiley is an assistant professor of art history at Rutgers University. She specializes in architecture, urbanism, and African American cultural studies. Her research is centered on the social aspects of design—architecture as a literal and figural structure of power. She focuses on the ways local and national bodies have made the claim for the dominating narrative and collective memory of cities through design, and examines how preservation and architecture contribute to the creation and maintenance of the identity and “sense of place” of a city.
She was named a 2016 Emerging Scholar by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine, and was awarded the inaugural H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians. She traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Ethiopia, India, and Vietnam during the 2014–2015 academic year.
Amber is a member of the National Park System Advisory Board Landmarks Committee. She has formerly served on the boards of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, and the Yale Black Alumni Association.
Amber received her Ph.D. in American studies from George Washington University. She also holds a master’s in architectural history and certificate in historic preservation from the University of Virginia School of Architecture, and a B.A. in architecture from Yale University. She is a proud native of Oklahoma City.