Leah Niederstadt

Associate Professor of Museum Studies, History of Art
Curator of the Permanent Collection
Chair, Department of Anthropology


Phone: 508-286-3319


D.Phil., University of Oxford
Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies, University of Michigan
M.Phil., University of Oxford
B.A., University of Michigan


An anthropologist by training, I teach courses in museum studies and visual culture at Wheaton, where I also serve as Curator of the Permanent Collection. My research focuses on contemporary expressive culture and cultural heritage in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, where I have conducted fieldwork since 2000, and on the management and use of academic collections.



2018. “Building A Legacy for the Liberal Arts: Deaccessioning the Newell Bequest at Wheaton College.” In Is It Okay to Sell the Monet: The Age of Deaccessioning in Museums, edited by Julia Courtney. Roman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD.

2018.  “Visualizing Marriage in Northern Ethiopia: The Production and Consumption of Gama.” African Arts. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

2014. “Digital Projects and the First Year Seminar: Making Blended Learning Work at a Small Liberal Arts College.” Transformations. National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education: Georgetown, TX. With Pete Coco

2011. “’I’m a rich man, how can I die?’: Circus Performance as a Means of HIV/AIDS Education in Ethiopia.” In The Culture of AIDS in Africa: Hope and Healing in Music and the Arts. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England

2011. “Ethiopia’s Vibrant Sacred Art.” One, Vol. 37 (2). Catholic Near East Welfare Association: New York, NY.

2009. “Beyond Wide-Eyed Angels: Contemporary Expressive Culture in Ethiopia.”African Arts. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. With Peri M. Klemm.

2009. “Fighting HIV with Juggling Clubs: An Introduction to Ethiopia’s Circuses.” African Arts. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

2002. “Of Kings and Cohorts: Representations of Genna in Ethiopian Popular Painting.” The International Journal of the History of Sports, Vol. 19, No. 1. Routledge: London, England.

Conference Proceedings

2009. “Collecting Art, Creating A Legacy: A History of the Wheaton College Permanent Collection.” The Problem of Sources in Women’s Memory. Women’s Library and Information Centre: Istanbul, Turkey. With Kayla Malouin.

2003. “Framing Images: The Evolution of a Narrative Format in Ethiopian Popular Painting.” Proceedings. 6th International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art. IES, AAU: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

2002. “The Lion, the Letter and the Umbrella: Iconic Images of Ethiopia in Painted Representations of the Sheba-Solomon Story.” Proceedings. 14th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies. IES, AAU: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Audio Guides/Encyclopedia Entries/Exhibition Catalogues

2014. “Introduction” and “Modern and Contemporary Art.” Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, Volume 5. Harrassowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden, Germany.

2008. “Audio Guide for Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia.” Pacific Science Center, Seattle, WA.

2007. “Menor kebad new: Life and Work as a Young Ethiopian Artist.” Continuity and Change: Three Generations of Ethiopian Artists. Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida: Gainesville, FL

2005. “Exhibition Catalogue.” Painting Ethiopia: The Life and Work of Qes Adamu Tesfaw. Fowler Museum, UCLA: Los Angeles, CA. With Raymond A. Silverman and Neal Sobania.

2002. “An Ethiopian Painting of the Sheba-Solomon Narrative.” Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen. The British Museum: London, England.

Book Reviews

2010. “The Art of Small Things.” Journal of Museum Ethnography. Museum Ethnographers Group: Oxford, England.

2010. “A Kingly Craft.” African Arts. The James S. Coleman African Studies Center, University of California: Los Angeles, CA.

2007. “Art of Ethiopia.” Museum Anthropology. Folklore and Ethnomusicology Department, Indiana University: Bloomington, IN.

The cover of a volume on deaccessioning and museums, edited by Julia Courtney. My contribution explores the history of the Newell Bequest, the largest gift of artwork ever donated to Wheaton.

An image I took for my recent article on gama, wedding paintings from northeastern Ethiopia. It shows the artist Selam Berhane Gebre Iyasus and her father hold the painting she created for her wedding (Aksum, Ethiopia, 2016).

Teaching Interests

Experiential, project-based learning is at the core of my teaching. Students enrolled in my museum studies courses and in my last three First-Year Seminars (FYS) have developed projects ranging from student-curated exhibitions to repatriation timelines to digital maps tracing the provenance of objects. To do so, they have collaborated with each other, with other faculty and staff at Wheaton, and with experts both on- and off-campus; and they have engaged with the college’s Permanent Collection and with collections held in the Gebbie Archives & Special Collections at the Madeleine Clark Wallace Library

Since arriving at Wheaton, I have developed four museum studies courses that contribute to the History of Art major and minor: Introduction to Museum StudiesMuseum ControversiesExhibition Design; and Exhibiting Africa: Past & Present. Several of these courses also support majors in African, African American, Diaspora StudiesBusiness & Management, Film & New Media Studies, and Visual Art. In addition to teaching the occasional independent study course, I also regularly offer a course on the visual culture of the circus and FYS courses on a variety of topics.

Research Interests

As an anthropologist and Ethiopianist, I strive to make undervalued traditions meaningfully accessible to both academic and general audiences. In 2009, I co-edited the first issue of African Arts dedicated to Ethiopian art and performance. That issue epitomized my philosophy and approach to research. It was the product of collaborative work, involving a team of scholars and graduate students from multiple disciplines and countries; and it analyzed both canonical and non-canonical forms of artistic production as worthy of serious study. In addition to organizing and editing the issue with Dr. Peri Klemm, with whom I co-authored its introduction, my contribution, “Fighting HIV with Juggling Clubs: An Introduction to Ethiopia’s Circuses,” was the first comprehensive scholarly article published on this topic.

My most recent article for African Arts, “Visualizing Marriage in Northern Ethiopia: The Production and Consumption of Gama, examines Ethiopian wedding paintings, an indigenous tradition little known outside the major tourist destination of Aksum. I argue that gama remain of critical importance to the identities of the city’s Christians, even as commercial photography has become a less expensive form of commemorating weddings. One of my current research projects also focuses on Aksum, specifically on how the repatriation and erection of a 4th-century CE monumental stele, looted by Mussolini in 1937, sparked debates about identity and cultural heritage. This project considers how the stele’s 2008 re-erection transformed visual representations of the city and its stelae field, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A second ongoing project is my multi-year study of Ethiopian social education billboards. In 2000, I began an archive of images documenting these billboards, captivated by the imagery used to convey didactic messages. I am interested in the ways in which the mass culture of billboards is used to promote the agendas of Ethiopia’s regional state and federal governments, as well as international NGOs. I explore the history of these billboards to consider how the social issues they address have evolved to resonate with the country’s multi-ethnic, multi-faith, and multilingual population. Due to my commitment to the digital humanities, I am creating an online map to track the location of extant and destroyed billboards.

Closer to home in Norton, I devote much of my time to intense collaboration with students, through hands-on course-based projects and sustained collections-based research. In 2009, Kayla Malouin-Fletcher, Class of 2010, and I co-authored a conference paper entitled, “Collecting Art, Creating A Legacy: A History of the Wheaton College Permanent Collection.” This project made clear to me the global scope of our collection’s history and the opportunities for further research, both of which continue to be a source of intellectual stimulation.

My desire to learn more about Wheaton’s collection and to engage students directly in object-based research prompted several curatorial projects, including five student-curated exhibitions for Wheaton’s Beard & Weil Galleries. What is now known as The Provenance Project was originally featured in a co-authored article “Digital Projects and the First Year Seminar: Making Blended Learning Work at a Small Liberal Arts College” (2014) and led to a 2018 exhibition at the Attleboro Arts Museum. I am co-authoring a study exploring the provenance of the college’s William Merritt Chase portrait of Lilian Westcott Hale (c. 1907). A second, in-process article analyzes 61 unattributed satirical cartoons depicting Scottish and English subjects. Through archival and genealogical research, as well as iconographic analysis of their depictions of British material culture, I identified the artist and her biography, traced the collection’s provenance, and securely dated it to the 1930s.


Visual Art and History of Art



Watson 145


T 1:00-2:30 p.m.
Th 8:30-10:00 a.m.
or by appointment