Museum Anthropology Leaders: Alaka Wali, Field Museum, Chicago, Part 1

Exclusive Museum Anthropology Blog Interview with Alaka WaliThe Field Museum, Chicago
Transcribed from February 10, 2014

This interview is the first installment in a new series, Museum Anthropology Leaders, where blog intern Lillia McEnaney will be interviewing various anthropological museum professionals. 

Dr. Wali is the Curator of North American Anthropology in the Science and Education Division at the Field Museum in Chicago. She has been at the Field since 1995 and is spearheading the development of a collection of urban objects at the museum. She has an upcoming article in Museum Anthropology regarding her work with urban collections. 

This is Part 1 of 2.

LM: Please introduce yourself to the readers of the blog for us. 
AW: My name is Alaka Wali, I am the Curator of North American Anthropology at the Field Museum. 

LM: For people those who are readers of the blog and who are looking to enter the discipline of Museum Anthropology, can you talk about how you became involved in the field? When in your education did you realize that this is the career you want to pursue? 
AW: I actually became a museum anthropologist pretty late in my career. I was a professor at the University of Maryland and did not study museology or museum studies. But when I moved to Chicago, the opportunity to work at the Field Museum opened up and I took it. They were looking for someone outside of the box; someone who was not a classically trained curator. The museum wanted to hire someone who was doing applied, urban anthropology and I fit that bill. Now, I have been at the Field Museum for 18 years and it has been the biggest part of my career. 

LM: Can you describe your typical day to day activities at the Field Museum? 
AW: I do two different types of work. The first type is working to complete community and participatory action research outside of the museum. I do work in urban Chicago as well as in the Amazon, all surrounding issues of environmental conservation. Both of these are very relevant to the museum context, especially at the Field Museum. The other part of my work is as the Curator of the North American Collection. That work, day to day, requires me to answer questions from people who are doing research and who are interested in loans. Because we have one of the largest collections of Native American objects in the Untied States, it is very actively researched and used. Most recently, the growing area of use is by Native Americans themselves who are interested in reconnecting with their heritage. They are working to understand what we have so they can begin to study themselves and the meaning of the collection. We have been actively pursuing that particular aspect of it more and more by inviting people to come and visit with the collections. Also, we have been working to bring in contemporary Native Americans artists to co-curate exhibitions with.

LM: What is the project/exhibition that you are most proud of throughout your time at the Field? 
AW: The first exhibit that I curated at the Field Museum has set the tone for all other subsequent exhibitions. This exhibition was originally called “Living Together: Common Concerns, Different Responses." It was was an attempt to show why we have cultural diversity through the objects in our collections. The show broke the pattern of the existing exhibits at the Field Museum because it was not about a particular area or region; it was cross-cultural. Additionally, it introduced urban material culture from Chicago for the first time. In essence, it was about conveying the message that we, as people, all have culture; visitors come to the museum expecting the see the exotic, but we were showing how everybody has cultural beliefs and practices. 

The exhibition showed that everybody around the world has to deal with the same problems such as finding shelter and forming a community. Different cultures created different answers to these questions through the topics that we anthropologists look at such as environment, history, and creativity. We used juxtaposition of common objects such as shoes used by culture groups in varying environments to set a comparative framework. As a result of the success of the show, I have tried to use a similar approach rather than focus on one culture in subsequent exhibitions. 

Keep your eye out for the next installment of the interview!