Museum Anthropology Leaders: Alaka Wali, Field Museum, Chicago, Part 2

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

Dr. Wali is the Curator of North American Anthropology 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 2 of 2.

LM: Do you think “Living Together: Common Concerns, Different Responses” was your most challenging project? Or was there another project or exhibition that you would call the most challenging? 
AW: No, I think the most challenging projects have been outside of the exhibitions. Building relationships with community based organizations either in Chicago or in the Amazon has been most challenging for me, I think. We are thinking about non-text based methods for engaging communities such as photos, objects, video, and visual media. We try to use these forms of media to help people tell stories and to voice their concerns about whatever issue we were doing research about. It has been really fun to think about different forms of media museums have avaiable to them to represent and talk about culture as well as to help people visualize cultural practices and make them engaging. 

LM: Do you have a favorite object at the Field Museum? 
AW: No, I don’t have a favorite object, there are too many. Although I’m really thrilled to be making an urban collection at a huge institution such as the Field Museum, I love the North America Collection, of which I am the curator. For me, the most moving experience has not been in any particular any collection, but walking through the collection with somebody whose heritage it represents.

I co-curated the exhibit that is currently displayed, Bunky Echo-Hawk Modern Warrior with Bunky Echo-Hawk himself. He is a Pawnee artist and we walked through the collection with him as he selected objects for the exhibit. Hearing him talk about various objects and their meanings, such as a buffalo horned spoon and a little paint bag, was incredible. He is a painter, and when he saw the paint bags in our collection, he told us how the Pawnee use painting to tell the story of a recent, successful hunt. To me, having someone tell you a story like that is very moving. It gives me a whole different understanding of the power of the objects and their continued life, even though they are in our shelves behind locked cabinet doors. We have to remember that these objects are living things and have powerful stories inside of them. 

LM: Would you say that is your favorite thing about the Field?
AW: Yes, now it is. Understanding that aspect of materiality has been great. I think it is good to question why are these things here, or else these collections will become a part of the colonial baggage of American history; we are trying to repurpose these collections. There is now a returned interest in material culture in terms of commodities, commodity flow, and that aspect of culture. And, this is why it is important to look at urban collections; because, in the future, that is the subject that people are going to want to research.

LM: In your article in the upcoming Museum Anthropology edition, you talk about an exhibition revolving around the family. What do you envision your role to be in that exhibit? 
AW: Honestly, I don’t have much of a role in that. I am helping to do some of the conceptualization and then helping the Chicago Cultural Alliance members think about what objects they will want to collect to be in the show. It may end up that we have some of these objects come into the Field Museum collection, and even if we do not take them into our collection, we will help the various institutions begin to accession them into other collections. For this project, we are stressing the collaborative aspect. 

LM: Do you have any advice for those looking to enter the field of Museum Anthropology? 

AW: Now is a great time to go into museum studies or anthropology with a focus on material culture. Material culture is a rising concern once again in the field and museum work is so much fun! You are in this setting where you can just watch people interact with objects and you get to think about representing what we know about culture in a museum setting. Right now, museums are really trying to bust out of the old format and there is a lot of innovative thought happening at the moment. It is a great career!