Alaka Wali

Curator of North American Anthropology at the Field Museum


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  Alaka Wali, Curator of North American Anthropology at the Field Museum.

Dr. Wali was provided with a series of questions before the podcast was recorded, and her written answers are provided below.

(1)  What drives you the most each day when you wake up?  Is it work in general?  Specific goals you set for yourself? The people around
you? People in your life who have inspired you?

A: It’s the problems I have to solve.  I like the variety of projects I am working on and thinking through these keeps me going.  Whether it is constructing a research design, working on an exhibit, engaging communities in Peru on environmental conservation—how to do these effectively using anthropological methods and perspectives is challenging.  I do work with a wonderful team of people here at the Museum as well.

(2) I usually start out asking my INSIDE THE PRESIDENT’S STUDIO guests about their passions, but thought I would vary it a bit here.  Do you
think I have missed the opportunity to find out something important about you by not starting out the same way?

A: I did talk about my “passions” in the Spiral Path article I sent you—IF you saw anything there of interest—that would be fine

I am interested in my guests as people who became anthropologists but also as anthropologists who have full lives (with blurred or clear
distinctions between work and the rest of their lives).  Can you think of 2-3 other questions I could ask you that would help me and our
listeners get to know you better (in both senses)?

A: How has being an anthropologist helped you navigate tensions of balancing familial life and career?

What personal and professional insights have you gained from working in sites as different as Amazonia and Chicago?

How long have you been at THE FIELD MUSEUM and how did you get there?

A: I have been here almost 16 years—started in 1995 as Associate Curator and Director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change (CCUC). I got here as a result of balancing family and career. My husband took a job in the Chicago region (soon after I obtained tenure and promotion at the University of Maryland), and so, drawing on social networks, I found the opportunity at the Museum. The Museum Administration was providentially looking for someone to direct the new CCUC, and I had the background in urban and applied anthropology that intrigued them, combined with expertise in human ecology of the neo-tropics (so I could curate the collection of Central and South American ethnology).

(4) What exactly do you do at THE FIELD MUSEUM now?

A: Currently, I am Curator of North American Anthropology and Applied Cultural Research Director in the Environment, Culture and Conservation Division.  As Curator, I am responsible for one of the largest collections in the Anthropology Department—Native North American objects of the late 19th century to the present.  My work here entails overseeing research on the collections, attending to repatriation requests, and building relationships with the First Nations whose heritage we hold in trust. I also sign off on loan requests for exhibits, etc.  I only took over this collection at the beginning of 2010, so this is a whole new endeavor for me.

As Applied Cultural Research Director in ECCo (please see below for explanation of ECCo), I am currently PI on a major NSF research grant that is investigating how different land-use planning processes impact conservation and restoration efforts in forest preserves within the Chicago Metropolitan Region.  This grant comes from NSF’s Coupled Nature and Human Systems program, and I am working with an interdisciplinary team of ecologists and social scientists, under the auspices of the Chicago Wilderness Coalition.  We hope our research will shed light on more effective management strategies for urban forests as well as contribute to theory about Restoration practice as part of urban environmental conservation efforts.

I also have a major grant from the MacArthur Foundation to strengthen the participation in sustainable livelihood and environmental conservation programs of indigenous federations and the communities they represent in the buffer zone of the Cordillera Azul National Park in Northern Peru.  This work represents the culmination of almost of decade of collaboration with Peruvian NGO partners on how best to insure that environmental conservation addresses local residents’ livelihood needs.

Finally, bridging my curatorial and applied work (in ECCo), I am beginning a research and collection project on “urban material culture”.  This project will entail building a contexualized, multi-dimensional (e.g. objects, visual and audio material) collection that future researchers will be able to use to understand contemporary urban cultural social patterns.  I hope to do this project in collaboration with area University anthropology and urban studies departments, as well as other local museums.

And what have you done there over the years?

A:  Oh my God! This would be a long answer! Briefly, I was the founding Director of the CCUC—we initiated the urban project of the Field Museum, conducted several major applied urban participatory action research projects.  In 2000, I began working with the then, Environment and Conservation Programs (ECP) to integrate applied social analysis into the environmental conservation work they were doing in the Andes/Amazon region.  I participated in numerous “Rapid Inventories” designed to identify and obtain large landscapes for protection of biological diversity with the full participation of local people in long-term management.  I helped pioneer the use of social asset mapping techniques developed for urban low-income neighborhoods in rural Amazonian communities, as part of a strategy for inclusion of local people in long term sustainability efforts around protected areas.  I successfully built CCUC from a 2 person unit into a full-fledged department that at one point employed 12 or more anthropologists and trained over 100 student interns.  Between 1995-2004, we obtained close to $3 million in grants.  In 2004, CCUC and  ECP joined forces to become one division-ECCo.  But in 2009, due to financial problems at the Museum that forced consolidation and retrenchment, the two units ceased to exist and now we have the one Division—ECCo, which we consider to be the “applied” or “action-oriented” Division of Science (complementing the Museum’s traditional Collections and Research Division that houses the four academic departments).

In addition to the applied research and contribution to the conservation programs, I curated several major exhibits for the Museum related to contemporary culture issues.

(5) Are there 2-3 projects you have led at THE FIELD MUSEUM that you are especially proud of?  What exactly makes you smile when you think
about them–the end result, the fact that they’re completed, their ripple effect, some of the people you got to work with?

A: 1) The “Living Together” project and spin-offs.  This project started as an exhibit for the Museum that highlighted Anthropology’s approach to cultural diversity.  We wanted to stretch the museum’s visitors to think beyond the traditional notions of culture that natural history museums represent: e.g. the “others”; and we wanted to challenge people to not just “celebrate” diversity but to understand why diversity is fundamental to the human project.  We came up with a “framework” for the exhibit—“Common Concerns, Different Responses” that captured anthropology’s unique perspective—how it is that people create social relationships and lifeways from the material environment and historical precedence to meet challenges of “living together”.  The exhibit included real examples from Chicago’s urban communities in comparison with stories told by the traditional collections from Asia, Oceania, Native North America, Africa, etc.  The Common Concerns, Different Responses framework became an organizing tool to bring together a coalition of Cultural museums, heritage centers and ethnic organizations that over a decade worked to empower small institutions who lacked a voice in the City’s civic dialogue.  Today, that coalition is the Chicago Cultural Alliance, which is fast gaining recognition nationwide as a model for urban museum collaboration and for anchoring the immigrant experience.   Nothing like this had ever originated from a major natural history museum.

2) The applied research on the social impact of the informal arts.  This project was a collaboration between CCUC and the Chicago Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College, between 1998-2001.  The research focused on understanding the creation of art by so-called non-professionals (e.g. “amateurs”, “hobby-artists”, “folk-artists”), and what impact the participation in art making had on social life.  We documented 12 cases of arts groups.  Our findings suggested that there is a “continuum” of arts practice ranging from that which takes place in “informal” settings (the street, church basements, homes, etc.), to more institutional settings, and that the practice of art making provides a means to transcend social boundaries of class, gender, and so on.  The research has had a major impact on the field of arts policy and on urban planning here in Chicago.

3) The integration of a social dimension into the environmental conservation work in the Andes/Amazon, as described above.

All of these projects I believe have significantly transformed both museum practice and have had an impact on the participating communities or places.  I smile to think of all the things you mentioned—but mostly I smile because through these projects I have come to know amazing people in a wide variety of places.

(6) As you can imagine, I must also ask about “challenges,” that euphemism we often use for frustrations or projects that have not gone
the way we want.  How do you handle them at work?  Could you give us an example or two.

A: The challenges are many!  A major frustration is that I have not published adequately about our work.  Balancing administrative duties and programmatic work has been really really difficult and I think writing got short-changed.  For this reason, I relinquished my role as Director of CCUC.  I am hoping that with less administrative burden, over the coming years, I can devote more time to writing.

Another frustration has been the need to constantly fund-raise.  We are still not supported by the operations budget of the museum.  In 2004, I saw that the museum administration would never support an independent CCUC, so I joined forces with my ECP counter-part, who was raising more money than me!  Becoming a part of ECCo has guaranteed a permanent institutional home for the applied anthropology work I started here, although it has meant relinquishing a degree of autonomy.

There are other challenges that have more to do with theoretical and methodological issues in conduction Participatory Action Research.  Primarily, it is the translation of research into real action.  My strategy has been more “seat of the pants”—experimentation, which doesn’t always have the impact I hoped for.
(7) Do you think of yourself now primarily as a museum anthropologist? Do you also think of yourself as a practicing anthropologist, a
cultural anthropologist, or even an area specialist? Have your thoughts about this changed over the years, and has your perspective
on yourself and your profession changed accordingly?

A: I think of myself as just an anthropologist.  I don’t care too much for categories.

I think U.S. based anthropology needs to get over its angst about applied/practicing/ public/public interest vs. basic anthropology.  Other countries don’t have such divisions and their anthropologies are thriving.
(8) What makes you laugh?

A: my children who send me really good satire!

Cry? A: The bleak state of global affairs, especially, the continued and worsening situation of Amazonian indigenous and forest-dwelling peoples who remain incredibly vulnerable as their territories are relentlessly invaded in the search of “unobtanium” (c.f. the movie Avatar) Applaud? A: small victories and the election of Barack Obama

Get mad? A: Politics and the inability of the left to look past old dogmas and re-think what social change could look like in the absence of a coherent social movement and a near-hegemonic neoliberal political economy.

(9) Where did you grow up?  Was it in the Midwest, and does it help in doing your work at THE FIELD MUSEUM in Chicago?

A: Mostly in Chicago, but other places as well— It did help when I came back here that I knew the terrain.  My Iowa connection is through my husband, who is from Iowa City, and whose Father was at the University and helped me get the connection to the Field Museum (Sandy Boyd!)

I love Iowa City!

I know you have an Iowa connection (something I discovered when you and I first met and I
was then on the faculty at the University of Iowa), but I cannot recall if that means that you grew up in the Midwest or have just lived in Chicago for many years.

(10) If you were offered the highest position at the Smithsonian and a substantial budget to work with, what would you most like to do with (and to) the Smithsonian?
A: skipping this question!!! Smithsonian is way too big for me!
(11) Public education concerns me. I know you do much work on public outreach and public education in your work with the Museum.  Could you share with us 1-2 ideas you contemplate putting into practice, or would love to promote, if we could persuade enough people and enough
donors to collaborate?  Big and medium-sized ideas?

A: I would really like to see more collaboration between museums (or other civic institutions) and  University based anthro. departments.  I think Universities DO NOT take advantage of Museums as spaces of educations—University faculty are reluctant to collaborate and still see Museum anthropology as mired in 19th century practice.  It takes way too much effort to set up internship programs, public anthropology efforts, etc.

The new Urban Material Culture project is being developed with my close colleague, Robert Rotenberg, chair of anthro at DePaul U,  and I hope it can serve as a model for public education/outreach that is sustainable, with University-Museum collaboration.

I would like to be much much more effective at using web-based media to communicate with publics.  There is a huge potential here, and I am inspired by the work of Michael Wesch, by anthro. documentary film-makers, by the variety of web-sites and other multi-media approaches I am seeing in my role as co-editor of the Public Anthropology Reviews section of the American Anthropologist. Anthropologists are doing incredibly wonderful things with this medium.

(12) What is the one question you wish I had asked here that I have
not yet asked you?

I am out of answers!!!!!

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