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Professor joins SFU Archaeology, expands department’s expertise with research in museum crime and antiquities markets

June 28, 2024
Photo: Tremain 3D scanning an excavation unit in Belize (2023)

Archaeologist and museum researcher, Cara Tremain, joins Simon Fraser University this July as an assistant professor in museum practice. Her research explores antiquities and heritage, looting, museum crime and fakes and forgeries to advance our understanding of how artifacts make their way into museums and the impact of these activities.

With a background in Mesoamerican, specifically Maya, archaeology, Tremain’s research is now largely focused on the antiquities market and museum collections of these artifacts.

Photo: Tremain studying an ancient Maya ceramic at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center (2015)

“I was always interested in ancient Maya art. From painted ceramics and sculptures to dress and textiles, it’s beautiful,” says Tremain. “However, these artifacts are worth a lot of money, so they’re often stolen or looted from archaeological sites and are now largely found in museum collections.”

While this might not be top of mind for many museum visitors, the looting of archaeological sites and stealing of artifacts is a challenge that many archaeologists encounter and a cause for concern for many Indigenous communities.

“Almost all archaeologists that do active field work have come across looting of some kind. Ultimately, I think it’s the responsibility of archaeologists to understand the impact that looting and the stealing of artifacts has and how they move through the market,” says Tremain. “It's important for us to know what to do in those scenarios, what the immediate impact to the community is, where they have gone and if there is a chance they can be found or retrieved, and if we can still add knowledge to them, even though they’ve been stolen.”

As the role of museums in repatriation evolves and concerns over ownership continue to grow, Tremain explains that it will become increasingly important to understand how museums have developed into the institutions they are today, how artifacts come to be part of their collections and how we can better protect them from ending up there illegally in the future.

“We’re grappling with what it means to talk about decolonization with institutions who are themselves inherently colonial, and for the most part are full of stolen goods,” she says. “I think it’s important to talk about repatriation and giving items back, but it’s also equally important to talk about how we can protect the heritage and archaeological sites that haven’t been destroyed, stolen or demolished yet.”

Tremain is hopeful that these conversations will appeal to a wide range of students and is excited to expand the department's curriculum to include more courses that explore this side of the discipline.

“I think it’s relevant to everyone who enjoys history, archaeology and going to museums. We don't want museums to go away, but we want them to fix these problems, and this isn’t going to happen overnight,” she says.

Finding ways to engage students and the public in topics of heritage, museum collections, and digital archaeology is another area of interest for Tremain. She often uses modern technology like augmented reality, virtual reality and 3D printing to enhance learning experiences and captivate wider audiences.

For example, while teaching at Langara College during the pandemic, Tremain would meet students in curated virtual classrooms relevant to their projects, like joining a student in an underwater classroom in a scuba diving suit to explore underwater archaeology. She would also have students print 3D models of artifacts found in museums around the world, decorate them to resemble the originals and curate displays for the library.

Based on the success of these initiatives, Tremain is excited to apply these novel technologies to her teaching practice at SFU, and to SFU’s on-campus Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

“I definitely want to keep integrating these technologies with teaching, and hopefully develop some 3D prints of artifacts for the museum that people can touch and interact with,” she says. “It also brings up interesting ethical questions and legal conversations because we have to talk about who owns these things, if we need to ask for permission, are there things that aren’t acceptable or too sensitive to make copies of? Students really find this side of it really interesting as well.”