IPinCH PROFILE — Susan Rowley: Museum Curator

Susan at the Stolo People of the River Conference, held at the SRRMC, June 2012

By Hannah Turner 

As a curator and professor at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Susan Rowley’s goals lie with the interests of the community members she works with, and she seeks to understand their needs and facilitate their research interests. 
As an archaeologist, she is also interested in the  politics of collaboration, and she asks questions about how we can better engage publics with archaeological materials. She is experienced in the organization of community visits to the museum, and has been involved in projects that aim to link source communities with museum objects both in person and online. 

One such collaborative project, the Reciprocal Research Network (RRN), is an online database that seeks to connect geographically dispersed Northwest Coast objects in museums to make them more accessible for communities. Sue acted as a Steering Group member on the project, representing the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) and working closely with the other co-developing members from Stó:lo Nation and Tribal Council, the Musqueam Indian Band, and the U’mista Cultural Society.  The goal of the RRN is to allow community researchers access to their material heritage that is held in dispersed museum collections worldwide. The RRN offers a search interface that allows individuals to search collections across institutional databases. The RRN presents an interesting case study for understanding museum-community relationships, particularly in a digital age. At a recent conference on the issue of “Digital Return” (see: digitalreturn.wsu.edu/), Sue called for a renewed focus on understanding museum-community collaboration. Many projects, she argues, focus on the “good times” of collaborative projects, or some occasional challenges, but she argues these often presuppose that the challenge comes from within Indigenous communities with whom the museum is working. This is a gross misunderstanding, she says, and in fact, throughout the course of her experience it has been the museum itself that occasionally demonstrates resistance to change in inhibiting ways. 

Currently, Sue is focusing on practices of repatriation, and this is something she teaches her students. Sue instructs courses in Archaeology and Museum Anthropology, making use of case study methodologies to teach students about the complexities of repatriation. She challenges her students, particularly in her Museum Anthropology courses, to question the conventional understanding of repatriation processes within museums. She encourages them to adopt a more nuanced appreciation of the complex relationships between community needs and museum practicalities in repatriation requests. 

Challenging contemporary discourse about museum-community collaboration and the practicalities of such work are important dimensions of Sue’s work and of great relevance to IPinCH themes and objectives. Sue is involved in IPinCH in several ways. She works with Dave Schaepe on the IPinCH-funded community-based initiative “The Journey Home”, which explores intangible knowledge production in the analysis of Sto:lo ancestral remains. She is also co-chair, with Eric Kansa, of the IPinCH Digital Information Systems and Cultural Heritage Working Group, which seeks to foster discussion about digitization issues and cultural heritage. More particularly, this working group explores how we might address issues that cultural heritage institutions face concerning open access and accessible formatting, the need for access protocols, and support for digital preservation concerns. At the heart of these issues lie questions about database standardization, classification schemes and authority or control over archaeological materials. 

Though she has quite a lot on her plate, Sue also hopes to continue her work on Inuit archaeology. She is particularly interested in looking at Inuit agency and entanglement on South Baffin Island in the 19th century. She has also recently begun investigating histories of commodification, using the Ookpik dolls as a case study to understand early attempts to trademark Inuit designs. 

The variety and amount of projects Sue has been involved in make it difficult to summarize her roles — yet they all echo her dedication to understanding complex relationships between communities, their heritage, and public knowledge. 

Photo: Susan Rowley at the Stolo People of the River Conference, held at the SRRMC, June 2012 (K. Dobbin, used with permission). 


Hannah Turner is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Toronto and an IPinCH Associate. 

This article was featured in the IPinCH Newsletter, Vol. 5 (Fall 2013).