Our Campus: Dr. Carol Mayer turns intangible stories into powerful installations at the Museum of Anthropology

Dr. Carol Mayer’s interest in museums started on a small scale — in fact, a miniature one.

“My grandfather owned a company that made models and dioramas for museums, and so, as a child, I was taken to museums quite a bit and shown his models in various museums,” said Mayer, who is now the head of curatorial, interpretation and design at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA).

“Although it isn’t a family tradition, perhaps because I was introduced to it at such a young age, it piqued my interest.”

Now, after a master’s degree at Cambridge and a PhD at the University of Leicester, Mayer is also an associate in the department of anthropology, specializing in the intersection of contemporary art and cultural studies, particularly in the South Pacific. Despite her passion, it wasn’t always a straightforward path to curation for Mayer, who took an anthropology class on a whim during her undergraduate studies to fulfill an elective requirement.

“I thought originally that it was a fascination with the objects, but in the end, over many years, I realized that what has actually come out of it is an amazing set of relationships which I worked on for years,” she said, noting that her career began as an assistant to an assistant at the Museum of Vancouver.

“It’s relationships with those artists and those communities and people that I believe is the foundation of museum work.”

For Mayer, curation is about telling stories as much as it is about procuring the objects themselves.

“Let’s say if you look at a little plastic thing of the Eiffel Tower or something, it is what it is, but when you understand where it is from, and how it was collected and how you got it, and what it reminds you of, it becomes so much more. And that’s kind of what the difference is, I think. It’s a huge privilege to be able to be somewhere where things are being made.”

Translating intangibility

One recent project in collaboration with an artists’ centre on the Island of Erub — located between Australia and Papua New Guinea — Mayer had the opportunity to build unlikely relationships and to tell stories with global implications with the installation of ghost net sculptures from the Torres Strait.

“Currents of the oceans up there [on Erub], bring the nets into that area, so the islanders pull the nets ashore, and the animals, of course they are all dead, very occasionally one will be alive, and [local residents will] save it, but usually they are dead, and then [the artists] create sculptures in the form of those animals [which are used] to bring attention to the fact that we are polluting the planet,” said Mayer.

“The Museum can and does bring attention to global issues in the way the islanders are trying to. Perhaps we can just reach out a bit further than they can. And I think it is very important that as museum workers, we have the opportunity to advocate for how art can share these issues and connections.”

After Mayer sent an email to the artists centre on Erub not knowing what she would get back, MOA now has a 12-foot-long hammerhead shark “swimming” through the galleries from the island itself. Mayer was also present during the making of a turtle — affectionately name Eip Kor Korr, meaning “Teenager” — which was recently added to the MOA net sculpture collection. She is now working to bring two of them here to work on the installation and to create an interactive component wherein kids will be able to make tiny turtles themselves.

“With the objects in the Museum, once you’ve got them, stories start coming out from the object and the stories are usually about relationships. The museums become part of the relationship equation because they get to hold onto the triggers, and over time these relationships become stronger.”

One thing Mayer is extremely mindful of is the relationship between curator and community, and how it has been historically exploitative.

“You can’t just parachute in, like a tourist. Because what you will get is superficial [...] But if you get to know people and they trust you and they know you will do your best to represent them as accurately as you can and you spend time with them, you give them your time, then they will give you their time,” she said.

“Curating is a very long process, it’s not magic.”

Mayer brings this same focus on community collaboration and connection-building to her role as a faculty member at UBC, where she sat on the committee to establish the African studies program in 2005. The interdisciplinary program is, to Mayer, a launching pad for opening up a dialogue on how museums are historically colonial institutions and how that could be changed.

“We get to evaluate how have we evolved from that image of colonial power to an image of community based work.”

So much of Mayer’s work to curate a place of learning and reflection at MOA focuses on how to responsibly tell stories and empower the individuals and cultures to whom they mean very much.

“When we discuss potency of objects, that goes back to the object having stories embedded in it,” said Mayer, noting the turtle sculptures have shown how contemporary art can strengthen and empower a community.

“What’s intangible about [an object] are its stories but also its history and you know it’s meaning, its meaning to people and its meaning to cultures. And without all of that, the object is simply an object.”