Our Campus: For MOA curator Susan Rowley, teaching goes beyond the classroom

Susan Rowley is an associate professor in department of anthropology, but her students are not limited to anthropology majors. In her job as a curator at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), she leads the public in exploring the landscape and culture of First Nations people in the past.

After completing her PhD at Cambridge, Rowley moved to the United States to do her post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. Following that, she taught and consulted both in Canada and United States. In 2001, she accepted an offer to become an associate professor in UBC’s department of anthropology and the curator of public archeology in MOA.

Gazing at the breathtaking view of the ocean with snow-topped mountains outside of MOA, Rowley joked, “who wouldn’t want to work here?” Once she settled down in Vancouver, Rowley began to explore the history of the land. Six years ago, she started to coordinate a program called Musqueam 101 and has established relationships with the Musqueam people, who have lived in Vancouver and surrounding areas for thousands of years.

Dating back to her undergraduate study in University of Toronto, Rowley found strong passion for archeology, especially the aboriginal groups in circumpolar areas. Struck by the beauty of far north when she first stepped foot in it, she has returned there many times for her field work. “It’s just beautiful there. Mostly it’s the people, but the light there is hard to describe -- it’s very different from here," said Rowley.

The far north is also where Rowley's career as a curator began when she was doing her field work there in 80’s.

"We would do archeology in the community with high school students, and then we had to take everything with us and send them to museums -- so everything we found was leaving. We always got the high school students to put together the exhibits for the community to come and see at the things we’ve found so they can get a sense of that material, said Rowley.

These exhibitions were usually very short and lasted for only five or six hours, but it gave students a chance to learn their own history and build their confidence when they introduce the items to their friends and family. The community members also gain the knowledge of their local history before the items were all removed to museums.

As a curator of public archeology, Rowley serves to present archeological data to the visitors of MOA. The core idea of public archeology is to engage with the interest of the public and pass along what archeologists have learned by exhibitions and other media.

“I like doing exhibits -- they’re fun, even though it’s nerve-wracking,” said Rowley. "The curatorial job is to create idea, the vision and the content of the show. Then the designers take the vision and the content turn it into visual expression."

In order to decide what people will view and feel in exhibitions, curators and designers have to communicate back and forth to make sure the idea and the execution are correspondent to each other. When they are not preparing exhibitions, curators help to classify and provide content for new collections.

Rowley finds that being a teacher is beneficial for her curatorial job.

“I love teaching. Students really help to keep you fresh,” she said.

She finds that conversation with students prevents her from blocking herself in a narrow field. She also transposes the class from classroom to museum and put on exhibitions with students, such as “Love and Memory” in 2010 and “Faces and Voices of the Inuit Art Market” in 2011.

Currently, Rowley is co-curating an exhibition -- “c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city” -- which opened on January 25. The exhibition introduces the life of Musqueam people in one of their largest villages, c̓əsnaʔəm, located at the mouth of the Fraser River. The exhibition not only takes place in MOA but also in the Musqueam First Nation and the Museum of Vancouver. Titled with the same name, the exhibition is curated by different teams and showcases in each a unique perspective. The exhibition in MOA features an experimental element with plenty of interactive designs and first-hand narration from Musqueam community members instead of university scholars.

Combining her interest of archeology and exhibitions, Rowley's job allows her to research and introduce what she loves to her students and the public. For Rowley, from the classroom to the museum, there’s no limit to learning.