Cultural anthropologist and filmmaker Maris Boyd Gillette has been named the new E. Desmond Lee Professor of Museum Studies and Community History at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Gillette assumes the museum studies directorship from Jay Rounds, the founding director. He will remain at UMSL as a Founders Professor.

Maris Boyd Gillette has been named the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Museum Studies and Community History at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Gillette is enthusiastic about administering a program that has provided such an excellent education for graduates. She said her conversations with alumni spotlight the value of the MA students’ two-year placements as graduate research assistants at cultural heritage institutions or museums in the St. Louis region. Rounds designed this feature of the program, which provides a deeper and more sustained professional development experience than the semester-long internships that typify other museum studies programs.

Gillette plans to keep practical experience central to the MA program. In the months since she has come to St. Louis, Gillette has sought out potential new institutional partners at the National Park Service, National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis County Parks and Recreation, Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District and private non-profit associations. In the process she has been learning about the cultural programming and resources available in the region.

Gillette feels fortunate to enter a community of museum professionals and academics who are deeply committed to serving the public.

“St. Louis has a rich array of heritage institutions serving a broad swath of area residents and visitors,” she said. “I want our program to forge even stronger ties with these organizations, to help them achieve their missions, provide learning opportunities for our students, and advance the public interest through education, dialogue, and meaningful encounters with people, objects, and media.”

Patricia Zahn, director of the Des Lee Collaborative Vision and manager of community outreach and engagement at UMSL said Gillette was the perfect person for the Des Lee professorship, and was an immediate stand out.

“Along with her extensive knowledge and experience with museums, Maris also brought to UMSL a passion for community history. She is such an engaging person and truly understands and embraces the ideas of collaboration,” Zahn said. “Even before arriving at UMSL she was in contact with people at our partner institution, the Missouri History Museum, and began reaching out to develop opportunities for additional community connections in St. Louis. She has great ideas and has already begun making a difference for our students and community partners.”

Gillette has significant experience with community history, curatorial work and the anthropological and historical study of Chinese society. She graduated from Smith College with a bachelor’s degree in history, followed by a master’s degree in Regional Studies – East Asia and a PhD in anthropology, both from Harvard University.

Harvard gave Gillette her first experiences with museum work, using collections at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology to design ethnographic “laboratories” for undergraduates studying Chinese society. Later she took photographs in Northwest China on commission from the Peabody, and co-curated a Chinese photography exhibit. Gillette also curated and co-curated exhibits and installations for the East Asian Art Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

During her years in Philadelphia, Gillette worked with the nonprofit Scribe Media Center on two community history initiatives: a digital video project called Precious Places and a second called Muslim Voices of Philadelphia.

Gillette has spent much of her career doing research in Asia and Europe. Last year, as a senior fellow at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies, she reached out to the Archive, Library and Museums Studies graduate program at Uppsala University, and museum professionals at the Ethnographic Museum, the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities and the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.  She plans to draw on these relationships to create opportunities to study heritage practice in transnational perspective.

UMSL’s graduate program in museum studies offers an MA in history with a concentration in museum studies, and a graduate certificate in museum studies.  The program prepares students for professional careers in museums, historic sites and societies, and related organizations.

Myra Lopez

Myra Lopez