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Isaac, Gwyn (Gwyneira)

Curator of North American Indigenous Culture

Positions

Anthropology, Zuni and Southwest Pueblos, knowledge systems, material culture, photography.

Professional Biography

  • Dr. Gwyneira Isaac’s primary research goal is to develop interdisciplinary theories and methods that provide greater insight into the cross-cultural dynamics of knowledge diversity. In particular, she studies areas where Native American and non-Native knowledge systems intersect. Central to this study is her fieldwork and ethnography of a tribal museum in the Pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico where she examined the difficulties faced by Zunis operating between Zuni and Euro-American approaches to knowledge. Through the book Mediating Knowledges: Origins of a Museum for the Zuni People (2007), she explores how the Zuni museum reconciled the different approaches to knowledge both within its own constituency and cross-culturally, and consequently, how it took on the role of mediator between internal and external expectations about Zuni history.


    Isaac's explorations into the intersection of different knowledges (either culturally or disciplinarily distinct) include how technology and media are used within the discipline of anthropology. The ethnography of media in museums and anthropology has led her to study values attributed to the reproduction of knowledge as explored through replicas and models, resulting in the paper entitled 'Whose Ideas Was This? Replicas, Museums and the Reproduction of Knowledge' in Current Anthropology (2011). Bridging the study of Native American knowledge systems and the history of anthropology has resulted in her interest in developing theories that integrate anthropology, history and art to form interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to the study of intersections of culturally specific knowledge systems over time. At the Smithsonian, she directs the Recovering Voices program that supports communities in accessing collections as part of their efforts to revitalize endangered languages and knowledge. Her current research projects include understanding Native American concepts of health and wellbeing, especially through cultural revitalization practices.

     

Public Biography

  • Dr. Gwyneira Isaac is a research anthropologist and curator of North American Ethnology in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Her passion for museums and working with Native American communities began when training as a museum photographer, and she encountered a vast array of glass plate negatives, photographs and archives that documented the lives of Native Americans from the 19th century onwards. She realized that, up until that point, she had been deprived of access to this history as it had been largely absent from her text books. Since then, she has devoted herself to finding out anything she could about Native American culture—a journey that took her to graduate school at Oxford University, the Southwest region of the US to conduct fieldwork and, ultimately, to the National Museum of Natural History

    Her main research focus is on how Native American communities tell their own histories, as described in her book Mediating Knowledges (2007), which tells the origin story of a tribal museum in Zuni, New Mexico. She is also interested in how different media, such as photography, exhibit models and now 3D printing, help us to understand how technology has shaped the depiction of humans and humanity over time. At the Smithsonian, she directs the Recovering Voices program that supports communities in accessing collections as part of their efforts to revitalize endangered languages and knowledge. Her current research projects include understanding Native American concepts of health and wellbeing, especially through cultural revitalization practices.