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Isaac, Gwyn (Gwyneira)

Curator of North American Indigenous Culture

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


Background And Education

Education And Training

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. 

Research And Grants


Selected Publications

  • Article

  • Book

    • Isaac, Gwyneir. 2008. Mediating Knowledges : Origins of a Museum for the Zuni People. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. 2008
  • Chapter

    • Isaac, Gwyneira. 2018. "Collecting." In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. 1–10. London, England: Wiley. 2018
    • McChesney, Lea and Isaac, Gwyneira. 2018. "Paying Back: The Hopi Pottery Oral History Project." In Giving Back: Research and Reciprocity in Indigenous Settings. Herman, R. Douglas K., editor. Oregon State University Press. 2018
    • Isaac, Gwyneira. 2015. "'Get to Know Your World': An Interview with Jim Enote, Director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni New Mexico." In Museum Transformations. International Handbook of Museums. Phillips, Ruth and Coombes, Annie, editors. Oxford: Blackwell Press. 2015
    • Isaac, Gwyneira. 2014. "The Price of Knowledge and the Economies of Heritage in Zuni." In Museums as Process: Translating Local and Global Knowledges. Silverman, Raymond, editor. 152–168. London: Routledge. 2014
    • Isaac, Gwyneira and Bell, Joshua A. 2013. "Smithsonian Institution." In Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia. McGee, R. Jon and Warms, Richard L., editors. 781–785. London: Sage Publications, Inc.. 2013
    • Isaac, Gwyneira. 2013. "We'Wha Goes to Washington." In Reassembling the Collection. Harrison, Rodney, Byrne, Sarah, and Clark, Anne, editors. 143–170. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press. 2013
    • Isaac, Gwyneira. 2009. "Digital Enchantments: The Use of Electronic Media at the National Museum of the American Indian." In Visual Currencies: Reflections on Native American Photography. Henrietta Lidchi and Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, editors. 77–89. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland. 2009
    • Isaac, Gwyneira. 2008. "Responsibility Towards Knowledge: The Zuni Museum as a Mediator between Anglo-American and Zuni Knowledge Systems." In Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Perspectives. Sleeper-Smith, Susan, editor. 241–266. University of Nebraska Press. 2008
    • Isaac, Gwyneira. 2008. "What Are Our Expectations Telling Us? Encounters with the National Museum of the American Indian." In The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations. Lonetree, Amy and Cobb, Amanda, editors. 241–266. University of Nebraska. 2008


Responsible Collections Areas

  • Native American ethnology collections from the United States of America

Outreach Overview

  • Over the past five years, I have developed exhibits that inform the general public about the interdisciplinary and collaborative work with communities we are developing at the NMNH. This includes co-curation with Joshua Bell (NMNH) and Frank Goodyear (National Portrait Gallery) of the NMNH exhibit Unintended Journeys (2014) on migration as a response to environmental disasters. For the NMNH Wonders exhibit (2017), I curated two sections on collaborative work with Native American communities, including a co-curated section on Zuni pottery with Jim Enote (director of the Zuni A:shiwi A:wan Museum), which resulted in a NMNH roundtable discussion to discuss the nature of collaborations with Native American communities, as well as a section curated with the Wanapum community on revitalizing traditional fishing technology along the Columbia River, and a video on the collaborative work of Recovering Voices. To expand collaboration with Native American communities at the NMNH, I helped organize and host the NSF funded iWise workshop and conference held in partnership with NMNH and NMAI in the NMNH Q?Rius educational center, providing outreach and educational programming for federal program officers, indigenous scholars and educators to look at intersection of indigenous knowledge and science. This was webcast and watched in 30 different countries. As part of my outreach work with Southwest communities, I help host the Hopi Intergenerational Pottery Festival each year at First Mesa in Hopi, Arizona.

Teaching Overview

  • The key principle that defines my educational activities is the idea that museums, anthropological research, teaching and associated communities are synonymous. When brought together, these four elements considerably increase the educational impact of an institution, such as the Smithsonian. As part of this endeavor I teach interdisciplinary graduate courses for George Washington including ‘Museum Anthropology’, and the recently developed new curriculum to reflect contemporary issues affecting research on humans in museums: ‘Anthropology, Museums and the Body’. This graduate course involves five curators from NMNH, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in physical and cultural anthropology, medicine, art, ancient DNA, as well as hands-on research with collections at the NMNH, NAA and NMAH. I am also the Principal Investigator for the “Borders: Museums in the Age of Global Mobility” Wenner Gren funded project, which was launched as workshop in Mexico City in 2017, convening 20 anthropology, museology and migration scholars from Brazil, China, Japan, South Africa, Portugal, Canada, Germany, Italy, the UK, Mexico, and the United States. The borders concept is used to analyze critical topics in museums, anthropology and migration, as well as practices that fragment or cohere the disciplines, creating multilingual forums for museology to address problems caused by language barriers. We have partnered with the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology (MOA), the Americas Research Network (Arenet), the UDLAP Jenkins Graduate School and the Fundacion Casa Wabi in Mexico. This project expanded in 2018 to include the Museum of Ethnology in Japan and the American Anthropological Association through the World on the Move project. See the project website at: