Carla Sinopoli joins UNM as Maxwell Museum’s first female director

Anthropologist and archeologist Dr. Carla Sinopoli has made her way to the University of New Mexico as the Maxwell Museum’s first female museum director.


Sinopoli, who started in October, brings her world-wide archeological experience and acute eye for curation to UNM and hopes to advance the Maxwell Museum to new heights.


Sinopoli’s interest in archeology began during her undergraduate years and continued throughout grad school. She was initially interested in archeology of the Middle East, but upon traveling to India to join an field project, she gained a lifelong interest in south Asian studies.


“I never thought of working in India necessarily, but when I went there the work was amazing, the country was wonderful and I never looked back,” Sinopoli said.


In India, Sinopoli and her team are focusing on a settlement site that dates from about 1500 BC to 300 AD spanning the Iron Age and early historic periods of South Indian archeology. Her earlier work in the region focused on a medieval city that was occupied from about 1350 to 1565 AD, the capital of a large empire that ruled all of South India during that period. The city was one of the largest cities in the world in the year 1500, Sinopoli said.

Maxwell Museum Director Carla Sinopoli and teammates on a field project in India. Sinopoli and her team were focused on a medieval city that was occupied from about 1350 to 1565 AD. Photo courtesy by Carla Sinopoli.

After she received her PhD, Sinopoli and a fellow archaeologist Kathleen Morrison (now at the University of Pennsylvania) decided they were interested not just in the city itself, but what was outside of it.


“Really I was less interested in the kings and the rulers than the kind of people who did the work and produced this vast city, and how they related to larger political and economic and social structures and practices,” Sinopoli said.


The calling of craftsmanship

This led to what would be a decade-plus project for Sinopoli beginning in the late 1980’s on what the team called the metropolitan region of the city of  Vijayanagara. Their focus was not so much on the monuments of this era, but on the households and domestic remains Sinopoli said. Along the way, Sinopoli began to develop a new area of interest centered around crafts production and the arts of ancient times.


“I was working on ceramics within the city and I was kind of interested in social identity and material culture, just the way we all have our ways of ornamenting our bodies or dressing or eating that say something about our identities. I was interested in how that worked in the past particularly with food and cuisine and the ceramics associated with that,” Sinopoli said.


Ancient indigenous pottery featured at Maxwell Museum. Carla Sinopoli, the new museum director, holds an anthropological interest in crafts and craft production. Photo by Felina Martinez/ Advance at UNM.

Sinopoli, who is a weaver and a knitter, said her work excavating and studying these ancient ceramics is what led her into thinking about other crafts and craft technologies. Fast forwarding to 2016, Sinopoli incorporated her love of crafts into her self-proposed exhibit “Less Than Perfect,” a collection she curated at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan that focused on failure and imperfection in the crafting process. It had three themes: failed perfection, deliberate imperfection, and repaired perfection.


“We had textiles from India and from the Navajo, we had ceramics from Asia and Japan, we had materials from ancient Egypt, so it was a fun mixing of materials. I just thought they were beautiful, plus they teach us a lot about technology and production,” Sinopoli said.


Captivated by curation

Sinopoli joined the University of Michigan in 1993 and her interest in curating began soon after. The structure there was that all the anthropological archaeologists were half time curators half time faculty, and as curator she was responsible for all of the museum’s collections from Asia. The university had been involved in research of Asia since the 1880’s, and as a result, boasted a large and important collection of Asian materials frequented by researchers.


“I started through that beginning to become involved in planning exhibitions, doing publications on the collections, working with scholars from Asia and around the world and it opened new windows for me, new projects I never would have necessarily done,” Sinopoli said.


Other exhibits Sinopoli has set in motion include one she is currently working on which will open at in Ziibiwing, a tribal museum in Michigan this April. The exhibit is centered around traditional basket making of native communities, and will also address the tradition behind basket making and issues of invasive species and climate change. The last exhibit she completed before she departed Michigan was called “Excavating Archaeology” which was created to celebrate the museum’s 200th anniversary. The exhibit focused on the beginnings of the creation of their archaeology museums in Michigan which Sinopoli also co-edited a book to go along with.

Maxwell Museum Director Carla Sinopoli in her UNM office Nov. 2018. Sinopoli is the first female museum director of Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. Photo by Felina Martinez/ Advance at UNM.

“I’ve loved a lot of the work, I love researching the history of collections I’ve loved developing exhibitions and sharing what I’ve learned with the public, I’ve loved working students on projects. I enjoy all aspects of that,” Sinopoli said.


Though her love for curating was consistent, Sinopoli’s museum interests began to evolve, which led to her move to New Mexico as the Maxwell Museum’s newest director.


“The museum I worked at in Michigan was not primarily an exhibiting museum, it was mainly a research museum. And after directing the museum studies program at Michigan, I started to think more holistically about the potential role and contributions museums can make to education, to community engagement, and social justice issues. The opportunity to contribute in those areas was not possible for me in a research museum, so when this position became open, in a part of the country that I love, it just seemed worth trying for,” Sinopoli said.

Moving forward: arrival to UNM

Sinopoli arrived in New Mexico late in the fall 2018 semester. She was quick to note the beautiful landscape an outdoor enthusiast like herself would enjoy. In regards to UNM, she is enjoying a smaller and much more diverse campus than she had previously known which she described as exciting. While her concentration is in Asian studies, Sinopoli was immediately impressed by Maxwell’s amazing collections whose strengths are in indigenous people and archeology of the southwest, both former and contemporary.


“I think our place here in New Mexico, our deep history of engagement with New Mexico’s past and present, is really core to who we are, and I think as a university museum we have that commitment to both presenting the information and to scholarship and teaching. So I think as we move forward and install new exhibits and update our current exhibits, we’re going to be looking to that as our core,” Sinopoli said.


Entrance to the Maxwell Museum of anthropology. Students gather for a tour at the nationally accredited museum February 2019. Photo by Felina Martinez/ Advance at UNM.

The museum is not without its challenges, however, Sinopoli said. Like any museum, there is always the issue of keeping exhibits up to date. Also, with a collection as extensive as Maxwell’s, there is a huge amount of care that must go into the up-keep up the collections. Sinopoli also hopes to bring more exposure to the museum.


“I certainly would like to see the Maxwell become better known across UNM and across the larger community. There’s so much going on at any university, it’s sometimes hard to get known, but our curator of exhibitions does amazing exhibitions that are really provocative and interesting,” Sinopoli said.


Extending Maxwell “beyond the walls of our buildings”

What’s next for Maxwell? Sinopoli says her efforts will start with the creation of various advisory committees, with representatives from the diverse communities the museum serves (i.e., students, faculty, community members). The committees will advise on how the museum can better serve everyone involved. This will also serve to assert the museum’s presence and what it can offer and support the creation of better partnerships.


“That’s my goal to build these networks that extend beyond the walls of our buildings. They are going to help us prioritize what are our most important needs are and how we can plan to continue to care for the collections,” Sinopoli said.


“I really believe that our collections and resources are for the entire university and the people of New Mexico as a public institution. So I would like for the museum to become better known and better used by faculty and students across the university both for teaching and research and the other thing about being embedded in New Mexico is making sure and continuing to have strong relations with descendant communities, with native communities, and with the communities whose ancient and contemporary materials we’re privileged to care for,” Sinopoli said.


A pottery wolf figurine displayed as part of Maxwell Museum’s latest temporary exhibit. The exhibit will be open until late July of 2019. Photo by Felina Martinez/ Advance at UNM.

The Maxwell’s latest exhibit, Intertwined: The Mexican Wolf, the People and the Land, debuted this month and will be open through late July.


“This exhibit looks at human-wolf relations and also considers the role of the wolf in UNM, the lobo. So that is going to look at environmental issues and how humans and animals interact, and will focus particularly on New Mexico, since the lobo is part of UNM’s identity as well as a symbol of the West in so many ways, so that should be an interesting exhibit,” Sinopoli said.