Washington, D.C. has its fair share of New Mexicans in high places. We can add another of the state’s finest to that list. Cynthia Chavez Lamar was named last week to head the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in D.C. and NYC.
Chavez Lamar brings a wealth of experience to the position. One of her greatest assets is her knowledge of the museum’s collection: since 2014, she has served as assistant director for collections at NMAI. In this role, she guided the overall stewardship of the museum’s collection, which is one of the largest and most extensive collections of Native and Indigenous items in the world. Chavez Lamar led museum efforts to improve collection access and availability by advocating for and encouraging an increase in the number of collections online. Furthermore, she supported the development of a system to record access, care and the handling instructions provided by Tribal, nation and community representatives.
This engaging style was fostered during her time in New Mexico as director of the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe. She fostered the development of Guidelines for Collaboration, a way to assist Native communities in accessing museum collections and museums working collaboratively alongside tribal stakeholders.
“That’s where I really got my experience in working in collaboration with indigenous people,” she said. “And it was a really deep introduction because I was given the opportunity to collaborate with eight Tribes and communities from across the Western hemisphere, working with representatives from each of those communities. And so when I left New Mexico of course I was very invested and into methodologies, ethical principles of working in collaboration with indigenous people.”
She says a lot of this work has a foundation in the curating of exhibitions for artists like Mateo Romero and Ron Martinez Looking Elk to mention a few, during her short stint as museum director for the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
That work has left a lasting legacy at the SAR and in her career. “Being in Santa Fe and surrounded by indigenous art and people, it was a great opportunity to start to connect people from the Southwest with those collections,” Chavez Lamar said.
The heart of her work at NMAI for nearly seven years created networks of information and brought to the table Tribal resources to help identify, clarify and share the stories of nearly one million objects. New exhibitions — like Preston Singletary’s striking glass exhibition that features storytelling paired with coastal Pacific Northwest soundscapes, music and projected images — take traditional stories and share them in new contexts. Chavez Lamar also intends to provide a backbone for the types of fresh work, both individual and collaborative, of indigenous people in North America.