Research at the Mathers

As an Indiana University research center, scholarly research is central to everything that the Mathers Museum of World Cultures does. The museum’s collections are an invaluable resource for research on diverse societies. In the museum’s galleries, visitors encounter exhibitions that bring the research work of faculty, scholarly collaborators, and students to life in an accessible and engaging way. The museum is also a venue where research on informal education and life-long learning takes place.

In these and other ways, research on the human condition is the glue that holds the museum’s diverse activities together. MMWC research happens in the museum’s collections laboratories, in its galleries, in communities across Indiana, and in distant cities and villages around the world.

Some of the museum’s current research projects are described below.

Research Opportunities

IU faculty, students, and visiting researchers are encouraged to contact Ellen Sieber, ( Chief Curator of Collections, to review the museum's collections for possible research/study projects. The Curator will work with researchers to develop programs to meet their needs.

Current Research Projects

Collaborative Work in Museum Folklore and Heritage Studies, Guangxi, China

Extending a partnership project begun in 2013, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures is now pursuing research in China’s Guangxi province. This work brings together the Mathers Museum with the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi as well as researchers from the Michigan State University Museum and the Museum of International Folk Art. This fieldwork project is focused on local textile traditions (spinning, weaving, dying, embroidery, clothes making, basketry, silk manufacture) in relationship to tangible and intangible cultural heritage policies and practices. Led by Wang Wei, Director of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi, Mathers Museum Director Jason Jackson co-leads this project with Zhang Lijun of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi. Dr. Zhang is also a Mathers Museum Research Associate and an Indiana University alumna. This project is part of a larger collaboration linking the American Folklore Society and the China Folklore Society. It is being pursued with funding provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi.

Creative Aging Research in Southwest Central Indiana

Building on research that he reported in Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers (Indiana University Press, 2016), Mathers Museum Curator of Folklife and Cultural Heritage and Director of Traditional Arts Indiana Jon Kay is leading a new research project focused on the ways that traditional arts can play a valuable role in helping adults negotiate the challenges that arise as they age. Focused in particular on rural communities in the eleven-county Southwest Central Indiana region, the project is being pursued in a part of Indiana undergoing significant demographic change and facing major health, economic, and social challenges.

Concepts of Craft and the Folk School in America

Extending research reported in her dissertation and her 2017 Mathers Museum exhibition "Show and Tell—Making Craft at the John C. Campbell Folk School," Visiting Curator of Ethnology Kelley Totten is continuing research work on craft and processes of making in the United States. This multi-sited ethnographic research focuses on folk schools as sites for craft education. The project explores changing and competing understandings of craft and the larger socio-cultural resonances with which these are entangled. The Center for Craft, Creativity and Design supported fieldwork for this project, which is now being prepared for publication.

Choctaw Basketry and Human-Environmental Interaction

With support from the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design and other funders, Mathers Museum Research Associate Emily Buhrow Rogers is working with citizens of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. She is studying the rich Choctaw basketry tradition in relation to environmental and social changes, particularly the decline of the plant—river cane—out of which baskets are fashioned. While now focused on fieldwork, the project builds on extensive collections research undertaken at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution; and the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

The Fantasy Coffins of Ghana

With support from a private donor, Mathers Museum Research Associate Kristin Otto is conducting field and collections research on the flamboyant and colorful fantasy coffin tradition centered in Accra, Ghana. This research will result in a Mathers Museum exhibition scheduled for fall 2018.

Collections Research on Sowei Masks

With support from the National Science Foundation and other funders, Mathers Museum Research Associate Kristin Otto is pursuing museum collections research on a distinctive style of West African mask known as the sowei. Her research focuses on evidence of repair to these masks, and   has included work with collections in the Sierra Leone National Museum; the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution; and the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

Mathers Research Publishing

The Mathers Museum's research mission is also advanced through two publications projects. With Indiana University Press, the museum publishes the Material Vernaculars book series and, in partnership with the Office of Scholarly Communication, it also publishes Museum Anthropology Review, a peer-reviewed journal of museum and material culture studies.