Curating as Caretaking

This episode of the SAPIENS podcast takes listeners behind the scenes in museums to explore how Black and Indigenous curators are re-imagining what their collections and exhibitions can do to change minds and transform hearts.

History is taught in all kinds of ways—through textbooks, movies, and … museums. In this episode, museum curators challenge the status quo and connect their ancestry to advance how history is told in cultural institutions. Mary Elliott brings listeners behind the scenes into the Slavery and Freedom exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. And Dr. Sven Haakanson helps re-create an Angyaaq, which is like a kayak, at the Burke Museum in Seattle, Washington.


  • Mary Elliot is the curator of American slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). She co-curated the museum’s Slavery and Freedom inaugural exhibition, and she is a team member of the museum’s Slave Wrecks Project. Mary also curated and wrote the special broadsheet section of the award-winning New York Times’ featured publication titled The 1619 Project. She is also the inaugural curator and content developer for the NMAAHC’s digital humanities feature, the Searchable Museum. Mary’s personal research focuses on antebellum slavery, Reconstruction, and African Americans in Indian Territory, with a specific concentration on Black kinship networks, migration, and community development. She’s worked with U.S. representatives on both sides of the aisle in the House and the Senate, and has served as an invited speaker at various academic institutions, including Brown University, Duke University, and universities in Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. She also has been interviewed by several media outlets and programs—including CBS’ 60 Minutes, C-SPAN, Slate, BBC, NPR, and PBS.
  • Sven Haakanson Jr., Ph.D., is Sugpiaq from Old Harbor, Alaska. He is a curator of North American anthropology at the Burke Museum and an associate professor in anthropology at the University of Washington. He is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (2007), the Museums Alaska Award for Excellence (2008), and the ATALM Guardians of Culture and Lifeways Leadership Award (2012), and his work on the Angyaaq led it to be inducted into the Alaska Innovators Hall of Fame (2020). Sven engages communities in cultural revitalization using material reconstruction as a form of scholarship and teaching. His projects have included the reconstruction of full-sized Angyaaq boats from archaeological models and the re-creation of halibut hooks, masks, and paddles. He also has shown the traditional processing of bear gut into waterproof material for clothing. He has collaborated with the community of Akhiok at their Akhiok Kids Camp since 2000.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod and supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is also part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This season was created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and the Society of Black Archaeologists, with art by Carla Keaton and music from Jobii, _91nova, and Justnormal.

Listen also to SAPIENS Talk Back, a companion series by Cornell University’s RadioCIAMS. In episode 4, we welcome the featured guests of Episode 4 of SAPIENS Season 4: Tiffany Fryer, Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Princeton University Society of Fellows and a lecturer in Princeton’s Department of Anthropology, and Sven Haakanson, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Curator of Native American Anthropology at the Burke Museum, and a former MacArthur Fellow. This episode was made possible by financial support of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology at Brown University and Columbia University’s Center for Archaeology. We want to thank our panelists for leading our conversation today: Erynn Bentley and Ana González San Martín from Brown University. This episode was hosted by CIAMS graduate students Olivia Graves and Henry Ziegler, and the sound engineer was Sam Disotell. SAPIENS Talk Back is produced at Cornell University by Adam Smith with Rebecca Gerdes as the production assistant. Our theme music was composed by Charlee Mandy and performed by Maia Dedrick and Russell Dedrick.

Check out these related resources:

Episode sponsors:

  • Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
  • Columbia University’s Center for Archaeology

Read a transcript of this episode here.

Back to Season 4 homepage.