Museum curator studies social inequalities in South Asia


Carla Sinopoli understands the social obligation and rewards of invigorating the museum experience for both patrons and academics.

“More Americans go to museums in a year than sporting events. For academics, museums are a venue to communicate scholarship in accessible ways to a larger public,” said Sinopoli, director of the museum studies program.

Sinopoli, professor of archaeological anthropology, grew up in Yonkers, New York, just north of Manhattan. She began archaeological work studying indigenous peoples in the Americas and Morocco while studying for her undergraduate degree at Binghamton University.

She came to the University of Michigan, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1986. While she started out studying the Middle East, she soon switched paths.

“I received a letter from a former archaeological professor inviting me to come to India. I went for a season and I’ve been going back for 35 years,” she said. She returned to U-M in 1993 and has been here ever since.

Sinopoli, professor of archaeological anthropology, also is curator of Asian archaeology in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Sinopoli studies structures of social inequalities and political economies in South Asia, largely of the Vijayanagara Empire. She looks at material evidence such as ornaments, diet and access to imported goods as signs of inequality. Additionally, she studies various museum collections on campus.

“Materials can constantly be tapped for new questions and new techniques. What remains in museum collections is what exists of the past,” she said.

She is also curator of Asian archaeology in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. Her duties include helping move 3 million objects to a new research center, welcoming visiting scholars who wish to study the collections and hosting middle schoolers for a day of hands-on learning activities for Archaeology Day.

Her recent exhibit “Curated Excavating Archaeology @ U-M: 1817-2017” opened in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and runs until May 27, 2018. It is a bicentennial collaboration between Asian Archaeology and Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections and it explores the university’s history of archaeology since its founding.

Sinopoli’s final administrative duty is as director of the Museum Studies program. While it has existed in various forms since 1931, the program’s current iteration consists of a multidisciplinary graduate certificate and, since 2011, an academic minor.

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Students help partner institutions with projects and challenges and apply their theoretical classroom learning to real-world problems.

“One project asked, ‘How does Motown remain relevant and interesting to generations that didn’t grow up with the music, especially in Detroit?’ Students came up with a suite of suggestions calling on Motown’s strength of music-making and technology of music like music recording,” she said.

Overall, Sinopoli hopes museums help students and patrons interact meaningfully with our world’s pressing issues.

“Museums rank near the top of what institutions Americans trust to provide honest information. Because of this trust factor, museums can deal with climate change, race, lots of interesting issues in a climate that isn’t contentious,” she said.

Q & A

What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?

If archaeological sites in India don’t count, it would be when a student told me our class sessions had enabled her to adopt scientific understandings of evolution, which she had been raised to reject.

What can’t you live without?

Chocolate, books, family and friends, museums, music, travel (not necessarily in that order).

Where is your favorite spot on campus?

In winter, an escape to the tropics in the Matthaei Botanical Gardens Conservatory, or James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting “Sea and Rain” in UMMA on a hectic day.

What inspires you?

U-M students inspire my teaching and ancient objects inspire my research. Mountains, Lake Michigan, and the outdoors for an inspirational dose of humility.

What are you currently reading?

“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi; “Inside the Lost Museum” by Steven Lubar; and “The Land Where Lemons Grow” by Helena Attlee.

Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?

Professor Chuck Redman at Binghamton University, whose enthusiasm and vision for archaeologists was inspiring in the classroom and who accepted me onto his field project in Morocco.


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