Photo of Ruth Phillips

Ruth Phillips

Professor Emeritus

Degrees:B.A. (Harvard University) M.A. (University of Toronto) Ph.D. (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)
Phone:613-520-2600 x 2350
Office:201T St. Patrick’s Building

Ruth Phillips received her doctorate in African art history from the School of Oriental and African Art at the University of London in 1979, and wrote her dissertation on the masquerades performed by Mende women in Sierra Leone. As a post-doctoral fellow she extended her research to the indigenous arts of North America. Two curatorial projects in this area, Patterns of Power: The Jasper Grant Collection and Great Lakes Indian Art of the Early Nineteenth Century (1984) and the Northeast component of The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples (1988) stimulated a further expansion of her research to include the museum representation of non-Western arts.

Phillips began teaching at Carleton in 1979. She is co-author, with Janet Catherine Berlo of the widely used survey text Native North American Art, for the Oxford history of art (revised ed. 2013). Her 1997 book Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900, argued for the authenticity of historical arts made for the curio and souvenir markets and explored the creative innovations and cross-cultural exchanges they embody. Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums (2011 traces the epochal changes in representation and practices following the contestations and postcolonial critiques of the 1980s and 90s and was nominated for the Donner Prize in Public Policy.

In 1997 Phillips was appointed Director of the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver where she, museum staff, and three First Nations partner communities developed an innovative plan for renewal and expansion that resulted in a successful application to the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the British Columbia Knowledge Foundation, and UBC for a $41 million grant.

In 2003 Phillips returned to Carleton as a Canada Research Chair in Modern Culture. She co-founded GRASAC, the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures. The GRASAC Knowledge Sharing Database, created with funds from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, SSHRC, and Carleton, creates digital access for Indigenous community members, academics and museums to heritage held in repositories around the world. It provides a platform for the co-creation of new, multi-vocal and interdisciplinary research and. was awarded the 2010 Premier’s Discovery Award in the Humanities by the Province of Ontario. With international colleagues, Phillips co-organized the Multiple Modernisms to stimulate research on modernist arts created by Indigenous and colonized peoples during the twentieth century in a global and comparative framework. She has served widely as a consultant to Canadian and international museums, as the president of the Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art, and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 2015 Phillips was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Anthropological Association’s Council for Museum Anthropology.


  • Museum Transformations, co-edited with Annie E. Coombes, International Handbooks of Museums, 2015
  • Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums, 2011
  • Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, co-edited with Elizabeth Edwards and Chris Gosden, 2006
  • Unpacking Culture: Arts and Commodities in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds, with Christopher B. Steiner, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700_1900, Seattle: University of Washington Press and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s, 1998.
  • Native North American Art, with Janet Catherine Berlo, New York: Oxford University Press, (revised ed.), 2014
  • Representing Woman: Sande Society Masks of the Mende of Sierra Leone, Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, U.C.L.A., 1995

Recent Articles

  • “Aesthetic Primitivism Revisited: The global diaspora of ‘primitive art’ and the emergence of indigenous modernisms’Journal of Art Historiography 12 (2015)
  • “Wampum Unites Us: Digital Access, Interdisciplinarity and Indigenous Knowledge– Situating the GRASAC Knowledge Sharing Database,” with Heidi Bohaker and Alan Ojiig Corbiere in Raymond Silverman ed., Translating Knowledge: Global Perspectives on Museum and Community (New York: Routledge, 2014)
  • “Taking the Local Seriously,” World Art, 4 :1, 2014, 17-25.
  • “Reading and Writing Between the Lines: Soldiers, Curiosities, and Indigenous Art Histories,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol 45, no 2/3 (2011), 107-124.
  • “Aboriginal Modernities: First Nations Art from c 1880 to c 1970,” in Brian Foss,
  • Sandra Paikowsky, and Anne Whitelaw eds., The Visual Arts in Canada: The 20th Century (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2010)

For more information visit:

Professor Phillips’ page on the Government of Canada website