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Dr. Ruth Phillips

Canada Research Chair in Modern Culture

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. Her experience teaching the introductory survey of Native arts led to a commission to co-author, with Janet Catherine Berlo, the volume on this topic, Native North American Art, for the Oxford history of art. Her 1997 book Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900, questioned the widespread rejection of the authenticity of these arts by documenting and exploring exchanges of artistic ideas between Natives and non-Natives and the historical production of art for the curio and souvenir markets. These themes are also addressed in a comparative context in Unpacking Culture: Arts and Commodities in Colonial and Post-colonial Worlds (1998), co-edited with Christopher B. Steiner.

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. Her new research centres on two new book projects, whose working titles are Museum Pieces: Exhibiting Native Art in Canadian Museums, and Transmission and Translation: Visuality and Art in the Great Lakes. She is also establishing a Visual Studies Laboratory with grants from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Innovation Fund that will enable her to work with students, Aboriginal researchers and colleagues in North American and Europe to develop a data base of Great Lakes and Northeast art and material culture and a virtual archive of Canadian exhibits that address the arts and cultures of indigenous and diasporic communities.