Cynthia Chavez Lamar is the first Native woman director of a Smithsonian museum

Secretary Bunch announced today that Chavez Lamar will become the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, effective Feb. 14.

Chavez Lamar is an enrolled member at San Felipe Pueblo, and her ancestry also includes Hopi, Tewa and Navajo on the maternal side of her family. She is the first Native woman to be named a Smithsonian museum director. Chavez Lamar has a long association with the American Indian museum, having served as a museum intern in 1994; an associate curator from 2000 – 2005, when she was the lead curator for “Our Lives,” one of the inaugural exhibitions in the Washington, D.C., museum when it opened in 2004; and since January 2021, as the associate director for collections and operations. She is responsible for overseeing the museum’s collections, facilities, safety and information technology departments. She leads efforts to ensure effective management of and care for the museum’s collection, which is composed of more than 1 million objects and photographs and more than 500,000 digitized images, films and other media documenting Native communities, events and organizations.

Head shot of Cynthia Chavez Lamar
Cynthia Chavez Lamar (photo by Walter Lamar)

As director, Chavez Lamar will oversee the museum’s three facilities: The National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in Lower Manhattan and the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. The Cultural Resources Center houses the museum’s collections and its curatorial and repatriation offices; laboratories and work rooms for conservation, collections management, registration, photography, film and video; a computer and information-resource center; a library; and indoor and outdoor spaces for Native cultural care practices and use of the collections.

From 2014 through 2020, Chavez Lamar served as assistant director for collections at the museum. In this role, she guided the overall stewardship of the museum’s collection, which is one of the largest and most extensive collections of Native and Indigenous items in the world. Chavez Lamar led museum efforts to improve collection access and availability by advocating for and encouraging an increase in the number of collections online. She supported the development of a collection-information system module to record access, care and handling instructions provided by tribal, nation and community representatives. Chavez Lamar also established and prioritized partnerships and collaboration with Native nations and tribes and developed a loan program for tribal museum and cultural centers that provides training and technical assistance to enhance collections stewardship and reconnects descendant communities with the museum’s collections.

Chavez Lamar was the director of the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from 2007 to 2014. While there, she raised the visibility of the 12,000-object collection and developed institutional projects and programming to highlight it. She also led and supported the development of Guidelines for Collaboration to assist Native communities in accessing museum collections and museums working collaboratively with them.

Chavez Lamar was a presidential appointee to the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development in 2011. She was a governor’s appointee as a commissioner to the New Mexico Arts Commission from 2009 to 2012. She currently sits on the advisory group for Indigenous North America at the Princeton University Art Museum, and she is a member of the advisory board at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.

Chavez Lamar earned a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College in studio art, a master’s degree in American Indian studies from UCLA and a doctorate in American studies from the University of New Mexico. She also received an honorary doctorate from Colorado College for her contributions to the museum field.

Chavez Lamar is the third director of the National Museum of the American Indian. She succeeds Kevin Gover (Pawnee), who served as director from December 2007 until January 2021. He is now the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Museums and Culture. The founding director was W. Richard West Jr. (Southern Cheyenne), who led the museum from 1990 to 2007. Machel Monenerkit has served as acting director of the National Museum of the American Indian since Gover left in January 2021.

“Chavez Lamar is an accomplished curator, author and scholar whose research interests are focused on Southwest Native art and the methodologies and practices involved in collaborating with Indigenous communities,” said Bunch. “”She is at the forefront of a growing wave of Native American career museum professionals who have played an important role in changing how museums think about their obligations to Native communities and to all communities. Please join me in welcoming Cynthia Chavez Lamar as she enters a new phase of service to the Native Peoples of the Western Hemisphere.”

Posted: 19 January 2022
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni is primarily responsible for "other duties as assigned" in the Office of Communications and External Affairs. She has been with the Smithsonian since 2006 and plans to be interred in the Smithson crypt.