Margaret Smith

Director & Curator, The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection

Ph.D. University of Virginia, Anthropology 2001


Cultural anthropology, Australian Aboriginal studies, indigenous art, museums

 discovered Anthropology through an undergraduate course called “Cultures of the World.” While I remember very little about the class and the professor, I do recall the feeling of finding my “home.” Understanding came easily to me and I wanted to study, unlike other classes.
After a few years traveling and working following graduation, I enrolled in the Anthropology Department’s M.A./Ph.D. program at U.Va. with very little idea of what I wanted to study. Eventually, I settled on Aboriginal Australia, specifically ideas about birthplace and identity. I undertook fieldwork between 1991-93 with a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. During this time I lived in a small Aboriginal community known as Aputula (Finke, NT) on the edge of the Simpson Desert.  
After returning to U.Va. to write up my dissertation, I was contacted by John Kluge, and American billionaire with a world-class collection of Australian Aboriginal art who lived in Charlottesville. I started working for Kluge by cataloging his collection. That turned into a full-time curatorial position.  When Kluge gave the collection to U.Va. in 1997, I became the director and curator of the only museum in the United States dedicated to the exhibition and study of Australian Aboriginal art. We opened the museum in a historic home on 250 East (Pantops) in 1999.
The Kluge-Ruhe Collection has grown both in the number of objects (1800+), and the staff (3.5). We offer programs throughout the year for the university community and the public including exhibitions, lectures, workshops, films and performances. We also bring Indigenous Australian artists to U.Va. to present their work and undertake projects with students. In addition to directing the museum, I teach Australian Aboriginal Art & Culture (ANTH 3680/ARTH3651) and the University Museums Internship (ARTH/GDS).
I have curated more than 40 exhibitions at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection and other venues including The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum (Wausaw, WI), the Marsh Art Gallery (Richmond, VA), The Bruce Museum (Greenwich, CT), the Craft and Folk Art Museum (Los Angeles, CA) VisualiseCarlow (Ireland) and the Embassy of Australia, Washington DC. I served as consulting curator on the exhibition Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Women Artists at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (2006) and Icons of the Desert at the Embassy of Australia in Washington, D.C. (2013).
It took me several years to complete my dissertation while working full-time but I finally graduated with a Ph.D. in 2001. I have returned to Australia many times and have travelled extensively to Aboriginal communities to meet artists. I maintain a connection to the people I befriended while doing fieldwork in Aputula and stay in touch with them via Facebook!

Selected Publications

2008 - Aesthete and Scholar: Two complementary influences on the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia. In The Makers and Making of Indigenous Australian Museum Collections, ed. N. Peterson, L. Allen and L. Hamby, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

2006 - “The enchantment of being what we are” Diversity and change in Aboriginal Women’s Art. In Dreaming Their Way, exb. cat., Washington DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts.

1999 - M. Smith Boles and H. Morphy (eds.) Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.