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Anthropology Alumna Takes Museum Skills to Denver Art District

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Colin Griffith

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Having majored in anthropology as an undergraduate, Leah Zavaleta (MA ’19) knew what she was looking for in a graduate degree, but very few universities offered the kind of program she wanted. Leah’s interest in museum studies drew her eye around the country and even across the Atlantic, but being so far from home wasn’t ideal.

“I wanted to continue learning about anthropological theory as it applies to a deeper understanding of museums,” she says. “There were some programs in the UK, but my family wasn’t a fan of me attending university across an ocean.”

Balancing multiple jobs with a university tour was hardly possible, but Leah knew that she had found something worth exploring when she came upon the University of Denver’s master's program in anthropology. In particular, Leah says she was seeking a program that would allow her to delve into the field of museum studies in the context of anthropology.

Leah Zavaleta

“DU happened to be one of the very few schools in the country that offered museum studies through an anthropological lens rather than from the perspective of art history,” Leah says.

Now armed with a master's degree in anthropology with a concentration in museum studies, she’s working as the education coordinator at Museo de las Americas. Located in the Santa Fe Art District in central Denver, Museo provides community education on the diverse arts and cultures of the Americas through exhibitions of contemporary and ancient art and antiquities, workshops, summer camps and culture labs.

That role at Museo is fitting for someone with Leah’s interests and expertise, a challenge that calls upon all of the skills she’s developed throughout her academic career. She says that there can be inherent conflict built in to her work, as representing such a broad set of cultures in an authentic way can often run up against expectations.

“Sometimes our representations of the cultures of the Americas conflict with how those cultures are represented in the mainstream,” Leah explains. “It’s my job to ensure that our workshops reflect current thinking regarding education and cultural responsivity, and make sure we represent the culture the Museo aims to honor in its full reality.”

Fortunately, she arrived in her role at Museo with firsthand experience that has helped her succeed in the most challenging parts of her work. During her time at DU, Leah worked in DU's Museum of Anthropology as a curatorial assistant, which offered crucial learning experiences in community engagement.

“It instilled in me a desire to be more engaged in the community aspect of anthropological and museum work,” she says.

That drive to work within and among cultural communities was informed in part by her extracurricular work at DU, which included an internship at Museo and a research study that focused on collaborations between Museo and other cultural institutions in Denver. The connections she formed during that time were just as important as her classroom studies in setting her up for success after graduation.

Her advice to current DU students? Don’t be afraid to speak up. Even before she arrived on campus, Leah was striking up conversations via email with professors in the anthropology department.

“Selling yourself and talking yourself up is not supposed to be easy,” she says. “But if you are honest and hold true to what you say, people will appreciate it and talk you up to others. Go to as many meetings, networking events and conferences as you can — sometimes people will surprise you, and you may end up in a really good place.”

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