Smiling Woman with curly short hair, with a green shirt on with a black vest over it.

Marsha MacDowell

Professor, MSU Museum Curator
Art History & Visual Culture

101 MSU Museum



I received my B.F.A, M.F.A. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University and have been employed as a curator since 1977 at the Michigan State University Museum. There, in addition to my curatorial activities, I have served as coordinator of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a state folk art partnership of the MSU Museum and the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs and the founding director of the Great Lakes Folk Festival.

Within the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, I have taught courses (including summer abroad programs), regularly lectured in art history courses, and co-founded the MSU Museum Studies program where I have served as interim director, coordinator of internships, E-newsle tter editor, and as chair of the faculty advisory committee. I have curated over 30 exhibitions, some local and some international; those of note include ones at the Smithsonian Institution, American Fol k Art Museum (NYC), Nelson Mandela Museum, and many at the Michigan State
University Museum. Currently I am invited curator for a national touring exhibition that will feature the recipients of the National Heritage Awards, the National Endowment for the Arts’ highest award for artists in this country.

I have served in many different professional service capacities in the museum, folklore, and quilt study field, including the following: founding and current editor, H-Quilts; founding board member, The Alliance for American Quilts; past-president, American Quilt Study Group; current elected member of the Executive Board of the American Folklore Society; current member, international editorial board for Museum Anthropology; and current member, international program planning board for the 2011 South African Visual Art s Historians (SAVAH) Comité International d’Histoire de l’Art (CIHA) Colloquium at University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.


My work, as a publicly-engaged scholar, is grounded in an interdisciplinary approach to material culture and is informed primarily by art historical, folkloristic, and ethnographic theories and methodologies. For many years, my work has been largely focused on the documentation and analysis of the production, meaning, and use of traditional material culture (especially that of Hmong-Americans, Native Americans, South Africans, and women); the analysis of the role of museums in contemporary society; the development of educational resources and public arts policies related to traditional arts; the development of curriculum materials related to community-based knowledge; and the creation of innovative ways, including digital repositories, the increase of access to and use of traditional arts materials.

The overwhelmingly majority of my work has, by design and philosophy, been developed and implemented in collaboration with representatives of the communities and cultural groups whose cultural heritage is focused on. Many of the projects are strategically developed to have a positive impact on identified societal needs.

Major recent and current research activities for which I have served as PI or co-PI:
The Quilt Index (, a digital repository of distributed data on American quilts, quiltmakers, and quiltmaking (funded by NEH and IMLS National Leadership grants);
South African Quilt History Project (funded by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln, International Quilt Study Center Fellowship)
Oral History in a Digital Age, a national collaboration of the MSU Museum, MSU MATRIX, the Smithsonian Institution, t he Library of Congress/American Folklife Center, and the American Folklore Society to establish best practices for creating, preserving, and using digital orality (funded by an IMLS National Leadership Grant);
MichiganCraftWORKS!, a statewide cultural economic development research and policy development initiative.
Carriers of Culture: Native Basket Traditions – a national project to document and present the basketmaking tradition s of living Native artists;
Dear Mr Mandela, Dear Mrs Parks: Children’s Letters: Global Lessons , an exhibition collaboration of the MSU Museum and the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha, South Africa (funded by an AAM Museums and Communities/International Program grant).

in the news

AAHD’s Marsha MacDowell Named American Folklore Society Fellow

CAL Alumni Association Presents Faculty Awards

The Quilt Index Relaunches and Expands Its Collection

Chicago Folklore Prize Awarded to Book Co-Authored by AAHD Professor