Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology

Reflections from Dr. Georgia Fox

Georgia helping students

It seemed so far off, the day when retirement would arrive. Twenty-one years later, it has, so in this moment, I would like to share some of my thoughts and reflections after serving as co-director of the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology, as a faculty member in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and the Department of Anthropology, as well as my final days as Department Chair.  In a nutshell, my time at Chico State has been nothing less than a dream-come-true.  From that hot July day in 2001, when I first pulled into Chico with a U Haul trailer in tow, I knew that I had reached my new home.

During my time at Chico State, I always appreciated that teaching in a university is a privilege. Even on days when the grading piled up and the emails needed answering, I realized just how fortunate I was to be able to work with intelligent and knowledgeable people who valued higher education as much as I did and still do. Walking across the beautiful Chico State campus with its stately redwoods, verdant landscapes, and gently flowing creek, a friendly wave from a student or colleague always improved my day. Over the years, many of us weathered four major budget crises, changes in campus leadership, the Camp Fire, and then the COVID pandemic. Yet, what stands out to me is the resiliency of our institution, which continues to grow and thrive thanks to all the dedicated individuals who are deeply invested in the success of our students.

Arriving 30 years after the founding of the Museum of Anthropology, as it was known in those days, the vision and inspiration realized by former faculty member Keith Johnson provided us with the foundation to realize new plans and goals. The museum, as the training laboratory for the department’s Museum Studies Program, is an integral part of the Anthropology Department’s hands-on pedagogy, backed by solid theoretical underpinnings. Within this framework, my former colleague Dr. Stacy Schaefer, and I, along with our superb curator, Adrienne Scott, forged ahead with raising the museum’s profile both on and off campus through exhibitions and educational outreach. We soon added Heather McCafferty to our small staff, bringing her talent and originality to the mix.  In the early aughts, we trudged up the unforgiving three flights of stairs in Langon Hall, where the museum was sandwiched in between engineering classrooms. In those days, Adrienne had to drape the museum’s sign over the balcony to let people know our campus location.  Fond memories of late-night exhibit installations fortified with pizza, exhibit openings, and reconfiguring the space as exhibits came and went remind me that it was a time of great productivity, punctuated with hopes and dreams of a future and more accessible space.

Group of students, Georgia in action

Our dream came true, when Emerita Valene L. Smith bequeathed the museum with an endowment toward the move and expansion of the museum in 2009 to our present Meriam Library location, with Dr. Schaefer’s exhibition On Top of the World, which launched the new space in January 2010.

The satisfaction derived from these developments complemented my instructional duties, teaching courses in archaeology and museum studies, which led to varied and intellectually enriching experiences in my own professional development. The students came to expect my bad jokes and stories as we explored ideas and issues in the discipline or dived head-on into the hands-on courses. The rollercoaster ride of creating a new museum exhibit in the Anthropology 467 class never failed to amaze me as students came together to “create something bigger than themselves” as one student told me after a long and challenging semester. Dipping cloth strips into glass beakers to learn about the varying properties of adhesives in the conservation course or carving thick blocks of Ethafoam to make mounts for object storage provided hours of good educational fun.  But at the heart of the merry mess-making was my secret mission to have our students walk out the door with certain skill sets and knowledge that could make a difference in the competitive job market. Former students have reminded me that they cannot go into a museum without exercising their critical eye. They can’t say that I didn’t warn them!

As the years have ticked by, having supportive colleagues and their tireless commitment to student success has helped make my job one of focus and purpose.  The icing on the cake has been the university recognizing and supporting the museum’s contributions to the campus and the Northern California region. The freedom to merge my areas of interest and expertise in historical and maritime archaeology, archaeological conservation, and museology, allowed me to pursue my research interests and develop course curricula to provide our students with on-the-ground training, literally. Running a month-long summer archaeological field school from 2007 to 2016 on the lovely Caribbean island of Antigua was an opportunity to share my experience and offer opportunities for students to stretch their wings in a new environment and experience living in a foreign country; for many of them, the Antigua Field School was their first study abroad experience and their first passport. I am also grateful for the David W. and Helen E.F. Lantis Award that allowed me to include recognized scholars in the Antigua project and provide stipends for students who could not afford to participate otherwise.

Looking back, what also made Chico State so special was being a student myself, learning from my wise colleagues about new approaches to teaching and field work, alternative theoretical approaches to contemporary anthropological scholarship, and learning from a host of incredibly bright and insightful students whose perspectives and observations made for a fuller experience.  In sum, this has been a momentous journey, full of surprises, good humor, and, at times, some tough challenges, but also one of many meaningful moments. Reflecting on my 21 years at Chico State now opens the door to new experiences, whatever they may be.  I am grateful to all those individuals whose lives touched my own through their generosity, friendship, and support for which I am deeply grateful.

Portrait of Georgia Fox