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Mari Lyn Salvador
In Memoriam

Mari Lyn Salvador

Director Emerita, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology

UC Berkeley
Mari Lyn Salvador was born Mari Lyn Plevel on June 16, 1943 in Pasadena, the first of six siblings. Her parents, Michael and Mildred, were restaurateurs, and from the age of twelve, Mari Lyn worked in the restaurant after school. Her large family moved to Lake Tahoe for the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics, where her father was a skiing official. From a young age, her avocations included cooking, skiing, and photography, and after high school she went to Colorado for training as a pianist. Later she moved back to San Francisco State University to study art, particularly textiles.

Newly married to Azorean-American lawyer Vernon Salvador, from the Portuguese community of Gustine, CA, Mari Lyn and her husband joined the Peace Corps in 1966 and moved to Panama. There Mari Lyn helped the Kuna women form a cooperative to sell their molas, their colourful appliqué blouses. This intense involvement we could call ethnography through participant observation. She and Vernon were also very fine photographers, and their works later became important for her anthropological writings and exhibitions.

Mari Lyn entered Berkeley in 1971 to finish her B.A. in anthropology and then joined the M.A. program in folklore with Alan Dundes. There she discovered my anthropological teaching about contemporary "folk" arts. She became my advisee – but more than that, we worked together on many projects. She was a teaching assistant for my large class on Anthropology of Art, which took place in our major lecture hall, Kroeber 155. She and Mark Miller, who went on to be one of America's greatest and most successful chefs, were my two assistants. They persuaded Linda Draper, a transfer student from UC Santa Cruz, to become a doctoral student in anthropology. Like Mari Lyn, Linda developed her interests in art and museums, and later became Director of the Santa Monica Heritage Museum.

As an outcome of my own work on commercial Inuit arts, I had started an international comparative study of "Ethnic and Tourist Arts," which included Mari Lyn's work on the Cuna [later spelled Kuna]; I organized a symposium on "The Study of Contemporary Ethnic Arts," in November 1970 and collected a number of papers for an edited volume. Mari Lyn joined me in this, and we worked together through the eventual publication in 1976. She also contributed her own excellent research, focusing on ethno-aesthetic experiments with Kuna molas, following the work of a pioneer Berkeley anthropologist, Lila O’Neal (Yurok-Karok Basket Weavers, 1932), and I later followed their research methods in my own work with Inuit arts.

Mari Lyn helped me produce the manuscript for use as a textbook in my Anthropology 152 class. She learned a new technique, screening all the 74 photographs, so that we could insert them as black and white photos in the pre-publication text. She continued to work on the final volume with its color plates. She also worked extensively with Gene Prince, the photographer of the Lowie Museum, on her own very impressive set of photographs of the Kuna and their island environment.

Mari Lyn continued her work on the ethnoaesthetics of the Kuna mola makers for her Ph.D. But she was also living a full life, as a former Peace Corps member in Panama with the Kuna, still keeping in touch and advising them from a distance. With her husband Sal, she started to plan exhibitions with wonderful photographs of the San Blas Island Comarca (province) and its people. Early in her graduate career, she gave birth to her son Sergio (June 1972) and later in her teaching career, to her daughter Melina (May 1978).
In her final summer of dissertation research, Mari Lyn narrowed her focus following Lila O'Neale's work, with an experiment: asking each Kuna woman to (a) bring out and discuss and rank the whole set of molas that she owned and (b) examine and rank a 'test set' of molas, commenting on the reasons for their aesthetic decisions. She finished her dissertation within a few months in 1976. Her work on the ethnoaesthetics of molas led to the book Yer Dailege: Kuna Women's Art (University of New Mexico Press, 1978) and the exhibition The Art of Being Kuna (Fowler Museum UCLA, 1997), as well as her chapter in Ethnic and Tourist Arts (1976).
Beyond her academic work, Mari Lyn was an active promoter of folk art research and exhibitions. She worked with Marjorie Annenberg in starting the Craft and Folk Art Museum inside Marjorie’s store on Hyde Street in San Francisco. Mari Lyn worked with her for years, guiding the exhibits and raising funds, for instance, organizing a large charity dinner in Marin County. Though Marjorie was never able to make the museum a self-supporting institution, her vision was made incarnate in 1982 with the foundation of the SF Museum of Craft & Folk Art, which continued for 30 years. Mari Lyn was involved with the Lowie Museum and its exhibitions at Berkeley from 1972 to 1976, and she organized an exhibit of Kuna Molas at the Museum of La Raza in San Francisco.
In 1976 she was awarded a Postdoctoral Fulbright grant to travel with her family to the Azores to study folk arts, music, and what would now be called "intangible cultural heritage.” This led to the pioneer “Festas Acoreanas: Portuguese Religious Celebrations in California & the Azores” (1981) at the Oakland Museum. On her return from the Azores, she was hired as assistant professor of anthropology (and later, professor and associate dean) at the University of New Mexico, and as chief curator of the Maxwell Museum there. She became the key person in the life of the Museum and its relation to the department of anthropology. She attracted students, worked with other professionals, developed many exhibitions, and raised money, often with gala dinners by star chef Mark Miller of Santa Fe.

Among her major achievements was the creation of an exhibition of the Kuna Mola arts accompanied by a catalogue, Yer Dailege: Kuna Women’s Arts (University of New Mexico Press, 1978). This was followed later by a much larger travelling exhibition appearing first at the Fowler Museum at UCLA and the Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition was accompanied by a major book, The Art of Being Kuna (UC Press, 1997). She also worked with local Hispanic artists in New Mexico to study the aesthetics of ritual and religious imagery known as santos, exhibited as Cuando Hablan Los Santos: Contemporary Santero Traditions from Northern New Mexico. She also trained and assisted other anthropologists with their exhibitions and published catalogues. 

In 2005, Mari Lyn became director of the huge public Museum of Man in San Diego. There she worked to update the museum’s policies and goals, and she formed an important and loyal group of benefactors who believed in her causes.
In 2010, Mari Lyn moved to the Hearst Museum (née Lowie) at UC Berkeley as its first woman director. She immediately set to work on a huge, ambitious, and expensive program of renewal of the museum’s storage facilities, environmental controls, records systems, and exhibition hall, the most significant set of improvements since the it first opened in 1960. She fought hard on many fronts, formed an important Native American advisory committee and restored relations with many of the alienated indigenous communities in California. She worked hard to raise money to carry out the revolutionary updates. Most of these were accomplished by the time she stepped down in 2015 and retired to Albuquerque, New Mexico. In failing health from Alzheimer’s disease, she died within two years. Vernon had predeceased her several years before, long after the couple had parted ways.
Mari Lyn Salvador’s legacy to the world of the anthropology of art and museums is enormous. In addition to the achievements mentioned above, she carried out research at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D. C., the Museum of the American Indian in New York, and the Ethnographic Museum in Goteborg. She served as vice-president and president of the Council on Museum Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association, and board member and vice-president of the California Association of Museums. She also was a co-founder of the Alfonse Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies, named in honor of her prematurely deceased departmental colleague, of San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico.
We at Berkeley, at UCLA, at New Mexico, and in the museum and folk art worlds are in her debt. Her research methods and close relationships with the Kuna (and their arts), who she had invited from Panama to her exhibits of their material culture in the USA, were exemplary and serve as models for all of us in the global world of the arts and museums. We will not forget.
Nelson Graburn