Michigan State University masthead

Auslander, Mark, Ph.D.

Director, Michigan State University Museum
Associate Professor, Department of History and Department of Anthropology, MSUImage of Mark Auslander

Research Interests/Experience

Mark Auslander, Ph.D., serves as Director of the Michigan State University Museum and is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and History at Michigan State University.  A sociocultural and historical anthropologist, he works at the intersection of ritual practice, aesthetics, environmental transformation, kinship, and political consciousness in sub-saharan Africa and the African Diaspora. As an Africanist, he has published on such topics as grassroots debates over green revolution technologies, land tenure transformations and the etiology of HIV/AIDS, modern mass witch-cleansing movements, the revitalization of precolonial political ceremonies, and creative re-readings of tradition-based African art by contemporary multimedia artists.  In South Africa’s Limpopo Province and Kruger National Park, he has been interested in how ritualized struggles over access to sacred waterholes, burial sites and sacred archaeological sites have occasioned broader allegorical debates over belonging and exclusion within post-Apartheid society.  

Dr. Auslander‚Äôs Africanist work on kinship, aesthetics, place-making, and political cosmology informs his scholarship on race and cultural politics in the African Diaspora and North America. His book The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family¬† (University of Georgia Press, 2011)¬† re-reads American racial politics under slavery and post-slavery through structuralist approaches to mythology and kinship. The book was awarded the 2010-11 Delmos Jones and Jagna Sharff Memorial book prize from the Society for the Anthropology of North America, and the 2012 second book award in the Victor Turner Ethnographic Writing Prize competition, from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.¬†¬† He has more recently published on the early history of slavery and scientific investigations by African American at the Smithsonian;¬† on aesthetics and divinatory practice by contemporary Afro-Atlantic artists; on living history reenactments of racial violence, including lynchings and slave auctions;¬† and, on the history and display of racially-complex artifacts in museum settings‚ÄĒ including the social life of an embroidered artifact, ‚ÄúAshley‚Äôs Sack,‚ÄĚ which has emerged at the newest Smithsonian museum as an evocative, multi-layered memorial to victims of slavery and the slave trade.

His curatorial experience includes exhibitions on slavery, liberation, and memory in university settings; contemporary African and African Diaspora art: eco-connectivity and wildlife passages; artistic and poetic responses to nuclear contamination in a plutonium-production site;  tradition-based and contemporary indigenous environmental arts in Native America; indigenous struggles to restore salmon runs after a century’s absence;  the paleoecology and contemporary cultural politics of wild land fire in the inland Pacific Northwest; explorations of heroin and homelessness; climate change and indigenous technologies in the northern Philippines; Mexican votive paintings;  Chilean human rights textile art; new art on immigration detention and deportation, and the astrophysics of star formation.  He has been committed to increasing  linguistic diversity within gallery settings, and to making museum environments accessible to neuro-diverse stakeholders. He served on the core content development teams of African Voices, the long-term installation on the culture and history of Africa and the Diaspora at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and of Without Sanctuary; Lynching Photography in America, at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.  He has also served as senior fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

From 2011-17, Dr. Auslander served as Director of the Museum of Culture and Environment at Central Washington University, where he oversaw the academic program in Museum Studies. Previously, he directed the interdisciplinary graduate program in Cultural Production at Brandeis University. He is program co-chair, with Nana Akua Anyidoho (University of Ghana) of the African Studies Association annual meetings (Atlanta, Georgia in November 2018). He serves on the board of directors of the Consequences of Radiation Exposure (CORE) Museum.

With his students, Dr. Auslander has led numerous community engaged/service learning courses, partnering with vulnerable communities in developing collaborative exhibitions, documentary projects, and social justice initiatives. He and his students have helped to restore and document historically African American cemeteries; collaboratively curated art exhibitions with African refugee communities; facilitated mural painting, nature education, and community-building initiatives in urban youth networks, public housing developments and mobile home parks; created cell phone and mobile app-based walking tours of neighborhoods and museum exhibitions; and co-curated poetry performances with incarcerated youth in correctional facilities.

Selected Exhibitions

  • "The Things We Carry: Objects of Memory" (co-curated with Lynn Bethke). CWU Museum of Culture and Environment. 2017.
  • "Stellar: The Formation of Stars" (co-curated with Cassandra Falscheer) CWU Museum of Culture and Environment. 2017
  • "Liberty Denied: Immigration Detention Deportation" (co-curated with Susan Platt). CWU Museum of Culture and Environment. 2016
  • "Tapestries of Hope: The Arpilleras Movement in Chile." ¬†(co-curated with Marjorie Agosin) CWU Museum of Culture and Environment. 2016-17.
  • "Visions of the Miraculous: Retablos and Ex Votos from Mexico." ¬†(co-curated with Antonio Sanchez)¬†CWU Museum of Culture and Environment. ¬† ¬† ¬† 2016
  • "Welcome to the Kuiper Belt: New Discoveries from New Horizons" CWU Museum of Culture and Environment. 2016.
  • "Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines (co-curated with Ellen Schattschneider)¬†CWU Museum of ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†Culture and Environment. 2015.
  • "How did the cougar cross the road? Restoring Wildlife Passages in¬† Snoqualmie Pass"¬†CWU Museum of Culture and Environment. 2014
  • "Voices of the River: Life along the Yakima"¬†Museum of Culture and Environment, Central Washington University. January-June. 2013.
  • "Gifts of the Earth: Nature and Tradition in Native American Arts"¬†University Reception Center, Central Washington University. 2012
  • "The Transparency of Stone: New Art from South Africa‚Äôs Robben Island"¬†(Schwartz Gallery, Brandeis University) 2010
  • "Leave the Bones and Catch the Land: Southern Sudanese Art from Kakuma Refugee Camp"¬†¬†Dreitzer Gallery and Goldfarb Library, Brandeis University, Fall 2006.¬† Additional installation at Tufts University, February 2007; Harvard University, Fall 2009)
  • "In Memory‚Äôs Grove: The work of Keith Washington and Kevin Sipp"¬†(Dreitzer Gallery, Brandeis University, September-October 2005)
  • "Trans/Scripts: The Art of Victor Ekpuk"¬† Explored the artistic development of a significant Nigerian contemporary artist, with attention to his innovative use of scripts and writing systems associated with secret societies. (Slosberg Music Center Gallery, Brandeis University, October 11-November 10, 2004)¬†
  • Assemblies: New Art from South Africa.¬† (Co-curated with Pamela Allara and Kyle Kauffman)¬† Installation work and paintings by Neo Matome, Paul Stopforth, Kim Berman and Stompie Selibe.¬† (Dreitzer Gallery, Brandeis University, October 18-29, 2004)
  • A Dream Deferred:¬† African Americans in Emory and Oxford Colleges, 1836-1968.¬† (The Hoke O‚ÄôKelly Library, Oxford College of Emory University, April 1-May 30, 2001.¬† Re-opened January 15-March 1, 2002 in Special Collections, Woodruff Library, Emory University)
  • African Voices, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Core content development team, 2000-present.

Selected publications

  • 2017.¬†In Search of the Plaza: Threatened Mass Evictions, a Precarious Public Sphere, and a Museum-Community Partnership. Centre for Imaginative Ethnography (with Rodrigo Renteria-Valencia, Ellen Schattschneider, and Jessica Amason, et al)
  • 2017. Objects of Kinship: Reconstituting Descent in the Shadow of Slavery, Transition .No. 122. pp. 206-216.
  • 2017.¬† Rose‚Äôs Gift: Slavery, Kinship, and the Fabric of Memory. Present Pasts. 8(1), p.1.¬†
  • 2016. ‚ÄúBy Iron Possessed: Fabrice Monteiro‚Äôs Maroons: The Fugitive Slaves.‚Äú African Arts. 49, 3 (Autumn 2016)
  • 2016.¬†‚ÄúSlavery‚Äôs Traces: In Search of Ashley‚Äôs Sack.‚ÄĚ Southern Spaces (28 November)¬†
  • 2016.¬†‚ÄúChief S.O. Alonge: Photographer to the¬† Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria‚ÄĚ at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Arts [Exhibition review essay] African Arts.
  • 2015. ¬†"ReMixing Possession: Dreaming Futures Past in the Work of Jim Chuchu" General Anthropology. Volume 22, Issue 2, pages 14‚Äď15, Fall.
  • 2015. (with Bryce Peake) "Viral Soundscapes in the Public Square: The Confederate Flag Visits the U.S. Capitol"¬†Centre for Imaginative Ethnography.¬†
  • 2015. "Contesting the Roadways:The Moore's Ford Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally, July 25, 2015"¬†Southern Spaces (Published August 19)¬†
  • 2015. (with Chong-Eun Ahn). ¬†"Responding to ‚ÄúComfort Woman‚ÄĚ Denial at Central Washington University" Japan Focus: Asia Pacific Journal. Vol. 13, Issue 21, No. 3, June 1.
  • 2015.¬† ‚ÄúWe Can‚Äôt Breathe‚ÄĚ: Performing Subjection in African American Protest Traditions. Centre for Imaginative Ethnography.¬†
  • 2015. "Between Night and Day: Exhibiting Homelessness in Ellensburg, WA." (co-authored with J. Hope Amason, Alexander McCrary, Brittany Anderson, Sarah Bair, Nicolas Crosby, Barbara Hammersburg) Centre for Imaginative Ethnography
  • 2014. "Driving Back into the Light: Traversing life and death in a Lynching" Reenactment by African Americans, pp. 178-193.¬† Chapter 8, in the¬†¬† volume, Vehicles: Cars, Canoes and other Metaphors of Moral Imagination (edited by David Lipset and Richard Handler) Berghahn Books.
  • 2014. "Give me back my Children: Traumatic Reenactment and Tenuous" Democratic Public Spheres.¬† North American Dialogue (Society for the¬†¬† Anthropology of North America)¬† 17:1, pp. 1-12.
  • 2013. "Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic Living History Reenactments"¬†Signs and Society. 1 (1). pp.161-183¬†
  • 2012¬†¬† How Families Work: Love, Labor and Mediated Oppositions in American Domestic Ritual.¬† in Applying Cultural Anthropology, 9th edition (edited Peter Brown et al) McCraw Hill.
  • 2012 "Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian: Reading the Stones"¬†Southern Spaces.¬† December 2012.
  • 2012. Witchcraft and Sorcery in 20th Century Africa, in The Cultural Sociology of Africa; Part 3, 1900 to Present (edited by Orlando Patterson) Sage Reference.
  • 2011. The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding and American Family (book) University of Georgia Press¬†¬† [Winner of the 2010-11 Delmos Jones and Jagna Sharff Memorial Book Prize for the Critical Study of North America, Society for the Anthropology of North America and the 2012 Victor Turner Ethnographic Writing Prize (second book award), Society for Humanistic Anthropology.
  • 2011. ‚ÄúShe Speaks with the Wisdom of God‚ÄĚ: Traversing Visible and Invisible Worlds in African Environmental Arts. Catalogue Essay for¬† Environment and Object in Recent African Art. The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College
  • 2010. ‚ÄúHolding on to Those Who Can‚Äôt be Held‚ÄĚ: Reenacting a Lynching at Moore‚Äôs Ford, Georgia (Southern Spaces)¬†
  • 2010. Dreams Deferred: African-Americans in the History of ‚ÄúOld Emory.‚ÄĚ In the edited volume, ‚ÄúWhere Courageous Inquiry Leads:¬† Studies in the Emerging Life of Emory University.‚ÄĚ Co-edited by Gary Hauk and Sally Wolff King (Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia)
  • 2010. ¬†"The Other Side of Paradise: Glimpsing Slavery in the University‚Äôs Utopian Landscapes" (Southern Spaces)
  • 2009. "Going by the Trees: Death and Regeneration in Georgia‚Äôs Haunted Landscapes"¬†Electronic Antiquity, ‚ÄúAncient Mysteries, Modern Secrets.‚ÄĚ (May)¬†
  • 2007¬† Divination in the Age of DNA: (Re)reading the Entrails. In Steve Miller:¬†Spiraling Inward (Rose Art Museum exhibition catalogue, pp. 31-48. Brandeis University)
  • 2005 First Word: Assemblies: Paradoxes of Excavation and Reconstruction in Contemporary African Art. African Arts
  • 2005. "Saying Something Now: Documentary Work and the Voices of the Dead"¬†Michigan Quarterly Review, (Fall)¬†
  • 2004. Trans/Script: The Art of Victor Ekpuk¬†(exhibition statement, by curator Mark Auslander)¬†
  • 2005. Rites of Passage. Entry in Encyclopedia of Anthropology (Sage Publications)
  • 2003¬† Rituals of the Workplace. Work and Family Encyclopedia.¬† (Sloan Work and Family Research Network)
  • 2003. Landscapes and Bodies: Transpositions and Mirror Images. [Review of exhibition, ‚ÄúCoexistence: Contemporary Cultural Production in South Africa.‚ÄĚ] American Anthropologist, 105 (3): 621-3 (September)
  • 2003 Myth and the Family.¬† Work and Family Encyclopedia. (Sloan Work and Family Research Network)
  • 2002 Taking Difference Seriously: Considering Race in Work-Family Studies. Sloan Research Network Newsletter Volume 4(3) Fall 2002:1-4
  • 2002.¬† ‚ÄúReturn to Sender:‚ÄĚ Confronting Lynching and our Haunted Landscapes.¬† In Southern Changes, Spring/Summer 2002: 4-15
  • 2002. Something We Need to Get Back To: Mythologies of Origin and Rituals of Solidarity in African American Working Families.¬† Working Paper #8 (Sloan Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Emory University)
  • 2002.¬† Rituals of the Family.¬† Work and Family Encyclopedia.¬† (Sloan Work and Family Research Network)
  • 2002. Reconciliation Begins at Home: Remembering African American Contributions¬†at Emory and Oxford Colleges. Academic Exchange (December)
  • 2001. Introductory essay (with Charles Piot).¬† Special Issue of the journal Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. (3):1. (Special Topic: On Of Revelation and Revolution, co-editors of issue: Mark Auslander and Charles Piot)
  • 1999. Owning the Kruger National Park (with David Bunn).¬† In Arts 1999¬† (South African Department of Arts, Culture Science and Technology)
  • 1998. ¬†Nature, Meaning and Power in South Africa (with David Bunn). Proceedings of the ‚ÄúVoices, Values and Identities Symposium‚ÄĚ, 25-27 August 1998. Edited by Yvonne Dladla. (Kruger National Park)
  • 1993. ‚ÄúOpen the Wombs!‚Ä̬† The Symbolic Politics of Modern Ngoni Witchfinding.¬†in Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa. (pgs. 167-192) Edited by John and Jean Comaroff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)¬†in Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa. (pgs. 167-192) Edited by John and Jean Comaroff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Selected Honors

  • 2017 First Annual University Accessibility Champion,¬† Program in Accessibility Studies and Disability Center, Central Washington University (for work in making museums more accessible to diverse communities)
  • 2013 EMPIRE (African American student organization) Award for Administrator of the Year (2012-13). Central Washington University.
  • 2012¬† Delmos Jones and Jagna Sharff Memorial Book Prize for the Critical Study of North America (Society for the Anthropology of North America) Awarded for the leading critical anthropological study of North America published in 2010 and 2011, for the book, ‚ÄúThe Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family.‚ÄĚ
  • 2012 Victor Turner Ethnographic Writing Prize (Second book award) for¬†The Accidental Slaveowner: Revisiting a Myth of Race and Finding an American Family.‚ÄĚ (Society for Humanistic Anthropology)
  • 2011 Senior Fellow, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
  • 2009 Waltham Partnership for Youth/Waltham Family School, Community Service Award (for university-community partnerships with new immigrant women)
  • 2002 Scholar-in-Residence Research and Writing Fellowship, The Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (An Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Center for Working Families), Emory University. University Annual Crystal Apple Award for Undergraduate Seminar Teaching, Emory University
  • 2001 Annual Mizell Award for Excellence in Teaching, Oxford College, Emory¬†University


Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Chicago, 1997
M.A., Anthropology, University of Chicago, 1985
B.A. with Honors, University of Chicago, 1983

Dr. Auslander regularly shares his thoughts on museums and related matters on his blog, Cultural Environments.  

New Feature: Letter from the Director