How Archaeologist Michelle Rich Found Her Way

From fabricators to mummy conservators to private collection managers, the art world is full of fascinating jobs you may not have realized even existed. In artnet News’s new column “My Art Job,” we delve into these enviable art-world occupations, asking insiders to share their career path and advice for others who wish to follow in their footsteps.

To kick off our inaugural edition, we spoke with Michelle Rich, a Mellon postdoctoral curatorial fellow in the Art of the Ancient Americas at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Her two-year term at LACMA concludes this month, and she will begin a new post-doc position at the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Education: I have an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from SMU in Dallas, both in anthropology with an archaeology focus. I’ve been doing fieldwork in the ancient Maya area, which comprises Guatemala, parts of Mexico, Belize, parts of El Salvador, and Honduras, since 1993.

How I got the job I have now: My position at LACMA is a two-year postdoctoral curatorial fellowship that’s funded by the Mellon Foundation, and I applied for the job in the summer of 2015. Due to my background in archaeology, specifically in elite contexts in which we tend to discover the kind of fine, artful objects that we like to see in museums, it was a good fit.

What makes my job unique: I think what’s interesting about this position is that I’m probably the only person in this whole museum who has spent two years of her life living in a tent in the middle of the jungle. I don’t have an art history background. I have an iconography background, so what I do is vastly different from most of the other curators who I work with.

My most memorable archaeological discovery: The prime example is a narrative scene composed of 23 ceramic figurines that I found in an ancient Maya royal tomb chamber at the site of El Perú-Waka’, Guatemala, in the course of my excavations in 2006. I was doing dissertation research on the large pyramids at the site as a member of the El Perú-Waka’ Regional Archaeological Project, where I am still an assistant director.