Museums have a dark past, but we can fix that

Museums are beloved cultural institutions, with more than 850 million visits each year in the U.S. alone. But behind the scenes, a war is raging – many cultures want their heritage returned to its place of origin. In this enlightening talk, Museum Curator Chip Colwell offers a surprising solution to this complicated ethical dilemma.

Chip Colwell is the Senior Curator of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He’s published 10 books, most recently Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.

A previous speaker at Point of Departure, his work has been featured in publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, and Slate. Chip is the founding Editor-in-Chief of, an online magazine about anthropological discoveries.

Here, we talk about million-year-old-axes, amazing high school teachers, and the minimalist life of the hunter.

Discoveries in anthropology are overwhelming—how do you decide what’s important and relevant when curating an exhibit?

It’s a big world, and humanity is a big subject! Often, we look for important collections, stories, or histories, which we anticipate will resonate with our visitors. But increasingly we work directly with communities to discover what stories they want to hear and tell. From these conversations, new collaborations are sparked where we try to ensure their values and viewpoints become part of the museum experience.

What has curating the anthropological collections taught you?

How vast the human experience is. I help curate everything from million-year-old ax used by our most ancient ancestors to a towering totem pole to fantastical masks used in Guatemala by Maya peasants in pageants to mock landowners. Through these things we can see the amazing breadth of how humans express themselves.

What led you to a career in anthropology?

I was fortunate enough to take an anthropology class in high school with an amazing teacher, Elliot Lax. He made the subject come alive by getting us to think about everything from the origins of language to the historical invention of races. He took us to the local zoo to study primates and used his spring break to tour the Zuni Reservation in New Mexico. By the end of that class, my heart and future were set on anthropology.

Are you a hunter or a gatherer?

Hunter! Ironically, although it’s my job to collect things for the Denver Museum, I personally am a minimalist and avoid gathering when possible.

Do you have a favorite TED talk?

No question, anthropologist Wade Davis’ “Dreams from Endangered Cultures.” If my talk is even half as good as his I’ll consider it a big success.