Danielle Raad digs in as the new curator of the Stanford University Archaeology Collections
The new curator and assistant director of the Stanford University Archaeology Collections says the pieces in her charge have something to offer all disciplines. “It’s really powerful to be in the presence of objects. The more time you spend with a work of art or artifact, the more it can teach you.”
This summer, Danielle Raad pulled on purple gloves and carefully removed a brightly colored ceramic sculpture of a double-tailed mermaid astride a quadrupedal red devil from a metal storage cabinet at the Stanford University Archaeology Collections (SUAC).
The eye-catching, 20th-century ceramic came from Ocumicho, a village in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, and is one of several recently donated to SUAC. Raad carefully held the object as she transferred it to a padded cart, minimizing its time held over the floor.
“I’m very enchanted by fantastical themes,” Raad said. “Sometimes I feel like everyone else is living their lives in a very serious way. But in the presence of these objects, I feel a sense of connection with other people who also find joy in the surreal.”
Raad, who joined Stanford in August as the new curator and assistant director of SUAC, uses a minimal amount of objects in her teaching so students can spend time with the objects themselves and observe them closely. Those quiet moments help them develop mindfulness, patience, and the ability to notice different details.
“It’s really powerful to be in the presence of objects,” Raad said. “The more time you spend with a work of art or artifact, the more it can teach you that you can’t learn just by looking at a textbook or images on a slideshow. They have the ability to elicit different affective responses in us as well.”
SUAC is a museum-style collection of archaeological, anthropological, and archival materials cared for by the Stanford Archaeology Center.
The origin of Stanford University’s collections begins with the personal acquisition efforts of the Stanford family. In the late 19th century, Jane and Leland Stanford’s son Leland Jr. collected archaeological, anthropological, and historic items from family property, local trips, and international trips to Europe and Egypt, where Leland Jr. met with renowned archaeologists and museum curators. He styled his collection as a museum in the family’s home with displays and labels and aspired to be a museum curator.
After Leland Jr. died of typhoid fever at 15, his parents honored his memory with the 1885 founding of both the university and the Leland Stanford, Jr. University Museum. Both the Stanford University Archaeology Collections and the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts have origins in this memorial museum. Jane added to the collections following her son’s death through extensive travel, accepting gifts, and making purchases through a network of friends and acquaintances. She acquired materials from locations including Egypt, Denmark, India, Oceania, and across the Americas.
SUAC now also holds materials excavated on campus lands and from regional archaeological digs, as well as through donations from faculty, alumni, and members of the public.
As curator, Raad oversees operations, acquisitions, registration, collections management, education, research, and outreach of SUAC’s expansive collection. Comprised of more than 100,000 objects, it has regional strengths yet is global in scope. The collections come from six continents and range in temporal breadth from Achuelean stone tools over one million years old to contemporary Indigenous ceramics from the 1990s.
Raad is an anthropologist, archaeologist, educator, and museum professional with expertise in object-based teaching and research spanning the humanities, social sciences, and STEM disciplines. Previously, Raad was a postdoctoral fellow in academic affairs at the Yale University Art Gallery, where she expanded curricular and co-curricular engagement with the collections.
Raad said she was drawn to the opportunity with SUAC because it allows her to not only work with a collection but also teach and facilitate research.
“My academic and professional experience blends archaeology, anthropology, and museums,” Raad said. “I’m excited to get to do a little bit of everything in my job, and interface between the collections and the faculty and students at the Stanford Archaeology Center.”
Raad said the collections can benefit a wide range of ages and disciplines with varied pedagogical methodologies she’s honed through her own diverse education and experience teaching at the high school, community college, and university levels.
“I’m interested in managing a dynamic space where Stanford faculty from a range of disciplines can come in and use objects in their teaching in different ways,” she said. “The collections have so much potential and can be useful in any discipline – from history and music to law and medicine to chemistry and physics.”
For example, when thinking with objects, students in STEM fields can practice skills like close observation, evidentiary reasoning, and pattern recognition. “Perhaps they’re not interested in the objects in the same way archaeologists or art historians would be, but they can still use them to develop skills that will be important for their careers, while at the same time learning about different cultures and cultivating dispositions like empathy and mindfulness,” Raad said.
SUAC is on public exhibit at the Stanford Archaeology Center and is accessible to students and faculty for formal and informal object-based research and professional training. The SUAC collections space and classroom can be accessed by appointment by Stanford students and faculty, as well as by outside researchers or descendant community members.
The Stanford Archaeology Center strives to make SUAC accessible to many stakeholder groups and invites input from descendant communities regarding collections and their care.
Undergraduate and graduate students across departments can enroll in SUAC courses, and SUAC also accepts student interns. In the spring 2024 quarter, Raad will be teaching “Introduction to Museum Practice.” This will be a hands-on museum practicum course open to students of all levels from any discipline that will culminate in a student-curated exhibit.
“The cool thing about this collection is that, with supervision and guidelines, students can handle the objects, which you wouldn’t typically be able to do at an art museum,” Raad said. “The more time you spend with them, the more that you start to notice. They reveal themselves to you over time.”
The collections are housed in Margaret Jacks Hall with student-curated exhibition space in the Stanford Archaeology Center. Visit SUAC’s website for more information about current exhibitions and the collections.
Raad earned her PhD in anthropology with a certificate in public history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, an SM in material science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an MA in chemistry from Harvard University, an MEd in secondary education from Lesley University, and a BSc in chemistry at Brown University.
The polychrome ceramics featured in this piece were collected by the late photographer Michelle Vignes from artists in Ocumicho around the 1970s and 1980s during her trips to photograph daily life in Mexican pueblos. They were bequeathed to Tom Mogensen (1950-2020) upon Vignes’ death in 2012 and donated to the Stanford University Archaeology Collections on Feb. 18, 2022, by Mogensen’s spouse, Ellen Deitch. The brown-hued ceramics pictured were collected by Paul and Gertrude Paige during a visit to the Ixtlan del Rio region of Nayarit, Mexico from October 1952 to March 1953. They were donated by the Paiges to the Stanford University Anthropology Department on April 28, 1953.