Alumni Profiles

Richard Kurin

Leader of national museums enriches cultural knowledge by bringing people together

Kurin close-up
UB degree Anthropology, BA ’72; First job Work for the American Museum of Natural History, collecting artifacts in India—as a UB sophomore; Other firsts “I was among the first foreigners allowed into Pakistan to do grassroots anthropology in the ’70s. I met my wife there. Her father was in the American Foreign Service. On our first date, I took her to a Muslim shrine, and she liked it. We ended up getting married.”

Richard Kurin’s biggest challenge right now is that people keep giving him more museums to run. He’s been the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC, for two decades and was recently put in charge of another 15 national museums (with the title Acting Under Secretary for History and Culture). That’s what you get for a job well done.

Though he has worked closely with people as distinguished as Yo-Yo Ma, the Dalai Lama and the Aga Khan, Kurin is, at heart, a humble anthropologist—a broker who brings people together to enrich cultural knowledge. In 2004, when the American Indian Museum opened in Washington, DC, Kurin’s team produced an event that drew 85,000 Native American people from as far away as Argentina and Alaska. “Our government contributed to their decimation. And yet here were cultural survivors, celebrating their heritage in the nation’s capital,” he says.

At the 2004 dedication of the National World War II Memorial, Kurin raised a tent the size of a football field where nearly half a million visitors could see thousands of posted messages on 100 huge bulletin boards. Collectively, those words revealed the enormity of that war’s human sacrifice: My father, Skip, died in 1943. In the 10th Mountain Division. If you remember him, please call me at this number. Kurin says, “Veterans, their families and members of Congress were in that tent crying.”

For Folkways Recordings, an archive of classic American and world roots music, Kurin asked Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to reengineer the original recordings; Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Bono agreed to cover some of the tunes for a benefit album that won a Grammy and paid for the archive’s preservation. More recently, Kurin enlisted the Rockefeller and Paul Allen foundations to help digitize the 40,000 recordings for availability on the Web as Smithsonian Global Sound.

Though Kurin grew up in New York City, he says “The University at Buffalo opened my eyes.” One professor directed him toward field research in India. Another aimed him to his PhD at the University of Chicago. His education lit a fire in him that still burns: “To build knowledge about the world’s people and their heritage so that we understand who we are as Americans and human beings—that’s my job.”

Story by David Dorsey with photo by Nicholas McIntosh