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Teofila Cruz-Uribe Fuses Passion for Museums with Russian Studies at UW’s Jackson School

December 1, 2016

“Ever since the Cold War, museums have helped to bridge the gap between Russia and the US. They have been big players in cultural diplomacy and maybe don’t receive the credit they deserve.”

Teofila Cruz-Uribe is a second-year master’s student in both International Studies at the Jackson School’s Ellison Center for Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies and the University of Washington’s Museology program and a recipient of the Foreign Languages and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship for 2016-2017. Cruz-Uribe is taking advantage of one of the UW’s concurrent degree programs to specialize in both fields so she can follow her passion for Russian history and museums. While a master’s program typically takes two years, a concurrent program allows graduate students to work on two master’s degrees at once, and most students complete them both within three years.

Before studying at UW, Cruz-Uribe spent four years teaching English in Russia and touring the museums of Moscow. The Ellison Center caught up with Cruz-Uribe to talk about her unique degree and to learn how her background informed her educational and career goals.

What have you been focusing on so far in your program?

This quarter I’m looking at collections management. In previous quarters I’ve looked at mission statements in the international museum sphere and how they compare—specifically between Russia and the US. While Russia models some of its institutions on the US—they are currently revamping their education, for example—museum-wise they are much more European, but even more than that they are less Western, meaning they don’t follow a lot of the organizational principles that Western institutions do. They don’t have mission statements and policy statements. Remnants of nationalization are still felt in a lot of institutions.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at collections management in museums, while my museology classes are allowing me to specialize in Russia. There are a lot of current museology issues right now. There is an art-loan freeze between the US and Russia. It’s quite a niche topic, but you can enter it in with an interest in foreign relations. The Russian Ministry of Culture is saying, “We won’t allow any state museums to loan to the US, because the US will freeze our assets.” The US is saying, “We won’t do that because it’s against the law, but you in the past have broken the law, and we want you to return these works to their original owners.” So you can enter it from both directions: Interest in museums and museology and interest in relations between Russia and the US.

How do thesis projects work for dual-degree programs like yours? What are you working on?

I’m laddering when I do my thesis. This year I’m doing my REECAS thesis, and next year I will do my museology thesis. I could possibly get it done in less than three years. My goal is a maximum of three years.

My thesis for REECAS has a historical focus. I’m looking at early 20th century art—the avant garde artistic movement and its influence on museology, which was quite innovative. It may seem like a break for someone who has interest in current foreign relations between the countries which has nothing to do with what Kandinsky and Malevich did in the 1920s in art museums. But there are some threads, and if you pull hard enough, you can find some interesting things. My focus is on centralization—the organizational principle of centralization. It doesn’t sound very sexy, but the way contemporary artists like Malevich used it was quite innovative.

With the two programs, I’m given a lot of leeway. In a museology class I’ll often ask if I can do something Russian-focused, and they say sure. Or in a REECAS class I will ask if I can do something museum institutions or museological principles, and they will let me. So I’m given a lot of leeway to synthesize everything together. I’m a believer in synthesis, and if you like synthesis, I would suggest doing a dual-degree program.

A lot of people in the REECAS field probably don’t even know there is something called museology. What is that field all about?

Museology is kind of a new word. The more common term might be museum studies. It’s the study and practice of museum management, administration, and curatorship. A lot of people might assume that a museum curator got a degree in art history, or just history, or just art, and sometimes that is the case, but more often than not if the curator has an art history degree, the registrar or the collections manager will have either a museology degree or a law degree, or a management degree, or a business degree.P1010541

We have a museum administration class, but we also have a special collections lab here at Suzzallo where we learn how to manage film. It’s kind of a dying art. There aren’t that many people who specialize in how to manage film. So someone comes in with a bunch of film from 1910 documenting some amazing event, but it’s been in someone’s attic, or some historical society has had it for 50 years, and because they don’t have any expertise, they don’t know what to do with it. They don’t have the machinery to use it, so it’s completely useless to them. But if you know a little bit about that technology—and we learn the basics—you can do something with it. We learn about preservation and how to handle these things, for example.

What brought you to this field of research?

I came to it through Russia. My plan was always to go to graduate school in Russian studies. I always had the UW in the back of my mind for that. After I finished my undergraduate work, I moved to Russia for four years—always with the plan to go to grad school in Russian studies. Russia is kind of a country of museums, and Moscow is a city of museums, and I had so many amazing experiences in museums that I got to wondering what made those experiences possible. This was kind of my concession to practicality. While I’ve always loved history, part of me has considered it impractical. I was torn, so I thought if I melded the two together I would be a lot more prepared and experienced for a job in a niche field—either in a Russian museum or in an institution that deals with Russia in terms of cultural diplomacy and art exchange. Ever since the Cold War, museums have helped to bridge the gap between Russia and the US. They have been big players in cultural diplomacy and maybe don’t receive the credit they deserve.

So when I was preparing my application to the UW for the REECAS program, I noticed that UW had a museology program, and not a lot of schools have a museology program. Some have a certificate program through the art history department, some have library science and information technology programs, but not that many have museology programs that offer an MA and not just a certificate or specialization. It struck me as serendipity, and instead of trying to make one like the other, I decided to do both at the same time.

How did you get interested in the region and how did your background inform your career and educational trajectory?

My father is a public health doctor. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was a delegation exchange where a group of American public health and medical professionals went to Russia and a group of Russians came to America. My dad went twice and spent several months in Russia. Both times the translator for his group was a young woman from Chelyabinsk named Lilya who wanted to study abroad. The group decided to sponsor her, and when my dad came back the second time, he brought her with him. She lived with us for five years. I was eight when she moved in, and she became my big sister. She went to Tacoma Community College and then transferred to the UW and got her MBA. Now she lives in Denmark. So when I was growing up, my bedtime stories were Russian fairy tales and the art on the walls was Russian art that my father had gotten. So that started it.


Teya with her “big sister” Lilya in Copenhagen.

When I got to college, I basically lived in the Russian section of the library. I decided that my undergrad thesis would have a Russian focus. My focus was on scientific history—early Soviet scientific education systems. I’ve always been interested in that era.

And then my plan was to go to Russia, so I took a year off after I graduated and I taught art and Spanish at a Montessori school while saving money to go to Russia. I found out through some connections that I could teach languages there. So I got a job with an international language company and I moved to Moscow in 2011 and lived there until summer of 2015. I loved it. My original plan was one or two years, but I wound up staying for four.

Looking toward the future, what do you want to do next?

I’m torn between either pursuing a PhD or jumping straight into the job market. I think I’m pretty academically bent, and I think I’d be as happy as a pig in mud if I did nothing but research all the time. But another part of me wants to evolve as a person, and I think I have to get out of school to do that.