Mari Lyn Salvador

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Mari Lyn Salvador (born 1943) is a well known scholar of Panamanian textiles called molas, appliqued panels attached to the front and back of traditional blouses worn by Kuna women of Panama. Her study of these textiles and the people who create them has been the foundation for a career in museums that has recently culminated in the directorship at the San Diego Museum of Man. Salvador's career has been focused on analysis of ethnoaesthetics, appreciation of art in its own cultural context, from a variety of peoples.


She started college as a student of art, particularly weaving and pottery, at San Francisco State University. Immediately following, she joined the Peace Corps in 1966, and was sent to Panama to help build chicken coops.[1] Building chicken coops according to established rules didn’t agree with her artistic sensibilities, so her supervisors at the Peace Corps allowed her to start an artists’ cooperative among the Kuna, near Panama’s Colombian border. While living with the Kuna, she developed an appreciation for their brightly colored molas. Mola Coop Panama, as it is now known, is still active in that region of Panama. It has been a strong influence on the local economy and is currently developing an international presence through use of the internet.[2]

As a graduate student, Dr. Salvador gathered a reference collection of molas that formed the backbone of the exhibit for the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, for which "The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama" (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1997) was compiled. She has since traveled widely researching them, including visits to the National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of the American Indian, and the largest collection in the world at the Goteborgs Etnografiska Museum (Museum of the Peoples) in Sweden.[3]

After returning from Panama, she pursued a PhD in cultural anthropology at University of California at Berkeley, where the majority of her work focused on the use of art in daily life among the Kuna. She followed the work of Lila O'Neale and Nelson H.H. Graburn, using analysis of ethnoaesthetics to understand the art of Kuna women from the perspective of the individual artists within the framework of their own culture.[4] For instance, among the Kuna, only women create visual art, as opposed to verbal arts or oratory, and its creation is a communal experience. Women and girls of all ages work together, share designs and learn from each other.[5] The social element bonds these women together, and it reinforces other elements in society, as Kuna art is intertextual, referring to and borrowing from other arts and media.[6] Artistic form is important in Kuna life, beyond the aesthetics of a piece: it informs notions of performance and ritual in addition to reflecting social values upheld in those performances. Visual art allows the Kuna to identify themselves as a separate and isolated group, but also crosses social boundaries as the Kuna have sought controlled contact; this last is demonstrated in the molas themselves, which have incorporated non-Kuna elements since the 1920s.[7]

Post-graduate work[edit]

Following completion of her PhD in 1976,[8] Dr. Salvador taught at Universidade dos Açores (University of the Azores) in Portugal while on a Fulbright scholarship to study festas, which are native religious celebrations.[9] She continued this research more locally, in southern California, among Portuguese-American communities for several years, focusing on the aesthetics of ritual performance and the ways in which art is used in ritual.[10] She has also worked with contemporary Hispanic artists in New Mexico to study and exhibit religious imagery known as santos, attempting to understand the importance of the creative process among these artists in both aesthetic and devotional contexts.[11]

Museum career[edit]

She served as chief curator at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico from 1978 until becoming director at the San Diego Museum of Man in 2005.[12] In 2009, Dr. Salvador was appointed to the directorship of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her contract finally ended in July 2015. Dr. Salvador advocates bringing community elders to museums as scholars and has worked with many such elders in doing research for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Her focus on gender and indigenous peoples is a widening of the San Diego Museum of Man’s purpose beyond its literal name, indicative of the more general trend in museums today toward plurality. She also served as the president of the Council for Museum Anthropology (CMA), a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), from 2003-2005. She maintains a position on the board, reflecting her own and the council’s mission to advance anthropology within the context of museums.[13]

Dr. Salvador’s commitment to studying ethnoaesthetics and understanding art in the context for which it was created has been a touchstone for her work. Not only are these objects a pleasure to view, recognizing the conventions to which these works of art adhere and the context in which they were created tells us much about the people who made them. Understanding many levels of art as a cohesive unit—the beauty, symbolism, conventions, and the social elements, both within and without Kuna culture, Azorean culture, and New Mexican Hispanic culture—have brought a broader, more culturally enriched notion of art to the museum-going public. Dr. Salvador has been instrumental in connecting art to the people who created it, a part of the movement that allows the public to better appreciate art as more than a single-faceted visual or auditory phenomenon, but as a reflection of the society that created it.

Selected publications[edit]

  • Salvador, Mari Lyn. Kuna Women’s Arts: Molas, Meanings and Markets. Crafting Gender: Women and Folk art in Latin America and the Caribbean. Eli Barta (ed). Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2003.
  • Salvador, Mari Lyn (ed.) The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama. Berkeley: University of California. 1997.
  • Salvador, Mari Lyn. Cuando Hablan Los Santos: Contemporary Santero Traditions from Northern New Mexico. Albuquerque: Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. 1995.
  • Salvador, Mari Lyn. Festas Acoreanas: Portuguese Religious Celebrations in California and the Azores. Oakland: The Oakland Museum History Department. 1981.


  1. ^ Steele, Jeanette. “Director’s a first for Museum of Man.” The San Diego Union-Tribune. July 5, 2004.
  2. ^ Steele 2004
  3. ^ Salvador, Mari Lyn (ed.) The Art of Being Kuna: Layers of Meaning Among the Kuna of Panama. Berkeley: University of California. 1997: xxi.
  4. ^ Salvador, Mari Lyn. Cuando Hablan Los Santos: Contemporary Santero Traditions from Northern New Mexico. Albuquerque: Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. 1995: xi
  5. ^ Salvador 1997: 49
  6. ^ Salvador 1997: 47
  7. ^ Salvador 1997: 49
  8. ^ Salvador 1995: xi
  9. ^ Steele 2004
  10. ^ Salvador 1995: xi
  11. ^ Salvador 1995: xiii
  12. ^ Steele 2004
  13. ^ Board of Trustees 2007, Council for Museum Anthropology, accessed 18 April 2008

External links[edit]