Elizabeth Carmichael obituary

Anthropologist and curator whose exhibitions at the British Museum brought Latin American cultures to a British audience

In 1991 the anthropologist Elizabeth Carmichael, who has died aged 84, was the British Museum’s curator of an exhibition that ignited interest in the spectacular and varied Mexican tradition of remembering the dead on the feast of All Souls, welcoming souls back to be with their families. Different communities went about this in different ways, but always lovingly and even joyously.

The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico, which ran for two years at the Museum of Mankind in central London, marked the culmination of several years of research and fieldwork in Mexico by Liz and her colleague Chloë Sayer exploring the variety and uniqueness of these traditions. They scoured the markets and neighbourhoods of Mexico City and far beyond, often in remote towns and villages, discovering the finest artisans, and tracking down information and gathering the materials characteristic of different approaches to the festival. Their finds included complex ceramic sculptures, intricate images made of hand-cut paper, skeletons galore in wire and papier-mache, palm fronds, pottery incense burners and much more, which they bought in markets or commissioned from the artists they met. Fragile ephemera such as skulls made of sugar were just as lovingly collected and carefully packed, wrapped in roll upon roll of toilet paper.

The cover of The Skeleton at the Feast by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer
Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer’s book The Skeleton at the Feast continues to be a reference work on Mexican Day of the Dead traditions Photograph: Tony Kitzinger

All this resulted in the largest exhibition about the festival held outside Mexico, and it astounded and delighted the public who saw it. The recognition it gave to individual Mexican artisans, some of whom came to the museum to display their skill in workshops and demonstrations, promoted greater and enduring respect for their work. It helped raise awareness of the richness and importance of Mexican traditions more generally, and the resulting book continues to be a reference text. Partly in consequence the British Museum now has a permanent Mexican gallery.

Born in Ilford, then in Essex, Liz was the third child of Eva (nee Aitken) and Daniel Carmichael. During the war the family moved to East Ham so that her father could be within cycling distance of his work as an electrical engineer in the London docks. From East Ham grammar school for girls she went to Newnham College, Cambridge, to study English. After a year she switched to archaeology and anthropology, graduating in 1960. At the time the course did not contain any specialisation in the Americas, but the curator of the university museum of archaeology and ethnology, Geoffrey Bushnell, an Americanist with a particular interest in Ecuador, encouraged her interest in this part of the world.

In 1961 Liz joined the British Museum ethnography department, one of a group of pioneering women entering the museum professions, and ultimately became responsible for the whole of the Americas. Nine years later, under the keepership of Bill Fagg, the department was relocated and renamed the Museum of Mankind in a building in Burlington Gardens (now the northern part of the Royal Academy), where there was enough space to offer in-depth presentations of cultures from around the world with long-term exhibitions and accompanying publications.

Elizabeth Carmichael
Elizabeth Carmichael joined the British Museum in 1961, part of a group of pioneering women entering the museum professions. Photograph: Mike Park

There Liz curated the first dedicated gallery for Aztec turquoise mosaic pieces. Her detailed, thought-provoking book Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico (1970) was followed by a large exhibition entitled The Maya, the first for the British Museum. Part of the exhibition, accompanied by Carmichael’s book The British and the Maya (1973), brought to life the contributions of British explorers and scholars who had done such extraordinary work in this field including Alfred Maudslay, Adela Breton, Ian Graham and Norman Hammond. The exhibition not only presented well-known Maya pieces such as the superb 8th-century carved stone lintels from the Maya city of Yaxchilán, the stone Maize God (AD715) from Copán and the beautifully painted vase of a Maya ruler receiving tribute, from Nebaj, Guatemala (AD600-800), but also less familiar, although equally important Maya pieces, such as remarkable Maya ceramic incense burners of the late postclassic period (AD1200-1500) collected in Belize by Thomas Gann.

While Liz did archaeological fieldwork in Belize, the Caribbean and Ecuador, her greatest strength lay in the pioneering of an entirely new focus of research and collecting by the British Museum related to contemporary indigenous and mestizo Latin American cultures, and she was able to concentrate more on this part of the world when a separate curator for North America was appointed. In 1985 she curated a major exhibition and published a book, Hidden Peoples of the Amazon.

Concerned to expand and enrich the museum’s representation of the cultures of today she directed a number of scholars and travellers to do fieldwork and make collections throughout Latin America. The years leading up to her retirement in 1997 were largely taken up with the preparations for the return of the department to the main British Museum site in Bloomsbury, which took place that year.

One of the carved stone lintels from the Maya city of Yaxchilán
The apparition of a serpent on one of the 8th-century carved stone lintels from the Maya city of Yaxchilán, which went on display at the British Museum in 1973. Photograph: PjrTravel/Alamy

Liz was the quintessential curator. Her colleague John Picton described her unrivalled skills in the handling of rare, precious and delicate things, and her “encyclopaedic knowledge of the entire Americas, with a firm grip on the intellectual merits of the various disciplinary arguments and controversies”. I recalled being in awe of her ability to “read the story” of the object in her hand. This was particularly true when she examined an artefact with no history brought in for identification. More often than not, she could quickly narrow down its provenance and age, describe the idiosyncrasies in how it was made and connect the iconographic details to make sense of the whole.

Her interests and knowledge were seemingly unlimited in the arts, music, cooking and all things to do with gardens. A friend described her as “that small, forceful, awesomely talented, prickly, cat-loving, totally individual person”.

She met Tony Kitzinger in 1966 while they were both working at the British Museum and they finally married formally in 2003. He and the younger of her two brothers survive her.

• Elizabeth Margaret Carmichael, museum curator, born 9 September 1937; died 19 April 2022


Penny Bateman

The GuardianTramp

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