Curator and Scholar Mary Jane Lenz (1930–2016)
Mary Jane Lenz working with objects from the museum's Northwest Coast collections, February 1984. Research Branch, Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, Pelham Bay, The Bronx, New York. Photo by Julia Smith, Museum of the American Indian.
With great sadness, I am writing to say that our dear friend and colleague Mary Jane Lenz passed away yesterday afternoon, having celebrated her 86th birthday on March 24. Mary Jane, or simply MJ as she was called by those closest to her, had a long and distinguished professional career at the museum, both when it was the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation in New York City and after it became the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and New York.
As an undergraduate, Mary Jane began work at Beloit College’s Logan Museum of Anthropology, and she remained interested in museums and museum work all her life. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Beloit in 1952 with a degree in Anthropology. In 1954 she received her Master's degree in Sociology and Anthropology from Bryn Mawr. For her Master’s research, she did fieldwork in the Tlingit community of Yakutat under the direction of the distinguished anthropologist Frederica de Laguna.
After many years of focusing her attention on her young family, and prompted by a New York Times article about the challenges facing the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, Mary Jane contacted Frederick J. Dockstader, then director of the museum. As a result of their discussions, she joined the museum’s staff in 1974. She was appointed director of its Archaeological Lab in 1976 and worked on materials recently excavated from Marajo Island near the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil. From 1977 onward she worked in the Curatorial Department, where she helped conduct a complete inventory of the museum’s collections as well as assisted researchers with their work. Mary Jane was also involved in supporting early repatriation requests from the Haudenosaunee, A:shiwi, and Kwakwaka’wakw nations, and in the return of sacred objects to the Omaha and Hidatsa. During this period, she continued her education by taking graduate courses in Anthropology at the City University of New York.
Throughout her career Mary Jane curated exhibitions and wrote about art and material culture and the history of the MAI. In her early years at the museum, she assisted the curatorial team for the exhibition Ancestors: Native Artisans of the Americas, shown at the U.S. Custom House in 1979. In 1981 she wrote the text for the exhibition Arctic Art: Eskimo Ivory at the Museum of the American Indian at Audubon Terrace. Later that year Mary Jane traveled with Collections and Exhibition staff to set install the Ancestors exhibit in the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing, China, combining nearly 600 works from the museum’s collections and 80 historical paintings of the American West from the Anschutz Collection of Denver. She curated the exhibitions Out of the Mists: Northwest Coast Indian Art at the IBM Gallery in New York (1984) and The Stuff of Dreams: Native American Dolls (1986) at Museum of the American Indian; she also served as co-curator of the museum's exhibition A Gift from the Heart: Two Pomo Artists (1990).
During the years following the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian as part of the Smithsonian, MJ worked with others on planning for both the Museum on the National Mall and the Cultural Resources Center, the museum's collections and research facility in Maryland. She contributed to the development and writing of two major exhibitions for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian's Heye Center in New York in 1994—All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture and Creation’s Journey: Native American Identity and Belief.
Following the completion of the Cultural Resources Center in 1999, Mary Jane moved to Washington. Here she headed the museum's Curatorial Department and served as chair of the Curatorial Council for several years. For the opening of the museum on the National Mall, she curated Window on Collections, which is still on view. She served as a co-curator of Listening to our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life along the Northwest Coast, a collaboration among the museum and 12 Native nations that was shown in both Washington (2007) and New York (2008). She also took part in workshops that brought together Native and non-Native scholars, artists, and community members to produce the permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian (2010) for the museum in New York.
In addition to her contributions to museum publications—including books for most of the exhibitions mentioned above—Mary Jane wrote for American Indian Art Magazine and served on their editorial board and published in Art & Antiquities.
Mary Jane’s special areas of research and expertise included Northwest Coast, Arctic, and Subarctic peoples, and the cross-cultural study of dolls. She devoted much time to improving the documentation for the museum's collections in these areas, and her book Small Spirits: Native American Dolls from the National Museum of the American Indian (2004) is still widely read. More than that, however, she was vitally interested in all aspects of Native life, world culture, and current events and politics. She retired from the museum in 2011, but remained in Washington until 2013, when she moved to the Boston area to be nearer to her family.
These professional accomplishments were but one part of MJ’s life. She was the proud mother of five children—Patty, Peggy, Sue, Mike and Tim—and an equally proud and indulgent grandmother. For many of us she filled several roles, combining the attributes of friend, colleague, role model, and enthusiastic supporter during the years we knew her. She welcomed many people to her home on Capitol Hill, which was filled with books, the personal collections she had accumulated over decades, and—most of all—the incredible interest and warmth she brought to every part of her life and, by extension, to our lives. Her spirit and generosity—personal, collegial, and intellectual—will be sorely missed.
—Kevin Gover, NMAI
Kevin Gover (Pawnee) is the director of the National Museum of the American Indian.