Traveling with Ruth | Norman Vorano

Norman Vorano
March 2023

In 2002, I was a graduate student living in Rochester, NY, when Ruth, who was living in Vancouver, hired me on spec to comb through Lewis Henry Morgan’s scrapbook at the University of Rochester archives. I got the gig because Ruth was (and remains) a dear friend of my academic advisor, Janet Berlo, who must have put in a good word about my work habits. After that short contract, I didn’t see Ruth for another year or so. Happily for me, our paths crossed again around 2003 when, by coincidence, we both moved to Ottawa at roughly the same time. Ruth had returned to Carleton as a Canada Research Chair after her tenure as the Director at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. I moved to the nation’s capital to complete my thesis research and writing at the Library and Archives Canada. I didn’t know anyone in Ottawa, nor did I have a source of income, so I was enormously grateful when Ruth offered me a temporary job as her research assistant. The next couple of years were a whirlwind! Ruth entered a particularly prolific period of her academic and professional life, and it was exciting to have a ringside seat as her career shot into the stratosphere. During this time, the Phillips welcomed me into their home with open arms. Ruth became much more than my employer: she became a true mentor. When I left to take a job at the Canadian Museum of History in 2005, my relationship with Ruth changed, too. She embraced me as a colleague, friend, and collaborator—though she was always a mentor.  How very fortunate for me. 

Above all, over the past two decades, some of my best memories of Ruth involve travel. A contract with the Portrait Gallery of Canada brought us to Yellowknife, NWT, in the summer of 2005, where, among other people, we met with the famed photographer, priest, and documentarian of the Dene, the late Rene Fumoleau. Later in that same trip, we drove along a dusty road to the small Tlicho community of Rae-Edzo, where we met with Tlicho elders such as Elizabeth Mackenzie and the Chief Land Claims Negotiator of the Tlicho Self Government Agreement, John B. Zoe. The ink was still damp on the Tlicho Self-Government Agreement, and the excitement and optimism were palpable during our visit to the small community. We took several road trips to Akwesasne, Cooperstown, and elsewhere around Southern Ontario as Ruth laid the groundwork for what would evolve into the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Culture, or GRASAC. I vividly remember driving Ruth and a van full of her students up New York State Highway 81 on a perfect summer day. Some years later, Ruth asked if I wanted to partner with her to apply for a significant research grant through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. I didn’t even think before I answered in the affirmative. Our “Multiple Modernisms” project allowed us to travel to different museums, archives, and conferences worldwide over the next few years. We had such wonderfully enriching experiences as we travelled to Williamstown, MA; London, UK; Cape Town, Johannesburg, and White River, South Africa; Copenhagen, Denmark; Malmo, Sweden; and numerous cities and towns across New Zealand’s North Island, from the late Cliff Whiting’s home-studio in Whangarei to the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington. Driving the winding, rolling hills between Auckland to Rotorua with the windows rolled down and the fragrant smells of countryside breaking in on the conversation between Ruth, her grad student Stacey, and myself was especially memorable. On every one of those trips, Ruth brought along other students to continue the tradition of mentorship and training she shared with me some years earlier. Her generosity is legendary. 

Having logged tens of thousands of kilometres traveling with Ruth and friends and having toured countless museums with her, I think I am in an excellent position to make some claims about Ruth’s habits of travel and museum-going. First, Ruth drives very slowly. It’s not that she is an unsafe driver, but rather, she enjoys conversation while driving and tends to slow down to focus on the discussion. After going fifty in an eighty zone more than once, it was generally understood that I would take on the driving duties whenever we rented a car, and Ruth and her students would navigate and pick our next restaurant. I can also attest to the incontrovertible fact that Ruth does, in fact, read every text in a museum exhibition. The big stuff, the small stuff—no text is inconsequential, she reads every last word. Of course, that means she can easily spend three or more hours in a single exhibition when the typical burnout time for most exhibitions is between 20 to 40 minutes. I learned early on that my own well-being depended upon my ability to say to Ruth, “Okay, I’ll be in the coffee shop, just catch up with me when you’re done with the exhibition.” It was a very good arrangement.

More seriously, I can attest that Ruth doesn’t just “look” at things in a museum or gallery. She visually digests her environment, absorbing every detail and nuance of an object as well as the other “stuff” of exhibitions. For instance, while doing a fellowship at the Clark Art Institute for one year, she decided to do research on a 1757 painting by the English painter Arthur Devis. To most observers, the painting was a standard “conversation piece” that depicted a wealthy landowner in an informal setting with his niece and nephew, one of whom holds a basket with fish. Why would such a painting interest a historian of Indigenous arts? Ruth’s eagle eyes happened to notice that the rim of the basket—something that was barely visible—was defined by a ribbon-like decorated edge with alternating bands of red and black color. Homing in on this minute detail, she identified the basket as being manufactured by a Cree woman from Northern Ontario, attesting to the history of British colonialism in Upper Canada, an unspoken presence in the painting. Ruth made discoveries like these wherever she looked, which was frighteningly impressive. Indeed, she has an astonishing visual memory and can recall arcane details about museum objects she had seen once in the dusty back room of an out-of-the-way museum in any country. In normal conversation, something might pique her mind and set off a reference to “a beaded Anishinaabe bag in the municipal museum in Bergamo, Italy.” Not only that, but she would further recall little-known details about the collector, the year the item was collected, provenance, and the like. After several years, I was able to discern an underlying method for her recall. As her scholarship amply demonstrates, Ruth has an uncanny ability to make visible the otherwise unseen connections that link peoples, objects, places, and our histories, and in so doing, her work has brought people together for several generations. 

To say that I learned a great deal on our travels would be an understatement of epic proportions. It was also enormously fun. Traveling with Ruth has been such a great privilege of my life and something that I will cherish. I hope she continues to travel far and wide in her retirement. 

Cite this blog post
Birgit Hopfener (2023, April 1). Traveling with Ruth | Norman Vorano. Celebrating Ruth B. Phillips. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from

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