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Department of Social Anthropology


Susan Drucker-Brown was one of the first women anthropologists in Mexico. ‘A Woman in the Field. The Photographs and Fieldnotes of Susan Drucker-Brown’ (22 April – 31 May 2024) explored the everyday life of her pioneering ethnographic research in the Mixtec-speaking village of Jamiltepec, in the southern state of Oaxaca.


The exhibition – hosted at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and the Department of Social Anthropology – featured photographs by this Cambridge-based anthropologist. I also selected excerpts from her field diaries where she had commented on specific photographs, on the people who appear in them, or on the situations featured.


More than just an historical record, the exhibition raised compelling questions about three aspects. Firstly, the processes of mestizaje, indigeneity and modernisation experienced in Mexico in the mid-20th century at an indigenous and rural locality. Secondly, the everyday life of ethnographic research and, in particular, the role of women in fieldwork. And thirdly, the afterlives of the materials produced during fieldwork, either as collections in museums or archives, or as part of restitution processes to the villages where the anthropologists worked.



To this day, there is a prevailing view of Indigenous Peoples that tends to exalt everything that is perceived as ancestral or different or as an expression of cultural resistance. In contrast, Drucker-Brown’s photographs allowed the audience to observe the changes that were taking place in Jamiltepec and other Mixtec-speaking localities on the coast of Oaxaca in the mid-20th century.


At the time of Drucker-Brown’s research (1957-1958), most Jamiltepec inhabitants spoke Mixtec and were identified by the state as indigenous (the percentage of Mixtec-speaking population is still considerable, at 14%). This situation justified the establishment of an ‘Indigenista Coordinating Centre’, charged with studying social and cultural change processes in the region and, eventually, intervening to ‘incorporate’ the population into national life.


It is in this broader intellectual and political context that Drucker-Brown conducted her research. She focused on women’s clothing and the changes they were undergoing, with the replacement of handmade (loom) garments by industrial ones. It was the first anthropological work on clothing and social change in Mexico.


This was the fourth staging of this exhibition: previous iterations occurred in Oaxaca City, Jamiltepec and San Agustín Chayuco, the two localities where Drucker-Brown worked. I considered it necessary to avoid reproducing the voice of the anthropologist as the sole source of authority. Instead, it was essential to include the views and priorities of the current inhabitants of Jamiltepec. Involving them in the curatorship of the exhibition also served as an exercise of restitution of the photographs and information gathered by Drucker-Brown to the contemporary inhabitants of Jamiltepec.


This collection showed the intimacy and closeness that the researcher maintained with the women with whom she worked in Jamiltepec. This opens up a question about the specificities of social research carried out by women. The exhibition also invited us to consider the work of those academics without a permanent position, whose research, though little known, may be ground-breaking. The pioneering nature of Drucker-Brown’s research attests to the importance of their contributions.




Exhibition review by Paula López Caballero, exhibition curator and researcher

‘A Woman in the Field: Susan Drucker-Brown’s Photographs and Anthropological Fieldnotes (Mexico 1957-1958)’
22 April – 31 May 2024


This exhibition was made possible thanks to the CEIICH-UNAM Research Centre, Mexico; the University of Cambridge’s Department of Social Anthropology, Centre of Latin American Studies, and the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH); Robinson College, Cambridge; and the Brown Family.