Going On the Job with Museum Curator Erin Baxter

Extremely passionate about her craft, Erin Baxter is an expert at divulging widely unknown people, places and things to those who have the pleasure of meeting her.

Museum Curator Erin Baxter | On The Job | May 2022 | Denver Life Magazine
Photo by Paul Miller.

To me, Erin Baxter is more than a history buff—she’s a modern-day explorer. As a revered scholar, educator and archeologist, Baxter has a unique way of bringing both wit and humor to her job in a story-like, relaxed manner that makes historical events instantly relatable. In other words, she has an innate ability to interject comfort into the curriculum amidst a world unknown to most of us.

As someone who doesn’t frequent museums enough (however, that’s something I plan to change) I was completely in awe of her profound depth of knowledge as we toured Egypt: The Time of Pharaohs exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and immersed ourselves in 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian culture. In her role as the Curator of Anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, she is responsible for the care and protection, research and education associated with human cultural objects from all over the world. She also teaches at CU-Boulder.

Describe your job at Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
“The truth is that on any given day, my job is crazy and amazing. I might find myself talking to virtual classrooms of 500 kids about mummies, on an excavation project in France, working with colleagues in a museum in Cairo, emailing descendent communities to better understand how to best care for or even return objects that might belong to them, examining an ancient pot, mentoring college students, trying to recreate ancient footwear, giving a talk about cannibalism or figuring out what will come next in an exhibit hall. It’s non-stop, fascinating and fun.”

What do you love most about your job?
“Colleagues. They’re the bee’s knees. I’ve never met anyone working here who didn’t love it. Mystery. Delving into something unexplained and using creative combinations of technology, testing and data analysis to find and test plausible hypotheses.”

How did you get into this field?
“Archaeology combines everything I love: mystery and problem solving, fascinating humans (ancient and modern), working in a team, traveling, spending lots of time outside, learning and teaching about this fabulous world and history to which we all belong.”

On the day-to-day, what do you enjoy about your position?
“There is always something to learn, do, talk about and explore. The books and articles on my nightstand include a history of B-17 bombers, a treatise on King Tut recent CT scan, an article on ancient Pueblo witchcraft and a book about ethics of museums and cultural property.”

What DMNS exhibitions are you most excited about right now?
“At the moment, we are starting up a project to work on mummy portraits from Egypt (housed at the Cairo museum). These are lifelike portraits pasted onto Roman-era Egyptian mummies from 2,000 years ago. We will study, conserve and help the Cairo museum display these fascinating windows into ancient Egyptian daily life.”

What have you found most fascinating throughout your career?
“I think the universal phenomena of death is one that has been a particularly interesting entre into the world of anthropology. Western/ American culture is unique in many ways related to our practices, taboos and sensibilities around death and burial. This has great and significant ramifications for archaeology. But even more importantly, when I talk to students or museum guests [about the topic] they invariably find it fascinating and yet know very little about what happens and why in our country. This seems a great microcosm of why anthropology, archaeology, museums and education are relevant—as keepers of the unconsidered.”

What’s your advice for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
“Stay in school. Read everything. You never know when you’ll need to know the calorie count of your kidneys, what Byzantine burials look like, how to sew an ancient sandal or when you’ll need to say ‘Help me move this llama offering!’ in Quechua. These are all real-world examples.”