Silver and gold earrings, bracelets and rings dangle from her ears and hands as she walks by colorful tapestries and statues in the Fowler Museum.
Her head nods and hands gesture simultaneously with her words, extending the meaning and passion of her speech as she points out specific works of art.
Mary Nooter Roberts’ eyes light up as she describes some of the interests dearest to her heart: curating and cultures.
“(Curating is) an ever-learning process … an intellectual journey … That’s one of the reasons I like it so much,” she says.
Nooter Roberts, who goes by Polly, is currently a professor in the world arts and cultures/dance department at UCLA. She has a passion and background in art history and African arts and is one of few in the department who can give students insight into the field of museum and curatorial studies.
She’s worked as an international museum consultant, curated numerous exhibitions, written award-winning books and performed vast field research.
But her connection with the content she teaches goes beyond her professional experience – it is rooted in her childhood.
When she was 2 years old, Nooter Roberts’ family moved from St. Louis to Uruguay for her father’s job in the U.S. Foreign Service. They soon relocated again to Liberia in West Africa, and eventually to Washington, D.C., where Nooter Roberts grew up from third to 12th grade.
“I had a lot to build on,” she said. “(Living in Africa) gave me a love for travel and being exposed to different cultures – and a kind of ability to adapt.”
When Nooter Roberts moved to Southern California to attend Scripps College, her parents moved back to Africa – this time to Tanzania.
While staying in Tanzania and traveling to Kenya with her parents, Nooter Roberts said she rediscovered her connection to Africa.
Polly Nooter Roberts, a professor in the World Arts and Cultures/Dance department.” height=”200
“I finally found my calling, and the calling was that I needed and wanted to work in Africa,” she said.
Nooter Roberts went on to Columbia University to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees in art history, where she also got her first major break in the industry working in a volunteer position for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
One of the biggest turning points in her life, however, was when she traveled once again to Africa – this time Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She went to perform field research for her dissertation, studying the arts and culture of the Luba people, who are part of the Bantu ethnic group in Central Africa.
Fully immersed in African culture, she said she was amazed by the generosity of the local people.
“Every time I went to interview in a neighboring town, I did not come home without a chicken or two on the back of my motorcycle,” she said, smiling.
Nooter Roberts also developed a sense of responsibility for the cultures she studied and the way they would be portrayed.
“I became very attuned to the fact that knowledge is something we have to respect,” she said. “We can’t as researchers simply march into other cultures and assume we can be privy to everything … we must obtain the trust of the people.”
Courtney Smith, a former student of Nooter Roberts’at UCLA who is now in a curatorial program at the University of Denver, said she remembers her professor bringing her own experiences into her teaching.
“What she really brings to the table that is different … is definitely the sensitivity to other cultures,” Smith said.
Nooter Roberts has helped formalize a major field for museum and curatorial studies within the world arts and cultures/dance department, which means students can take a number of courses specifically devoted to the topic.
One of her classes – called “World Arts, Local Lives” – centers around the Fowler’s long-running exhibition “Intersections,” which features art from around the world. Nooter Roberts was the project director of the exhibition while serving as deputy director at the Fowler Museum.
“The way (Nooter Roberts) engages with the exhibitions is really a model of how faculty can take advantage of the resources located on a university campus,” said Marla Berns, director of the Fowler Museum who worked with Nooter Roberts while she was deputy director. “She … works hard to make sure the voices of the communities represented are heard.”
Nooter Roberts has worked abroad extensively with her husband, Allen Roberts, who is an anthropologist and also a current professor in the world arts and culture/dance department.
The two have traveled back and forth to Senegal for 19 years, with their two sons in tow.
Nooter Roberts said her work exploring other cultures has changed how she lives her own life.
“I feel that the places I’ve lived in Africa have become a very important part of my life, and that identity is constantly developing and growing,” she said.
She said she’s experienced some culture shock constantly shifting from rural areas in Africa to places like cosmopolitan New York City. But the shock mostly comes from returning to the U.S. after a life-changing experience, she said.
She added that she’s felt at home wherever she’s lived, including Westwood.
While walking around the Fowler’s “Intersections” exhibition, Nooter Roberts pointed out various objects that held some special meaning for her.
She looked to a small piece of art made of wood and copper, an object from the Luba culture, which she had studied for her dissertation. She knows the piece’s history, but more important to her are the experiences behind it – some of which she’s seen firsthand.
Nooter Roberts thinks of curating as more than just collecting objects and putting them on display – and that’s what she tells her students on the first day of class.
“It’s something far more profound,” she said, smiling.