Marsha MacDowell is a Professor in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design at Michigan State University; a curator at the MSU Museum; and a core faculty member of the MSU Museum Studies Program. As a publicly engaged scholar, her work is grounded in an interdisciplinary approach to material culture and is informed primarily by art historical, folkloristic, and ethnographic theories and methodologies. For many years, her work has been largely focused on the production, meaning, and use of traditional material culture (especially that of Hmong-Americans, Native Americans, South Africans, and women); the role of museums in contemporary society; the development of educational resources and public arts policies related to traditional arts; the development of curriculum materials related to community-based knowledge; and the creation of innovative ways, including digital repositories, to preserve, increase access to, and use traditional arts materials. The overwhelmingly majority of her work has, by design and philosophy, been developed and implemented in collaboration with representatives of the communities and cultural groups whose cultural heritage is focused on.
She has published extensively and widely, including sole-authored books, monographs, reports, and articles in peer-reviewed journals. She has served as PI or Co-PI on grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute for Museum and Library Services, National Endowment for the Arts, Michigan State University, and the American Association of Museums as well as MSU arts and humanities agencies and major American public and private foundations.
Since the late 1990s, she has worked closely with MATRIX on diverse projects, especially those associated with African and African American museums and cultural heritage organizations; thematic material culture digital repositories; arts and health initiatives; and the Oral History in a Digital Age project. She serves as director of The Quilt Index and co-director of the Michigan Stained Glass Census.