No Burgers for Smithsonian Archivist: Rachel Woody '04
by LeeAnn Kreigh
Rachael Woody dealt with the usual comments directed at students pursuing liberal-arts degrees. "So you're going to be a teacher?" some people assumed. Others were less kind: "Oh, you're a history major? So are you planning to be a stamp licker or a hamburger flipper?"
Four years after graduating from Pacific, Woody is not a teacher. And she is decidedly not a stamp licker or a hamburger flipper. She is an archivist at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., living her dream of working in the field she loves.
"The best piece of advice I think I've ever gotten was from a woman who also has a history degree. She said, ‘Take the classes that are interesting to you. Do the things that you really love doing, and eventually you'll be able to do it for the rest of your life,'" Woody said. "That's certainly been true for me."
Woody's interest in history, and in particular, ancient history, began at a young age, when her father allowed her to stay up late watching Egyptology specials on the Discovery and History channels. Her mother also encouraged what Woody described as her "voracious reading appetite" by allowing her daughter to check out as many books as she could carry from the library, and spend her allowance "and then some" on new books.
When it came time to choose a college, Woody sought out a school with a strong history department and vocal program (her second love), although in the end, her decision was largely based on the feel of the campus. "Out of the eight colleges I was looking at, Pacific was the warmest," she said. "It was about walking onto campus and having that warm, I'm-at-home feeling right from the first moment."
Once at the University, Woody was hooked from the first class she took from history professor Martha Rampton. "Not only is her teaching style fantastic, but the subject matter was just so interesting," she said. "The first class I took from her was on medieval women, and that was just incredible — reading the letters these women wrote in the medieval time period and applying that to the women's status in history and what was changing, and how those changes were reflected in what they were writing."
Rampton became Woody's senior thesis adviser, supporting her research into the lives of Sumerian women who lived in about 2300 BC. In her thesis, Woody took the Goddess Theory developed by Marija Gimbutas and applied it to the Sumerians, specifically looking at how the goddess Inanna "went from being worshipped as an all-powerful goddess controlling life, death and regeneration to being regarded as almost the whore of the gods and goddesses."
Woody described her thesis as a "two-year labor of love." To this day, she said she keeps an eye out for new research on the Sumerian culture. "If I'm in the bookstore, I have to stop by the history section and see what new Sumerian books are out. It's still something that's with me, something I really enjoy."
Ironically, Woody had never seen Sumerian artifacts in person until she entered graduate school at Simmons College in Boston, where she recently earned her master's of science degree in library science, with a concentration in archives. Between classes, she often walked down the street to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, where she frequented a room devoted to the Sumerians and surrounding cultures.
When she began her job search during her second and final year at Simmons, Woody came across the opening at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. "It was so perfect for what I enjoy about archives, which is not just sitting in the corner and cataloguing," she said. The gallery focuses on Asian art and the American interpretation of Asian art, and Woody's job entails user outreach, courting and developing relationships with patrons and donors, and creating and maintaining exhibits.
Woody said she maintains her early enthusiasm for history — enthusiasm that helped her ignore those who suggested she wouldn't find a meaningful career in the field. "I've always loved the mystery of ancient history," she said, "and I still have the drive to want to figure it out, to put the puzzle pieces together."
LeeAnn Kriegh '94, is president of WordDoc Inc.,
a writing, editing and proofreading business in Portland.