Aisa Martinez '06: Anthropology through Art

Aisa Martinez ’06 Aisa Martinez '06 jokes that she “gets paid to people-watch all day!” And it’s not too far from the truth. As a Visitor Service Assistant, Martinez’s job is to observe, only, instead of people-watching from a park bench, Martinez prefers to watch from inside the National Portrait Gallery in London.

“I direct visitors to various museum facilities and answer any questions they may have about the collection or any special exhibits,” says Martinez. “The role also has a security element to it, as we have to patrol the galleries to make sure that visitors don't take photographs or touch the portraits.”

“We also have the opportunity to do a gallery talk on a portrait of our choice, and I'm thinking of doing one on King William III and Queen Mary II and the College,” she says.

As Martinez puts it, “If you told me this time, five years ago, that I would be living in London, working at an international art gallery and helping out at a major international cultural institution, I think you probably would have had to pick my jaw up from the floor and mopped up the drool!” It is her dream come true.

As an international relations major with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies, Martinez has always been fascinated with other societies. Traveling abroad with the ultimate intent to work in a foreign country was a dream for Martinez. Two of the four years since her graduation have been spent abroad. 

Martinez attributes much of her success to her undergraduate foundation at William and Mary. Martinez remembers late nights in Morton Hall and Swem, and reminisces on her jam-packed calendar of extracurricular activities. As a member of both the Filipino-American Student Association (FASA) and the Hispanic Cultural Organization (HCO), Martinez was no stranger to culture. After a semester overseas in Morocco, Martinez knew that a life abroad was what she wanted.

Martinez flew to the Sultanate of Oman to begin her Fulbright researching women in 2007. Her research with the Oman Woman’s Association opened many doors for her, including working for the Centre for Omani Dress, an organization focused on the cultural dress of Omani men, women and children. This work inspired Martinez to pursue further study in social anthropology.

Having no previous academic training in Anthropology, Martinez decided to “take the plunge” and enrolled at the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Martinez’s master’s dissertation on Oman’s material culture was publicly recognized when she was asked to collaborate with the Middle East Department of the British Museum. Her research will debut in the January 2011 exhibition on Omani silver jewelry and clothing.

Today, Martinez’s job at the National Portrait Gallery in London is anything but dull. Founded in 1856, the National Portrait Gallery now “stages six major exhibitions and more than 10 special displays a year,” according to Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery. The popular portraits of Shakespeare, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Jane Austen are frequented often, and new exhibitions continue to welcome the steady flow of international visitors.

It’s not your typical nine-to-five drill: Martinez’s week begins Thursday morning. The weekend is when the museum comes to life.

It's a lot of fun — there’s usually a DJ or live music, a bar, interesting talks and performances, drawing sessions and other workshops taking place all over the gallery,” says Martinez. Engaging with the museum’s diverse visitors is her favorite part of the job.

Martinez enjoys exploring the London culture and indulges in being the “token American” among her work colleagues. She jokes about the dialect differences, laughing at the British pronunciation of “to-mah-to” in comparison with the Americanized “to-may­-to.” “But they still say ‘po-tay-to’ and not ‘po-tah-to,’” Martinez laughs. Martinez claims that while it can be challenging to live and work abroad, an open mind will ease the transition. “Cultural diatribes aside, in terms of working abroad, it’s a bit strange, but oddly fun.”

As for the future, Martinez plans to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology. She wishes to further her research on Oman, and even expanding her focus to East Africa. “I’d love to go the academic route,” Martinez says. “I’m really interested in material and visual culture and certain cultures use certain objects of wear and certain types of dress or create certain types of art to communicate meaning across the spectrum of relationships involved in life.”

Martinez offers a final insight on career paths saying, “In life, your future career should involve three things — something you love, something you’re good at, and something that brings in the money. If you’ve got two out of those three, you’ve got it made.” And she does.

This article first appeared as a "Tribe Spotlight" feature by the W&M Alumni Association.