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Claire Nicholas

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Claire Nicholas


Office: Dale Hall Tower 516 & Sam Noble Museum 250D

Research Interests

  • Materiality and Material Culture 
  • Craft 
  • Design and Architecture 
  • Museum Anthropology 
  • Gender 
  • Embodiment 
  • Expertise
  • Colonial/Postcolonial Studies
  • North Africa 
  • North America


My research employs ethnographic and historical methods to study the everyday practices and politics of making, displaying, and interpreting material and visual culture. I focus on craft and design practice in field sites ranging from Moroccan artisanal textile workshops to North American university architecture studios. As a museum anthropologist, I am also deeply committed to object-based research, the power of visual storytelling and public engagement through exhibits and programming, and the importance of collaboration with community stakeholders. I hold a PhD in socio-cultural anthropology from Princeton University, a DEA from EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris), and completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in Material Culture & Design Studies in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta.

My current work revolves around issues of skill, technology, materiality and heritage. I track how these issues are shaped by colonial and post-colonial conditions in Morocco. In recent publications and my current book project, Fabricating Futures: Heritage Under Development in Postcolonial Morocco, I explore these themes with regard to traditional textile crafts and socio-economic development. My work offers an ethnographic and historical account of “rationalization” and its material forms, where claims to “know” or “know better” are staked on everyday linguistic and material signifying practices. My analysis highlights the contested nature of Moroccan cultural heritage and its worth in a globalizing economy. Whereas the domains of “discourse” and “material culture” are often considered separately, I argue that ways of speaking and engaging with material forms constitute a unified field of social action and interpretation. This field also reflects the persistent influence of colonial categories and policies vis-à-vis traditional art and craft in post-colonial Morocco.  My North American research examines embodied knowledge and the material and communicative affordances of design media and technologies in architectural design-build education. One strand of this research, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, is a collaboration with architects and computer scientists exploring augmented reality technologies and methods for documenting and teaching craft knowledge. We are particularly interested in analogies between beadweaving and architectural components drawing on woven structures. We anticipate that the outcome of this work will inform digital humanities and augmented reality applications for cultural heritage preservation and programming.

Recent Publications

2022. Nicholas, C., Forren, J., and Reilly, D. Augmented: Design and Ethnography in/of an Architecture, Computer Science, and Textile Research-Creative Collective, in Lockton, D., Lenzi, S., Hekkert, P., Oak, A., Sádaba, J., Lloyd, P. (eds.), DRS2022: Bilbao, 25 June - 3 July, Bilbao, Spain. 

2021. Nicholas, C. "Frames of Reference: Cloth, Community, and Knowledge Ideology in Morocco." Museum Anthropology 45(1): 28-41.

2021. Sarroub, L. & Nicholas, C., eds. Doing Fieldwork at Home: The Ethnography of Education in Familiar Contexts. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

2021. Nicholas, C., Casto, M.A., Francisco, K., & Smith, A. “No Place Like Home?: Shifting Design Ideals for Eldercare Facilities.Journal of Consumer Culture

2020. Nicholas, C.Enmeshed: The Colonial and Post-Colonial Anthropology of Moroccan Textiles and Dress.Hespéris-Tamuda 55 (4): 359-384.

2020. Nicholas, C. & Oak, A. “Make and Break Details: The Architecture of Design-build Education.” Design Studies 66: 35-53.

2019. Forren, J. & Nicholas, C. “Lap, Twist, Knot: Coupling Mental and Physical Labours in Contemporary Architectural Practice.” Scroope 28: 94-107.

2018. Nicholas, C. & Oak, A. “Building Consensus: Design Media and Multimodality in Architecture Education.Discourse & Society 29 (4): 436-454.

2018. Nicholas, C.Rationalizing Cooperation: Moroccan Craft, Politics and Education.Anthropology and Education Quarterly 49 (2): 210-223.

2014 . Nicholas, C.Of Texts and Textiles: Colonial Ethnography and Contemporary Moroccan Material Heritage. Journal of North African Studies 19 (3): 390 – 412.

Courses Taught

  • ANTH 1253: Folklore and Folklife
  • ANTH 4953: Special Topics: Gender and Material Culture
  • ANTH 4163/5163: Study of Material Culture (Materiality & Materialisms)
  • ANTH 3920: Internship in Museum Anthropology