Covering the Land of Lincoln

Beyond the Boardroom: Spurlock Museum’s Elizabeth Sutton | University-illinois



Elizabeth Sutton poses next to a statue of King Khafre at the UI’s Spurlock Museum of World Cultures. (Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette).

A fourth-generation Californian who returns “as often as possible to visit the Pacific Open,” ELIZABETH SUTTON is a long way from home.

But of all the scenic settings where she’s reported for work since earning three degrees from schools in the University of California system — the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the Union Station museums in Ogden, Utah — “ this is the best job I have ever had,” says the director of the UI’s Spurlock Museum of World Cultures.

“Even on the bad days,” Sutton says, “I am so grateful to work with this group of colleagues and stakeholders and be a part of the mission of the museum.”

An avid gardener and hiker, Sutton has settled into life in the Midwest with her husband, two sons and pair of pet projects — “restoring our John Replinger home and 1974 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.”

Sutton, who five years ago last month was selected as Spurlock director, took time out to answer questions from Editor Jeff D’Alessio in the 141st installation of our weekly speed read spotlighting leaders of organizations big and small.

My philosophy on meetings is … be prepared. And if it’s going to be a long meeting, the one who calls the meeting is in charge of supplying snacks for the group.

The last luxury in which I indulged was… buying a bag of peaches from Curtis Orchard. They are literally the best. Life is way too short to eat mediocre peaches, or apples.

I also just bought a bunch of new pens from Art Coop because nothing shows that you are a professional more than taking notes in an important meeting with a pen topped with a hedgehog or flamingo.

I can get by with normal pens, but I am so glad I don’t have to.

The hardest thing about being a leader is… it took me a long time to learn how to balance leading with both my head and my heart. I have not yet mastered this art, but I have gotten much better at it over the years.

My favorite moments in this job happen… every … single … day. My colleagues and the community have implemented so many wonderful changes to the museum and are creating so many amazing programs and exhibits filled with compassion, empathy and wisdom.

I can’t live without my… family, friends, boba tea and post-it notes.

The three adjectives I hope my staff would use to describe me are … thoughtful, transparent and collaborative.



Elizabeth Sutton

Elizabeth Sutton alongside a Barong Ket from Bali at the UI’s Spurlock Museum of World Cultures. (Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette).

On my office walls, you’ll find… a poster of an exhibit the museum opened in 1982, a framed Balinese lampshade with intricate shadow puppet details given to the museum by a long-time volunteer, and an Audubon print of parrots that reminds me of home and the wild parrots in Los Angeles that used to wake me up screeching every summer morning at about 5:30 am

When it comes to a professional role model … I do not believe in role models. No one is perfect. I learn something valuable from everyone who comes into my life.

Sometimes I learn behaviors to emulate, and sometimes I witness actions that teach me what never to do. These are equally valuable.

I aspire to be the best version of myself that I can and am committed to always continuing to learn and grow.

I’m frugal in that… in my mid-life, I am learning that my time is very valuable. I am getting much better at not letting people waste it.

If I could trade places for a week with anyone else in town, I wouldn’t mind switching with … a teacher. Before I went to graduate school, I taught high school in La Puente, California. There are days when I really, really miss teaching.

If any local high school English teachers want to swap roles with me for a week, I am up for it.

My one unbreakable rule of the workplace is … just be a decent human being. If you do that, everything else can be forgiven.

I wind down after work by … eating popsicles on my back porch with my kids and walking through the grass with bare feet.

As far as the most beneficial college class I took goes … I love learning and higher education, but if I am to be honest, in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I learned much more from my fellow students than I ever learned from classes and professors.

My fellow students helped me understand how to navigate the university and its policies and procedures, they helped me complete the fieldwork required for my research, and they also helped me realize that if I needed to quit school I could go on and have a totally fulfilled and happy life doing something completely different.

I’m up and at ’em every day by … mostly 6 am but it is usually up to my three-year-old to determine.

My exercise routine consists of … running after my kids and scheduling meetings across campus so I get a chance to get out of my office, take a walk and learn where campus buildings are located.

I have been at UIUC for five years and still do not know where all of the buildings are.

When it comes to the worst job I ever had… my Ph.D. is in anthropology and archeology. During graduate school, I once had to do an archaeological survey at a water reclamation plant/stray cow holding area on the central coast of California.

It involved trudging through a reclaimed water swamp while trying to dodge decomposing cow carcasses. At some point during that week, each member of the team fell face first into the muck — including myself.

On a 1-to-10 scale, the impact of the pandemic has been… an 8. This past year has been really tough. I have felt a lot of pressure to have all of the museum’s programs, events and operations be back to a pre-pandemic “normal.”

But that is just not possible. We have all experienced a lot of trauma, loss and change in the last few years. We live in a very different world from the one that existed a few years ago.

I continue to worry about our health as a community, and not just from COVID. I am lucky I get to work around college students every day because they are amazing and give me hope for the future.

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