The story of Margo Smith and the Kluge-Ruhe:

For most people, watching your house burn down would be a catastrophic event. It could make you pessimistic, angry and fearful. The tragedy could haunt you for the rest of your life. But for Margo Smith, then of Staunton, Virginia, it had the opposite effect. The blaze kindled a search for new options and sparked her curiosity about the world.

A graduate in anthropology, Smith took the insurance money from the fire and travelled around Europe, Israel, Egypt and spent three months in Australia.

Inspired by what she saw here, Smith returned to anthropology at the University of Virginia and pursued questions about identity regarding Aboriginal people. She returned to Australia in 1991 to do field work in Aputula region in the Northern Territory.

This led to a job as director and curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville ” the only public museum in the US devoted to Australian Aboriginal art and culture. (Washington Art Museum does have an Aboriginal art gallery but it is part of the overall museum.)

The Kluge-Ruhe museum draws its name and collection from two pioneers in the field of Australian Aboriginal art. Dr Ed Ruhe (1923-1989), an English professor at the University of Kansas, discovered Aboriginal art on a visit as a Fulbright scholar in 1965. Over the next 25 years, he built a collection of quality artifacts. His colleague, John Kluge, 94, discovered Aboriginal art in 1988 when he visited New York City and saw Dreamings, an exhibition that has long been considered significant in the introduction of Aboriginal art to the rest of the world. In 1993 he bought Ruhe’s collection and archives, and in 1997 donated it to the University. He recruited Smith to catalogue the works.

In 1999 the collection became the nucleus of the new museum, with Smith at the helm. On hand to celebrate the opening was former Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam and high-ranking Aboriginal public servant Pat Turner. Today the collection houses more than 1700 items, including 16 paintings valued at $1.3 million that John and Tussi Kluge donated in 2008.