These Precious Things

Portrait of USD alumna Melanie Dellas '13 (MA)


When Melanie Dellas ’13 (MA) decided to go back to school, she was parenting two young sons on her own after a divorce. A writer and a business owner, Dellas had spent a decade publishing two successful magazines: Native American Casino and San Diego Performer. But her lifelong passion was history, and she dreamed of becoming an archaeologist.

“I’ve always loved history. I always loved to read about it,” she says. “But I thought, ‘What am I actually going to do with a history degree?’”

At a crossroads in her life, Dellas opted for the unknown. She figured she’d get a PhD and teach, and found USD in her search for a university that was willing to work with the day-to-day reality of being a single mother.

“They said they’d make it work with whatever my schedule was, and they did,” she says. “My adviser, Professor Michael Gonzalez, was amazing and helped me every step of the way.”

But Dellas’ long-term plan never materialized.

That’s actually a good thing. During the first semester of her master’s program, an internship at the San Diego Museum of Man (SDMoM) put her on an unexpected course that changed the trajectory of her life. There, she worked with mummies, cleaning them and gently tending to their ancient remains. She inventoried and cared for thousands of artifacts and immersed herself in
the historical weight of the objects around her.

“That’s when I first realized that I didn’t have to teach, and I didn’t need to be an archaeologist in the field,” Dellas says, her face lighting up. “I could take care of the artifacts once they got to the museum.”

So Dellas continued working at SDMoM, staying on for several years after she earned her master’s degree in history from USD. At work, she spent most of her time two levels below ground, surrounded by some 300,000 objects. On the side, she took conservation classes and worked with local conservators to learn their techniques. And she co-curated the museum’s Monsters! exhibit.

“The museum allowed me to do a lot of different things with a lot of materials from a lot of different time periods,” she says. It was a natural fit, since SDMoM has many pieces from the cultures she focused on in her grad school studies — ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt — in their collections. “And it gave me the experience to start my own business,” she adds.

Which is exactly what Dellas did two years ago, along with her former boss at SDMoM, Karen Lacy. They called the new venture Muse Curatorial Consulting Group.

“We decided we wanted to take care of objects from all time periods, all cultures and every material,” she says. “We wanted to do it for museums, for private collectors and we wanted to do it across the country.”

Dellas and Lacy are doing just that, with the help of a team of experts they call on when they need a hand. Their private clients cover a wide range, including the owner of a 900-year-old pottery collection who wanted everything packed up in custom-built storage boxes, and the owner of a spacesuit that needed textile work. And they contract with local museums.

“San Diego is very small. The museums don’t have a lot of money to take care of their things,” Dellas explains. “But that’s also a plus for us, because we’re able to go in and work with their budgets and get things done for them.”

Last summer, when the Mingei International Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park was closing for renovation, Dellas and Lacy were hired to pack up the museum’s 26,000-object collection and move it to off-site storage locations. The painstaking work involved making sure everything was properly secured and able to withstand the vibrations of the moving trucks.

“And I got to see everything in their collections, which was wonderful,” Dellas says, clearly delighted. “Just being able to touch the objects that we get to touch — that sometimes are 5,000 years old, and I get to make sure they hopefully last another 1,000 years — is incredible.”

She and Lacy are so passionate about their work that they’ve launched a biweekly podcast called Muse Stories: The Unusual History of Every Thing. On it, the two have discussed everything from calendars to pizza to museum ghosts. Additionally, Dellas has combined her love of history with her love of writing, and has written three books which “give readers an inside look into mythological creatures from cultures around the world.” In whatever spare time she has left, she’s working on a historical novel with her mother.

“I love what I do and I get excited about it every day, which is important,” she says. “And really, it’s all thanks to USD. That master’s program directed me to a path that I didn’t know existed.” — Karen Gross

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *