Museum: Seeds of understanding accompany interns into wider fields of work
Washington, D.C.— As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian marks the 20th anniversary of its founding legislation, the American Indian News Service interviewed four interns who have carried the unique values of the museum around the world.
“The museum has been key to training a new generation of conservators and integrating Native ways of knowing and belief into conservation,” said Anna Strankman, curator of Native American art at the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum. “Questions get asked like, ‘How do you treat things? What is the best thing for the object?’ They’ve been at the forefront. I think that has had a lot of influence on a lot of museums.”
Since 1991, more than 130 conservation interns have spent from 10 weeks to two years honing skills under the leadership of Marian Kaminitz, the head of conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian.
The museum has some unique conservation challenges because it inherited its 800,000-item collection from the Museum of the American Indian headed by George Gustav Heye, a wealthy industrialist who began collecting American Indian objects in 1897. Heye spent his fortune amassing the largest collection of Native American objects in the world, but showed less care for documentation about the origin of pieces. In 1922, Heye established the Museum of the American Indian in New York City to display his collection.
His museum remained open until 1994, when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors in New York City.
Kaminitz was already at work at Heye’s Bronx storage facility, assessing the collection and preparing for its move to the museum’s state-of-the-art conservation facility, the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md., which opened in 1999. To view a video about the move, go to: www.AmericanIndian.si.edu/subpage.cfm?subpage=collections&second=collections&third=move#f
The interns come to the museum’s conservation department to work with Kaminitz and to obtain real-world experience working with the collection, which spans North and South America. Many say they have been personally affected by their experience. Three former 10-week interns, including Strankman, recently shared how their internships influenced their careers and lives.
On the first day of Anna Strankman’s internship in 1996, Kaminitz sent her outside to watch conservation work on a totem pole. The totem from Old Kasaan, a village from Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, was standing on a street corner in the Bronx, outside the storage center of its former owner, the Museum of the American Indian in New York. At some point, the former curators had replaced decay with concrete.
It was no way to treat a totem. The famed Haida carver Jim Hart came from Vancouver, B.C., to advise about removing decay and carving replacement pieces out of wood.
“He basically taught me to use a crooked knife and carve cedar,” Strankman said.
They also removed concrete from the pole, one of many destructive measures taken by past curators in misguided efforts to preserve materials.
Over the year Strankman spent at the museum, its staff was getting the 800,000-item collection ready to move to the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center outside Washington, D.C. Strankman was involved in inventorying and planning. “The storage was not ideal,” she said. “I remember emergency measures that had to be taken, especially in the wintertime.”
Strankman left before the move to undertake studies for her master’s in art history at the University of Washington. Her thesis catalogued the totem poles from Old Massett, B.C., and traced their stories. Now, as curator of the Native American art collection at the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum, Strankman isn’t necessarily responsible for conservation, yet her experience at the national museum makes her mindful of how long organic materials are exposed to light and when she needs to rotate them off display for rest.
Heather Whiteman Runs Him-Oleyte, a Harvard-educated attorney, is the associate lead legal counsel for the Crow Tribe in Montana. But in 1995 she was a student at the Institute of American Indian Art and a conservation intern at the National Museum of the American Indian.
As an intern, she disassembled exhibitions from the George Gustav Heye Center in New York and packed them for moving to the national museum’s new Cultural Resources Center in Maryland. She made simple repairs on bandolier bags for an exhibition. But when she looks back at the experience, what she takes away is a feeling.
“It is a privilege to work with the things our ancestors created with so much care,” said Whiteman Runs Him-Oleyte, who is Crow. “It is a huge responsibility to contemplate how to ensure their survival for future generations, and to determine what actions or prohibitions constitute respect.”
At the museum, she contemplated pursuing a career in conservation. The heavy chemistry prerequisites were an obstacle, and she said she was “sidetracked” by law school. But in what she calls a roundabout way, her experience at the museum led her to the law.
“Working with art, with material culture of Native peoples on an intimate basis, one cannot help but to contemplate the history and the
circumstances that led individual artists and craftspeople to make things the way they did,” she said. “It often made me think about what we, as tribal nations, are doing today, and the choices we have now.”
The exposure to the beautiful clothing, household items and horse gear in the museum’s collection continues to inspire Whiteman Runs Him-Oleyte 15 years after her internship. “That was a real gift to me as a traditional doll maker and artist,” she said.
Tharron Bloomfield, who was an intern at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2001, is one of a growing generation of indigenous curators and librarians—in New Zealand and Australia.
“I chose to be a conservator because there weren’t many Maori doing it, so I saw a gap,” said Bloomfield, who is Maori from the Ngati Porou tribe in New Zealand. “And I like the hands-on aspect of conservation and the close relationship you build with objects.”
As a “summer” intern in 2001 (interviewed by email, he wrote summer in quotation marks because the internship was during New Zealand’s winter), he worked preparing objects for the 2004 opening of the museum in Washington. Bloomfield is now a conservator at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, Australia, where the large indigenous population is reflected in the collection’s many beautiful Aboriginal pieces—contemporary and traditional.
He was impressed during his 10-week internship by the diversity of material, “and, therefore, the Native people of the whole Western Hemisphere and objects made from such a variety of materials,” he said.
But where the National Museum of the American Indian most influenced him was in its relationship-building with tribal culture bearers.
“I would say working at the museum reinforced things for me in terms of working with indigenous peoples and material,” Bloomfield said. “Things such as treating objects with respect and acknowledging their feelings, and the need for proper consultation and relationships with traditional owners.”
As his professional training spanned hemispheres, so Bloomfield’s interest in indigenous arts stretches from traditional arts made of natural materials to contemporary expression in new digital and video media.
“We are not just ancient cultures who stopped existing when we were colonized,” Bloomfield said. “We are around and here now, contributing to the 21st century.”
Randy’L He-dow Teton, the Shoshone-Bannock/Cree woman best known as the model for the Sacagawea coin, was a conservation intern at the National Museum of the American Indian in 1997.
“I have a passion for ethnographic conservation,” she said, “doing small mending, doing photography, giving tips about how to take care of family heirlooms at home.”
At the time of her internship, Teton was a student at the Institute of American Indian Art. She met a freelance artist while at IAIA and posed for pictures in which she portrayed Sacagawea. She didn’t know what it was for, but later heard from the U.S. Mint that her face would be on the coin. Teton is the youngest and only living person on a U.S. coin.
By the time she completed her bachelor’s degree in art history from Fort Lewis College in Colorado, Teton had fallen in love, and her life would take a different path.
Now she and her young family live at the Shoshone-Bannock reservation in southeastern Idaho, and Teton works for a nonprofit organization, Partners for Prosperity, which does workforce training. But she’d like to use her experience in museum collections again, maybe as an appraiser on the PBS program “Antiques Roadshow.”
Teton believes that she carries the values of the museum into her community in ways other than working in a museum. “I am active in going to our cultural meetings,” she said. “I work with artists and craft vendors, looking for a model to make sure our artists are protected from pawn shops.”
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service