Becoming a Conservator: An Interview with Marian A. Kaminitz, Head of Conservation at the National Museum of the American Indian
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has two public facilities, the Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. A third facility, the Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland, is home for the museum’s collections. This post, the first in a series of interviews of staff members who work at the CRC, explores the preparation that goes into a career in object conservation.
Describe your background and why you went into museum work.
I’ve always been very drawn to working with my hands and enjoy working with materials that were more than an artistic expression—materials that were made to be used by people. I was really drawn to materials from North and South America that were made by Native people. That’s what brought me in. I also really liked doing crafts—metalworking, basket-making—so it was kind of a natural.
Even so, it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. Starting college in the early 1970s, I thought I wanted to work with textile technology and chemistry, but I realized that I didn’t want to do that completely. I also remember thinking that I didn’t want to spend my life in a lab coat, which is kind of ironic because conservators always wear lab coats. I then got interested in textile design and arts and crafts.
At the University of Tennessee, the Crafts Department had a cottage industry project where raw materials were taken to Appalachia and traded with people there who could weave or make pottery. The products came back from them and were then sold. So I changed majors to the Crafts Department and took jewelry-making, pottery, weaving, and textile design. That made me decide that I wanted to work more with the products rather than make the products.
From there, I decided to go to art school and went to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, which has since merged with other art colleges. I was introduced to working in a gallery and had an internship in textile conservation at the de Young Museum, in Golden Gate Park. Those experiences made me decide that I wanted to be a conservator. In the ’70s, the federal government also had the CETA [Comprehensive Employment Training Act] program, which was an employment training opportunity to train workers and provide them jobs in public service.
Through CETA, I was hired to work in the Oakland Museum’s History Department. I also volunteered one day a week at the University of California’s Lowie Museum, since renamed the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and worked with their conservator. After those experiences, I decided to move back to Tennessee to continue to fulfill prerequisites such as additional chemistry courses for graduate school in conservation. I entered the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation in 1981 and finished three years later. During that time I had an internship, and in the summers I went on various digs in Colorado, Cyprus, and Portugal as a site conservator.
For my third-year graduate school internship, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Objects Conservation Lab, after which I completed my degree. I also took an advanced year as the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Pacific Regional Conservation Center in Honolulu. Then I got a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I was there for six years as an assistant conservator in the Anthropology Department. Concurrently, I began co-teaching a class at New York University in Ethnographic and Archaeological Organic Materials. I was hired by NMAI in July 1991, and began work at the museum while it was still in the Audubon Terrace building in Harlem, then at the Research Branch in the Bronx, before moving to the D.C. area in February 1999. I’ve been at the CRC ever since. So, that’s my history.
Why the National Museum of the American Indian?
It was the right place to go. The museum mirrored my interests in understanding Indigenous people as living populations, and I could support that through conservation, which spoke very strongly to me.
What does your average workday look like?
To tell you about my average day, it's important to tell you about the department here. We have a very talented group of staff and we’ve worked together for over 20 years. There are three other conservators on staff—Susan Heald, Emily Kaplan, and Kelly McHugh—and a mount maker, Shelly Uhlir. In addition to the permanent positions, we have four fellows each year, and in the summer and fall we have interns. Summer interns are either pre-graduate school students or in graduate programs. In the fall, we have interns who want to go into a graduate program. The fellows are more advanced and have finished a conservation program. In addition to these people, we oftentimes have contractors working here to prepare objects going out on loan. It’s a busy lab.
As the head of department, I provide people with what they need to do their work. It is important to note that much of the work here is done in collaboration with Native artists. I’m more on the logistics end of all of that facilitating, rather than doing the content end. The “doing” happens through the excellent staff, fellows, and interns. This year we have a large loan going to National Park Service for Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. For that loan, we will have some collaborative opportunities with conservators who have expertise on southwestern materials. The collaborations with Indigenous artists are also great experiences for our fellows. The lab is a very active place.
If you had to pick, what is your favorite object in the collections?
There are a lot of favorites—we have an amazing collection—but one of the first objects I worked on when I was hired was a shield that has a lot of very tiny turquoise tesserae inlayed in a disc shape. I’ve had a long history with that piece. It is going to be loaned to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an exhibition in 2017. It’s also previously been loaned to the L.A. County Museum of Art. It has a very fancy travel case that it goes in, just for itself. I'm rather attached to that one.
Could you give a piece of advice to readers who might be aspiring museum professionals?
I’d just say go where your heart tells you to go. If you are following that trajectory, you will end up in the right place.
-Lillia McEnaney, NMAI
Lillia McEnaney is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Archaeology and Religious Studies at Hamilton College; she will graduate in spring 2017. Lillia is a research assistant for Hamilton’s Religious Studies Department, the blog intern for the Council for Museum Anthropology, the webmaster for Art/Place Gallery, a content contributor for Center for Art Law, and an intern for SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone. She is a summer collections management intern at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center.