Perspectives on Museum Archives: An Interview with Archives Technician Rachel Menyuk
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 third in a series of interviews of staff members who work at the CRC, looks at the career of an archivist.
Describe your background for us. Why did you go into museum archive work?
I sort of got into archival work in a complicated way. Most archivists have a degree in Library Science with a focus on Archival Studies. I actually don’t! I did my undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Theatre. After graduating, I went on to New York University (NYU) to get a master’s degree in Performance Studies, which combines anthropology and theatre, particularly the study of theatre history. At NYU I focused on political theatre in indigenous communities in Latin and South America and also on women using performance as a means of social protest.
While I was living in New York and going to school, I needed to find a job, so I went to NYU’s library and asked what kinds of positions they had for graduate students. They turned out to be hiring a graduate assistant in the Tamiment & Wagner Labor Archives. During my interview, I said, “You know, I don't have any archival experiences, but I love libraries!” I later heard that they were so impressed with my enthusiasm, it was the reason that they hired me! I had also previously worked with Jewish organizations, so I had that knowledge base for understanding the collection they wanted me to process.
I ended up loving the work, and I especially loved the research process—getting my hands dirty with the information. That is one of my favorite things about working in archives: You really are able to focus on the research. The head archivist at NYU at the time really took me under her wing, and I gained amazing experience in working with and processing large, organizational records.
When I finished my degree in Performance Studies and moved back to the D.C. area, I realized I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I began looking at other options at museums. I saw a posting for a three-month contract position processing organizational records at a “museum in D.C.” Though the posting didn’t mention which museum, they were specifically looking for someone who knew how to use Archivist Toolkit, which is a particular database that archivists use. I knew how to use Archivists Toolkit, and I had just spent the last two years processing huge organizational records. It was just luck that the museum ended up being NMAI. I had always loved the National Museum of the American Indian. I had been in D.C. when the museum opened and was taking a class where I got to review the opening exhibitions, and I really loved the museum and its collections.
That was six years ago, and since then I’ve become a permanent federal employee. Our former head archivist, Jennifer O’Neal, also really took me under her wing. I’ve been lucky to have some really great mentors who have continued to inspire me to keep learning about the archival profession, the history of NMAI collections, and the incredible value of working directly with Native communities.
What does your average workday look like?
The average day has changed a lot for me because we’ve hired more staff. Recently I’ve been more focused on processing, which means I'm working with archival collections that have not been organized yet. This is a long process of inventorying, organizing, arranging, and describing materials to produce a guide to each collection that will then go online. That is my main task right now. Once that is done, I also write blog posts about the collections, work with communities to look at digitization of collections, and deal with the transcription center. That is really what I do on a day-to-day basis.
Previously I was working a lot with researchers. Even though we now have someone who is working on that specifically, if someone contacts us about a collection that I know a lot about, I will work on that, which falls under the reference umbrella. I also frequently talk about the Archive Center on tours of the Cultural Resources Center. This summer in particular, I’ve been working really closely with our interns and helping them through their projects.
I do attend meetings sometimes, and the ones that I attend usually have to deal with cross-Smithsonian archival groups. There are 14 archival repositories across the Smithsonian, and we want to put all of these collections together online, which requires standards. I’m really embedded in that world.
So, my day can really encompass a lot of different things.
If you had to pick, what is your favorite object in the collections?
This is such a hard question to answer because it is constantly changing depending on what I’m working on. I can tell you a little about the collection I'm about to start working on, the Churchill Collection. Frank Churchill was an Indian inspector for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He went around visiting Indian boarding schools across the United States between 1899 and 1909, and his wife traveled with him. Together they took thousands of photographs (we have 30-plus albums!), and she, Clara, wrote journals documenting everywhere they went. Their personal perspective is obviously a little off, as they were all about assimilation, but the collection shows a snippet about this part of history that really needs to be remembered and brought to life. Clara was really good about documenting people’s names, so we can add names to faces, which is not always the case. It’s a really important collection that we can hopefully get digitized and give people access to.
Could you give a piece of advice to readers who might be aspiring museum or archives professionals?
I think it is really important to have some kind of subject interest, in addition to the practical archival skills. It will make it so much easier in the long run if you have a background in something, even if it is as basic as history. With that, there are a lot of dual degrees now. For example, one of our interns, Kelsey, is doing a dual degree in Archives and Art History so she can work specifically with artists’ records. Doing that type of program is helpful because you can’t get boxed into one viewpoint. You get a broader perspective, which helps a lot in the museum world.
—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.