"A huge amount of logistical and detail work!" An Interview with Museum Registration Specialist Allison Dixon
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 interview, the second in a series of conversations with staff members who work at the CRC, explores museum registration.
What’s your background? Why did you go into museum work?
I really got interested in this field because I’ve always loved history. My parents had an RV when I was growing up, and we would drive up and down the East Coast during the summers visiting all the historical sites we could. I think those trips really fostered my love for history.
I went on to get my bachelor’s degree in Historic Preservation at the University of Mary Washington. I thought that sounded more practical than a history degree, although I’m not sure if you can say that any degree in the cultural arts is “practical.” Anyway, I then got my master’s in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins.
Before I came to the museum, I worked as a National Park Service ranger in Maryland and then moved on to being a museum technician for the Park Service, where I managed the collections of the memorials and monuments on the National Mall in D.C. I’ve been at NMAI for a little over two years now. It’s been fun.
Why the National Museum of the American Indian? Why the Office of the Registrar?
I’ve always been really interested in the role of a museum as a place for advocacy. A lot of the times we think about that term as the Civil Rights Museum, the Holocaust Museum—clear centers of social change. I didn’t realize that about NMAI until I got here. This museum was built as a place for advocacy and as a place that would mean something to Native communities, which I really enjoy even though my background is in museum management not Native Studies.
Though my degrees have been more focused on museum education rather than on registration, my work experience has always been in collections management and cultural resource management. This experience built me up towards registration at the Smithsonian. This is the first position I’ve had that was 100 percent registration all the time, as my previous positions were more diverse. But registration had always been a portion of the type of work I’ve done. I really enjoy registration—it’s a huge amount of logistical and detail work. You need the right personality!
What does your average workday look like?
It’s always really different. Right now I’m the registrar for a couple of different exhibits—Nation to Nation, Infinity of Nations—and I worked with Glittering World until its recent closure. I follow a lot of projects through the approval process, deal with a huge amount of email communications, and there is a lot of “hurry up and wait!”
I also handle “registration problems.” These come up when the objects and the information about them don’t correlate. This is where my professional sleuthing skills come in handy! It may take some time, but we can usually resolve the problem and correct the data.
Other than that, the majority of my job is actually collections inventory. Most years NMAI does a large inventory with a random sample of about 5,400 collections. We do this to make sure that our accountability and tracking systems work. Can we find what we think we have, where we think it is, in the condition we think it’s in? Also this year we are doing a few smaller project inventories to fix the little snafus in the collection. I’m working on this with my intern, Cassandra Kist from the Alberta-Smithsonian Intern Program.
If you had to pick, what is your favorite object in the collections?
I think my favorite collection is the Pomo baskets from California. They’re so brightly colored, and the weaving and beading is so intricate. There are quail topknots on each basket—feathers from dozens of quails on each one of those baskets. After my final interview here, I was taken around on a tour of the collections, and when we got to those baskets, I was like, “I’m in!”
Could you give a piece of advice to readers who might be aspiring museum professionals?
Do a lot of internships in a lot of different fields. I think a lot of students think they want to be a curator because it’s the only job title they’ve ever heard of. Think about interning in registration, exhibition design, education, collections management, or archives. Apply for any job that you see; it’s a competitive field, and there are always a lot of eager young graduate students. Apply, apply, apply!
And yes, there are paid internships out there! You can make a living doing this work. Last, find someone who knows how to navigate the USAJobs website so you can successfully sift through the application process at the Smithsonian!
-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.