The blog series Interning at the Museum highlights the projects and accomplishments of the National Museum of the American Indian's interns. Each intern completes a 10-week internship in a department at one of the museum's three facilities—the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland; or George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. The museum’s Internship Program offers sessions in the spring, summer, and fall. The next deadline for applications—for the spring 2016 session—is November 20, 2015. These interviews feature members of this year's recently completed summer session. —Sarah Frost
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
My name is Charlotte Basch, and I am a master's student in museum anthropology at Columbia University. I am from Seaside, Oregon, and from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and the Clatsop–Nehalem Confederated Tribes.
What department did you intern in this summer and what projects were you working on?
I interned in the Community and Constituent Services Department (CCS) under the supervision of Jill Norwood. My main projects have involved researching and writing for the department's Tribal Museum Listserv. The listserv includes over 200 tribal museums, cultural centers, universities, and similar institutions throughout the country and is used to circulate announcements and resources for the tribal museum world. Much of my time was spent contacting and working with tribal museum professionals to compile a list of current exhibition trends in the tribal museum world. The completed report featured over 20 institutions and exhibition trends such as language, basketry, military, and sports. I’ve also had the amazing opportunity to work with the CCS and offices in the Museum Scholarship Department on the early stages of creating professional development programs specifically for tribal museum staff members.
Why did you decide to intern at NMAI?
I decided to intern at the museum not only because of the obvious ties to Indian Country, but because of the way the museum works to build relationships with the Native peoples and communities it represents. In both my personal and professional experience, I’ve witnessed negative interactions between tribal communities and mainstream museums. These experiences motivated me to enter the museum field with a goal to strengthen Native voice in the museum world. After reading about NMAI and hearing wonderful stories about the work it does, I knew I had to find a way to work alongside the dedicated staff who work tirelessly to represent indigenous peoples in ways never done before.
What is your favorite aspect of your internship?
My favorite aspect of my internship has been communicating with tribal communities and people throughout the country. It’s been an honor and a privilege to talk directly with the communities that I write about—an experience that has been absent from the museum world for far too long. In every listserv write-up, I tried to get first-person input from those actively working in tribal museums. This was not always easy, and it usually took a lot of time, but hearing how thankful tribal museum professionals were to be involved made it absolutely worth it.
What have you learned, and what do you hope to achieve because of this internship?
I have learned so much from this internship! I’ve learned that both the museum world and Indian Country are very small. For this reason it was so important to make positive connections during my time at the NMAI. Of course, this hasn’t been hard since all the staff are wonderful passionate people. I hoped to learn how a mainstream institution like the Smithsonian works with underrepresented communities to tell the stories and truths that have so often been silenced. This is a huge task that NMAI is undertaking every day, and I have been able to see the many “arms” that make it work. NMAI is so much more than a tourist attraction, and I think I’ve achieved a better understanding of the massive amount of teamwork it takes to make the museum’s mission a reality.
How has interning helped you understand your own cultural interests?
As a Native person living very far from home, I’ve come to truly appreciate the rich community that is Indian Country. I was admittedly hesitant about working for any institution, including the Smithsonian, as I wasn’t sure how present Native voices would be in daily work. Being at NMAI, though, has shown me that it is possible for a reputable institution to acknowledge, respect, and implement the historical and modern lifeways of the cultures it represents. All of the staff are incredibly passionate about their work and strive to weave the museum’s mission into everything they do. It has made me truly proud to be a Native person in the museum field and hopeful for the work to come.
Do you have advice for aspiring interns?
Always look for ways to make connections! The NMAI interns are so lucky to have the opportunity to meet with various staff, including the director and other senior staff. Remember that you are here to work, but you are also here as an up-and-coming professional and will most likely be working with these people in the future. Their insight will strengthen your understanding of their scholarship and projects, as well as help you get a better handle on your future role in the museum world.
Interviewer Sarah Frost spent her summer internship at the museum as a member of the Web staff, helping to launch the Inka Road website and other new projects online and in social media. She will continue to work on the museum's digital projects this fall.
Photo courtesy of Charlotte Basch, used with permission.