July 29, 2016

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.

Also in this series: Logistics and Detail: Museum Registration and Perspectives on Museum Archives.

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. 

Kaminitz 10:8708, Photo by Ernest Amoroso
Mixteca (Mixtec) shield, AD 1400–1500. Puebla, Mexico. Wood,turquoise and other stone, tree pitch. 32.5 x 32.3 x 2 cm. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. (10/8708)

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.

Thank you.

-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.


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July 08, 2016

The Longest Walk 5: An Interview with Dennis Banks

Since 1978, American Indian activists have used protest marches across the United States to call attention to issues of great concern to their nations and communities. This is the second post in a three-part series by April Chee (Navajo) on the Longest Walk 5: Declaring War on Drug Abuse and Domestic Violence, which will reach Washington, D.C., on July 15. April's first post gave a brief history of the Longest Walk movement. The final post describes the arrival of the Longest Walk at its symbolic destination, Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.


Dennis Banks with members of the Lumbee community
Dennis Banks (Ojibwe) meeting with members of the Lumbee and Tuscarora tribes on the Longest Walk 5. June 2016, Robeson County, North Carolina. 


Thank you for giving the museum this interview. Many people are familiar with your work, but for those who aren't, could you introduce yourself?

My name is Nowa Cumig, also known as Dennis Banks. I am Ojibwe and Turtle Clan, born April 12, 1937, on Leech Lake Reservation, Minnesota.

You’ve been credited with the idea for the original Longest Walk in 1978. Where did the idea or inspiration come from?

Well, when the anti-Indian bills were introduced, organizations like NCAI [the National Congress of American Indians] were flying delegates to Washington, D.C., to protest the legislation. I kept thinking that AIM [the American Indian Movement] does not have that kind of money to fly out our members to D.C. Then I thought of the Long Walk of the Navajos and the Trail of Tears, and how people were forcibly removed from their Indigenous land. I thought, “We know this country, why not walk across the country and go back to Washington, D.C., with purpose?” We will think about all of our ancestors and the walks they were forced to endure while we walk across the country ourselves.

It [the Longest Walk] would be a forced walk, because Congress was trying to get out of their own commitments, agreements, and declarations by nullifying the treaties. I then proposed the idea to our Oakland Chapter and my good friend Bill Wahpepah (Sac and Fox), and the walk started to come to reality with notable support from Marlon Brando, Carlos Santana, and Tony Bennett, and of course the support from Native people across the country.

Why do you think it was important to emphasize the protest as a peaceful, spiritual march? What was the greater significance?

It meant that it was a departure from the actions at Wounded Knee,. This time we would pledge to walk across with our pipes, and it would be a great spiritual walk. A spiritual movement brought us to better understanding about our spiritual beliefs and who we are as a cultural people. To me that was a huge stand of education that was brought down to seconds and minutes in making our decision on how to proceed with the march. We smoked a pipe at Alcatraz and every day we did the same thing as we walked across this country. It not only beautifies the struggle but it strengthened the struggle, it helped us understand that this is what our people did. To remember our ancestors, we had to make this walk a spiritual walk and remember their struggle in this way.

Longest Walk with the Seminole at Big Cypress
Walkers and supporters of the Longest Walk 5 with members of the Seminole Indian Nation. June 2016, Big Cypress Reservation, Florida. 


How do you think the relationship between activism and legislation has affected Native communities?

It is a learning experience in what the communities go through, too. Sometimes we put too much weight on our politicians and elected leaders. We trust them to do all of this leg work, and they can’t. We elect them but we cannot expect them to do all of the legwork alone. For instance, if you are praying for an answer, you cannot expect something to happen without your doing something, without taking action. If you want something done, then you have to organize something around it. We need that with our leaders to pave the way to legislation and meeting with members of Congress and meeting with program directors within the U.S. government. A protest has to take action as well, I don’t want us just to hold signs. Prayer and ceremony demand action.

Each walk interacts directly with issues that Native communities face. What does the Longest Walk 5 mean to you and different Native communities?

The issue of drug abuse is out of control right now. It is now 2016, and I can say unequivocally that we have lost the right time to strike to end drug abuse. What can we do to end drug abuse, prescription abuse? Walking across the country collecting information is only one part. The only thing that is really going to help us is our spiritual and cultural beliefs. We have to recover using our traditional spiritual beliefs like the Sun Dance ceremony, sweat lodge ceremony, pipe ceremony, walking, and running to have a clean and healthy life.

This is all within our grasp, but if we do not get up and take a stand against drug abuse then we will never get ahead. We are losing generations upon generations of our young people to suicide and drug abuse, and we need to do something to stop this epidemic. We might not be able to stop it within my lifetime, but we need to start something: I will be sure that there is a beginning. We can only blame ourselves if we don’t provide for the seventh generation a much better outlook in life. Let’s start talking about domestic violence, about drug abuse, let’s put these issues on the table and discuss what we can do to help our people.

Could you tell us more about your experience during this walk and the kind of dialogue you hope to create along the way?

Our level of participation across this country coming from Native people has been immense. People themselves want to speak about their experiences with domestic violence and with drug abuse. People speak on their road to recovery from domestic violence, and it’s always moving to hear these stories and how families have come back together in a healthy way, or found ways to take themselves out of unsafe situations to better their lives.

I remember seeing a sign in a home that I visited while on this tour, and this sign said, “I stayed with my husband so that our children could have a father. I left my husband so that my children could have a mother.” This was a powerful statement that stuck with me. We have heard different stories along the way, and some are positive and some had tragic endings. But regardless the first thing we have to do is put these issues on the table.

What is your ultimate goal in completing this major walk for now the fifth time?

The Longest Walk 5 will officially end after three separate walks. We are doing the southern walk right now, and next year we will cover the middle states. Then after that walk we will walk the northern states of the U.S. and some of Canada, always ending in Washington, D.C. The ultimate goal is recovery. Helping our people who are addicted to drugs to take part in recovery programs through spiritual healing. Lead our people back to our traditional way of life.

I believe that we can still function as traditional, spiritual people and still successfully participate in American life. We are ultimately looking for recovery, for healing our people. We have found that once you begin discussing it, people will come to the table and say, “Yes, it’s wrong,” that drug and alcohol abuse needs to come to an end.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I have a strong belief that in the end of any situation, goodness will prevail, that love of ourselves will prevail. We can coexist with people even if our beliefs are different. Whatever helps a person to be a better person, then I pat them on the back for what their beliefs are. Full steam ahead, never give up, never give in.

Thank you.

—April Chee, NMAI

April Chee (Navajo) is Tábąąhi (Waters Edge Clan) born for Naakaii Dine′é (Mexican People) from Coalmine, New Mexico. April is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico and will graduate in fall 2016. She was selected as a Smithsonian intern for the summer of 2016 and is working in the Public Affairs Office of the National Museum of the American Indian.

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July 01, 2016

The Longest Walk: Activism and Legislation in Indian Country

Since 1978, American Indian activists have used protest marches across the United States to call attention to issues of great concern to their nations and communities. Beginning today, a short blog series by April Chee (Navajo) traces the history of the Longest Walk movement and reports on the Longest Walk 5, which will reach Washington, D.C., on July 15. In the second post, April interviews Dennis Banks about the Longest Walk 5: Declaring War on Drug Abuse and Domestic Violence. The final post describes the arrival of the Longest Walk at its symbolic destination, Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington.


The Longest Walk 1978

 

Participants in the Longest Walk marched the length of the country, from Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay, to the nation's capital. 1978, location unknown. Photo courtesy of the National Walk Director, Longest Walk 5.


The first Longest Walk, in 1978, was a 3,000-mile march across the United States to bring attention to the rights of Native people in the United States and to protest 11 anti-Indian bills introduced in Congress that threatened treaty rights. Emphasizing the walk as a peaceful spiritual protest, thousands of Native activists, allies, and community members gathered together to support the movement. After a ceremony on Alcatraz Island, the group began their walk with thousands of people taking part. By July 15, an estimated 2,000 people walked into Washington, D.C. They stayed in the capital for the following week to ensure that their voices were heard and to conduct workshops to educate others about Native people, bringing together members of different Native nations to share knowledge and experience.

This historic movement attracted support from every walk of life. A notable picture from the Longest Walk (below) includes prominent Native and non-Native activists. The Longest Walk was deemed successful in reasserting treaty rights and bringing attention to Native issues. Ultimately, not one of the 11 bills before Congress was passed.

Concert in support of the Longest Walk, 1978

Activists came together with marchers for a concert to mark the end of the first Longest Walk. From left to right: Muhammad Ali, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Harold Smith, Stevie Wonder, Marlon Brando, Max Gail, Dick Gregory, Richie Havens, and David Amram. 1978 Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of David Amran, from IndiVisible: African–Native American Lives in the Americas.

 

Since the original Longest Walk, there have been four additional major walks. The Longest Walk II, in 2008, called attention to environmental rights and the protection of sacred sites. In 2011 the Longest Walk III: Reversing Diabetes focused on the health of Indigenous peoples and working against diabetes, a disease that many Native people struggle to combat. In 2013 the Longest Walk IV: Return to Alcatraz was unique in that it began in Washington, D.C., and ended at Alcatraz. This walk focused on reaffirming Native sovereignty in the United States, recognizing that we are still nations with inherent rights to govern ourselves.

This ongoing march for Native rights has a direct correlation to the standing of Native people in the United States. From the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 to 1971 to the Apache-Stronghold today, Native people have a record of contemporary activism directly affecting legislation. Protecting who we are as Native people in the United States, however, oftentimes requires more than appeals to government. Honoring our ancestor’s sacrifices means protecting our land, our water, our languages, our cultures, our women, our children, who we are as Native people. Time and time again, Native communities have banded together to take action to defend these inherent, sovereign rights.

The Longest Walk 5: Declaring War on Drug Abuse and Domestic Violence will reach the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on July 15. Two further posts in this series will continue to cover the history of the Longest Walk movement and the current walk as it makes its way into the nation’s capital.

—April Chee, NMAI

April Chee (Navajo) is Tábąąhi (Waters Edge Clan) born for Naakaii Dine′é (Mexican People) from Coalmine, New Mexico. April is pursuing a bachelor's degree in Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico and will graduate in fall 2016. She was selected as a Smithsonian intern for the summer of 2016 and is working in the Public Affairs Office of the National Museum of the American Indian.

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Thanks April for bringing awareness to the Longest Walk. LW5 will be in DC on July 15, 2016.

October 05, 2015

Interning at the Museum: Emma Strongin, Media

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 

EmmaStrongin_Photo
Emma Strongin helped webcast museum events and developed mobile app tours.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background. 

My name is Emma Strongin, and I’m from Takoma Park, Maryland. I go to Rochester Institute of Technology and am majoring in media arts and technology (we like to call ourselves media architects because we “build, shape, and form media”) and hope to minor in philosophy, museum studies, or both. 

What department did you intern in this summer, and what projects were you working on?

I spent the summer on the media staff at NMAI. I learned a lot about the webcasting process, which is something I knew nothing about prior to coming here. It’s been a great learning experience, and I had a lot of fun. I also did some digital archival work for old webcasts and helped out with the new mobile app tours here at the museum. 

Why did you decide to intern at NMAI?

This was actually my third summer at NMAI. The first two were spent as a volunteer for conservation, and I also worked on digital archiving and various other volunteer-y tasks. Applying for an official internship seemed like the next logical step—especially since I love working at the museum—and since I just finished my first year in a media-based major, I thought I would try out a new area that matched up with what I was studying at school. 

What was your favorite aspect of your internship?

My favorite part of my internship was definitely the lovely community of people here, the wonderful events and exhibits, and the opportunity to learn in a real-world setting. 

What have you learned and what do you hope to achieve because of this internship?

As I mentioned, I spent a lot of time on webcasts this summer. Before coming here, I had no idea what a webcast was or how they even worked. I really enjoyed using the internet and technology to share what’s going on at the museum with people around the world. This is especially important for a museum like NMAI, because we are so focused on the Native community. People aren’t always able to make it to the museum for festivals and events, so we make it possible for them to stay involved from wherever they happen to be.

How has interning helped you understand your own cultural interests?

I am not Native, but interning here has definitely helped me gain a whole new level of understanding and respect for the cultural practices of others. People here are so proud of their various heritages, and I think that’s a truly wonderful thing. 

Do you have advice for aspiring interns?

I think it’s important to note that there is a place here for everyone. No matter what your major, interest, hobby, etc., the museum has a place for you to help out and learn. Also, as a lifelong resident of the DC area, I think spending the summer here is a great thing (aside from the weather). There is so much to do at this museum and in the surrounding areas that you’re pretty much guaranteed to have an amazing work life and social life. 

Interviewer Sarah Frost spent her summer internship at the museum as a member of the Web staff, helping launch the Inka Road website and other new projects online and in social media. She is continuing to work on the museum's digital projects this fall.

Photo courtesy of Emma Strongin; used with permission. 

#MuseumMonday

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September 28, 2015

Interning at the Museum: Sarah Frost, Web

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 

SarahFrost_photo
Sarah Frost's experiences at the museum have included helping launch a major exhibition website, pulling together content for the museum's participation in the Google Cultural Institute, and interviewing her fellow interns (and herself) for the blog.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background. 

My name is Sarah Frost, I just received my BA in anthropology from Barnard College, and I’m from Irvine, California.

You're continuing your internship into the fall. What department are you interning in, and what projects are you working on?

I’m interning in the Web Office, and I’m currently working on several projects. I am helping to form a relationship between the Google Cultural Institute and NMAI, and working with curators to create digital exhibits. I'm helping to launch a social media expansion into Snapchat by designing Geofilters for the museum. I also helped proofread and test the website for The Great Inka Road this summer, which was a massive project and an incredible accomplishment for the web team.

Why did you decide to intern at NMAI?

I decided to intern at NMAI because I wanted to combine my background in anthropology with my interest in web development and social media. I was excited to learn about how a museum manages its web presence, and to work with curators, exhibit designers, and web developers. The museum is doing great work by drawing attention to Native voices and stories.

What is your favorite aspect of your internship at NMAI?

I have really enjoyed seeing all of the pieces that come together to make an exhibition. The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire opened in June, and it was exciting to be able to see the fruit of everyone’s hard work. The website is amazing and has won several awards, and the exhibit is awesome and informative. So many people were involved, and it was great to be a part of that! 

What have you learned, and what do you hope to achieve because of this internship?

I have learned how a museum’s web presence interacts with the brick and mortar institution, and how museum content is created or translated for the web. I think that NMAI impacts many people’s lives by having a strong web presence, and I hope to continue to be part of that in the future!

How has interning helped you understand your own cultural interests?

I’ve learned a lot about the issues facing Native people today. I’ve also learned a lot about cultural appropriation. It’s made me realize how often Native images and symbols are misunderstood and misused. It’s important to me that everyone appreciate and respect Native cultures, and I feel lucky to be a part of this work.

Do you have advice for aspiring interns?

If you want to work on a specific project, or sit in on a meeting, don’t be afraid to ask! Everyone at the museum is so supportive and will do their best to make sure you have a great experience. 

#MuseumMonday 

Photo courtesy of Sarah Frost; used with permission. 

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