January 22, 2016

One Hundred Years of History: Going Digital

A question I'm often asked as an archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian is, “How do I find what I’m looking for, and once I find it, how do I access it?” The Smithsonian is one of the world’s largest repositories of primary sources, with archival holdings measuring somewhere in the area of 137,000 cubic feet, spread across 14 museums and other research centers within the institution. These amazing resources include letters, journals, scrapbooks, photo albums, and sound and video recordings, with subjects ranging from art and culture to science and technology. The scope can make searching for specific information a daunting task. Luckily, Smithsonian archivists have been hard at work making it easier to find the material you are looking for, and making it increasingly possible to view a digital version of the letter, field notebook, or photograph in question.

In October 2015 the Smithsonian launched the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). This online interface provides access to archival finding aids—inventory lists that provide context and detail to the many pieces that can make up a collection. Currently the NMAI Archive Center has 101 archival collection records, including photographic, paper, and media collections, available via the SOVA. Of these 101 records, 28 collections have full finding aids.

You can browse the SOVA by Smithsonian unit, making it easier to focus your search on NMAI’s archival holdings specifically.

SOVA homepage


If there is digitized content available within a collection, a symbol will appear in your search results next to the collection name.

Tibbles screen shot


The papers of the journalist Thomas Henry Tibbles (1840–1928)—the husband of Indian rights writer and orator Susette Bright Eyes LaFlesche (Omaha) and a progressive figure in his own right—are one example of a fully digitized collection now available online. You can browse the full collection here.

One of the museum’s largest archival collections is the records of our predecessor institution, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation (MAI) in New York City. The MAI records include collectors' field notebooks, catalog lists, and expedition records, as well as exhibition and organizational files. (For a more in-depth look into what this massive collection holds, take a peek at the earlier blog post Finding Treasure in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Records.)

As many of you may know, in 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the MAI. As a part of a year-long anniversary celebration, every month the Archive Center is putting new digitized content from the MAI records up on the SOVA. These records will be accompanied by stories from the 100-year history of the MAI. As our first offering the Archive Center has made available the MAI’s annual reports from 1917 to 1989. These annual reports give a keen insight into the activities of the museum from its earliest days up until it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The MAI annual reports offer an great opportunity to learn about conducting research using the SOVA. For instance, say you want to know what expeditions the museum funded in 1924. You can easily find this information by following the digitized content boxes in the MAI finding aid to the Publications Series: 

MAI screen shot


You can then select the annual report folder you're interested in. If you're looking for 1924, you’ll want to click on Folder 2.

MAI screen shot3


You can then browse through the annual reports until you find 1924.

MAI screen shot2


MAI exp 1


The annual reports are just one of the many treasures among the MAI records. Make sure to check back with us every month for new and exciting stories from the archives!

—Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

July 31, 2015

Museum Interns Take New York: A Photo Journal

On July 10, 12 NMAI interns and fellows visited the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. We arrived at the museum as thousands of fans poured into lower Manhattan to shower us with cheers and admiration, or was that for the U.S. women’s soccer team?

As the crowds dispersed we headed into the museum, but not before taking a picture with a U.S. marshal (below).

Interns & US marshal

We were greeted by Duane Blue Spruce , public spaces planning coordinator (below, wearing a red shirt). After a round of introductions, he told us about his involvement with the Heye Center. His experience began when the museum was the Museum of the American Indian at West 155th and Broadway, before it became part of the Smithsonian and moved downtown. Duane showed us two books he created to illustrate the experiences of Native peoples in the New York City area—Mother Earth, Father Skyline: The Native American Experience in New York City and Concrete Tipi. “It’s fun to come and work here every day,” he said, “because the things we produce represent Native people and educate the public. We’re doing good stuff.”

John Haworth and GGHC staff speaking with interns

We were joined by John Haworth, NMAI assistant director for Museum Programs (above, far right), who told us about the imagiNATIONS project being developed in New York. This new hands-on learning space will be geared towards pre-teens and will demonstrate the ingenuity of Native peoples, including their contributions in food, medicine, and architecture. Connor Bliss, an intern in the Exhibits Department, explained that “being able to witness the progress that is being made on . . . the imagiNATIONS Activity Center has further increased the understanding of the exhibitions process I’ve learned here during my time at the Smithsonian.” 

Peter BrillLater, Peter Brill, deputy assistant director of the museum in New York (right), walked us through the exhibit design process. His enthusiasm for the museum was infectious, and he encouraged us to speak up and present our ideas: “In these projects, you have a voice, and it’s important to think and be responsive to each other, bring your ideas forward, and try not to be fearful of making a silly suggestion.”

Charlotte Basch, an intern in Community and Constituent Services, told me she was impressed by how encouraging the New York staff is: “It was a great opportunity to see that each individual plays an important role in the NMAI and Smithsonian network. . . . Peter and Duane and everyone else were obviously excited about the work they do for both tribal communities and their fellow New Yorkers.”

Carrie Gonzalez 1 Carrie Gonzalez 2
Carrie Gonzalez 3

Carrie Gonzalez, a cultural interpreter on the Heye Center staff, then guided us on a wonderful tour of the museum (above and right). She also led us through three major exhibitions: Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family, Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American, and Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, as well as Circle of Dance.  

Carrie told us that she leads school groups on tours during the school year, sometimes with over 50 kids! I think we were slightly easier to manage.  

We also got the chance to explore the museum’s activity center (below). Some interns tried their hand at a Yup'ik yo-yo a game that requires the player to take two sealskin balls attached by a caribou-sinew string and swing them around in opposite directions. I ventured into a tipi with Sara Morales, a Collections intern, and spent some time looking at the artwork on the interior. 

Yoyo 1 Yoyo 2 Tipi interior

After the tour was over, the interns scattered across the city—some uptown to see friends, some to Brooklyn. We all left the Heye Center with an appreciation for how the museum is changing understandings of Native lives in New York City.


—Sarah Frost

Sarah Frost spent her summer internship at the museum in Washington, D.C., as a member of the Web staff, working on the Inka Road website and new projects online and in social media. 

Photos: Tipi interior courtesy of Conservation intern Rachel Mochon. View of Manhattan courtesy of Applications intern Abby Malkin. All other photos courtesy of Sarah Frost.

The National Museum of the American Indian'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.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

April 17, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Guayabo and Las Mercedes

Tomorrow, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video, led by Ricardo Vázquez Leiva, an archaeologist who works at the National Museum of Costa Rica, takes a look at two archaeological sites in what is now Costa Rica—Guayabo and Las Mercedes.

Guayabo and Las Mercedes are important for excavation because the scale of the architecture found there suggests that they represent societies where power was highly centralized. In southern Central America, they stand as uniquely monumental examples.

Many of the objects unearthed in this area were excavated in the early 20th century by teams who worked for the American businessman Minor Cooper Keith and his wife, Cristina Castro Fernández, whose family was prominent in Costa Rica. The Keiths amassed a collection of nearly 16,000 objects during their time in Central America. In 1916, Minor Keith became a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian—Heye Foundation, later to become the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 

Research excavations resumed in the region in 2005. Objects recovered from Guayabo and Las Mercedes continue to provide new insights into the lives and societies of the peoples who lived there.


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue. A short article on Minor Keith can be found on pages 72 and 73.

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.


Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.


Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

April 13, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Stone Spheres of Costa Rica

This Friday, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video takes a look at three archaeological sites—El Silenció, Finca Seis, and Batambal—all of which contain stone spheres made by peoples of what is now Costa Rica before AD 1500.

The video features Francisco Corrales, a member of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Costa Rica. The three sites he invites us to experience are within the Greater Chiriquí region of Central America, an area that is further explored within Cerámica de los Ancestros.

The sites are unique from one another in terrain. El Silenció houses the largest stone sphere recorded thus far, but years of pasture burns in the grasslands area have taken a toll on the stone's outer layers. In the low-lying river plain of Finca Seis, flooding buried the spheres under many layers of sediment, preserving the only original alignment found to date. Batambal rests high in the mountains, a strategic position for views of surrounding hills and the valleys below.

The reasons for the stones’ creation remain a mystery. Corrales explains that while spheres apparently marked locations with special significance where important events would have taken place, some may have had astronomical purposes as well. Anthropologists and archaeologists continue to survey the areas, and junior members of their fields do much of the cataloguing work, providing a unique learning environment in which to build the expertise of a new generation of scholars.


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment

April 06, 2015

The Skábmagovat Film Festival: Indigenous Film above the Arctic Circle

Yoik singer, opening night
A yoik singer opens the Skábmagovat Film Festival. January 2015, Inari, Finland.

As a film programmer you become a seasoned festival-goer, immersed in the cultural landscape of film, new media, and the relationships you build with other filmmakers and film institutions around the world. The Film and Video Center of the National Museum of American Indian thrives on building those relationships, and my experiences with the Skábmagovat Film Festival are some of those unique cultural exchanges.

The village of Inari
The village of Inari, Finland, 2 degrees north of the Arctic Circle.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival is presented in Inari, Finland, a small village in Finnish Lapland just north of the Arctic Circle. The region is known for its sub-zero temperatures during the winter, spectacular Northern Lights, reindeer herding, and community of Sámi, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. The Sámi reside in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Russia and are the only indigenous people officially recognized in the European Union. They continue to preserve their language and culture in order to better provide for the livelihood of future generations.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival, which celebrated its 16th anniversary in January, is one of the premiere international Indigenous film festivals in the world. Each year the festival spotlights films from all indigenous regions, including First Nations, American Indians, Aboriginal Australia, Maori, and many others. This year the festival’s focus was on Latin America, and featured films came from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. I was honored to be asked by Skábmagovat executive director Jorma Lehtola (Sámi) to help curate the Latin American indigenous section and serve as an invited speaker at this year’s film festival seminar.

Inari lake troutAs an invited delegate I had the pleasure of eating some traditional dishes, like reindeer and trout with a side of lingonberries, even eating a meal in a Sámi lavvu, a traditional tent or tipi. With other delegates, I had an opportunity to explore the wilderness by visiting a Sámi reindeer farm. Our reindeer adventure included a snowmobile journey over a frozen lake, sitting and observing wild reindeer, drinking coffee brewed over an open fire, and learning about the Sámi people’s nomadic traditions.

In the lavvu

The reindeer farm 

Coffee over an open fire
From top right to bottom: Inari lake trout with lignonberries and herbs, on china decorated with an antler motif. In the lavvu. The reindeer farm. Coffee brewed on an open fire.

I also explored the Sámi Museum Siida, the national museum of the Finnish Sámi people, which offers beautiful exhibitions and displays on Sámi history and culture and serves as an official venue for the film festival.

The most eye-opening experience was being in the Northern Lights Theatre, an open-air theater made completely of snow. Festival hosts lent me a snowsuit and boots, and I sat outside alongside other visitors to listen to festival introductions in Finnish, Sámi, and English and watch films under the moon and stars.

Sámi Museum Siida

Serious film lovers in the Northern Lights Theatre

%22My Legacy%22 on the ice screen at the Northern Lights Theatre
Top: An exhibition gallery at the Sámi Museum Siida, the Finnish national museum of the Sámi people. Photo courtesy of Siida. Middle: The audience seated on snow risers in the Northern Lights Theatre. Photo by Jeanette Paillán. Bottom: The film My Legacy on the big screen at the Northern Lights. 

Director Jeanette Paillan (left) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farmThe film festival seminar was held in Solju, the Parliament Hall in the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos. During my presentation, I discussed museum initiatives for film and video, ongoing film programs like Native Cinema Showcase, and a step-by-step tutorial on navigating the Film and Media Catalog on the museum’s website. I also listened to some inspiring stories from invited delegates, including Mapuche director Jeanette Paillán, the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación), Sámi filmmaker Marja Bål Nango, and Yakutian director Michail Lukachevskyi, on film techniques and resources available in indigenous communities

Other highlights? Watching a new shorts film collective made by young Sámi filmmakers and funded by the International Sámi Film Institute’s Sámi Film Lab, as well as attending the festival’s concerts, which featured performers from various musical genres, including rap, bluegrass and yoik, a traditional Sámi form of song. 

Sámi Film Collective in Sajos

Upper: Jeanette Paillán (Mapuche), the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farm. Lower: Young filmmakers supported by the Sámi Film Lab discuss their work.


The Skábmagovat Film Festival was an unbelievable experience for me both as a visitor and as a film enthusiast. The Sámi people were so gracious and kind as hosts that I felt like I was with family. By bringing people from all different backgrounds together in one small village in Finland, the festival gives voice to the power of how film to strengthen dialogue across on all indigenous communities. To say my journey was surreal is an understatement. It’s an experience that will remain with me forever.

—Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

Cynthia Benitez is the Film and Video programmer for the National Museum of American Indian in New York. Before joining the museum staff, she worked as a publicist for international film festivals and Native media organizations, including the American Indian Film Institute, Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum and World Competition, and the Native American Film and Video Festival. She is currently seeking her M.S. in Media Studies at Brooklyn College. 

Photographs not credited above are by Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

Comments (0)

    » Post a Comment