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 fourth and final in a series of interviews of staff members who work at the CRC, looks at the career of a collections manager.
Please describe your background and why you went into museum work.
My academic career began as a studio art major at the University of Washington in Seattle. After two years, I realized that I objectively couldn’t see myself making a living as an artist. Even within my program, there were so many better artists, and I didn’t have the fire in my belly to really starve for my art! Thinking about other professional options, I realized how interesting I had found my art history courses.
During this time, I held a couple of volunteer positions at museums near the university. The university’s Henry Art Gallery had an archival collection for Northwest artists, which I worked on by interviewing local gallery owners who knew the local artists’ histories well. It was during this work that I began to think about a museum career.
I went on to get my master’s degree in Art History at U. C.-Berkeley. During my undergraduate degree, I developed an interest in Gothic and medieval architecture and decorative arts, which is the topic I pursued in my MA. During this time, I also volunteered with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and took a Berkeley graduate course that involved writing exhibition catalog text for the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, also in San Francisco. Before graduation, I was looking at the College Art Association’s job postings and saw that there was only one medieval art history position in the entire U.S. that year, and it was in Little Rock, Arkansas. Nothing against Little Rock, but it just wasn’t for me! It was during this time—while I was also being encouraged to complete Berkeley’s average nine-year PhD—that I realized what an interesting art historical culture existed outside of academia, in museums.
At that point, I was really looking to build a career in the museum field and began by getting an internship. I applied to a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) internship in Washington, D.C., and had an amazing opportunity working with the Museum Program for four months to look at many different museum grants and programs.
When I was on the phone with someone at Berkeley about my NEA internship, she mentioned that the Berkeley University Art Museum had an opening for an assistant registrar. In an amazing case of serendipity, that was my first museum job.
Berkeley’s staff was very small, so their registration department also acted as a collections management department. While I was there, I worked with rights and reproductions, the Asian art collections, storage facilities, condition reports, and object handling. I spent a lot of time working hands-on with the collections, which I found incredibly satisfying.
Why the National Museum of the American Indian? And why Collections Management?
When the head registrar’s position opened up at the Seattle Museum, I applied and ended up staying there for 25 years! There, medieval art began to take a backseat, and I instead became interested in Asian, particularly Japanese, art, which I still love.
In 1991, the museum accessioned an important collection of Northwest Coast Native objects. With this acquisition, we began a lengthy consultation process, where we spoke with Tlingit elders about their traditional knowledge, which I found immensely rewarding and inspiring. Although I wasn’t raised in any traditional ways, I have Cherokee heritage on my mother’s side. I grew up with Miwok–Paiute and Pomo friends in Yosemite National Park, California, where I was born, and one of them, Lucy Parker, is now a famous California basket-maker. This background helped me realize that I wanted to be involved at the very beginning in the opening of the new “Native Place” on the National Mall. It was starting a second career for me, after 25 years at the Seattle Art Museum, and I’m so glad that I did!
Describe your average workday.
I’ve recently transitioned from working at the museum on the Mall as collections manager to working full time at the CRC as supervisory collections manager. Objects move back and forth between the buildings frequently, and the majority of my hands-on object work at the museum on the Mall took place during exhibition installations or providing gallery object care. At the CRC we are fortunate to have the connection with the people whose ancestors made the objects, with Native artists, with researchers who are working with the collections and young Native people who are considering museum careers as NMAI interns.
What has always drawn me to the CRC is the fact that this place is the heart of what we do. I’m an objects person and I always have been one, but the additional pleasure here is learning from all the constituents that come in. One of my favorite things is working with tribal elders in the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices program.
I’m lucky to have a nice mix. I’m an administrator who supervises two collections managers (at the museums in D.C. and New York) and four collections specialists. I work with the collections, and I also work with colleagues in other departments. My new position at the CRC involves being concerned with the environment of the building, which is critical to collections care. Because of this, I have begun a CRC HVAC working group with staff from conservation, collections, facilities, archives, photo services, and the library communicating about environmental problem-solving in the building.
But, like most other people, I still spend at least 25 percent of my day at a computer!
If you had to pick, what is your favorite object in the collections?
California basketry holds a special place in my heart. As I mentioned, I grew up with Miwok–Paiute and Pomo weavers living in Yosemite. Basket weaving is especially important to me, as it is a woman’s craft, a spiritual activity, and it is very difficult to do! Our aisle of California baskets here at NMAI is one of my favorite places to take tours.
Above: Julia Parker (Kashaya Pomo, Coast Miwok; b. 1929), miniature basket with cover. Julia's daughter Lucy—a renowned basket-maker in her own right—is a childhood friend of Gail's. Yosemite National Park, Mariposa County, California; 2003. Sedge root, willow, glass beads; diam 4.5 cm. (26/2688) NMAI Photo Services
Right: Lucy Parker (Yosemite Paiute, Coast Miwok, Mono Lake Paiute, Kashaya Pomo; b. 1953), work tray. Lee Vining, California; 2003. Willow; diam 62 cm. (26/2687) NMAI Photo Services
Could you give a piece of advice to readers who might be aspiring museum professionals?
I really think that getting an internship in a museum is the best advice I can give. Internships get you deeper inside of an institution than you would get through a volunteer position. My internship with the National Endowment for the Arts really kick-started this career, and the same goes for the interns I supervise now. My first intern at NMAI in 2004 is now the director of her tribal museum! I’ve had an intern who is now a Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and another who works with her tribal community cultural center. It is inspiring to see the new generation of museum collections professionals develop.
—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.