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November 21, 2012

It's All Connected: California Basketry, Cultural Context, and Museum Conservation | NMAI Internship Programs

In 2009 and 2010, basketweaver Deborah McConnell (Hoopa/Yurok/Quinault); cultural heritage specialist Robert McConnell (Yurok); and Briannon Fraley (Tolowa), a former summer intern at the National Museum of the American Indian, joined members of the museum's Conservation Office in a program centered on Northern California basketry and its broader cultural context. This is the second post in a series that presents multiple perspectives on their collaboration. To start at the beginning of the series, see: 

1. Introduction to the Project, Acknowledgments & Contributors 

Each year, the National Museum of the American Indian hosts as many as 40 interns, many of whom are Native American, at any of its three facilities: the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; NMAI–New York in lower Manhattan; and the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, where the collections are housed and the behind-the-scenes work of conservation other collections-support takes place.

Internships administered by the Community and Consituent Services Office provide museumwide educational opportunities for students interested in the museum profession and related fields. Interns complete projects using NMAI and other Smithsonian resources and learn about the museum’s collections, exhibitions, public programs, and methodologies, including conservation. 

The Conservation Office offers training opportunities for applicants interested in pursuing careers in conservation. This second group of internships and fellowships includes Andrew W. Mellon internships each summer, for practicing conservation professionals and students currently enrolled in or graduated from graduate programs in conservation; a six-month program for stduents preparing to apply for graduate-level training in conservation; and two-year Andrew W. Mellon fellowships for post-graduate conservators.

Each of these internships and fellowships provide an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to work with Native American objects and collaborate with Native people to develop appropriate methods of handling, preserving, and interpreting cultural materials. NMAI also offers specialized conservation training for Native American professionals working in tribal museums and cultural centers, or with preservation projects. 

The NMAI conservation staff is committed to offering the experience of this collaborative or integrative approach. Native American interns connected to their tribal communities, in particular, have a personal investment in the practices of the museum. Their commitment breeds enthusiasm and inspires them to question and challenge the working methodologies of the institution. They remind us that we too are responsible and accountable to tribal communities. This is exactly what Briannon Fraley (Tolowa) did during her 2009 summer internship.

Elizabeth Hickox (Wiyot/Karuk, 1875-1947) baskets, ca. 1920. Northern California. Maidenhair fern, spruce root, hazel shoots, porcupine quill; 13 x 11 cm, 21 x 20 cm, 12.5 x 15 cm. 22/1927, 25/3, 24/4103. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI.

At the end of her internship with the Collections Office, Briannon gave a presentation on basket-weaving from her perspective as a contemporary basketmaker. She described the plants that many Northern California tribes use to fabricate baskets, and the gathering and harvesting of these plants, as well as weaving techniques. Most importantly, she stressed the difficulty weavers have in acquiring these materials, because many grow on United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service lands. The successful regeneration of many of these species relies on controlled burning, a practice executed by the Hoopa, Tolowa, Yurok, and Karok from time immemorial but prohibited by the Forest Service until recently.

Briannon’s description of the challenges and political navigations required by weavers simply to collect the plant materials they need was enlightening. It underscored the challenges tribes face when dealing with governmental control of their other land and water resources. This is not unlike what is required to navigate the impositions of institutional control of their cultural material. 

During the course of Briannon’s internship, we had numerous conversations about conservators as caretakers of museum objects versus a tribal community’s role as caretaker of a people's cultural material. Through our frank and honest discussions it became clear that it is through successful partnerships between the museum and the community that we can best care for objects in the collections. The point is to understand fully that Tolowa, Hoopa, or Yurok baskets sitting on the shelves in museum storage or on our table in the conservation lab are linked to the place they come from and to the people who make and use them. The intangible context surrounding each basket is just as important as the basket itself.

Ultimately, this exchange inspired us to invite Briannon back to the Cultural Resources Center, along with her in-laws, Deborah and Robert McConnell, to teach a workshop on basketry and cultural resources to incoming conservation interns and fellows. The conservation staff has an obligation to provide this experience of collaboration for our interns and fellows, so they may comprehend the mindset and the respect required to work with the objects in the NMAI’s collections. In fact, this is the best type of programmatic educational and cultural orientation we can provide interns and fellows. 

—Kelly McHugh, NMAI

Next: The Collections Visit, Consultation, and Workshop



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Collaboration with the culture and having native American Indian is the best way of putting up history together. They would be able to express and share their selves and this would help visitors understand more about their culture. This article is very informative.

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