My internship at the National Museum of the American Indian

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Friday, 9 December 2016

I am currently, studying a Master of Museum and Heritage Studies at the Australian National University. When not at ANU, I work at AIATSIS in the Print Collections as a Collections Assistant and Step-Up participant.

Earlier this year, I applied to undertake an internship at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which is a part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C.

Out of over 300 applicants I was one of 19 interns to get a 10-week placement for the Summer.

During my internship, I got to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C. for the first time and it was incredibly overwhelming to wander along the Mall, passing museum after museum.

Thankfully, I already knew a couple of the staff members at the NMAI, having met Gabi – Historian – and Kevin – Director – earlier this year at the National Museum of Australia. Gabi showed me around the exhibition spaces. Gabi is Piscataway, one of the traditional owners of D.C. so it was the perfect welcome.

I moved in to an apartment with five other interns. Four of us were Indigenous – Crow, Navajo, Native Hawaiian and Noongar (Indigenous Australian) – and the other two were Puerto Rican and from Indiana. They are some of the most incredible people that I have ever met.

The National Museum of the American Indian has three sites: two are public museums in D.C. and NYC. The third site is the Cultural Resource Centre in Suitland, MD, which is where the museum’s collection of 850,000+ objects are kept.

Jodie outside the Smithsonian's Cultural Resource Center
Gail (Cherokee), Steph (Acoma), and Jodie (Noongar) outside the Smithsonian's Cultural Resource Center

As an intern in the Collections Management department, I worked at two sites: the museum on the Mall in D.C., and the CRC. Gail Joice, a Cherokee woman who is the Collections Manager at the NMAI, was my supervisor. As she managed the collections at both sites, we would spend our time divided between the mall and the CRC, getting the best of both worlds!

When not at the mall, I was at the CRC, which is a purpose-built building designed through collaboration with Native communities across South, Central and North America.

The collection storage areas, built over three levels, were created following community advice to have archaeological objects kept on the lower level underground – in the earth, from where they came.

Reconnecting with a shield from the Kimberley, my Ancestral Country,
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Living items such as baskets, cloaks, weapons, tools, pottery, etc., were kept on the ground floor, where a window had been built to allow sunlight into the collection so that the objects could see and feel the sun.

Another design element that the builders incorporated was to store the objects based on geographical areas. For example, objects from communities in Alaska/Canada/North America were stored due North. Communities in the south, west and east also had their objects stored based on this concept.

In addition to dedicated storage areas, the CRC has a purpose-built smudging room which is incredible – it is a designated space where Native staff and visitors can go to cleanse themselves through smudging or prayer, before or after visiting the collection.

The thing that really stands out for me happened during my first morning tea at the CRC, with NMAI collections staff – the majority of whom are Native. One of the staff members asked me if there were any objects that, culturally, I am unable to handle or be in contact with – he is the first person who has ever asked me this question! I have never been asked this question when working with collections in Australia. And I appreciated it more than he could ever know.

Through this question, he showed me that he, and the collections staff, respect my cultural identity and care about my spiritual wellbeing.  This understanding opened up a dialogue where we could share cultural practices across our Countries.

This is me making a mount
This is me making a mount for this 1800 year old Inca necklace made of gold and turquoise.

In July, the NMAI sent all 19 interns to New York City to see the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. During this site visit, we were given a tour of the exhibitions and the education spaces. I loved how the Curators used Native voices in the exhibition, alongside historic, traditional and contemporary cultural objects to tell their stories. In particular, the story of Mohawk woman Tekahionwake, English name Pauline Johnson, stayed with me. It is the strength of Native people and particularly woman that inspire me to work in this field.

The day before I left, Gabi took me to one of their sacred sites – a special place where her Ancestors, her family – Piscataway tribal leaders, are buried. When I questioned if it was appropriate for me to be there, Gabi gave me a hug and said, “I want you to leave your footprints here, for our Ancestors to know who you are. And for you to return to this place in the future.” There is no doubt in my mind that I will go back there one day.

I now have an incredible support network and ongoing professional and personal relationships with NMAI staff, fellows and interns, who I have become really great friends with. I have also discovered a burning, passionate love for baseball!!!

Watching the baseball
My friends and I at a baseball game