Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The view from the Welcome Center desk at the National Museum of the American Indian and another moving visitor request

View from the Welcome Center Desk at the Smithsonian's NMAI

Since I opened last week's post with an action photo of me and a colleague behind the desk at the Welcome Center of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), I thought that this week I'd turn the tables, so to speak, and give you a Marc's-eye view of what it looks like to be a Visitor Information Specialist Volunteer at the museum. But since there's more than meets the eye, I'll toss in a few words about the surrounding space and what it feels like to work there.

As you can see in the photo above, the ground floor of the NMAI is filled with graceful curves and subtle variations in lighting. Standing at the Welcome Center one looks out on the Potomac Atrium, a beautiful space for gatherings and performances, located beneath a vaulting rotunda. It's where tours of the museum originate. From my limited experience, it appears that the atrium is also a popular spot for after-hours events, like the receptions that are part and parcel with the many conferences that the city hosts.

Beyond the atrium you may be able to spot a few of the windows that make up the NMAI's main entrance. Unlike all the other museums on the National Mall whose main entrances open onto the Mall itself, the east-facing NMAI faces (or faces down) the United States Capitol directly. I've been told that this orientation is due to the fact that an east-facing entrance is a tradition in many Native cultures. I suspect that there is more going on here than just that; namely, that the museum is positioned as a sovereign Native peer to the legislative center of the American government a few blocks away.

Suffice it to say, the Potomac Atrium and the surrounding area are both stately and welcoming, a difficult effect to achieve. From the vantage point of someone working the welcome desk, it is also remarkably serene space, even when a large number of visitors are shuffling back and forth. And when things aren't that busy, I have discovered that it is a nice place for a few minutes of quiet meditation.

Best question of the day

Pipes and War Bonnets,
Agnes Looking Horse
Once again, I find myself very moved by the Native visitors who approach the desk with a request. In this case a young woman from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wanted to locate a quilt that her grandmother had made that was part of the NMAI collection. She had a photo of the quilt and its title, "Pipes and War Bonnets."

John, my partner for that hour, quickly turned to the computer at one side of the Welcome Center desk and did a search using the collection search feature of the NMAI website. (Yes, feel free to try this at home!) His search yielded this results page which contained, among other things, the image that you see to the right.

The page indicates that the quilt's maker was Agnes Looking Horse who also went by the names Agnes Ironroad and Agnes Thunder and was a member of the Lakota tribe. Agnes was born in 1899 and lived until 1990. The NMAI acquired the quilt by way of a quit collector whose heirs sold it to the museum in 2007.

Unfortunately for the visitor, her grandmother's quilt was not on display at the NMAI in Washington or at its Manhattan counterpart. With over 1,000,000 objects in its collection, only a small fraction - around 2% - are on display in either location at any given time. The vast majority are kept in the NMAI's Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Maryland. There are ways for interested parties to arrange to see a particular artifact, but as you can imagine, some lead time is involved.

Lots of school kids this morning

The other novelty for me this morning was the large number of school groups that arrived within an hour or so of opening at 10:00 am. I was told by my more experienced co-workers that it was a somewhat unusual number, but I was also told to expect that the number of school groups and families would be ramping up as the holidays approach. At the staff meeting this morning my boss Jose described the upcoming few weeks as being like a bunch of Black Fridays in a row, the day after Thanksgiving being an especially busy day at the NMAI and at other museums on the Mall.

I'll close by noting that the temporary closing of the renown Mitsitam Cafe for renovation (reopening in May 2024) continues to be a disappointment for many visitors. I'll also note, as I learned from Jose, if you're a teacher with, say, forty-five students in tow, it's a good idea to try to make other lunch arrangements even in the best of times.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Third shift at the National Museum of the American Indian: meet a couple of my partners


Me and Kyle at the NMAI Welcome Center desk
(photo credit: Michelle Kleinhans)

This post is about my third shift as a Visitor Information Specialist Volunteer at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Since things are becoming more routine, I'll be moving to occasional reports when there is something novel to share or if I decide to feature a particular part of the museum or its collection.

"Surprise" visit by Michelle

My long-time friend and partner in veganism Michelle Kleinhans dropped by the NMAI for a "surprise" visit on Wednesday morning. I say "surprise" because she had been hinting that she was going to visit and try to stump me with questions about the museum. Since Michelle is a teacher, she had the day before Thanksgiving off - my work day - which gave her an opportunity to collar me at the Welcome Center. Thanks to Michelle's visit, I have some action photos of me at work to share, like the one above.

Partners at the Welcome Center

My Wednesday shift runs for four hours from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm. The second and final shift of the day is from 1:00 to 5:00 pm. The overlap allows for a handoff of any specific information or procedures of the day. I am always paired with a partner during my shift. Sometimes it is with another volunteer, as was the case with Cindy last week. This week my partners were four members of the Visitor Information Services team, each spending an hour with me at the Welcome Center Desk. It's a nice opportunity to get to know the members of the team better this way.

Meet Kyle

My first partner of the day was Kyle. Kyle is a Visitor Information Services Floor Operations Lead at the NMAI location in Lower Manhattan, the counterpart of Jose here whom you'll meet below. He was in the DMV (a common way here to refer to the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, not to be confused with its universal meaning Department of Motor Vehicles elsewhere) to spend some Thanksgiving time with family and was taking a shift or two while he was in the area.

Kyle, who is originally from Upstate New York, was introduced at the morning staff meeting as being a member of the Onondaga Nation. I'm starting to learn that my knowledge of tribal names is not only very course-grained but also fairly out of date. The Onondaga Nation is a member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which I vaguely knew as the Iroquois. (Haudenosaunee, which comprises six nations, appears to be the preferred name these days.) It's information like this that helps me appreciate part of the mission of the NMAI which is to communicate the rich diversity in the indigenous people here. Even accurate regional designations, like Iroquois, gloss over the variation in customs and history that make each tribal nation distinct.

As my friends know, I love finding out the "backstories" of the people I meet. Kyle's backstory was kicked off by my asking him how long he had been involved with the NMAI, a routine enough question to get the ball rolling I thought. His unexpected and intriguing answer, "since I was born," led to the telling of an interesting story.

It turns out that Kyle's mother was the register of the collection at the George Gustav Heye Museum of the American Indian in New York City when its vast collection of some 800,000 was being transferred to the Smithsonian under a Congressional charter executed in 1989. (The NMAI in DC did not open until 2004.) So Kyle's claim to have been involved with the museum from its - and his - start could not be more accurate. By the way, Kyle's mother continues to work with the NMAI, but at its Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, MD where around 98% of the collection is stored.

Meet Jose

One of my other partners at the desk on Wednesday happened to be my boss Jose, the Visitor Information Services Floor Operations Lead at the NMAI in DC. I met Jose for the first time at my museum-specific training about a month ago. He was an excellent instructor, and I was immediately taken by both his enthusiasm and good humor.

Jose's backstory with the NMAI is also a very deep one, although, admittedly, it would be hard to top Kyle's going back to the day he was born. Jose, who is originally from El Salvador, started working at the museum's Mitsitam Cafe when it opened in 2004. After a couple of years, he switched to Visitor Information Services where he has risen through the ranks to hold the position he does today. It's a pleasure to share part of my shift with Jose, especially since I learn a lot from seeing a real pro in action.

Questions of the week

I'll close with a couple of questions that I fielded during my shift this week. I should note that Michelle stumped me with all of her questions.

There were two requests for copies of the museum map in languages other than English and Spanish, the ones that we always have on display. One request was for a map in Thai and the other for a map in French. I was surprised when I first visited the museum and noticed that there weren't any other language options available. Other museums have them. Indeed, the welcome stations at the National Gallery of Art across the Mall offer a veritable United Nations-worth of maps to choose from.

Jose explained the situation to me. Prior to the pandemic, the NMAI offered maps in ten languages. Apparently, they're still working out changes that have happened to the floorplan since then, with the intention of returning to their full selection.

The other novel question also has to do with another historical disruption. Several visitors asked for the location of the coat check room, not surprising now that it's gotten colder. But there isn't one at the NMAI.

Most museums on the Mall have coat check rooms, consistent with the design of similar public spaces over the past century or so. Almost all of these were closed in the wake of 9/11 amid the security concerns that accompanied it. Many, but not all, have reopened since then. Yet, as Jose told me, the NMAI was being built right in the middle of the aftermath of September 11th. Its architects had concluded that a coat check room was a too-risky thing of the past and therefore deleted it from the NMAI design. So it goes.

On a related note, I noticed that this absence of a coat check room has had another consequence. In particular, I was puzzled how so many small kids, some in families with three or four children, were walking around coatless on a relatively cool November morning. Then I realized that their parents were often wearing ballooning backpacks stuffed to the gills with coats. I can see how these portable coatrooms-in-a-box might come in handy, even when a bona fide coatroom might be available.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

My second day at the National Museum of the American Indian: important visitors

Flag of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (Abyssmanx, Wikimedia Commons)

I'm following up on last week's post about my first day as a Visitor Information Specialist Volunteer at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). I'm not sure what format these posts will take - or even if they will continue - but I thought I'd include a bit more about the job itself and any special things that happened during my shift. Mostly I want readers to get an idea of what it's like to be a Welcome Center volunteer at NMAI.

Staff meeting at 9:30 am

My shift on Wednesdays starts with a meeting of Visitor Information Services (VIS) staff and volunteers in a portion of the imagiNATIONS Activity Center on the 3rd floor. The Activity Center provides young visitors a lively space with a wide variety of educational experiences. It also provides some pint-sized tables with pint-sized chairs where we can gather and learn about such things as special events scheduled for the day or rearrangements of exhibits or, say, bathroom closures. The big news of the morning was an impending visit by around three hundred members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians tribal nation. More about that below.

VIS leads Jose and Wallace conduct the staff meeting and make a point to introduce new members of the team, like me, just starting my second week, and Cindy, who was a volunteer "floater" working at the NMAI for the first time.

My Welcome Center partner

Cindy was my partner at the Welcome Center today. Floaters are seasoned Smithsonian volunteers who have trained at a variety of museums so that they are able to pick up open shifts in the volunteer schedule according to their own availability. They aren't assigned specific days like I am, but are expected to claim one shift every week.

It was a pleasure to work with Cindy. Although she was new to NMAI as a volunteer, she was very knowledgeable about the Smithsonian. So, for example, she could answer visitor questions about transit options for getting to places on the National Mall. Spoiler alert: the answer is almost always to use the $1 DC Circulator to tame the two-mile expanse that stretches between the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.

Cindy had been a long-time volunteer at the iconic Smithsonian Castle - now closed for five years for renovation - which gave her a unique perspective in visitor information services. Apparently, tourists show up on the Mall, make a beeline for the Castle and announce to the volunteers there that they are in town for a certain number of days and ask, "what should I do?" Needless to say, you really have to know a lot about a lot to help them organize their time effectively.

Questions of the day

A young man asked the question about the name of the museum - specifically the use of the term American Indian - that I had been told to anticipate. As I mentioned in my previous post, the name was adopted under the terms of the transfer of the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation's collection to the Smithsonian Institution when the NMAI was chartered by Congress in 1989. I told the questioner that I suspected it would literally take an act of Congress to change it. I'm not sure that that is the answer he wanted to hear, but he seemed to appreciate that any change would be an uphill battle.

Another visitor asked how many Native tribes there were in this country. The answer, which I learned from my training, is that the United States government recognizes 574 tribes. (There are around 2,000 more in the western hemisphere outside the United States.) This number might seem like a bit of trivia, but it goes a long way to helping me understand why the NMAI is organized along thematic and not tribal lines.

Just as with last week, there were a number requests for help locating the Mitsitam Cafe, famous for its Native-inspired cuisine. To almost everyone's disappointment, the cafe is closed for renovation through May of next year. The coffee shop next to the Welcome Center offers a limited menu, but nothing like the real thing. It occurs to me that NMAI should have commissioned a Mitsitam Cafe food truck or two to meet the demand while the original was closed. Maybe it's not too late?

Visit by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians

As I mentioned, we were given a heads-up during the staff meeting to expect a larger number of visitors from the Poarch Band of the Creek Indians. As with so many matters of Native culture, I have to admit to being ignorant of their story. According to their website,

The Poarch Creek Indians are descendants of a segment of the original Creek Nation that once covered almost all of Alabama and Georgia. Unlike many eastern Indian tribes, the Poarch Creeks were not removed from their tribal lands and have lived together for almost 200 years in and around the reservation in Poarch, Alabama.

You can find out more about their history here.

In any event, just as the doors opened at 10:00 am, hundreds of Poarch Creek Indians streamed into the museum. Some were wearing colorful authentic dress. Many were in street clothes, more typical of rural Alabama. But everyone, as far as I could tell, was very excited to be at the museum. And it was with a lot of pride that many went immediately to locate their tribal flag which hangs with a set of Native flags on the north side of the Potomac Atrium.

The importance of the NMAI is to Native visitors is something I did not anticipate when I signed up to be a volunteer. But it is very moving to witness their enthusiasm and very gratifying to be able to help out in a small way.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

My first day at the National Museum of the American Indian

National Native American Veterans Memorial, Harvey Pratt.
Photo: Alan Karchmer for NMAI.

I thought I'd use this blog post to answer a few questions about my new job as a Visitor Information Specialist Volunteer at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, NMAI for short. I've only worked one shift so far, but friends have asked me about my duties and the museum more generally, so here goes.

What is your position exactly? 

I am officially a Visitor Information Specialist Volunteer, which means I help staff the Welcome Desk at the museum once a week, that's Wednesday morning for me. My basic responsibility is to greet guests and to help them have the best possible experience they can while visiting the museum by answering questions and serving as a liaison to museum staff to meet other needs such as accessibility services.

The Welcome Desk sits adjacent to the grand Potomac Atrium on the first floor of the museum which in my opinion is the most beautiful museum on the National Mall. I may describe it in more detail in a later post. Suffice it to say, it's a wonderful place to work.

Are you a docent? 

I am not a docent or any sort of museum guide. I'll have to undertake extensive training to qualify for that kind of position.

Do you have to know a lot about the museum and Native peoples for your job?

This was a concern of mine when I applied to be a volunteer back in July. It turns out that the job doesn't require any particular expertise. In addition to two orientation classes in late September and mid-October for the Smithsonian Institution itself (it includes 21 different museums!), we had a single day of museum-specific training. And much of that museum-specific time was devoted to important practical matters, like evacuation routes and procedures.

I must admit, though, that I am very glad that I visited the NMAI a number of times over the last several months. Those visits allowed me to learn about the layout of the museum and the exhibitions that it hosts. I'm glad I did. I was a lot more confident taking up a seat at the Welcome Desk for the very first time as a result.

Why is it called the Museum of the American Indian?

This much-asked question was specifically addressed in our training. The answer is pretty straightforward: when the museum was chartered by Congress in 1989 - construction was completed in 2004 - its collection was derived from over 800,000 objects assembled by George Gustav Heye (1874–1957), a New Yorker who quit Wall Street to indulge his passion for American Indian artifacts. The Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation transferred this collection to the Smithsonian with the condition that the name be retained.

Isn't that considered offensive?

One of the most important things I've learned from my visits to the NMAI and from my training is that Native peoples are diverse. One should not assume that they speak with a single voice, which is a mistake that I am inclined to make. Some may prefer the name "indigenous people" while others prefer "Native Americans," or, say, "First Nations" in Canada. I think that "American Indian" falls somewhere within this range of choices. But the real answer to this question depends very much on context and who exactly is involved in the discussion.

What was your typical interaction with visitors?

For those of you who visit museums often, you know the first thing you need when you walk in is a museum map. Not surprisingly, that's what most people who approach the Welcome Desk were looking for. As you can see here, the NMAI comprises 4 floors. Contrary to what they (or you) might expect, it is not laid out along conventional lines.

For example, there isn't an extended section for, say, pottery or beadwork or arrowheads, at least not on permanent display. Likewise, the museum is not organized according to an unfolding comprehensive historical or geographical story, although history and geography are important elements of the individual exhibits and there are Windows on Collections display cases on each floor that each feature a number of artifacts.

Instead, the NMAI is organized thematically as represented by a handful of current exhibitions like these. I think that one way to look at this is that the mission of the museum has to do more with the communication of the experience of contemporary Native peoples rather than with a presentation Native objects.

What was the most moving interaction you had on your first day?

Although the possibility was mentioned in our training, I had not expected that Native visitors or their descendants would approach the Welcome Desk several times looking for flags or artifacts relation to their tribal nations. It really helped me to appreciate how important the NMAI is to Native Americans and how proud they are to see themselves and their ancestors represented here.

Any surprises?

Although I had known that the NMAI's Mitsitam Cafe, which features the indigenous foods of the Western Hemisphere, was very popular, I had no idea that it was in itself a destination for many people visiting the National Mall. One couple approached the Welcome Desk looking for the cafe after asking for a recommendation of where to go to have lunch while they were touring the Library of Congress.

The problem is that, for the first time in 20 years, the Mitsitam Cafe is closed for renovations and will remain closed until late spring 2024. Needless to say, I had to share this disappointing news with a number of visitors. There's a coffee shop adjacent to the Welcome Desk that's able to provide a small selection of lunch items, but it can't compare to the full Mitsitam Cafe experience.

More to come

If this post turns out to be of interest to folks, I'll follow up with similar installments about the NMAI in the future.