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.


Virginia M said...

My favorite museum! Would be interested to learn more about the donor’s attachment to the term “American Indian.” Maybe it was considered progressive at the time and he wanted to guard against a more common/less enlightened name? Or the other way around: objection to evolving language. As you point out there isn’t and never will be consensus on a single name, so maybe everyone can unite around not quite liking this one.

Marc Merlin said...

Answering Margaret's questions above:

Yes, please come and visit!

I applied for a volunteer position with the Smithsonian Institution, which includes around 17 museums in the Washington area alone. Museum choice only came up during my interview in July.

First, I was asked whether I preferred a busier or quieter museum. Having been in a couple of the busiest ones early in the summer, namely the Museum of Natural History and the American History Museum, I realized that I'd rather work in a less hectic location.

When I was asked my specific preferences, the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian American Art Museum (they share the same building) was at the top of my list. I have a particular affinity for art museums. Also, the NPG/SAAM is very close to where I live, so it could not have been more convenient.

But I had visited the National Museum of the American Indian the previous year and was really taken by how striking the building was. It was also my first encounter with contemporary Native art at any scale. That made a big impression on me. My knowledge of Native history and culture was (and remains) thin, but I was (and remain) excited at the prospect of learning more. So the NMAI was my second choice.

I forget what my third choice was. Maybe it was the National Museum of Asian Art which includes the Freer and Sackler Galleries. I didn't know that much about it at the time, but I've made several visits since then and have developed an interest in the collections. It may become an alternative place for me to volunteer in the future.

All in all, I am very happy with my placement at the NMAI. The Welcome Desk is adjacent to the beautiful Potomac Atrium and its soaring rotunda. It's a wonderful space to inhabit and greet visitors for a few hours a week.

Angelika said...

Marc, I enjoyed reading about your experience and the museum itself. I look forward to the next installments.
I’m struck by the unusual architecture of the building.
Maybe you could get a colleague to take a photo of you sitting at the Welcome Desk so we can picture you in your job with a glimpse of your surroundings.

Marc Merlin said...

Responding to Angelika above:

I'm glad you are enjoying my posts thus far. The architecture of the NMAI building is indeed quite striking! I'll try to post more photos in the future, including an "action photo" of me at work at the Welcome Desk.