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.


Julie Carroll said...

So interesting to learn about the visit of the Poarch band of Creek Indians. I am curious to know how many visitors from the various tribes choose to visit each year. Do the Information Specialist collect any data about visitors? Are there any Native American docents or volunteers that you know of?

Too bad the cafe is closed because I would love to hear your review!

Marc Merlin said...

Responding to Julie's question above:

Although I think that the various Smithsonian museums keep track of the aggregate number of visits using clickers, I don't think that anyone collects any data about the visitors themselves. I imagine that this would be hard to do with so many people coming and going at busy times. In addition, I suspect that some visitors would find it intrusive. Perhaps someone keeps track of group visits like the one yesterday. I'll see if I can find out.

Along those lines, we learned in our training that there were only a limited number of circumstances where we could ask for personally identifying information. For example, there's a clipboard for recording names when wheelchairs are checked out, and people who leave Native flags for the collection at the Welcome Desk are asked to provide contact information. My guess is that since the Smithsonian is essentially a government organization, personal privacy is an important consideration.

Some staff members I have met at NMAI use tribal affiliation when introducing themselves, but keep in mind I've only met a few people there so far.