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 I'm starting to learn that my knowledge of tribal names is not only very course-grained but also fairly out of date.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.


Angelika said...

It’s all quite interesting what you wrote. I am particularly struck by the fact that few of us have a clue about the different Indian tribes and nations. A lot to learn!
I LOVE your pictures. So nice to see you and your colleagues in action.

Julie Carroll said...

Nice to virtually meet Kyle and Jose!

I wonder if any of the maps will be geared towards any of the nations (eg. using Cherokee syllabary?) I am not sure it would be necessary but it would be wonderful to see in print!

Marc Merlin said...

Answering Julie above:

I'll check to see whether there are any maps planned in Native languages. That said, I doubt it. I'm not sure how many language groups are represented by the 574 federally recognized tribal nations, but I suspect it's a lot. Picking even a few among this number for maps could be politically fraught.