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.

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