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Interning At the Smithsonian

Katie Patschke - 2014 AAA Summer Intern

I couldn’t thank the American Anthropological Association’s member donations enough for this experience. At the Smithsonian Institution-National Museum of African Art I am just finishing up the research for the project creativity of work assigned to me by my coordinator, Dr. Kreamer. Dr. Kreamer is the Deputy Director and Chief Curator for the National Museum of African Art.  I intend to edit my findings and continue researching throughout the next few weeks. Dr. Kreamer and I had a conversation about the next step to the project which will include constructing a list of images that go along with the concept of work and that can be displayed in the exhibit. We intend to go into storage and find images, sculptures , and other pieces of art that will work with the project to tell the story of work and how it contributes to people’s everyday lives in Africa.

Dr. Kreamer and I were also able to discuss post-graduate opportunities with a possibility of me continuing to work with the Smithsonian Institute on other research projects after this experience.

National Museum of African Art

Last Wednesday I attended a meet and greet information meeting for Smithsonian interns where I met fellow Smithsonian employees. At the meeting they were able to give me insight and encouraged me to continue to pursue my passion of curatorial work with the intention of continuing my work with the Smithsonian.

Air Force Memorial

This Tuesday I attended an event offered to the African Art interns where we were given a personal tour of the museum and all of the hidden places that the museum had that weren’t open for public view. On the tour we were able to see the archives, the private collections, and the storage facilities where they keep all of the extra art. We met with workers to discuss the processes of woodwork and construction that goes into building packaging to ship artwork and how they build the sets that the artwork is displayed in in the museum. We also had the opportunity to talk to a curator who gave us a personal tour of Camille and Bill Cosby’s collection of artwork. The African Art museum is preparing for an opening in November that the Cosby’s are contributing many pieces of work too. We were given an inside look of the artwork that is about to be put on display. The artwork is fascinating. Their collection is truly inspiring and I encourage everyone to check out their art when the exhibit opens in November.

At my internship at the American Anthropological Association we are currently working on outlining essay and poster projects for students to become involved in. These projects will provide students the opportunity to present their research and build their resumes. These events will be surrounding the very first National Anthropology day which will be celebrated in February 2015.

Katie Patschke - 2014 AAA Summer Internship

Last weekend I went to the Newseum, the National Archives to see the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the Library of Congress where I used my library card access the bottom level and explore the vast collection of novels and articles. The following day I went on a hike at Riverbend Park and where I saw the great falls along the Potomac which separates Virginia and Maryland. After the hike I went to see the Pentagon and tried Vietnamese food. I really enjoyed adventuring around the area and I am looking forward to exploring more museums and parts of DC this weekend.

Riverbend Park

The AAA Summer Internship Program is funded entirely by AAA member donations. Make your contribution today!

Behind the Scenes at the National Museum of African Art

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Today’s guest blog post is by AAA Summer Intern, Jalene Regassa.

Earth Matters! That is the title of a current exhibition at the National Museum of African Art (NMAFA). During my first week as a curatorial intern at the museum, I walked through this exhibition as any tourist would do. I read some of the tablets explaining about the artists and their art works in order to get the general idea of the exhibition and how each piece fit into the bigger message. Of course, I was also trying to make use of my critical eye afforded to me by my Anthropology education. However, I left the exhibition feeling unsure about some of the pieces and wondering if I understood their meaning to the full extend. Lucky for me, I was not left to wonder for too long as I was given the opportunity to join a guided tour by the curator of the exhibition, Karen Milbourne.   It was surprising, exciting, and inspiring to discover the level of depth of meaning that each piece held on its own and within the context of the exhibition. I was amazed by the amount of research Ms. Milbourne had conducted in order to be able to present the art pieces in a meaningful manner that asserts their historical context and maintains their integrity.

Thus, for me, the most exciting part of my experience interning at the NMAFA has been discovering and learning about all the work that is involved in putting an exhibition together. As you walk through museums glancing at the spaciously displayed art works, it often seems as though they were effortlessly put together. Consequently, I never seriously thought about or realized the amount of time and effort that goes into preparing an exhibition. This internship allowed me to see the activities that take place behind the scenes of the museum in corners that I never knew existed. The staff members at NMAFA graciously organized a guided, behind the scenes tour of the museum for the interns and volunteers, in which we had the opportunity to learn about the various departments of the museum and their responsibilities. For instance, I had no idea that there was a wood workshop where NMAFA makes its own cases for displaying objects or a library where curators can find books and archived documents to conduct their research.

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From the conception of an exhibition idea to its realization it may take up to a year to finalize everything and open it to the public. The in-between processes include deciding on a theme, researching artists and their creations, acquisition of the art pieces (with plenty of paper work), and preparation of the exhibition area (which often includes painting walls and building special display cases). Though I got a glimpse of what everybody does, as a curatorial intern, my focus was on the curating process of an exhibition.

Fortunately, the project I am working on is in the beginning stages, so I have the great opportunity and pleasure of working with curator Christine Kreamer to help refine the exhibition plan and observe as it takes shape. This particular project aims to bring African American art from a very important private collection and present it in conversation with African art to highlight some of the common themes and issues that the artists addressed in their work.

My job is to conduct research on the art pieces that have been chosen to be displayed from the private African American Art collection and learn when, how, and why they were made. In other words, I need to find out about the artists and their motivations or sources of inspiration: What themes interested them? What issues did they seek to address? By doing so, I will assist in the selection of compatible African Art pieces to be included in the exhibition.

2meI thoroughly enjoyed working on this exhibition project for many reason. One of the main reasons is that I never had an opportunity to learn about African American Art from as far back as the 1800s before. Thus, it has been fascinating to not only learn about their art work but also their struggle to make it in their profession. Many of the African American artists became activists out of necessity to claim their right to equal treatment. Some were subtle and showed their activism through their art and others were overt as they established or joined organizations that worked to advocate for African American interests.  In many cases, understanding their struggles was essential in comprehending the depth of their work, titles, and comments.

Overall, this has been a wonderful and fascinating experience.

National Museum of African Art Curatorial Research

Today’s blog post is by one of our two summer interns, Susannah Poland. This is the second year of the AAA Summer Internship Program. Learn more and support the program today!

At the National Museum of African Art, I have been buried in my books.

Photo by Elvert BarnesThe NMfAA is mostly underground. Visitors to the Smithsonian Castle see only the tip of an iceberg: the museum’s atrium pokes up in the Haupt Garden, and passersby — lured by chilling air conditioning — can push through glassy doors and descend a massive spiraling staircase into the galleries below. The museum is three floors deep, and sunlight filters down the central columnar stairwell to a glittery pool and fountain at its base. The galleries are connected by underground atria, lit by arching skylights. Glassy walkways bridge between museum departments, and windows from all floors give views into studios, libraries, and galleries, and offices. Indoor plants and clever murals give the illusion that one is passing through a an open-air piazza. Only the distinctive taste of air conditioning reminds us that we are in a highly designed environment.

During the last three weeks I have been cloistered in the African Art Library, deep in the museum. The NMfAA houses the largest collection of written works on African Art in existence, and Africanists and art historians travel from around the world to study these documents. The library is a functional storage space; unaesthetic mobile stacks roll together to maximize storage capacity, metal filing cabinets line the walls. I claimed a small carol in a back corner next to some photocopy machines. In these humble surroundings I’ve rubbed elbows with some of the most prominent researchers and scholars in the field – anthropologists who wrote foundational ethnographies on African peoples, art historians who first introduced African art and artists to the Western world, and young scholars who are publishing the most challenging work on contemporary artistic practice in Africa and the diaspora. Some of them I recognize immediately, sometimes one scholar will tip me off about the other – they seem mutually star-struck. I am reminded that the Smithsonian is a hub for global expertise.

During the day I drift between my library carol, my office, and the staff room where I make tea. I have assembled over 100 articles which are helping me to map the landscape of contemporary arts created by women in Africa and the diaspora. I have been reading about gender issues and feminisms addressed by African women today, trying to develop a vocabulary for describing related arts.

My research will set the foundation for the design of an exhibit curated by Christine Kreamer, head curator of the NMfAA. This fall we will invite a small group of scholars and curators to a meeting at the NMfAA, to discuss the narrative of the exhibit and related publications. With this important gathering in mind, I am digesting as much literature as possible, to make informed recommendations for invitees and to help maximize precious discussion time with these experts.

Though I am processing information quickly, I feel the pressure of time – my 6-week internship has flown away, and I am scrambling to organize my research in a way that will it easy for my successor to pick up where I left off. In addition to leaving physical records (binders of articles, annotations, and bibliographies) I am developing a web site that will serve as a simple database for storing and searching material, which can easily be modified by future researchers.

If I could, I would spend all my days hanging out in the library with the head librarian, Janet Stanley. Janet built the extraordinary collection of scholarship herself over the last three decades. She navigates the collections better than any web catalogue, recalling authors, subjects, and references within texts, and she understands lineages and relationships among works that organize and define the field of scholarship. Janet is the library, and the volumes are simply extensions of her own mind. She is constantly reading, searching, sharing, cataloging … it is thrilling to be in her presence.

Susannah Poland, AAA Intern at Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

Today’s guest blog post is by one of two AAA Summer Interns. This is the second year of the AAA Summer Internship Program. Learn more and support the program today!

My name is Susannah Poland, and I am an intern for the American Anthropological Association (AAA). I divide my time between the AAA offices in Arlington, VA, and the curatorial department of the Smithsonian National Museum for African Art, located on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

I have a background in cultural anthropology, with an emphasis in studies of arts and creativity. I graduated this spring with a Bachelors of Arts from Stanford University, for which I completed an Honors thesis on beaded body adornment of the Chagga culture group in northern Tanzania. Under the mentorship of Dr. Barbara Thompson, curator at the Cantor for the Arts at Stanford University, I explored museum collections and colonial archives in England, and conducted ethnographic research among the Chagga people. This work over the last 18 months exposed me to many of the methods and stores of information used by cultural anthropologists, and gave me a taste of the long, solo process of reflecting and writing on personal experience. Though my product was a thesis and an academic paper, independent curatorial work under Dr. Thompson and another Africanist curator in Stanford’s department of Art History helped me learn about alternative ways of interpreting and representing knowledge.

Emerging from this intense research and writing phase, I hope to take a step back and gain perspective on the breadth of anthropological work today. At the AAA, I am helping to expand their membership base, particularly in student communities. I will help the AAA better reach and address the needs of youth like me – those who are curious and excited about anthropology, still searching for their niche, and still developing a sense of the extent of the discipline and the possible reach/impact of its many applications. I am lucky that the AAA affords the perfect vantage for these explorations.

At the National Museum for African Art, I work under Christine Kreamer, the Chief Curator and Deputy Director of the museum. She is just starting the brainstorming phase for an exhibition and book on work by contemporary African women artists that address current issues in gender and feminist studies. As her research assistant, I am compiling and digesting literature on these topics to identify past and emerging themes,both in academic study and artistic practice.Together, Dr. Kreamer and I will choose a few important thinkers and artists to invite to a meeting in September, to further develop this project. My background research will help us frame and structure the forthcoming conversations, and I will help Dr. Kreamer begin to weave narratives between objects, performances, and writings. In this stage of early development, I will be exposed to the guiding principles which shape the creation of museum exhibitions and publications. My everyday process is unstructured, my research goals fairly abstract, and I have enormous resources to explore at the Smithsonian. I am honored by the autonomy and trust placed in me, and very eager to immerse deeply in this learning process.

Outside of the workplace, I am exploring DC and its environs. The AAA provides housing for interns on Capitol Hill, and I am lucky to be situated just behind the Supreme Court, on Constitution Ave NE. I am living with other interns from around the country, many of whom are working for senators or representatives. The AAA is involved in the regulation of ethical and human rights concerns in much legislation, and I have had very interesting conversations with my housemates about the intersections of our respective fields. I am learning about the value of anthropological thought as a source of social critique and deep inquiry, particularly in the rapid but impactful decision-making on the Hill.

I am fortunate to have this privileged view into professional worlds where anthropological thought is applied in meaningful ways. I feel very young in my studies, and am humbled by the earnest work of my mentors at the AAA and Smithsonian. Their warm welcome has made this transition smooth, and I am very excited about the coming five weeks.

I will reflect this internship experience again in late July, then at its conclusion in mid August.

Susannah Poland
Susannah.poland@gmail.com

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