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Behind the Scenes at the National Museum of African Art


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.


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.

AAA and AFA Summer Interns Selected

The 2013 AAA Summer Interns and Association for Feminist Anthropology (AFA) Summer Intern has been selected. Congratulations to Jeff Emerson, Jalene Regassa and Rachel Nuzman!

Rachel NuzmanRachel Nuzman will be the 2013 AFA Summer Intern. Nuzman is a senior at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is double majoring in Anthropology and English, and minoring in Women and Gender Studies. Rachel notes that through her studies, she has “developed an incredible passion for analyzing cultural influence and pressure on gender and language.”

The AFA is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Nuzman will research an annotated history of the AFA, utilizing the AFA Archives housed at the Smithsonian and other sources, to mark this important anniversary. The finished product will be a useful guidebook for research and scholarship related to AFA’s mission: pedagogy and scholarship in feminist anthropology.

Please help support Rachel’s internship by making a financial contribution to the AFA-AAA Summer Internship Program.

Jeff Emerson, an AAA Summer Intern, will be working with the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History & Heritage Command, the official history program of the Department of the Navy.Jeff Emerson A native of Iowa, Emerson is a senior at Luther College. He double majors in Anthropology and Chemistry.

Several opportunities have led Emerson to an interest in the fields of archaeometry, oceanographic archaeology and artifact conservation. Work with the National Park Service at the Klondike Gold Ruck National Historical Park in Skagway, Alaska, and an internship in summer 2012 with the Nautilus Exploration Program searching for ancient shipwrecks in the Black Sea have contributed most to these curiosities.  While on the Nautilus expedition, Jeff assisted the lead scientist with geochemical research of the Black Sea’s stratified water column and the underlying sediments.  This investigation turned into the core research for his senior capstone project in chemistry to better understand the chemical processes within the water column and sediments, and how they influence the deterioration or preservation of archaeological artifacts left in situ.

Jalene RegassaJalene Regassa, an AAA Summer Intern, will be working with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. Regassa is a senior at Colby College. She double majors in Anthropology and Global Studies. “As an Ethiopia-American, I am very much interested in exploring the ways in which African cultures interact with American cultures and people” says Regassa.

Jalene has a passion for learning, which has compelled her to become an active member of the Colby African Society. Over the past three years, She has played a significant role in revitalizing the club’s activities of representing Africa at Colby College. Her Anthropology major has been valuable in learning about the various cultures that exist in Africa and in appreciating the plurality of experiences across the continent, which she believes allows for a balanced and holistic understanding of Africa and its people.

In a recent interview, Regassa relays her excitement for the upcoming internship: “I am excited to begin my AAA internship at the Smithsonian National Museum for African Art this coming summer. I believe it is a great opportunity to further develop my knowledge while combining my growing interests in anthropology, African cultures, and art.”

The AAA Summer Internship is in its third consecutive year. The program is proudly funded entirely through member donations. This summer AAA needs to raise $8,000 to host Emerson and Regassa. The internships are unpaid; however, the students are provided housing and a meal/travel stipend. Please support these students by making your financial contribution to the AAA Summer Internship Program today.


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