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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.

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