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Ethnographic Musings of an AAA Intern

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!

Thoughts on DC work and environment

I have a few anthropological musings. When I arrived in D.C., it was a record-setting 110 degrees (with the heat index). I was both overwhelmed by the heat, and struck by how much time everybody spent in air conditioning. In the past few weeks, I have been wondering about the effect of climate upon work culture. In my daily travels from apartment to metro to work, and occasionally to stores and restaurants in between, I estimate I spend 1 hour or less per day in un-air conditioned environments.

Washington DC is oppressed by humidity. Up on Capitol Hill the frantic politicos and desperate interns look suffocated and resentful in their tight gray suits. We race from one climate-controlled space to another, resenting the dampness that builds under our fitted synthetic outfits when we must walk from the car to the metro, the metro to the office.  DC’s verdant parks and shaded nooks look nice in guidebooks, but we clutch our briefcases and slump under the thick yellowish- gray haze that hangs low breathes hotly on the back of our necks.  In public transit, men scowl and re-check the heat index on their phones, women frantically smooth their frizzing hairstyles. Safely in our cool, dry, bright offices, we return to the professional life dressed for. We straighten up and our suits fall into place, moisture evaporates from our composed brow, and we are once again masters of our busy schedules. Professionalism and efficiency require bright lights and controlled climates; dim humidity just saps our energy and motivation. In a culture of air conditioning, we love our big cubic man-made ecosystems.

Having just moved from the San Francisco Bay Area, I am not accustomed to this indoor living. Californians smugly flaunt their “California cool”– it’s a fashion, a work style, a design process, a business model, a persona, a philosophy. Their arid, sunshine-drenched, nouveau-Mediterranean climate of the Bay Area is more than the perfect backdrop for the image young, fit entrepreneur. The perpetually pleasant weather enables a fantasy which the Californians themselves consume. They are flippantly anti-business suit, anti- cubicle, anti – centralized air. Top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs drop out of school to start their dream companies. They forego the 9 to 5 workday to program on laptops in coffee shops, then go for a 50 mile bike ride on the coast. Outdoor fitness is integrated into the work day because healthy living increases work efficiency and creativity (and keeps you thin and tanned). This is the cult of youthful ingenuity: seventeen year old tech nerds make millions overnight, then go surfing the next morning. And somehow the lack of seasons erodes the sense of time passing. Aging seems unnatural in this paradise.  And though they work round the clock in their boundless workspace, the Californians are always smiley.

Forgive my overgeneralizations – I do not justly portray the individuals who live and work in either locale, and my descriptions are imaginative. But, at the risk of exaggeration, I hope to convey a few, very partial observations.

Frankly, I don’t know which culture I prefer. I grew up in Massachusetts, and as a somewhat stubborn New Englander I was distrustful of the California ideology. I defend the value of a winter, which halts our self-centered busyness. The snow storm comes, we’re ploughed in, the power goes out, and everything just stops. We make stews from vegetables stored in our cold basement, light candles, and take care of our home. The harshness of our environment is humbling, and people become weathered, so to speak. People say that New Englanders are harsher, blunter, “realer” – but I suspect these characteristics have become equally constructed, so that, in our pride and romanticism, we become caricatures of ourselves.

California entrepreneurs seem too shiny and happy to be real, and D.C. politicos seem to be held hostage in their big white buildings and gray suits. Both embrace artificiality in their own way. I feel compelled to return to Boston with a more critical eye, and question the “sensibility” I attribute to our seasonal trials.

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


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