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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Life in the Stacks: A Summer Intern's Experience at the NMAI Archive Center

Sheltered from the overly bright sun and the suffocating humidity, I spent the summer huddled in a cardigan and archival standard hand warmers within the NMAI Archives Center stacks.   My internship was spent arranging, preserving and describing the papers of the National Congress of the American Indian and the Gertrude Litto Collection.  One set of papers was from a national organization designed to advocate for the needs of Native Americans and the other the personal papers of an elementary school art teacher Gertrude Litto, who in 1971-1972 traveled through South America to study native pottery.

The papers of the National Congress of the American Indian had a dizzying number of boxes and a 189 page finding aid of already processed materials.  My mission, as I chose to accept it, was to process a second accession of materials from NCAI.  I was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of boxes filled to the brim with papers and the nonsensical organization of the folders that were often labeled “Miscellaneous” or “Folder 1.”  However, poor labeling of folders and disorganization were also an invitation to explore what was inside and I found myself drawn to spirited correspondence, draft after draft of reports and materials from conventions past.  These are the materials of an organization that is run by and has served the interests of Native Americans since 1944 to the present.  The force of NCAI’s advocacy over a wide range of issues, from agriculture to veterans affairs, is a powerful demonstration of Native American activities in the present.  The strength of this collection comes from how current it is, and the papers speak to a very visible presence of Native Americans who are tackling a large breadth of issues working with the US government, native communities and other national and international organizations.  Going through these papers I found my mind wandering to issues of heritage, advocacy and agency  concepts that I have often written about for essays but now I have stared them in the face and saw them for myself.

Trumpet, Collected in Ecuador by Gertrude Litto (26/3564)

The boxes that Gertrude Litto’s papers came in were blissfully limited.  Her papers documented her adventure through Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela, and were the raw materials from which her 1976 book, South American Folk Pottery, was crafted.  Her collection is one that crosses over into different formats – photos, physical objects, and published and unpublished materials.  Her papers bring together and put into context what a ceramic bowl or photo cannot and the manuscript shows the process of publication that isn’t often seen.  The papers show Litto’s travels, the places she went, what she learned, how it translated into a book and the methods used to create the pottery she purchased.  The interesting part of this collection is that despite the fact that the objects are housed in the collections stacks, the books are in the library and the papers are in the archives, they are all interconnected, pieces of a whole story.  I enjoyed flipping through her notes and manuscript with red inked scribbles upon it, knowing that this eventually became a published book.  The photos of South American native peoples showed the process in which the pottery she wrote about and collected was made.  Everything relates to each other in this museum world in a way I never really thought about within the classroom.

Processing archival materials is a labor of love to which I have found myself endeared during my time at NMAI.  Many of the activities I’ve done and the manuscript collections I encountered have been different from what I have experienced in my past work and has captivated me to the extent that I almost don’t mind that it’s over 90 degrees outside my world of papers and Hollinger boxes.  Friend and archivist , Samantha Cross, wrote to me about my internship, “I imagine you’ll return a changed woman.  Far too civilized to associate with childish friends, you’ll form superficial bonds with those of the upper echelons.  You’ll go to fancy parties and regale them with your wit and social commentary, whilst the rest of us look on in wonder.”  Changed woman?  Yes.  Regale people with my wit and social commentary?  Always.  Superficial bonds with the upper echelons?  Hardly.  I have been more than pleased to work with Jennifer O’Neal, Michael Pahn, Rachel Menyuk and fellow intern, Camille Tyndall, who have all guided and helped me in these beginnings of my archival career.  I hope to always encounter them as esteemed colleagues and friends.  And beyond the practical experience in processing archival collections, interning at NMAI has gotten me thinking about the connection between paper archives and object collections, the connection between heritage and scholarship, and that hand crank shelves are far superior to automatic ones. 

Cara Bertram, NMAI Archive Center Intern  (Summer 2011)

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad that you discovered something about museums during your internship. Museums are the soul of our heritage and the "mento" of our history.