Friday, July 31, 2009

Yes, I am alive + Jamestown Settlement

Yes, I am, I promise. Quite strange how I went from having minimal internet access in Williamsburg, to total full out hardcore internet access in D.C. and I stopped updating my blog. Ok, I have been busy, and staring at a computer for 8 hours a day doing research (and other such things) can make me want to avoid doing much writing or productive things aside from aimless "surfing the web" type activities when I get home.. yes, I am in Washington, D.C. Next Friday I pack up and ship out back to the Midwest, to enjoy the last few weeks of summer, then finish my final semester of my undergrad at IUPUI.

I have been working in the curatorial department of the National Museum of the American Indian for two months. I'm working under Maria Galban, who is the research assistant for the Infinity of Nations show. IoN (hip inter-museum shorthand) features over 500 objects that explore cultures ranging from Tierra Del Fuego (Patagonia) to Greenland. The show launches at the New York City museum in 2010, and there is still a lot to do.

My main projects involve breaking down consultations with anthros, historians, and community members and taking the information from these meetings and citing specific information pertaining to objects chosen for the show. This information will be verified and then eventually placed in the museum database (eMU) for future use, and will be used for label information as well. I've been reading fascinating interviews with remarkable people, and learning a lot about cultures I have not been as familiar with (specifically South America/Latin America). I also am assisting in culture verification - researching specific objects and providing a culture based on their provenance (i.e. it's not Eskimo, it's actually Inupaiq). I've learned a lot about the collectors themselves, good and bad things.

Today I spent the majority of my day in the photography archives, researching photographs to show people using/wearing objects that will be on display, which will be apart of a computerized photo book allowing visitors to put "two and two together" so to say - how the object is used or worn.

It's been an up and down experience. Lately I've been doing more research work, which is what I came here to do, and that's great. I've met some great people, some not so great people, and learned a lot about where I see myself fitting into the museum world.

I also have had a chance to live in the Nation's Capital during an exciting time - Obama is in office, and the hype and energy is powerful. Summer here is hot, but events like Smithsonian's Folklife festival took place and I've had a chance to travel to New York City and Philadelphia, and had amazing weekends in both places. I've also gained a couple of lasting friendships with some people in the program here.

So perhaps I can start at the beginning. I figure since I've slacked so bad on my blogging, I can share some things with you that I've been experiencing as I have been.

Oh, an my internship in CW? It was great. A little slow in the end, due to business and schedules, but, it was a remarkably fulfilling and education experience. I still have to send out my thank you gifts to Buck and Willie down there. If you're an intern - get an internship at CW, even if you have to write for grant money to do it. Their programming is amazing, the people are so nice, and even though it's a sleepy town, you'll have a fulfilling and educational experience.

So let's go back a few months...

Back in May I was living in Williamsburg, Virginia (if you haven't read back blogs) and I took an afternoon to go to Jamestown Settlement. The "Settlement" is actually a purchased plot of land right next to the original Jamestowne fort (National Park Service as seen in previous blogs) and features a gigantic museum and living history museum devoted to the early Euro, African and Native experience North America.

I remember as a teenager visiting here with my mother, there was a small museum, interpreters dressed up in period costume (I remember the soldiers...), and some huts based on the Jamestown archeology/drawings and some "longhouses" representing the Powhatan village. Well, my my my, how it has changed. Ever since the big 400th Anniversary of Jamestown rolled around, Jamestown Settlement had quite a face lift.

I started out in the museum, which is housed in a stunning building. No photographs were allowed, not even without flash, and the guards on duty did a *very* good job at alerting any visitor to put their camera away. The museum was quite amazing in size, design and craft. I did have some issues with representation there, as I will had tacky mannequins of "early Native Peoples" and the docents liked to quiz the children about gender roles in Eastern Woodland society ("see, the women tend to the garden, the men hunt," overheard by a docent).

They discussed pre-history Native cultures in the area, Powhatan life just before contact, the "truth behind the term Indian Summer," and the break down of political and social life in the Virginia Indian world. Next, they discussed Anglo-European life - what it was like to live in London during the 16th and 17th centuries, featuring a cobble stone mock up (but no mannequins!) of olde London towne.

After experiencing the class system of old London there were detailed exhibits discussing the formation of the Virginia Company and failures at Roanoke. This is where my mind started to fade, there was so much, and my "hardcore museum nerd gotta read everything" mindset was starting to fall apart. I started becoming more of a typical museum goer (look, glance at label, look, walk) due to time constraints (I was heading to CW that day for work), but, if I had all day, I could have spent all day (probably 6-8 hours) there.

Anyway, after the story of England, the contact period between Native and English people, a big statue featuring Powhatan, and of course a display and "life size" statue of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, they then discussed the African experience. Gigantic dioramas devoted to African life - just like they treated the Native American dioramas with mannquins. It was bizarre, strange, and even with quality attempts to be "Realistic" and "authentic" I felt like I was back in a Natural History Museum from the 1950s. Art and culture of Africa was discussed in a beautiful multimedia show, however, the majority of the large exhibit was given little attention by non-black visitors, based on my observations for the 10-20 minutes I spent in the area. (And I was spending a long time there compared to 95% of the museum goers.)

After a discussion about slavery in Africa, contact with Europeans, and the transportation of slaves to the Americas, we are shown how contact with all three cultures collides, and then they feature an exhibit showing how European living influenced Native living (Anglo housing, etc) and what the "typical" home for English-folk was like in Jamestown.

I was overwhelmed, and was, I admit, glad to get out of the exhibits and grab a bite at the very nice cafe they had (okay food, nice staff, decent price, good options). After that, I was heading outside to the interpretation grounds!

There, I was allowed to take pictures, if I could have taken them in the museum - you would really get the jist of what I am talking about in regards to representation of cultures, communities, and "races" (note the quotations).

(Oh, and they also had a really fascinating exhibit about Jamestown and Bermuda - I bet if I would have not went to that before the main exhibit I would have given the main exhibit more attention, but the special exhibit was fascinating..)

Powhatan " ceremonial circle of carved wooden posts."

Detail of totem.

The first thing you experience when you walk out into the living history area is a circle of posts based on John White's drawing of the Powhatan dancing. While googling an image to reference I learned that the posts at the Village were created by Rose Powhatan (Pamunkey/Tauxenent) and Michael Auld (Taino). This was not mentioned at the posts, or not in an obviously place (and I consider myself rather observant). (Powhatan and Auld are amazing artists, check out Rose's posters!)

Now, these posts were really great - beautiful at that - but I can barely remember any signage, and it seems they weren't used for much discussion aside from a quick stop by a docent tour.

John White's drawing - visit Powhatan Museum to learn more (scroll down).

While checking out the posts, I spotted my first interpreter. A middle-aged woman dressed in a buckskin fringe outfit. She was working on basketry of some type. I wandered over to her, and that faithful question popped in my head (thanks to Playing Ourselves) - are Native peoples actually doing the "Indian" interpretation? I scooted over to her, told her I was a student (less threatening) and asked her politely if any Native people are involved with interpretation, she shook her head and said no but "sometimes people from around here come by and do things." I smiled, nodded, and stepped away not surprised by her answer.

I was curious as to why Virginia communities weren't currently active in the museum....perhaps sometime I'll find out.

The lady who answered my question.

Non-Native interpreter smoking fish. The family in the shot were overheard with the father asking his daughter if he saw what type of shoes the "Indian" was wearing and the girl howled "moccasins!!" and the interpreter said "yes, so I don't burn my feet when I cook."

So, we had another case of non-Native people playing Indian - I even saw a hippie chick with dreadlocks in her buckskin "maiden" dress walking barefoot with other costumed staff. Quite fascinating for a museum attempting "authenticity." I wasn't really surprised - I wonder what type of training they get when someone innocently asks "are you an Indian?"

Ok, sorry to disappoint, but, I'm quite sleepy. I think I've babbled enough for the night, and I will write more tomorrow! I'm looking forward to reviewing my summer with you. If you made it this far, you rock!