Six things from my first 100 days
Getting to know just under two million objects, almost 17,000 cubic feet of archives, and around 140 curatorial and collections staff is a big task. I started work on January 23 as the new associate director of Curatorial Affairs—I look after everything to do with the museum's collections and curatorial work. One hundred days on, here are a few of the things I've enjoyed, noticed, or learned.
1. The collections are as amazing as you'd think
One of the main reasons I took this job was because of the collections—the breadth of what they include and the extraordinary stories they can tell. Some provide tangible links to important moments in our history: a piece of a flag used in protests for woman suffrage outside the White House, or a holiday greeting card sent during the Great Depression. Others help us to understand big themes or topics: artwork created using a particle accelerator, or origami made from paper money. All of them help us understand American history in all its richness and complexity.
2. Research is vital (but the Brewing History Initiative doesn't need any research assistants)
The Smithsonian was founded for the "increase & diffusion of knowledge," and research is still a vital part of what we do. Museum staff members are researching a huge range of topics. We also have fellowship programs that bring interesting people to the Smithsonian to work with us and with our collections. Research helps us learn more about the objects we care for, gives a richer context to them, and sometimes helps add to the collections—for example, our ongoing projects on Hispanic advertising or Latinos and baseball. Like everyone else, I asked if I could be a research assistant on the museum's Brewing History Initiative; I was gently but firmly told that my academic background wasn't quite what they were looking for.
3. It's amazing who you meet in Preservation Services
Our team of conservators are a small but crucial group—every object is checked, and conserved if needed, before it goes on display. This means that visiting the labs is always a treat because you find our most extraordinary objects passing through there—like the C3PO costume, or Miss Piggy, which were there when I visited, waiting for attention from one of the conservators a little like patients waiting in the doctor's office.
4. There's a lot of work on exhibitions in progress at the museum
One reason I was excited about this job is that the museum is in the middle of an ambitious set of projects to transform our exhibitions. This spring we opened new temporary displays on Executive Order 9066, the document that incarcerated 75,000 Americans of Japanese descent and 45,000 Japanese nationals during World War II. We also just opened other displays commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I. In June 2017 we'll be opening the second floor of the West Wing, with new exhibitions on the theme The Nation We Build Together. Even before the second floor opens, work has begun on exhibitions on the third floor, which we'll begin to reveal in fall 2018 and will be themed around entertainment, culture, and the arts. Having moved here from London, I've got a lot to learn about baseball and American football before we get to developing the sports sections of those exhibitions.
5. When there's 1.8 million objects, documentation is never finished
The museum has an extraordinary and broad-ranging collection, and hundreds of new acquisitions are added every year. Some objects are tiny, while others are (literally) the size of a house. It is a constant effort to keep track of what they all are and where everything is. We have a collections database, but not everything is entered into it yet, and there are a range of old card catalogs and other hard-copy listings of the collection. Converting decades of careful curatorial and cataloging work from typewritten and ink- penned records into searchable digital records is a big task—but one we have ambitious plans to tackle. Once the basic documentation for a collection is in place, we can push forward our plans for mass digitization, to open up the collections to people everywhere.
6. Everyone loves jokes
All these different aspects of curatorial work come together sometimes. When Phyllis Diller gave a collection of objects to the Smithsonian almost 15 years ago, the "gag file" of more than 52,000 cards with jokes on them was cataloged, and put on display as the centerpiece of a temporary exhibition. But looking at the drawers just isn't as likely to get a laugh when compared to actually looking through the cards. Thanks to support from Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan, we were able to digitize the cards. Then thanks to help from volunteers online, all the cards have been transcribed, and that data is now feeding back into our database so that people can search the collection more easily. However, as NPR found, whether the jokes are funny is still all in the delivery.
Catherine Eagleton is the associate director of the Office of Curatorial Affairs.