Internship at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
By: Charlotte Underwood
The internship I participated in was a fantastic learning experience. I was working at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, behind the scenes doing the work that most people would find boring: the research. Archaeology isn’t all digging up pottery and bones; to know where to dig and what is being dug up, one must do research. Research is the backbone of all anthropology and you have to do it, even if it is tedious. In particular, my research focused upon the American Southwest, how to present the history of the area in a way that can be understood by everyone in a museum exhibit, and to write a proposal outlining the exhibit and its content.
Today, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is one of the largest museums in Houston. Founded in 1909, the museum employs hundreds of people at its main campus in Houston and its satellite campuses in Sugarland, the George Observatory in Fort Bend County, and the Marconi storage facility also in Houston. The Sugarland facility has exhibits on dinosaurs, minerology, and live frogs, while the George Observatory has one of the largest telescopes open to public viewing in the U.S. The Marconi Storage facility houses the museums’ collections which were previously kept in the basement of the museum. They were moved due to the flooding after heavy rains and hurricanes and have been at Marconi ever since. Marconi has 3 floors of storage that contain everything from preserved animals to shells and anthropological artifacts. The main campus in Houston has a Hall of Paleontology (dinosaurs), a malacology collection (shells), a butterfly garden, an IMAX theater, classrooms, a library, several exhibit halls that are used for temporary exhibits, and finally the Hall of the Americas, which is what is being renovated. The Hall of the Americas contains artifacts from culture groups all across the Americas, from Northern Canada to the tip of South America. Each culture area has its own section, and it is in dire need of an update, and most of the exhibits have been the same for 20 years or more. The museum is an organism unto itself, and I learned that museum work is a whole lot of hurry up and wait.
The planning of the exhibit itself was a trial. The choice of the Southwest was deliberate, since most of my experience was in that culture area. However, even with my knowledge of the area prior to the internship, my background was limited, and as I learned more I had to make difficult choices between what to include and what to leave out. There is only so much space in an exhibit, and to encompass the entirety of the history of the Southwest would be impossible, so decisions had to be made. One such decision was how to incorporate the Diné, or Navajos. Though considered people of the Southwest now, they only entered the area around the time of first European contact, which is substantiated by their speaking of an Athabaskan language which are usually found spoken by cultures from further north at the time. However, the Diné have oral traditions that place them in Chaco Canyon as the pueblos there were being built, which most believe to be before Diné occupation of the area (Matthews 1889). The issue is thus, who is right? Whose narrative do we include in the exhibit? Academics or the natives? The question of which ‘facts’ to use in the exhibit can be a contentious issue for curators. I chose not to include the story of Noqoílpi the Gambler in my narrative so as to keep the compressed history smooth and short for ease of understanding for those of all ages. The tribes are invested in themselves and keeping their stories and origins as fact and protecting their culture.
The research I did was expansive, covering the tribes of the Southwest from the post-Paleoindian phase to modern times. One cannot mount an exhibit by oneself. Some of the resources I used were from other museums, the tribes themselves, and academic journals, which helped maintain accuracy with both the academics and the tribes themselves. Also included were not just dusty journals in the library annals, but also videos, recorded first-hand interviews from preservation societies, and consultation with other workers. It took months to untangle the complicated history of the area, and to plan an exhibit that covered the area and its people in the most accurate and respectful way possible. The proposal I wrote for the exhibit covers the Southwestern culture area, starting from the post Paleo-Indian phase and ending with modern natives of note, and covering the pre- and post-European contact eras in between. With the preconception of many people being that natives are either nonexistent or nothing like us, I wanted to include the part about famous natives specifically to teach people differently.
Another difficulty I had while working was the focus of accessible writing. As one goes further through the American education system, the more a focus there is on academic writing. Many times, the papers one writes are half incomprehensible to those not in one’s field of study, and the jargon is unwieldy and specific. Working to break that habit so I can provide a text that is readable to people from kindergarten and up was difficult. I actually routinely sent drafts to friends not in my field to see if they could easily understand the subject matter.
Before this internship, it seemed to me that museums came up with exhibit ideas and they were ready to go in a week. But that is very much not the case. What I learned was that first one has the idea, then it goes through the bureaucracy of the museum, which can take months, maybe even a year. After the exhibit gets approved, research is begun. This can also take months to a year, depending on the subject. There are also dangers in doing the research too. I spoke to one of the other researchers that worked on one of the new temporary exhibits called Death by Natural Causes; the exhibit, as described by the museum “introduces patrons to the range of “animal, vegetable and mineral” dangers that lurk in their everyday lives”. The research for the exhibit was so concerning, as they were search for natural poisons in non-illegal plants and substances that the FBI contacted the researcher to ensure that they weren’t planning a murder.
Both during and after the research, I learned to keep in mind what kind of artifacts, displays, and information one wants presented to the audience. Before I started, I thought that museums had a sizeable collection of artifacts that could be used in exhibits. While that is true for more common exhibits, such as those about native peoples, for more obscure exhibits the museums have to acquire the artifacts in other ways, and when they do get them, they have to be catalogued. I was based in the Marconi facility, which is the collections storage building offsite of the museum, and saw many acquisitions come through its doors in my time there. Some were donated, some loaned, and some bought by the museum. Every day I was beside other workers cataloguing and storing artifacts, and I learned a lot from it. Museums have to my highly organized due to the amount of intake and exports. Every item is assigned a catalogue number, and put in the computer system, along with its location, description, and condition. This is done to allow the curators to easily be able to see exactly what is in the museum collections. It is hard, tedious work but it is vital to the museum.
Finally, after the research has been done, artifacts selected, text panels and artifact labels written, hall set up, everything fabricated, and exhibit advertised, it can go public. It’s a long slog to the finish line and every aspect of the museum, from marketing to management, is involved.
Working in the museum taught me not only to research, however. I also had the opportunity to speak and learn from those already in the field I want to go into. I got to speak with curators, collections managers, retired and working archaeologists, and people who had worked there for far longer than me. A museum’s contents are not the only resource they have; the people are resources too.
Another aspect of museum work that I had never thought of before was authentication. Not like Antique Roadshow, where people bring in their family heirlooms hoping its worth something, but like Customs seized something and Homeland Security needs to know if it’s real because if it is then it’s not allowed in the U.S. I didn’t even think about the fact that museums are a resource for the government until Homeland Security came by asking for an expert.
My experience at the museum gave me the opportunity to learn about the work that goes into an exhibit and how a museum works behind the scenes. It really made me think about the work that happens in museums and if I wanted to continue with that kind of work, which I do.
Matthews, Washington. “Noqoìlpi, the Gambler: A Navajo Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 2, no. 5, 1889, pp. 89–94. JSTOR, JSTOR.