The Puzzle of Assessment Reports

There are a lot of steps that go into processing a collection. I would like to share my experience with one of them- assessments. Assessment is the process of evaluating the condition of the collection and the artifacts contained within. Assessing collections can be a tedious affair. At the best of times, it’s a smooth and formulaic process. You look at an artifact, pass silent judgments about whoever assembled the collection before you, circle a Y or a N in the entry for the stability of the artifact in the assessment inventory, initial, date, and move on to the next artifact. At the worst of times, assessing can make you tear your hair out. Boxes of random stones and pottery sherds, missing artifacts, charred materials hidden at the bottom of paper bags that just won’t come out no matter how much you try. It can drive you up the wall, yet, even with all the maddening problems, I still love assessing. I love the puzzle of it. When you assess, you’re presented with a chaotic box of the unknown. There’s just something so satisfying unraveling that box’s mystery. About following the clues left for you and slowly piecing together what artifact is what, and my what artifacts there are! For every box of stones, or pottery pieces, there are incredibly interesting artifacts as well. Each one with a story behind it, needing to be examined and processed. There’s a mystery in those artifacts as well, an unknown story that I only get to glance at briefly. Although, depending on the collection, that story can take a backseat to the problems at hand, especially when the collection itself presents some problems.

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You can encounter all kinds of strange things while assessing. For instance, I was recently assessing a new collection when I opened a box to find that, much to my surprise, the box just contained nothing but loose stones. Nothing in the box was bagged or organized in any way, just a bunch of rocks at the bottom of a box. Now usually this isn’t too bad of a thing to find. After all most artifacts are marked in some way to indicate which artifact is which, and as it would happen all these stones were marked! From there the next steps were to match each stone with its entry in the inventory. Only the thing is, when I went to match them, almost none of them corresponded with their entry in the inventory. Now usually this isn’t a problem, I could go in and enter all the stones as new database entries and move on. The problem is that there was the same amount of stones as there were entries for them. Which lead me to conclude that the stones were in the report, just not well-organized. So, I had to sort each stone into several possible candidates in the report and make a note of each one. What’s even worse is that when I had to do the exact same thing with hundreds of pottery sherds. The thing is though, I really enjoyed working through all those problems. The joy I got from figuring out that assessment is the same that I get from solving a good puzzle.

Assessing can be frustrating, it can be tedious, but it can also be an incredibly enjoyable activity. In my time at the museum, I have assessed quite a few collections and each time I discover something new. From interesting artifacts to better ways of processing collections, assessing always yields something interesting for me to uncover. So, I look forward to the next collection I get to process and assess. I know that it will have its own challenges and complications, but I also know that there will be another puzzle for me to solve and new interesting things for me to discover.

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Gaining Valuable Experience

This spring as the NAGPRA intern at the Sam Noble Museum I had the wonderful opportunity to cover some new ground while still honing familiar skills. Since I’ve been interning here for several semesters now (see my previous blog posts here and here), I’ve had time to learn and get some experience with many aspects of museum collection management. However, this semester has given me the opportunity to take a deeper dive into NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and gain the practical knowledge and experience that has become essential for working in the modern museum world.
Working with NAGPRA has been a learning experience, and the opportunity to see and be involved in all the many little steps that come together to make the entire process of implementing this important law has greatly enhanced my understanding from both the assigned readings for my internship and from my classes. I’ve spent most of this semester focused on a few aspects of the larger picture, working to organize and assess three or four collections of artifacts. The NAGPRA internship has struck me as being a very detail oriented job, with a high responsibility on all of us to work diligently and get all the little steps right. A lot of my job this semester has been assessments, which is the process of going through collections, box by box, and matching up the artifacts in the box to what’s listed in the catalog, and reorganize as I go. Gradually through these steps we get a better picture of what’s present in the collection, where it is, and what needs further work, including moving along the steps toward repatriation under NAGPRA.
After my two semesters as a Legacy intern, dealing with not only older material but the general incoming collections, this internship was still a whole new learning opportunity, since I could dive into what is an absolutely vital aspect of museum work. Knowledge of NAGPRA and experience working on NAGPRA projects and collections is essential in the job market for museums, and this internship has grown my knowledge and skills immensely. It’s been very helpful for me that both of these internship opportunities have been available, so that I could branch out into a somewhat different area of knowledge while still building on my previous experience. I would recommend either of these great opportunities to anyone interested in museum studies or anthropology/archaeology, and to anyone interested in a deeper dive or a wider breadth of experience, I’d suggest both.

A World of Opportunity

This semester, as part of my internship at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, I got the chance to attend the Oklahoma Museum Association Conference in Edmond, Oklahoma during the second to last week of September. Since this was my second semester as legacy collections intern my boss, Susie Fishman-Armstrong, encouraged me to check out the Oklahoma Museum Association and their events, including their annual conference. I looked into it and found what sounded like a great chance to network and learn from others with more and varied experience in the museum world. At the conference I met museum professionals from all over the state and many different types of institutions, including science museums, children’s museums, art museums, historic homes, local historical societies, and one blues music museum. Through talking with others about the methods and especially the challenges of their museum I got to see a wider view than usual of the scope of a museum. The sessions were also interesting and varied, as I attended panels and discussions about topics falling under many subjects that I don’t normally interact with in my role as an intern in the collections, or “back of the house”, including museum education and programming. Workshops were also offered, which provided some hands-on learning and practical examples, and I had some time to meet vendors during the networking breaks, which was interesting and informative to see what sort of products and services are frequently needed by museum professionals, and to learn a bit more about conferences from the people who frequent them.
For a week or two before the conference I was a bit apprehensive, and worried whether I would be able to be engaged in discussions or really understand the sessions after only one semester at a museum. However, if anything this just went to show how thorough and diverse of training I’ve gotten from this internship, as after just over a semester I had pretty much all the bases covered for laws and standards, roles in the museum, collection processing, and physical care of artifacts. There is only so much I could have learned in a classroom or through my own research, and the chance to have gotten actual experience has been phenomenal. Additionally, this conference was just one of the many opportunities I’ve had through this internship to meet people actually working in museums and to learn from them, through tours of other collections within the Sam Noble, the volunteer Brown Bag Lunch talks, and events such as this. The learning opportunities have multiplied ten times over through getting involved here at the Sam Noble, and I highly encourage anyone to intern or volunteer who gets the chance. Even if you don’t jump right in and start with a large conference, there are so many experiences to learn from within our very own museum for both people who want to go on to make it a career as I do and for anyone with curiosity and the desire to learn.

-Ella Crenshaw

My Internship at the Museum and the History of NAGPRA

This fall semester of my junior year I was given the opportunity to work as an archaeology intern working on cultural material subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). As someone who used to be a socio-cultural anthropology major, my transition into archaeology has been an exciting learning experience. The ability to work as an intern at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History has been a large part of propelling me towards that goal. Working with NAGPRA especially was a great aid in expanding my archaeological knowledge and experience. NAGPRA is especially significant within archaeology because it shapes how archaeologists interact with Native American remains and sacred objects and their descendants. The act allows a process to take place for these remains and objects to be returned in a timely manner to ensure the tribes can return them to their rightful place.
Working with NAGPRA has been a very eye-opening experience for me. What I knew prior was limited to the single slide I saw in my Intro to Archaeology class last year. Since I began interning, I have learned far more about the profound impact NAGPRA has had on the Native American and Archaeology community and what needed to happen for NAGPRA to be enacted. In an interview between Suzan Shown Harjo and Robert Preucel “An Archaeology of NAGPRA: A Conversation with Suzan Shown Harjo” it details the planning and strategic steps that took place to ensure NAGPRA could happen. In this interview, Susan Harjo (a native Oklahoman) expounded on how she worked with the initiative that led to the creation of NAGPRA. What began as a horrifying experience at the Museum of the American Indian in 1965, generated a drive in Harjo to gather Native American groups to create a framework for the ethical treatment of Native American human remains and sacred material in museum collections and archaeological practice. With the help of the National Congress of the American Indians she was able to lobby for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, National Museum of American Indian, and pave the way for NAGPRA. Those first steps that led to NAGPRA began a new era in archaeology within the U.S. that has caused much progress to take place. This interview emphasized the extreme importance of returning Native American individuals and associated items back to their descendants to repair the hurt that’s been caused and to foster new relationships between Native American groups, museums, and archaeologists. Being able to help in this process is something I am extremely proud of and fortunate to do.
Overall this internship has brought more insight to me than I could describe in one blog post. It has given me first-hand experience on museum protocol and a bigger picture of the national role museums play in archaeology. I recommend this internship for anyone with a thirst for knowledge and curiosity of the behind the scenes museum archaeology work.
-Helen Sanders

Rules. We don’t need no stinking rules.

Don’t you just hate being told what to do? And it’s surprising how many people tell me what to do all the time.  However, I operate under the premise that you can either tell me what to do or how to do it, but you can’t tell me both.  Unfortunately, no one abides by that simple precept and they generally tell me both what to do and how to do it.  But no more.  Now I am making the rules and this leads us into our subject of the day.  Rules, museums, and archaeology.  Lucky for you, I am here to guide you through what could be an Orwellian nightmare of unimaginable consequences.   But first, a little background.  I moved to Norman at the beginning of summer from Key West to attend the University of Oklahoma and earn a degree in Archaeology. At the beginning of my second semester here, there was an advertisement for an internship at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. I’m old, I like old stuff, this seemed to be a perfect fit.  I applied for the position and after meeting with the collections manager, Susie Fishman-Armstrong, she accepted me anyway.  She explained that I would be working on the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) side of the house helping to repatriate NAGPRA related items to the Tribes that claimed them. I then received the standard welcome aboard speech and tour of the facilities.  The dystopic hell scape that is the dumpster fire of my mind began to notice the need, or more accurately the want to satisfy my mild OCD tendencies of organization.  The practically uncountable boxes that lay in row after row of cardboard uniformity, stacked on shelves upon shelves that thrust their metal fingers towards the ceiling, started sending those mild OCD tendencies into overdrive and turned them into almost manic compulsions. So, at this point, I know what you are thinking and let me just stop you right there.  To all of you single archaeologist women who are thinking wow.  I have to get me some of him, I am married.  Sorry.  Now we are getting to the point that is the meat of the story.  Glorious rules.  Before I could even start to fathom the beginning of this monumental task, I really needed to know everything from the most basic of actions such as where is my work station and how do I move a box from the shelving units to my work area to much more complex requirements such as how do I properly handle funerary objects and human remains with the dignity and respect that they deserve.  I now have reached a state of Nirvana.  Not only do I get to organize, but I get to develop rules about organization.  (slight body shiver as I think about this).  I have begun to write the hundreds if not thousands of rules that it will take to bring into line both the actual and the perceived chaos that may or may not exist.  Ok, thousands for me, maybe five or ten for a normal person.  On a slightly more serious note, this internship has afforded me the opportunity to get real world experience in a field that to me is quite exciting.  I am honored to be able to be involved in the process of repatriating NAGPRA items back to the Tribes that have claimed them and show them the dignity and respect that is their due.

Why consider interning a the Sam Noble Museum?

Why did I decide to pursue an internship at the Sam Noble Museum? Was it because of my fascination with Indiana Jones movies? Was it because of my research focus of Native American Culture? Or was it because of the Dinosaurs?

To anyone who has visited the Sam Noble, the answer would probably be the dinosaurs! For me, it was a bit of all three. The actual reason is my fascination with Native American Culture, and yes, the chance I might get a tour of the paleontology department’s dinosaur collections, but also the far greater dimension encompassed within the total Sam Noble collections.

My own background was originally studying Native American History and culture. When I changed from pursuing a Master’s degree in History, I went into Museum Studies. The history of human material culture has always fascinated me. From my early years watching PBS documentaries rather than Saturday morning cartoons, and my ever-present obsession with digging, I knew I would work within the fields of history or material culture.

When the opportunity came to select an internship I would pursue, The Sam Noble was the top of my list. The variety and size of the collection, the relatively close geographic location, and the reputation of the museum itself, all made my choice for me. There was no other place that I could work with so many of the artifacts that fascinated me. The Sam Noble was the obvious choice, and having made that choice, I sought permission to internship here with Susie, the collections manager in the archaeology department. I am glad she accepted me, because, as so many students do, I had no backup plan. This was the goal, and I was going to get it. After being accepted, I found that I would be working in the archaeology department, and specifically with NAGPRA artifacts and other Native American artifacts- which thrilled me greatly.

My focus on Native American History made this internship an especially rewarding one. Having the opportunity to work with NAGPRA collections, and learn more of the respectful practices and traditions of the tribes with which we work is something I will always cherish. When you catalog a simple rock- it is a rock… it will never be more interesting than a rock. When you catalog a rock that was utilized for a specific purpose by a Native American, it is special- it tells a story. The history of Native Oklahomans is a story yet to be fully revealed or told, and the work we do every day helps reveal that story.

When I chose this internship, I felt like Harry Potter being brought to Hogwarts for the first time. The marvel, the magnificent displays, the history and the Dinosaurs…! I admit- It was hard not to geek out.

I truly love my time here, and would encourage anyone with a love of natural history to volunteer or intern at the Sam Noble- you will not regret it!

Learning Something New Every Day

When I started at OU as a freshman in the fall of 2017, I was certain I wanted to be a field archaeologist after I graduated. After spending a semester as the legacy collections intern at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), I’m not so sure. As my boss, collections manager Susie Fishman-Armstrong, told me, the real discovery is often not out it the field, but rather here in museums. Being able to work here at the museum has been amazing, and has really opened my eyes to the possibilities of museum work as a career.

Personally, what drew me in to this opportunity was the “behind the scenes” aspect to it. As someone who loves museums, it has been fascinating to have a hand in the process of working with artifacts, and to see the many other elements of museum collections at work, such as research and conservation. Getting a larger perspective has given me a greater appreciation for the work that museum professionals do, and for the important roles of curators, collection managers, volunteers, janitors, conservators, pest management, security officers, and many other people whose roles are in the “back of the house”. Another particularly interesting part of this internship has been the mystery of the work, specifically with the inventory.

My main project for the year was completing a full inventory of the artifacts and records in the 5th floor and the 2nd floor lab, which are part of our “Legacy” collections. When a museum is bringing in a new collection of artifacts, or when collections that are already at the museum are being worked with or researched on, it’s easy for a museum to get behind on projects, and leave some particularly difficult work off to the side, to get back to later. The artifacts and collections I was inventorying could have been last looked at a year ago, in the 1930s, or anywhere in between. It was a daunting project, but thankfully the previous intern, Wynne Clark (read her blog post here) had already put together a system and went through the 4th floor legacy collections with it, so I had a strong model to follow, and existing protocols. Using her system, I implemented it on the 5th floor collections, modifying as needed to accommodate the unique issues that arose.

The process was simple, on the surface. I went through box by box (through 141 archival boxes, 3 stacks of maps, 6 mason jars, 26 trays, 2 enormous plastic storage bins, and 1 large blue cooler) opening them up and taking notes in a spreadsheet about what was inside, including any information that came with the artifacts. The goal of the whole endeavor was to know as much as we could about what was in the collections. The things I found ranged from pottery vessels related to the Spiro Mounds site, to South American obsidian points, to historic glass and pottery, not to mention the hundreds of rock samples in the Lithic Type Collection, used for matching stone artifacts to their sources. Now that these artifacts are in the inventory, they can be found for research, exhibits, and NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) related projects, as soon as we need them.

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While my inventory is finished, legacy collections are still a large problem facing the SNOMNH, and the larger museum community. If the inventory isn’t kept up, and updated whenever things get moved or worked with, then the problem will return. Just as well, now that these collections have been rediscovered, there is still a lot of work to be done to process them, including further research, cataloging, cleaning, and labeling.

This is where you come in. The SNOMNH, and many other museums like it, runs on volunteers in every department, both out with the exhibits and in the back with the collections, and not just archaeology. There are positions for adult and teen volunteers, as well as current OU students. Dates and hours are flexible, and opportunities open up all the time. Whether you are interested in people, plants, animals, or rocks, an organized person or more innovative, more creative or more practical, wanting to jump right in or to just get your feet wet, there is an opportunity for you. Ultimately, museums exist for the people, and there is no better way to get involved and get invested than to volunteer.

Author: Ella Crenshaw