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.
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