Lean, Mean, Cataloging Machine

The National Museum of Natural History held Staff Day for the first time in almost 15 years this past week. Staff Day’s intention is to allow the diverse array of departments the opportunity to showcase their work to others within the museum. The day began by touring the soon to open and much anticipated Narwhal exhibit and then moving on to the Fossil Hall which is under partial renovation. I opted for this opportunity over seeing inside one of the gem vaults though it was definitely a tough decision. By the time these tours were completed the museum was open to the public. The rest of Staff Day was then dedicated to the open houses of labs within the museum. My favorite lab that I toured was the Lab of Analytical Biology. I was unable to take any photos during my visit to the labs, unfortunately. In the Lab of Analytical Biology, LAB for short, I got to listen to some researchers talk about some really cool ongoing projects within the Smithsonian and those that are a part of outside contracts with other agencies and institutions. In an effort to keep it less technical and more interesting, I would describe the coolest thing I saw as essentially a barcode scanner for DNA. The machine could identify a specific species of an animal through insertion of a DNA sample like hair or a feather.

I got to see a lot of exciting things during Staff Day and also meet a lot of new people who work in all parts of the Natural History Museum. At one point in the day, I got a little lost trying to find one of the labs and made some new friends who work in the Entomology Department. We worked together to navigate our way through the winding halls to find the Paleobiology lab. Although my interests don’t lie with bugs, having these friendly interactions with staff outside of the Department of Anthropology can still lead to forming great connections and should still be taken seriously in efforts to expand my network.

Events like Staff Day are perfect for networking; I did my best during the event to speak to those around me about their role within the museum and be sure to introduce myself and describe my position in the anthropology department. I hope in the coming weeks to attend more events offered by the museum particularly the many intern and fellowship activities specifically those designed to help with career building. This coming week we have a “Lunch with an Executive” with the Director of Fundraising and Development. I hope to attend the event and leave with some new information and contacts. I will utilize these opportunities as they come over the summer to refine my networking skills as I know they can always be worked on. These events will also help me practice networking in the sense that I can work out some of my awkward kinks with my peers as opposed to maybe making those mistakes with established academics and professionals.

Since last week, I’ve learned some more technical collections skills in my internship. I’ve been able to run through the cataloguing from basically start to finish as opposed to just assisting at different intervals. I began by reading the only publication about the site I was to be working on to gain important contextual information about the materials I would then sort. The site that this is in reference to is a habitation site in the Lower Casamance area of present day Senegal. In particular, researchers who excavated the site in the 1960s (yes, that’s how long it sometimes takes for things to get properly cataloged) were studying shell mounds and middens formed by the inhabitants in what we currently believe to be during the Iron Age. After reading through the journal, I sorted the bags I was going to be working on from the site by provenience level. At this point, I was getting to the step I already had experience doing, which was sorting, counting, and labeling. I did also get to learn about how catalog numbers were assigned, some issues that come up when doing so, and the general practice of numbering in the department. Many of these skills seem tedious and boring but they are integral functions of museums and collections. These efforts also ease researchers who are interested in the collections to work through them efficiently and with a lessened chance of damaging items.



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