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Following up on Smithsonian Day last week, an event hosted by ‘Smithsonian’ magazine where participating museums and various cultural centers across the US provide free entry, Berghahn is excited to feature an excerpt from Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: Conflict, Compromise, and the Making of Smithsonian’s Fossil Halls by Diana E. Marsh.

Describing participant observation and historical research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as it prepared for its largest-ever exhibit renovation, Deep Time, the author provides a grounded perspective on the inner-workings of the world’s largest natural history museum and the social processes of communicating science to the public.

Excerpt of Chapter 2. Group Dynamics: Exhibit Meetings and Expertise

Group Dynamics
Exhibit Meetings and Expertise

Making exhibits is a creative act, and, like most creative acts, is best done by a small group with the passion, skills, commitment, and vision to see the project through to final completion. . . . Exhibits and their development are human and, often, irrational and emotional acts, not given to easy prediction or regulation.” – Creating Exhibits*

This chapter is about the experts that plan exhibits. By contrast to what we saw in the last chapter, today’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) exhibits are planned not by scientists and their depart-mental staff s but by highly interdisciplinary teams from different museum offices and departments. Where the last chapter was based on archival re-search, here I use grounded ethnographic observation and interviews to show how exhibit projects create a unique microcosm of the museum, where ordinarily siloed disciplines and modes of communication mingle in collective translation, negotiation, and imagining. I begin by describing some of my early impressions and general findings about the ways that disciplines and expertise are siloed in the museum through space, communication styles, and perceived (and real) frictions and hierarchies. I include some of the ways that my own positionality played into these observations. I then describe how expertise manifests through the exhibit-planning process, namely through different modes of communication in textual production and speech. I draw on sociologist Erving Goff man’s work on role performance and institutional inter-actions,2 anthropologist Frederick Bailey’s work on the anthropology of politics,3 literary theorist Homi Bhabha’s work on “interstitiality,”4 and anthropologists Jennifer Shannon and Douglas Holmes’s work on para-ethnography5 to frame these discussions. I show that exhibit meetings are a unique space of inherent friction that can potentially generate fruitful complementarities. In fact, it is often through tension and difficult conversations across boundaries of expertise that team members describe being inspired to work creatively.

First Impressions and Institutional Trust

I began my research at the Smithsonian in the middle of a sticky DC July in 2012. Though a native east-coaster, I was struck, having just come from Vancouver, by the soupy hot air, the men and women sweating their way down the open avenues in their suits and tailored dresses, and the white-columned monumental structures looming over the streets. It’s impossible not to notice that you are in the nation’s capital. Th e Smithsonian’s museums sit squarely in the middle of this web of flags, national monuments, and federal offices. I felt immediately that conducting re-search at and about the NMNH, the third of the Smithsonian’s buildings built on the National Mall, physically and spatially carried the weight of this national context. Approaching the building on my first day, I felt a jittery excitement as I walked across the scorched grass from the Metro, flanked by the Capitol to my right and the Washington Monument to my left. It is, after all, the Smithsonian. Even after working at the museum for some time, it’s hard not to have a little glimmer of pride when you approach the iconic building or tell others at a cocktail party where you work.
The Natural History Building itself is immense. On my first day, black and green banners screaming “Titanoboa! Monster Snake,” loomed large over the little popcorn vendors and line of men on bicycle carts offering rides to tourists. After climbing the entry stairs and passing through a security checkpoint, I entered the Rotunda, facing a giant elephant. To my left was a visitor services desk, and an IMAX ticket office beyond that. Hung all around the perimeter were a number of colorful banners indicating exhibit hall contents. To my right was the entrance to the fossil halls. Amid four marbled columns on this first floor were two giant signs in blue, “Ancient Seas: Ice Age” and “Fossil Plants,” each bearing a little icon. Th rough the columns, beneath a large rectangular entry, is a hall labeled with a rounded evergreen sign that read “Dinosaurs and Fossil Mammals.” Th e Rotunda was cool, and marbled walls and high ceilings gave it a feeling of airiness, even though it was swamped with visitors; their cacophonous voices filled the space with a constant reverberating drone.
Th is isn’t where staff usually enter, however. I was meeting with Siobhan Starrs, an exhibit developer with whom I’d be working at the Constitution Avenue entrance, where staff typically meet guests or each other. To get there, I had to dodge lines of linked schoolchildren across the Rotunda to get to the vast and very new Ocean Hall, where I rode an escalator down to the ground floor. Th is area was brighter, with lower ceilings and a cream-colored tile floor and white walls. On either side of the space stood a large gift shop, one for kids filled with stuffed animals, toys, knickknacks, and bouncing balls; the other, more adult-centric with cherry-blossom teacups, eccentric ties and scarves, jewelry, and coffee-table books.
Through a large opening I found the Constitution Avenue back entrance, temporarily paneled in white construction walls. After shuffling around for a bit next to the Easter Island moaistatue and watching some Kwakwaka’wakw coast dancing on a video screen at the base of the Haida totem pole that protrudes up from the lobby, I saw Siobhan. She accompanied me to the security desk, where she signed me in and gave me a month-long temporary badge till they processed my paperwork.
My experience with badges—mine having been delayed—was fairly typical. Badges are no small thing at the Smithsonian, not only because the logistics of getting one are so tedious and time consuming (try going to the Office of Protection Services [OPS] at the beginning of September or January for a real treat) but because while you have one, the world seems to be your oyster. You can meander in through back entrances, around the labyrinthine back halls, through locked security doors, up and down “staff only” stairwells or elevators. It is a rude awakening when your badge expires, as my temporary one did in October. Suddenly, because you’ve forgotten entirely what it was like without a badge, the building seems an extraordinarily (if fittingly) fortified place.
Badges are about institutional trust: “The Personnel Security & ID Office ensures that personnel responsible for the care of the national collections, the safety and security of visitors and employees, information systems control, and administration are trustworthy, honest, and reliable.”6 As a “pre-doctoral Visiting Student fellow”—my official status—I was considered “Non-Critical Sensitive.” But like all new staff , I required a pre appointment background check and was fingerprinted. Th e U.S. Office of Personnel Management was contracted to conduct an investigation, the results of which would determine whether I’d gain a Smithsonian affiliation. My “staff sponsor” at the museum had to fi ll out and sign an ID authorization form to take back to OPS to actually issue the badge. At NMNH, when I was first issued a badge, I had to report to the head security manager, at that time Carl Taylor, who, in his very stately office and with a very friendly demeanor (and perhaps after offering you a Tootsie Roll), activated my badge for access to main doors in the building based on my department and security level. I was also going to receive a stipend, so in addition I had to report to the Office of Research and Training Services for more paperwork. 7 After all of this, once I had a badge, I was free to come and go in most places. Of course there are many areas, such as Mineralogy or certain libraries, that require special access or keys.
Going back through my audio-recorded fieldnotes, I recall that I had an early encounter where my new badge had flipped itself around, so that the back showed instead of the front. Curator Matthew Carrano asked me jokingly if I was trying to conceal my Red badge. I quickly flipped it over and assured him, “No! It’s Purple!”
Not all badges are created equal, after all, even if they seem to open the same doors. There are three kinds of badges: Blue, Purple, and Red. Blue is reserved for staff , whether trust—temporary or on “soft” money—or federal employees. Blue badge employees are offered benefits like institutional health insurance and accrued paid leave. Purple badges are given to a wide range of people—interns, researchers, fellows, volunteers, or emeritus staff 8—most of whom are there to learn or assist with research initiatives, but some, like volunteers, who also assist with outreach activities. Some receive stipends. Some work for free. Red badges are not to be trusted. Well, I don’t really mean it that way.
Red badges are for contractors (outsiders), and the institution doesn’t officially “trust” them. Th ere are running jokes about Red badges among museum staff , “the Red badge of shame” and “the Scarlet Letter” being my two favorites. Red-badge holders are also not supposed to attend pan-institutional events where food and beverages are provided, so they’re technically not invited to the Smithsonian’s holiday party and other such occasions.9 I describe this stigma because, in fact, the Smithsonian increasingly hires contractors to undertake its work. This is one of the major changes at the institution and in exhibits development over the last forty years. It therefore seems an artifact of an earlier system (beyond the harsh daily reality) that those charged with some of the highest budgets and longest-standing work in the museum (architectural and media designers, for instance) and others involved in public outreach are not “trusted” by the institution’s security systems.
I learned about many of these oddities at happy hours with other young interns, staff , and fellows, or at the ritual museum gathering on Friday afternoons. Th e event is in many ways a remnant of what people some-times call “old boys club” days, when primarily curators and scientific staff met to have drinks on a Friday. It’s had a number of iterations since it was founded in 1968, and at one point it was shut down and then reinstated by the secretary. Today the Friday gathering is one of the few times and places where you see something that approaches a complete cross-section of ages and disciplines. It’s a biased and privileged sample, no doubt, for it still skews heavily toward scientific staff and staff involved with science departments.
Abby Telfer, who runs the Fossi Lab, invited me early in my time at the museum to attend these gatherings. My attendance became key to understanding the cultures at the museum, because all sorts of stories are exchanged, some of which are integral to forging and understanding relationships and many of which illuminate the workings of such a complex place. It is also a great place for solving problems or talking about seemingly crazy ideas you wouldn’t pitch elsewhere. It is therefore an important kind of backstage space for social work.
To return to the status of badges, when I was first negotiating my position at the museum, it was agreed that as an ethnographer and researcher I would be much better off with a Purple badge. But I didn’t really under-stand what that meant. It was at these gatherings that I first learned about the hierarchy of badges, along with many of the ins and outs of the museum and what was really going on with projects and people who attended.
It is, I also learned, very uncool to wear your badge around at social events or on the street. It’s a very amateur, intern-y thing to do. Across Washington DC, it’s only newbies who want to show off their new badges. I certainly wore my Purple badge in public for far too long before someone clued me in. Yet, in certain settings, when I met new people for instance, I would leave it on to ensure they knew who I was, and that I belonged. In 2014–15, after my predoctoral fellowship was over and as I wrote my PhD dissertation, I worked part time under contract with a Red badge. I almost always put it away when I was going to meet new people at events.

Observing Meetings and Institutional Cultures

Once I got settled in the Office of Exhibits, badge and all, I began observing the exhibition process. From the launch of the 10% phase of the Deep Time exhibit project in December 2012 to April 2013, I attended all twice-monthly two-day Core Team exhibit workshops, as well as Tuesday “standing meetings” for an hour and a half to two hours (often calling in or using video conferencing with the design and media teams). From April to July I attended but only took basic play-by-play notes at the 35% process meetings (which continued through December).
During my time at the NMNH, I had the benefit of having an office in three different locations, and therefore I experienced three different “cultures” in the museum: Exhibits (September 2012 to June 2013), Paleo (June to September 2013), and the director’s hallway (September 2013 to August 2014).
During the bulk of my fellowship, from September 2012 to June 2013, my office was in Exhibits, on the second-floor mezzanine. In June, two new writers were brought on to the Deep Time project, and it became clear that my floor would be crowded. In addition, Michael Mason, my staff sponsor, had just left his position as assistant director of Exhibits to be-come the new director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Paleobiology curator Scott Wing graciously offered to cosponsor me for the remainder of my time at the museum and, with the blessing of the chair of Paleobiology, Brian Huber, found me desk space in Paleo-biology; I was very lucky to have had an office in Paleobotany from June to September.
My move from Exhibits to Paleo, as it’s colloquially called, also brought my own positionality to the fore. I noticed upon moving to Paleo that I felt more comfortable in that department. Having been raised by a professor, and having spent all of my adult life immersed in university culture, it was hard not to notice that my own background shaped my bias toward a department cluttered with old books and papers, microscopes, fossil specimens, and card catalogues . . . and staff that could get away with quirky t-shirts tucked into blue jeans. It was also populated, especially over the summer, with other fellows working on or recently completing PhDs. De-spite an undergraduate background in the visual arts, I found Exhibits a bit harder to get used to.
Three very different institutional homes gave me a good introduction to some of the different work cultures in the museum, but my experience remained partial, because, as educator Amy Bolton put it, “there isn’t just one culture, there’s like 10 cultures in this building.”10


Figure 2.1. Exhibits hallway, May 2013. Photo by the author

Exhibits melds office and artist culture. Its spaces are literally divided this way. On the south side of the hallway are two floors of offices. The mezzanine level is made up of a long hallway with a set of individual office doors on one side (where my office was located), and the ground level is an open room subdivided into a walkway by flanking cubicles. On the other side of the hallway are the graphics lab and a large shop for carpentry, model-making, printing, lighting, and other in-house production work, mostly for temporary exhibits, way-finding signage, and permanent gallery upkeep.
Exhibits culture is certainly more artistically oriented than most of the museum’s other departments, but there are different modes of working with exhibits in different Exhibits subdisciplines. Many of the staff are exhibit developers and project managers, who coordinate disparate departmental staffs and expertises across the institution to manage exhibit projects and their content development. They are often found hurrying from meeting to meeting—with buildings and operations managers, artists and designers, directors of various programs and departments, and curators of all the museum’s seven research areas. Graphics specialists, model-makers, and lighting and audiovisual (AV) specialists are variously more like experts in craftsmanship; staff in graphics, AV, and the production side of Exhibits even have a kind of uniform—they are issued Smithsonian work shirts, while project developers and managers, designers, and writers tend to wear office- and meeting-appropriate attire or comfortable clothes for getting office work done. Designers and exhibits writers in the department in some ways fuse the two kinds of work, translating ideas into textual and aesthetic designs to then be fabricated by production staff .
The office spaces in Exhibits are plain—carpeted downstairs in gray and upstairs in burgundy, and painted in light yellows, beiges, or greens—but full of colorful remnants of past exhibitions, such as old exhibit models, graphics panels, and project binders. Th e walls are decorated with prints from previous exhibitions, alongside people’s personal photos, calendars, bulletin boards dotted with Post-it notes, and trinkets. Th e production spaces feel and look like workrooms—Graphics with large-scale drafting tables and tall open storage spaces for printing materials, and the “shop” open, dusty, and filled with carpentry equipment, partially finished products, and sheets of glass. Everywhere, whether in the offices or labs, piping and wiring is exposed along the ceiling, mainly by virtue of being on the ground floor of the “old building.” A constant nondescript rumble of generators and piping reverberates through the spaces. Th e whole Exhibits hallway is also near the main shipping and receiving doors, where I entered the building most days, and so lots of heavy-laden carts wheel down the concrete flooring. Th is lends Exhibits a feeling of constant motion and energy. Th is can also be a source of entertainment and frustration, especially when a set of carts or garbage cans thunders past meeting room 71A, interrupting conversation for a time.

Read full Chapter here


Conflict, Compromise, and the Making of Smithsonian’s Fossil Halls

Diana E. Marsh
Foreword by Jennifer Shannon
Volume 11, Museums and Collections

“Findings in this work are new and useful, presenting evidence showing the benefits to ‘friction and complementarity’ whilst offering insights that can be used by other institutions and collaborative projects to achieve more balanced results in their work…[It] contributes significantly to museum ethnography by delivering a thorough study to the existing body of work…The aspect of practical museology is crucial for museum studies as well as for other disciplines that examine informational institutions that serve and are responsible to the public. For museum researchers the work serves as a fascinating example of multidimensional research in the field.”• Museological Review

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About the Author
Diana E. Marsh is a research anthropologist and museum practitioner who studies how heritage institutions communicate with the public. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where she is working to increase the accessibility of archival collections.


Nineteenth-Century Museum Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution

Catherine A. Nichols
Volume 12, Museums and Collections

As an historical account of the exchange of “duplicate specimens” between anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution and museums, collectors, and schools around the world in the late nineteenth century, this book reveals connections between both well-known museums and little-known local institutions, created through the exchange of museum objects. It explores how anthropologists categorized some objects in their collections as “duplicate specimens,” making them potential candidates for exchange. This historical form of what museum professionals would now call deaccessioning considers the intellectual and technical requirement of classifying objects in museums, and suggests that a deeper understanding of past museum practice can inform mission-driven contemporary museum work.

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