USA Diaries – Day 17 – A day dedicated to Collections Management!

This diary post is a part of a 30 day trip that I am taking this month which it also happens to be my first ever International trip. So for the next 30 days I will be posting here all my weird thoughts and commentary. 

Day ………..Lets just say very very late updating

I apologize for the gaps that seem to have come up in my Diary.. but there is only so much that a person can do in 24 hours! And that too when you have little or no control on you own time.

So getting back to the account of this day… .. the entire day was dedicated to understanding the various aspects of Collections Management, what they are, how do you work with Collections, what are the best approaches and the Bus Test! The “Bus Test” is a wonderful concept – another typical Carol Butler thing – which basically means that if tomorrow you are hit by a bus how your Institute can carry on without you. This means that you should leave out clear instructions for all the concerned people and make sure that they are getting a very understanding of how you were handling things so that they can carry on!

Again this is one of those approaches that you hardly see in Pakistan. In Pakistan, the general trend is that you should hold on to things so tightly that no one.. and I mean no one can do anything without you. It is one of this sick tactics in which you try to make yourself more relevant when you are extremely insecure about your position… or at least this is how I see it.

Lunch was a simple affair, which revolved around Pizza and Chicken Tenders… we had a lot of these items on this trip!

The afternoon we took a walk.. all the way to the Smithsonian Institute Archives.. this Archives is dedicated to the Smithsonian Collection, which includes their Administrative, Financial, Director and other such things! So the guide for the day in the Archives was Tammy Peters, who was a completely wonderful soul. What caught my attention as soon as I got there was these slides that were stored in this cabinet.. and they were all the pictures of Panda’s…. Panda’s sleeping, eating, playing, looking, rolling, .. Just everything Panda’s.. It was a spectacular collection!

One of the most coolest stop on this tour of the Archives was this wonderful thing that Tammy shopped us… it was the Draft of the will which James Smithson had written in which he made it clear that all his wealth should be donated for making a Museum. It was really cool to see that!

Let me just say this one thing about Tammy Peters… she is a wonderful person. I asked her so many questions about Archiving and everything and she was always ready to help. I asked her about Cataloging, about their policy to destroy certain documents after 10 years or something, about how the original format of the file should be maintained, Accession and Cataloging Number and God knows what else!

The end of the day happened with a continued discussion on Collections Management and how the National Museum of Natural History had to create an understanding regarding the storage Unit they have and the digitization that hey have done. The survey was a self assessment done on a scale of 1 to 5 by each department, and it truly made them get a clear idea of where there is room for improvement.

After that we headed straight home, and I think it was another day of leftovers!


USA Diaries – Day 16 – A Night walk on the National Mall!

This diary post is a part of a 30 day trip that I am taking this month which it also happens to be my first ever International trip. So for the next 30 days I will be posting here all my weird thoughts and commentary. 

Day 17, – In my hotel room, Washington DC, Late updating

The day had started off with a continuation of our time with Cathy Hawks, Conservator for National Museum of Natural History. The discussion again touched the various topics like Conservation Management, Storage and Pest Control and similar such topics. It has to be said that any time with her is just not enough. She has so much that she knows and that she shares with everyone. I was however, late for my class, and the reason for that was the most simple one ever – I overslept…. I think DC life is taking its toll on me.

For lunch that day we decided to hop off to this refreshment kiosk outside of the museum. I have to say that it wasn’t one of the best thing I have had in DC… in fact, let me say It was the most expensive and bad food that I have had in DC! Actually, it was so bad that I didn’t even take a picture of it.

Moving on, we had our session with Carol Butler after lunch in which we talked about Collections Management and what it means to work with a vast collection. We talked about their care and the problems that NMNH faces with regards to such a strong collection. We talked about how a collection is only worth something when it is coming in the use of researchers and other scholars and what it means to keep collections relevant.

The second part of this session was taken up by Bill Billeck who is working in the Repatriation Office and is taking care of returning the artifacts of Native American back to them. He talked about how this process is becoming an important step in opening up a dialogue between the Native Americans and the Museum and how such a dialouge has been important in changing the image that many people have had of Archaeologists and Museums as looters who took the stuff of their lands without the permission of the local communities.


The afternoon session with Bill had to be cut short though since it was time for our meeting with Richard Kurin – The Undersecretary for Culture and Arts at the Smithsonian. The man has so much knowledge and he surprised us with his knowledge of Urdu and his amazing address to us in Urdu. He is a very knowledgeable man who shared with us many of his stories, including his time in Haiti after the devastating Earthquake hit it. He shared this remarkable story of human spirit in which the people of Haiti after losing everything, their shelter, their musical instruments, their belongings, came out on the street and they SANG! I thought it was a remarkable story which demonstrated the power of culture and of the human resolve that we have.

The man is so nice that he even gave us free copies of his book “Saving Haiti’s Heritage”!

Oh let me share some pictures of his office – located in the “Smithsonian Castle”, the interior of this place is simply amazing. His conference room has these amazing Greek tiles (replicas) all around and there are so many books that cover his table that it is insane.


For a more informal type of a conversation, we headed to a shaded place near the back of the Castle and found ourselves some benches, where we continued our discussion on Culture and its evolution and Repatriation and all other aspects of it. Carol Butler has such an amazing point of view about things and the world and it comes with an association with the Smithsonian that has continued on for almost 25 years.  The informal session ended with an agreement on when and where we are suppose to meet for our night walk at the National Mall. Time decided- 8:30 pm.

So at 8:30 pm we were waiting outside the Smithsonian Metro Station and as soon as all of us had gathered, we headed straight to our first destination – The Washington Monument. Now we had been seeing it since our first day in DC, but we haven’t had the chance to come and see it up close. So today was an opportunity – however taking pictures at this time was definitely becoming a big issue.


The second stop being the Second World War Memoiral..

And then ofcourse to the Lincoln Memorial…


We even made a stop at Vietnam Memorial but since the light were so low it was impossible to take any photographs. But I plan to go there again and take some more photographs.

By the time the trip was over and we finally made our way back, it was almost 12:30 am and therefore there was nothing open or anything except for a Bar plus Restaurant. And since we were hungry like hell, we decided to just go in there and have whatever we could find. The menu was amazing looking, and I chose for myself Grilled Cheese Sandwich, while my friends ordered Chili and Kidney Bean Omlette and Bacon Burger. I have to say that the place was so amazing, it was rustic with all these amazing pictures and posters on the walls. It was really nice! So you can enjoy the pictures, while I enjoy my sleep for the night.




USA Diaries – Day 15 – There goes our Luggage Weight Limit!

This diary post is a part of a 30 day trip that I am taking this month which it also happens to be my first ever International trip. So for the next 30 days I will be posting here all my weird thoughts and commentary. 

Day 16, – In my hotel room, Washington DC, Late updating

So Day 15 was a very non -happening day and therefore quite unusual – we haven’t had one of those till now. However, the only downside of this was that the day had to start as early as 9 am… we hadn’t had such an early day before as well….. So safe to conclude the day was to completely unusual. We were scheduled to be with the amazing Conservator of NMNH or National Museum of Natural History, Ms. Cathy Hawks.

She is an amazing lady (the word ‘amazing’ has now officially gone into overuse on this blog). She has such a wealth of knowledge and experience, and she shared so much of that with us. Not only she made notes for us of all her presentation, but she also made a CD for us which has these amazing  resource guides. I was so amazed to see this, I mean who bothers much with a group of people coming in from third world countries, but she really had put in an effort in sharing her knowledge with us and for us to take so much more back from this experience. I was completely taken a back.

We had the whole day with her and in that time we covered the various facets of Risk Management and Conservation. She told us about a million small and simple tricks that we can use in our own context which won’t even cost much money. She is simply a well full of knowledge.

We even took a tour around one of the storage facilities and we even met a wonderful .. Meet Mr. Beaver…!

As I said, this was an uneventful day! Anyways, the only other highlight of the day was that we had food, but amazingly I didn’t take a picture of that even. I did take a picture of this!

I think we only had left overs or something since I have no photographical evidence of any dinner. I think some days just are like that!

Oh, and the reason for title is simple – that day after our session got over, we skipped over to Freer and Seckler and got these wonderful books for ourselves. We have been getting so many books that I am so pretty sure that our luggage weight limit is about to go out of the window!

PS: Excuse the bad quality picture – I took it with my phone just now! So excuse that – But this is a book we got through Freer and Seckler and this is just one of the many that we have been getting! So god have mercy on our luggage!


USA Diaries – Day 11 – The Peru Festival is in town!

This diary post is a part of a 30 day trip that I am taking this month which it also happens to be my first ever International trip. So for the next 30 days I will be posting here all my weird thoughts and commentary. 

Day 12, 28-7-2012 – In my hotel room, Washington DC, Late updating

So I know I skipped yesterday diary, which is not the first time I have broken my promise of writing every day for the duration of this trip. I think it is safe to conclude that thank god there is no police that is coming in, barging in my hotel room to put me on trial.

But in all regards, there was very little to report from yesterday. So let me just walk you through yesterday quickly. The day was dedicated to Exhibit Design and we were given in the care of the lovely and really funny Elizabeth Musteen Allison. She spent 3 hours with us, and in this time, she not only showed us the Mammal’s Hall, but guided us through the entire process that went behind in the design of the Hall. The session was extremely important in my point of view, since it gave me the direction and the answers that I needed which I have been facing at my work. So much thanks goes to Elizabeth Musteen.

Carol Butler introducing Elizabeth Musteen

For lunch, we rushed over to the award winning Mitsitam Native Food Cafe at the National American Indian Museum (NMAI), which opened up in the year 2004. The Museum is a must visit, especially nowadays, with the Peru Festival in a full swing, till Monday and with the highly creative and detailed exhibition, “A Song for the Horse Nation” on display. The exhibition covers the various facet of the important of Horse in the lives of the American Indian. It is truly a wonderfully amazing and well researched exhibition.

From there on we headed to the section that is known as the ImagineNation Section. The area and section is filled with activities for the children to be a part of and how the exhibition can be extended beyond the display boards and into the lives of the children who visit the museum. Truth be told, we were running around the area as if we were 5 again… So therefore I can speak with some credibility when I say that we simply loved that place. The idea was that you get a passport and then you visit the various areas which are a part of the American Indian Culture, and on each of these stops – where you learn something new –  you get your passport stamped.

After looking around at the museum, we went and had a talk with Elizabeth Gordon, who is the Project Manager of the NMAI. She talked about her experience of working here and how it has been received by the indigenous community. Although she makes it known that she can hardly speak on behalf of the entire community, she did mention some of the problems that have been raised and have come to her. She also gave us a big treat by allowing us to go over to the terrace and enjoy the wonderful view of the entire National Mall, we took every advantage of this moment by making sure we got our pictures taken right in front of the Capitol Building – which acted as the most wonderful backdrop.


I have to say again, the museum is pretty spectacular and their theater is a must-have experience. The film – which we were not allowed to take pictures of – s displayed on 3 levels. The first level is that of the stone, the next one is the screen which is made out of knitted material, the third one is the entire dome like ceiling of the room. You just can’t figure out which one to look at and which one to concentrate on, but each one is simple to enhance the sense of the environment which is being depicted on the main screen.

I browsed around some of the other galleries too and had a chance to see some of the most amazing parts of the Culture of the American Indian.


After the browsing I made my way to the Peru Festival that was happening. The treat and the items that the local artisans had on display were truly intriguing. There was a guy there who only made jewelry out of Silver Wire, then there was an artist who was making sculptures out of clay. Then there was another one who had these wonderful doll houses and mirrors with doll borders on display. It was truly intriguing.

Oh did I forget to mention that there was a petting place where there was a kind of Lima…. The sweetheart was so adorably cute, I cant even begin to explain. Oh, and how can I forget the wonderful horse.


On the way back, I decided to take the Metro while the rest of the group decided to walk. It is safe to say that I got lost on the way back, which is one of my favorite things to do. Yes, I love getting lost.. cause I think it is only when you get lost that you can truly enjoy the city. So I got lost, I made stops, saw different places, before finally making my way to the L’Enfant Metro Stop.

A musician playing outside the Metro Station

The rest of the day comprised of a dinner party for some of our group members. The food was good, the company was good. Cooking the food in such small a kitchen was a disaster, but nonetheless, we had a great time.

USA Diaries – Day 10 – MSC, Here we come!

This diary post is a part of a 30 day trip that I am taking this month which it also happens to be my first ever International trip. So for the next 30 years I will be posting here all my weird thoughts and commentary. 

Day 10, 26-7-2012 – In my hotel room, Washington DC, Local Time: 2321, Pakistan Time:27 July 2012, 0819

Today was the day when we headed back to National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) after spending 3 days at the Freer and Sackler. It was good to be back and see the always smiling face of Carol Butler. We were suppose to meet her at 9 am in front of the Constitution Avenue Entrance, but considering our lack of orientation with DC still, we stood waiting in front of the National Mall entrance for well over ten minutes before realizing that we were on the wrong side of the museum.

The discussion today was a general orientation to Smithsonian and especially to the Folk life Festival that the Smithsonian holds each and every year. The discussion was kicked off by Robert Leopold who is the Consortium for World Cultures. He talked a lot about how it is important to make things relevant, considering that the Smithsonian is an organization that is being run by the taxpayers. And therefore, when organizations such as theirs go to the Congress, they need to know and have the answers to what purpose are they serving. He also talked a lot about the many different projects with which the Smithsonian is currently involved in, like the “Our voices on the air” which brings together the many different indigenous voices on Radio on a single platform. I have to admit, by the end of it all, I had a serious crush on the man.

Robert Leopold

The second part of the discussion was led off by Diane N’Daiye who looks after the Folk life Festival. Now this is the first time that I have ever heard of the Folk life Festival, and when I say “this is the first time”, I mean since the time I have been in the US. The Folk life festival brings together the various cultures and voices from all over the world onto a single platform where people from across the borders can engage with each other. This is no doubt something very close to her heart, since she narrated her own experience about how hard it was for her to understand as a child. She shared with us her childhood memory of how in a discussion with her friends who were telling about their Thanksgiving experience, which of course, rotated around Turkey, she felt like an outsider and cried about it, since she only had Curry and Roti.

She also talked about how it is important in her job and line of work to engage with the various practisers of culture. I like that word, although I don’t think I completely agree with it. See for me, culture is not something you practice. It is something that is embedded in you. But I can understand in which context she was talking about.

The last part of the discussion revolved around question and answer session, in which I asked a few questions which were really bothering me. What I really liked about this session was the fact that these people actually encourage question, and they don’t just say “good question” for the sake of saying it. They actually listen to it and will even come up to you later on to say the same. They will never claim that they know the answer but nonetheless, there is a general understanding that until a question is asked, it can’t be answered.

After this discussion, we headed off to the Staff Canteen for Lunch, and from there we went to get out shuttle to MSC, Museum Support Center. The MSC is a storage and a research facility for the Smithsonian NMNH and some of its other institutes as well, and this place is simply amazing. The place is simply huge and I bet you can spend the next 5 years of your life in there and still not be done seeing everything. We were shown around the place by Dave Rosenthal and Jake Homiak – both of those guys are incredible; Jake Homiak is simple hilarious. We were shown around the entire facility and I am simply in awe of the place. We first toured the more simpler facilities, the photography section, conservation lab etc, before we headed to the main treasure island – the Storage Unit. Apparently, there are 4 pods, each pod being on 4 levels, and with each containing almost ten shelves in a row. People, the Smithsonian Collection is no joke. And this is just the anthropological and ethnographic collection.

Jake Homiak

Dave Rosenthal

A letter which we saw in the Paper Conservation Room written by Alexander Graham Bell.

The most interesting highlight or fact of the day: Jake shows us the Archives Room and tells us that the paper in this room will be, if stacked, will make five time the height of the National Monument. Yet… this is hardly the biggest collection in DC. In fact, this is one of the smallest Archives; he reckons that the Congress library has just their record book room as big as this. Can you even imagine? I know I the hell can’t!

After this, we were taken by the lovely lady Rae Beaubien to the Museum Conservation Institute and shown the various facilities and laboratories that they have. I have to say, they have the most dedicated people that I have every seen in my life. I loved her, and the tour that she gave us, although I do have to say, that it was a bit exhausting.

The day ended at around 4:30 pm when we again took the shuttle and headed back to our hotel. The rest of the day was pretty non-exciting, with us simply loitering around. Although I did get my laundry done today, and I must say, my clothes smell nice 🙂 Not to forget, this was my first experience with these sort of machines and the dryer and all. I liked it!

Dinner was a weird deal, with our hunger getting the best of us, and us relying simply on Mashed Potato, Noodles, Leftover Rice and Mac and Cheese.. it is as weird a combination as it can get!