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 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!

USA Diaries – Day 7 of 30 – Adventures at Hotel

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 7, 23-7-2012 – In my hotel room, Washington DC, Local Time: 2301, Pakistan Time:24 July 2012, 0759

Today was the first tough day that we encountered, and it was enough to make us conclude about the type of days that are to follow. Today the true training started as a matter of speaking. Our day started off early today, that is at 0700 hours, which seemed like the most appropriate time to us to wake up if we wanted to be on time for our 0900 assumed appointment at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, which too is a Smithsonian Institute. However, it was only when we were about to take the Metro that it was told that our appointment at the Museum is not until 1000! So what is one to do till then? This particular Individual decided to roam the Mall. I wanted to go to the African Art Museum, but that too was to be opened at 10, so I simply went to the “Castle” and signed up for a membership there. That is definitely Money well spent.

The Castle – A close up

The Castle

Interiors at the Castle

When the museum finally did open, we were greeted by Dr. Nancy Micklewright who is the Head of Scholarly Publications and Programs at the Freer Gallery of Art. The Museum and Art Gallery in itself is spectacular as is its history. Apparently, Charles L. Freer was a Detroit business man who made his money from the booming railroad business of the 1900s. He was also a man with much taste for the Chinese Art Pieces, and thus had a huge collection which he finally donated to the Museum with a condition – the museum can not loan or accept any other collection or artifact. This was how he sought to maintain his legacy in a place strictly dedicated to only his collection. It definitely says about the love that he had for his pieces.

Freer/Arthur Gallery of Art

View towards the Courtyard

The class started off with Dr. Nancy Micklewright talk who gave us an orientation about what our time at F/S will be like. We were then allowed to choose our interested workshops, more of which I will discuss tomorrow after I am done attending them. We were then taken in the authority of Alexander Nagel, who is the Assistant Curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art. What I loved about the guy is his open and warm attitude towards everyone and how he is ready to admit that he doesn’t know somebody and asked us to explain things to him. His learning and curiosity doesn’t seems to have an end. He is basically an archaeologist working on sites in Iran, but has been now working with F/S for almost 2 or 3 years (I cant recall exactly). We were given a tour of the galleries before we were rushed off to a talk by him about the work that F/S does and the various departments that are in the galleries, which include a in-house Workshop, to build showcases etc, Photography Studio, and one of the oldest conservation lab for Asian Art.

Nancy giving her talk! (Bad picture I know)

Alexander Nagel

After the talk by Alex, we headed out to the Energy Department, which is a Federal Building, which we were told will provide us with ample choices for food. Now it has to be said that that statement was an understatement. There was so much variety that it was almost insane. And that too all affordable.

Don’t be confused.. those are three different bars of food!

We headed back to the rest of our session, which was kicked off by Senior Exhibit Coordinator Kelly Swain. She showed in her presentation as case studies two of the panels that they have designed and how and what was the though process behind it. Her presentation left us all amazed and I have some more questions for her, which I plan to get an answer for tomorrow. The second presentation and talk that we got was from John Tsantes who heads the Imaging and Photographic Section. I can say it for everyone today with a lot of confidence that we were simply taken aback by the vast amount of cameras and equipment that they had. It was simply amazing.

Kelly Swain


Above: John gives a talk, Last picture: The equipment that they use was simply amazing.

The last talk of the day was from Carol Huh, who works as the Assistant Curator of Contemporary Asian Art. Now I don’t have any interest in Contemporary Art, but it needs to be said, that the discussion was pretty engaging. Questions were raised about how to draw a line between what is contemporary art and what is someone just putting a flush seat in front of the audience.

Carol Huh

The night ended with us decided for ourselves that today is the day when we will cook ourselves. So I decided to cook this baked potato, while Amrita – a new friend of mine – decided to give the Classic Mac and Cheese (packed) a try. I did also make these tomatoes with cheese in it which I ha gotten from the Farmer Market. The night ended with Rajesh – another friend – doing the dishes for us in his own hostel style.

SO far everything is simply perfect.





USA Diaries – Day 4 of 30

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 5, 22-7-2012 – In my hotel room, Washington DC, Local Time: 2150, Pakistan Time:23 July 2012, 0648 (late updating)

The exhaustion of the entire week and the constant travelling and sightseeing finally took its toll on me yesterday night and thus the lack of updating on my stay in Washington yesterday.

Yesterday in itself was pretty exciting with the responsibility of our tour falling on the wonderful man and genius himself, Mark Kenoyer. The day started off with us first heading towards Union Station. I am finally getting the hang of all the Metro lines and the stations and how to go about around the system.

The first stop on the agenda that day was Union Station, which we were taken to just to fimilarize ourselves not only with the Metro System but also to show us the place which can connect us to the world outside, meaning it is the place from where you can get trains and buses for anywhere in the US (there are plans in the air for taking a trip to NY one of these days).

Right as you step out of the Station, you can see the famous bell – and the only reason I know about it is because of the movie I saw, called National Treasure. The original bell, with the crack, is in Philadelphia and this was a replication of that bell.

The Postal Museum, also the part of the Smithsonian was the next stop on the agenda. The Museum is cited in the most beautiful building ever, and as per the lady on the reception, the beauty of that particular Museum is that it is quite. The beauty of the museum for me was how it traces the entire background of how Mail has been transported through different means and methods and every single one of them was then replicated and bought into the main lobby space of the museum. The other exhibits included the Security that is involved in transporting mail, before ending the entire story of the Museum on the emergence of the American Postal System and how it is working and has evolved over the years.


After the Museum, the next stop was the Building Museum. The history of the Museum was told to us by a Mr. Jeffrey, a friend of Mark who had worked at the Smithsonian for a number of years. The Building Museum was actually the pension office for the victims and the families of the casualties of the Civil War in America of 1812. The number of casualties of that war is still the largest number that America has lost in any war. Therefore the need for a large structure was felt. The lobby of the building is one of the biggest that America has ever seen and the columns in it are the most magnificent columns that I have ever seen. The building now holds various exhibitions and programs related to Building Material and the general Urban concerns.


Mr. Jeffrey  had taken an appointment for us at the Tudor Place, which was the residence of George Washington’s step granddaughter. George and Martha never had kids of their own, but Martha had her own kids from her first marriage. Upon the death of Washington, his granddaughter inherited a lot of money as well as furniture, which included decoration pieces as well, from the Washington himself. The house covers an entire block in Georgetown, which is the original historical district of Washington. DC itself is built on a swamp and since Georgetown is located on a hill, it therefore became the perfect place to have the residences of the rich and the elite of that time, and has been one of the main places that I wanted to visit. One of my main questions remains even after my visit is that why would the residents of the house decide to call it the Tudor Place, considering that Tudor is a word which is quite specifically used for the British Monarch. Unfortunately, there is no evidence which leads us to the answer of this discovery.


You are not allowed to take picture inside the house itself, which is a shame. But the museum in itself led to a great discussion between us. The discussion included the differences between this sort of Museum or a House Museum as compared to a  Smithsonian Museum. There was also a debate about how they conserve materials. Another interesting debate that was launched was the need to touch things. Mark pointed out to us that in USA, it is taught that you can not touch displays. However, this is the sort of discipline that has yet to be introduced in our society and museums.

We took a walk around Georgetown as we tried to find something to eat for ourselves. And I have to say, that it is as posh a area as I have ever seen before. The place on which we settled upon for food was Paolo’s, and again Mark ordered for us a wide variety of stuff so that we can have a taste of the various flavors which are there. We started off with our Appetizers which included Bread with this delightful Chuntey which had all the flavors of Asia in it, a Watermelon Salad – which of course I didn’t try, then there was a Eggplant Fried – which I thought was absoloutly brilliant, A Green Salad – which was too acidic and lemony for my taste buds and the final wonderful thing was the Calamari – which I was told is  a squid and was the most wonderful thing of all.











At night, we randomly decided to step out and thus was fascinated when our random trip turned into a completely discovery of a “Paowo” – the celebration of Native Indian Culture and Customs. It was one of the most amazing things that I have ever heard with the most fascinating music. The music I felt were more or less like animal calls, and it is suppose to uplift your spirit and make it one with that of the universe. It is truly breathtaking.







Day 3 of 30

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 3, 19-7-2012 – In my hotel room, Washington DC, Local Time: 2248, Pakistan Time:20th July 2012, 0747

Today was the first day of our course, which is taking place with the coordination of the Smithsonian. The day started off for me at 6: 30 am when I woke up after a 12 hour sleep – which was enough to cure any jet lag that I may have had. After that, we had a complimentary breakfast, before our in-charge took us to a local pharmacy to get our metro cards made, and then after that, we had our first metro ride. We took the metro from the Eastern Market stop all the way to the Smithsonian and then explored the National Mall a bit, before calling it a day. Afterwards ofcourse, we decided to take a walk around the block to find a place where we can have dinner. The place we stopped was a Thai Food place and I had duck – my first ever duck.

Here are some of my pictures from the day