First Monday

Stewarding Potential by Jane Sledge



As the fortieth anniversary of Expo ’67 in Montreal approaches, I realize that I have been thinking about museums for a very long period of time as my formative museum experience occurred at that World Fair. In recent years, particularly in my work with the National Museum of the American Indian, I discovered that a lot of what I thought I knew was actually wrong. I thought, “Oh, we just have to enter these catalogue cards into the computer, do an inventory, maintain collections–management information, add on digital images and, voilà, we will have a perfect computer system for our museum.” Unfortunately this is wrong.

There is so much more. I never thought that museum information and management would be a lifelong passion. Another recent revelation is that museum record–keeping systems are more than finding aids. They support the stewardship of knowledge. Museum information systems often present valuable ambiguous, uncertain, and incorrect information — and I hope things will continue this way. I would say perhaps 20 to 30 percent of the information in the National Museum of the American Indian’s information system is wrong, but it is important and useful to us in that it provides information about the Museum’s past collectors and their understanding of Native Americans. If we were to totally clean up our data and to delete the wrong data to make everything “correct” it would be as if we cleaned up the evidence of the past.

A major change in our thinking over the last few years is that museums do not present the single voice of authority. We present multiple points of view and differing opinions over time; even our own opinions change. We are a repository for dialogue across generations of people.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, I have the opportunity to experience and explore the complexity of information. The National Museum of the American Indian is a new museum in its vision of being a community–centered museum. It is unique in its vision and yet it also comes from an evolving tradition of museums — the open–air museums of the nineteenth century and the ecomuseums of the 1970’s and 1980’s. In the mid–1980’s René Rivard explored the notion of what an ecomuseum might encompass. His view was that a museum included information and interpretation about the residents, the site, the landscape, the heritage, the collective memories, the individual memories, identity, cultural patrimony, the traditions, the environment, and the visitors’ reactions. An ecomuseum reflects a complex environment. René Rivard’s notion of the ecomuseum was not object–centric; it was life–centric.

The National Museum of the American Indian is about the importance of preserving context and relationships.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere, past, present, and future, through partnership with Native people and others. The Museum works to support the continuance of culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native life.

To illustrate the importance of context and enabling Native Americans to speak for and represent themselves, I am going to use an example from Marty de Montanõ, the National Museum of the American Indian’s Resource Centers Manager who recently retired after 23 years of work with us. I wish Marty could be here to speak with you. Marty was the Museum of the American Indian’s second Native American employee. In 1985, Marty arrived at the Museum of the American Indian on 155th Street in New York as a newly minted Master of Museum Studies graduate from Haskell University, Kansas. Members of staff asked her, “Marty, what do you think about the Potawatomi exhibit?” Marty tells the story of her exhibit review by noting that when she first looked at the Potawatomi exhibit she experienced a momentary flash of embarrassment as she thought, “Oh my, I’ve been wearing my blouse backwards.” Then she looked at other exhibits; in the Menominee exhibit the blouse was also backwards. She thought, “Oh, the curators wanted to show the pretty side of the blouse, so they put it like this.”


Potawatomi blouse, courtesy of Martha de Montano
Figure 1: Potawatomi blouse.
Source: Martha de Montanõ.

Then she saw a model wearing a blouse backwards. She thought, “Oh, these curators didn’t understand how we wore our blouses.”

She told the curators, “The blouses are backwards.” They said, “Prove it.” Marty brought in a picture of her aunts wearing blouses similar to the ones on exhibit. Marty inherited five Potawatomi blouses from her aunts. In 1985 this proof was insufficient for the curators as it was not written in a book and it wasn’t published by an anthropologist.

Marty’s tale caused me to wonder, what were those anthropologists thinking? I retrieved the original catalogue card. The National Museum of the American Indian’s catalogue cards are digitized so you can find images of the original catalogue cards in our information system. The card for the Potawatomi blouse in question dated from 1905 and was in George Gustav Heye’s beautiful script. The card read, “Woman’s waist. Potawatomi, Kansas. Collected by M.R. Harrington.”


Card describing Potawatomi blouse
Figure 2: Card describing Potawatomi blouse.

I thought, “Oh, I understand. No male anthropologist of that period would ask a woman how she puts on her shirt. All George Gustav Heye wanted to do was collect to collect the object.”

Then I asked our curator, Dr. Ann McMullen, “Is this a correct assumption?” Ann said, “No, no, no, Jane. It is not an issue of a nineteenth century male collector.” Ann suggested that I had missed the obvious clue. The Potawatomi blouse was named “woman’s waist” as George Gustav Heye thought that the Potawatomi ladies were imitating an Edwardian pigeon front blouse. Ann suggested that I should also consider that the curators of the 1970’s and 1980’s did not use images the way modern researchers use images. Today, curators do research on the Web and in digital archives. Researchers have a better understanding of the importance of photo archives. Ann reminded me that research has changed significantly in the last decade. Ann provided me with a couple of images related images to illustrate the context.

The lady in red, Josephte Ourné, by Joseph Légaré 1795–1855, comes from the National Gallery of Canada, accession number 18309. You can see Josephte is not wearing an Edwardian blouse as her blouse dates from the 1840’s.


Figure 3: Josephte Ourne, by Joseph Legare
Figure 3: Josephte Ourné, by Joseph Légaré (1795–1855).
Source: National Gallery of Canada, at

So I went back to our original Registration Information Tracking System (RITS). RITS was designed to manage the movement of some 805,000 objects from the storage area that George Gustav Heye had purpose built in 1923 in the Bronx to our new Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. RITS is one of the world’s best object–tracking systems but it is not a collections management system. Staff digitally imaged every object as part of the movement process. You can see from the record that we still have the blouse backwards and it’s still called “a woman’s waist.” This is because this system is a registration information tracking system. Wrong information was not changed during the move process.


Original Registration Information Tracking System (RITS) record describing Potawatomi blouse
Figure 4: Original Registration Information Tracking System (RITS) record describing Potawatomi blouse.

We are only now implementing a new collections–information system. In our new collections–information system, the object is still a woman’s waist, although it has been classified now as a garment. Staff added the Native term for that object as used by Marty, which is a “satchkin.” We can include other information such as the Native terms. We will always associate George Gustav Heye’s term, “Woman’s waist” with the object as it tells us something interesting about Mr. Heye. We may well add other identifiers for the object.

A point I want to make here is, as we talk about stewarding and preserving digital information, unless you have a place to record this information in the right spot in the automated record, you don’t have it for retrieval purposes. So one of the things we have been doing with our new collections–information system is working on our information architecture. We have pushed our vendors and ourselves to expand the information structure of our records.

One of the things George Gustav Heye did that is somewhat endearing, but also a reason why we have so much wrong information, is that he would go into, say, your main room and offer you, five dollars — a fortune for an impoverished individual at that time — for everything there. He would buy your goods and ship them to New York. Then he would catalogue them as coming from where you were at the time, say, Ship Rock, Arizona. Mr. Heye did not consider the concept of trade, inheritance, or the movement of objects through time to different geographic locations other than the place of manufacture or creation..

In our new database, we have the ability to talk about the culture that created the object and the culture that used the object, and augment the contextual information.

Now our automated record has a digital image of the front of the blouse and a digital image of the back of the blouse. We have the ability to put more than one image in our dataset. We have the digitized original catalogue card as part of the record and as well related images, for example that of the blouse worn by Josephte Ourné. We have the ability to group individual records as part of groups and say more about the relationships of objects, for example the various parts of a woman’s regalia.

We are able to include URLs and link to additional external information. Here is an example of a related Potawatomi Blouse Web site — we can incorporate useful Web site information into our record.


Figure 5: Potawatomi Blouse Web site
Figure 5: Potawatomi Blouse Web site.

I would like to point to the importance of shared information. There is no way that we will ever have all the information about an object in a catalog record. However, by making collaborative links, within our existing institutional records — as well as in other resources — we can significantly enrich the context.

One of the things at the bottom of the Web site on Potawatomi blouses, which you are not able to read is, “My grandmother told me that her grandmother used to use the big collar for a hood when it was windy.” This is an example of the storytelling nature of what makes an object really interesting and this is what a museum is about. It is a direct form of civic engagement. Civic engagement is a fundamental principle of the National Museum of the American Indian.

I sought to explain our problem about incorrect information to our Board of Trustees. I used the example I’ve presented here. After the presentation a board member spoke up, “What if Marty was wrong about the way a Potawatomi blouse should be worn?” In that case, I suggested that this would be part of the conversation documented by the record. Museums are not, as Ken Hamma once said to me, the voice of God. Museums are facilitators and enablers of dialogue. That’s what I think is really interesting about museum records and differentiates them from library and archival records. Most often, museum objects do not come with a title, an author, and a publisher/manufacturer printed on them unless they are manufactured objects. For a large part of a collection like that of the National Museum of the American Indian’s, we have outdated catalogue cards and a very limited dataset. To make this collection interesting to you, the public, depends upon our ability to relate with Native Americans and Native Americans’ ability and interest in re–contextualizing these objects for us.

One of the other things that has been intriguing me recently is the potential to make Wikipedia part of our record system. I am aware of the on–going discussion about the authority of Wikipedia — but from a practical viewpoint when I want to know about the Potawatomi, Wikipedia is very helpful. Instead of creating a record about the Potawatomi, it might be useful to ask the Potawatomi to engage in maintaining their own Wikipedia records about themselves. Wikipedia, as well, is a modern tool for civic engagement. It’s not necessarily right, but it is a useful tool. If communities participated in Wikipedia, corrected information and participated in the discussion, Wikipedia would be an important tool for representing the interests of Native people.

When I started to think about what a museum information–management system might be for the National Museum of the American Indian, I initiated community–based discussions and asked the communities what they expected of us. It was a harsh meeting, where people frankly told me things I didn’t expect to hear such as the dangers of being “well–intentioned.” They clearly stated the values and principles of importance to them. That frankness was a gift. I had gone to them and said, “Oh, I’m Miss Large–Scale Collaborative Project and let’s do one.” They said, “Jane, large–scale collaborative projects are grandiose and empire–building. The Hopi want to know about the Hopi, the Navajo want to know about the Navajo. We want our projects to be local. We want them to be for us. We want to represent ourselves and we want control over this information. We want your information for our own purposes to preserve our cultural heritage and language.”

These have been the guiding principles. In our information system toolset we value tools that enable collaboration as described above. Here is a picture of group of people interacting with a conservator and a curator. Note that it’s a multi–generational group, with an elder, middle–aged staff, and young kids. They are talking about an object. The dialogue provides an opportunity to document the object. We are changing the nature of our documentation to be a dialogue. We can attach digital audio and video clips to our records to enable you to hear the dialogue.

The National Museum of the American Indian has a solid technical infrastructure. We have our foundation applications: our collections–information system and our digital asset–management system. We have preservation systems. We have a fundraising system, a membership system, a group reservation system, a special events system, etc. We have a multiplicity of foundation systems. What we have also put into the mix, in a prototype sense — which isn’t something to talk about publicly, but I will — is our metadata repository. Our metadata repository enables us to bring together diverse toolsets, records, from not only ourselves, but from other institutions, and also provides a staging area in which we can hold information that may not be ours to put in our collections–information system, but may be appropriate — and we want to use it — in our Web and in our interactive exhibits and in our publications.

I’ve come to consider information as a spiral of knowledge — of community–based efforts — Native Americans, scholarly researchers who come to work with us, our own internal researchers, people who work on our publications, our exhibits, and our Web site. We are developing a different mindset in the museum to adopt an integrated approach where a broad base of staff are responsible for adding information into our museum information systems. For example as research is undertaken for exhibits by curators and Native Americans, information is added to the collections–information system.

In 1967 André Malraux wrote Museum Without Walls. He wrote about this changing nature of museums, where objects are contextualized. Malraux suggested that the original creators who made and used objects for their own purposes did not think about them as works of art designed to be hung on museum walls. The objects meant something to them spiritually. It meant their grandmother had cherished this object passed down to her from her grandmother, which is a very different context in the way we see objects in most museums today. Museums were “modernizing” in the 1960’s and they continue to change now. Malraux said, “It’s difficult for the fish to envision the outer aspect of his aquarium.”

This is where I think we are today in our information systems. We demand more of our information systems. We haven’t seen the end of this change. Thanks. End of article


Questions and Answers

PARTICIPANT: The third speaker that spoke about the importance of language and the first two speakers — I know this is a really big deal. Jane, when we used to work together on vocabulary — can you just say a little bit about what you are doing to provide additional access points, even for the variant spellings of Potawatomi and all the different variations of calling the objects and so forth?

MS. SLEDGE: Our Board of Trustees has set language preservation as one of our strategic objectives and we have undertaken a project, supported by funding from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Native Americans (ANA) and an Advisory Group, to review what has been done to date and how can we play a supporting role. With support from ANA we developed a Native Language Preservation Reference Guide for Establishing Archives and Repositories. Perhaps some of the most interesting work to support language preservation directly is being done by my colleague Dr. Robert Leopold at the National Anthropological Archives, who has support from the National Science Foundation for language preservation.

We do some oral histories and interviews. We are active in the production of radio programs.

We will work at holding multiple versions — multiple spellings, multiple terms, Native terms of objects, our own versions of names of objects, historic terms, and potentially publicly-generated information as part of a social tagging project. Our systems will try to encompass this — rather than a right–term/wrong–term concept or a preferred–term concept, we will probably, for many things, provide multiple terms so that people can see what terms are used.

MS. BISHOFF: So you are still in the DVD/CD mode.

MR. LOUDEN: Absolutely, yes.

MS. SLEDGE: Liz, we have about four terabytes of images. As part of our move, we digitally imaged all of our objects, about 20 megabytes per digital image. We imaged the catalogue cards. We scanned about 25,000 of our 80,000 photo archives images. We have a storage area network device with about 21 terabytes of storage capacity available for our collections information and digital asset management. We have it mirrored to our Museum on the Mall from the CRC. We have tape backup for the whole system. We also have an optical media device that holds about 800 DVDs so that we can copy images to DVD and deposit it out to Iron Mountain Storage.

We believe in multiple copies in multiple places, multiple versions. We went to a DVD concept because when digital images are not like .doc records. You have the image and you press it to DVD once. It is not going to change. Yes, staff can manipulate and change images, but our protocol is to save new versions in the form of derivatives. We found that the ability to create DVDs and move them offsite has been very helpful to us.

We also consider that we have a five–year migration cycle. Because we hold all our images in an digital format, we can migrate them from system to system.


About the author

Jane Sledge is Associate Director for Museum Assets and Operations at the National Museum of the American Indian.



Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, First Monday.

Copyright ©2007, Jane Sledge.

Stewarding Potential by Jane Sledge
First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July 2007),