Connecting Community and Collections

The Role of Virtual Engagements in Home to Mi’kma’ki Shared Stewardship

Connecting communities with the belongings held in the collection is integral to the mission of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Staff at the Cultural Resources Center (CRC), which houses the collection, routinely host Native constituents, scholars, and artists to study and interact with their cultural belongings. For over a decade, the museum used available technology ad hoc to virtually connect with our constituency when in-person visits were not feasible, often navigating technical difficulties on either end. When the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person visits to the collection impossible, an internal working group brainstormed solutions. To better serve communities and connect them with their belongings virtually, the CRC staff created a dedicated space with the necessary equipment and refined methods for facilitation. The virtual engagement setup is outfitted with overhead mounted LED lights for ample illumination and three cameras to achieve multiple viewing angles in a room with ample space for maneuvering objects and people.
A person holds an object in front of video camera. Video camera footage is shown on adjacent TV screen.
Conservation staff at the National Museum of the American Indian rotate a wooden mallet under video cameras during a virtual engagement session with colleagues at the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre in Nova Scotia.

The virtual engagement setup has proven to be an invaluable tool for building relationships and developing more equitable working partnerships with communities the museum serves around the Western Hemisphere. For the Home to Mi’kma’ki Project with our colleagues at the Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre (MDCC), the virtual engagement setup has allowed us to work and collaborate across national boundary and time zones. (Revisit our previous blog for background information on the project.)

A person leans over a quilled wall pocket on table while another angles a camera on a tripod and another looks on
Conservation staff work together to zoom in on different aspects of a Mi’kmaw quilled wall pocket during a virtual engagement session.
Conservators utilized the virtual engagement set up throughout the last year during the project’s first phase in which MDCC curators and conservation staff completed a comprehensive survey of over 650 Mi’kmaw belongings. Each virtual engagement brought together staff from both institutions, a group of specialized Mi’kmaq cultural practitioners, and a selection of ten to fifteen cultural belongings. The conservation team, including fellows and interns, handled objects and operated cameras, while partners in Mi’kma’ki tuned in to lead close visual inspection and discussion about materials, techniques, cultural practice, and values. Although reduced to two dimensions on a screen, close looking at the belongings prompted dynamic conversation that brought the objects to life. Through stories about the people who historically made them or through the artists’ own contemporary practices, both institutions learned a great deal and were able to share knowledge about caring for these items.
Quilled wall pocket with variety of designs made by a Mi’kmaw artist once known
Mi'kmaq (Micmac) artist once known. Quilled birch bark wall pocket, ca. 1880-1900. Nova Scotia; Canada (inferred). Dyed, stitched, quill embroidered Birchbark, porcupine quills, dye/dyes, sweetgrass, spruce root, sinew. 57.50 x 35.20 x 10.20 cm. Collection history unknown; acquired by William Ockleford Oldman (1879-1949, who did business as "W.O. Oldman, Ethnographical Specimens, London") at an unknown date; purchased by George Heye from W.O. Oldman in London, England, in 1922. Collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, 11/1318.

While some belongings pulled for discussion exhibited common condition issues related to each material, the bulk of the collection is in remarkably good condition—a testament to the skill and mastery of its makers. One item pulled for the quillwork practitioners was a stunning wall pocket which features brilliant colors and intricate star patterns (11/1318). While this piece exhibits some quill loss, missing spruce root lashings, and fading dyes, the work remains visually striking and structurally sound. During one of the virtual engagements, quill practitioners remarked on how long this piece would have taken to create considering both its size, measuring almost two feet in length, and number of medallions. One practitioner estimated it could have taken six months and may have required multiple artists to complete. Quill artist Crystal Gloade pointed out how this time would have included the processing of raw materials such as the quill, sweet grass, and birch bark. Gloade suggested that the uniformity of quill size across the wall pocket reflects the painstaking process of carefully sorting and selecting porcupine quills.

Museum staff hosted six virtual engagements with MDCC and Mi’kmaq cultural practitioners during the collections survey. These virtual engagements are foundational to the work that will occur during the next few years of the partnership.  In the next phase of work, MDCC staff and cultural practitioners will visit the CRC in person to help guide treatment of the collection to ready it for transport, display, and handling at the new cultural center. The technology adapted to fit this specific need of virtual engagements at the museum’s Cultural Resources Center offers a viable way to bring together Mi’kmaq community members and their cultural belongings and helps move this collection one step closer to returning home.