Internship Reflection, Part 1

This semester I started a virtual internship with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, working with the Head of Education and Scholarly Initiatives, Lanisa Kitchiner. After a few preliminary discussions, we have decided to work on a project about to museum’s founder, Warren M. Robbins. The goal is to bring to light not only the accomplishments of Warren Robbins, but his personality, character, and dedication. This project will establish the framework for a digital documentary edition for the Papers of Warren M. Robbins, creating a proof of concept website of what a complete documentary edition could be.

The first steps taken was to go narrow down the scope of the project. We decided to have the project correlate with the upcoming exhibit I am… This exhibit will highlight the influential role of women artists within the National Museum of African Art. To compliment the exhibit, it was decided to focus on material from the Warren M. Robbins collection related to female artists of various types. To do this, it was important to first go through the finding aid and identify which boxes may have materials related to this.

The collection is composed of 80 boxes of materials. According to the finding aid, several of the boxes was of correspondence between Robbins and a number of other people and organizations. For example, box 8 had over 30 individuals and groups that Robbins had corresponded with. However, after doing early research into who some of these correspondents were, material from only two of those individuals seems relevant, Maya Angelou and Lila Asher. This preliminary research also helped to identify which boxes should be requested when visiting the archives.

At the end of September, I made a trip to the Smithsonian Institute Archives to go through about 18 boxes of material. During this visit, I took about 300 images of seemingly relevant documents and catalogued about 2/3 of the materials in a spreadsheet. I captured information regarding document type, date, sender, recipient, creator, source, number of images, box number and additional notes. Unfortunately, the last 1/3 of the documents whose images I captured were not cataloged at this point due to time constraints. I realized that in order to catch my train home I would need to move faster and decided to make sure that I at least had the images.

While going through the collection, I found some rather interesting items to be included for the project. There was a lot of correspondence, some about every day affairs and others asking for favors. The cursory look at the materials relating to Maya Angelou indicate that she and Warren Robbins were good friends, and corresponded often. Other letters, like that of Elin Elisofon, illustrate more tumultuous relationships. There were also a number of newspaper clippings, photographs, prints, postcards, and invitations. Some of the postcards and invitations had artwork from the artist writing to Robbins. For example, Mimi Gross, and Cathy Gropper each sent Robbins a postcard whose front was a print of their art work.

Visiting the Smithsonian Archives has so far been the most rigorous part of this project, especially due to the time constraints. Other work up to this point has been research into copyright laws, especially surrounding correspondence. Additionally, there was the creation of a cursory wireframe which identifies which fields to be included in the site build. These fields will follow the Dublin Core metadata schema closely, which is something that I did my courses with Sharon Leon and Stephen Robertson. And lastly, the identification of potential color schemes for the site design, and the transfer of images taken at the archive from my cell phone to an organized Google Drive folder.

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