For the past year I have been interning with the Smithsonian Institute working on the Conflict Cultures project. The Conflict Cultures project is multifaceted, with goals including cultural heritage disaster assistance, research, and data collection. I was involved in the last of these goals and have spent the last two semesters collecting geo-spatial data and metadata. This internship was ideal for me given my education, occupation, and professional goals. Overall, I found the experience rewarding. First, because I had the opportunity to implement my skills as a GIS specialist and scholar of North Africa, on the other hand because I implemented what I learned in my George Mason course work to think critically about the project, rather than simply fulfilling data entry tasks.
The first semester of my internship coincided with Hurricane Irma’s destructive pass through the Caribbean. The George Mason intern group was the assignment of geocoding all the Caribbean museums we could find, which blended the disaster relief aspect of Conflict Cultures with data collection. The importance and urgency of our data building was so clearly manifested in the news coverage of the hurricane’s aftermath, making the work both exciting and fulfilling. Working in cultural resources management, I have the privilege to be a part of preserving cultural heritage every day. I will admit that most days I easily forget the value of what I do, but rare salvage projects where we are excavating right in the middle of active construction are quick reminders of CRM’s importance. Working with Conflict Cultures in the wake of Irma was a very similar situation in that regard. I really enjoyed coding the Caribbean because the work I was doing was tangibly helpful. The following semester, however, was much more of a struggle.
I was assigned North Africa as my area of focus for the Spring Semester of my Smithsonian internship. At first, I was excited since this is the area of the world I will be focusing on during my PhD study. Surprisingly, the novelty of working in this familiar region quickly wore off. I was occasionally encouraged by interesting museums, but for the most part I found myself grinding away hours. Perhaps I felt this way because I love problem solving. The first semester I had to figure out the best way to deliver what the Smithsonian wanted; this semester I had everything figured out. Also, the we didn’t know ahead of time the name of the museums we would be coding in the Caribbean, we had to find them. A previous group of interns had already entered in most of the data for North Africa and I was just completing their work. I realized that one of the reasons I love archaeology is because I love discovering new things; with all of the museums already entered for North Africa, I didn’t have the thrill of adding something completely new. Spring semester was not completely dull, however. I figured out early on that something was amiss with many of the Egyptian museum entries. Using my knowledge of Arabic, I figured out that someone had thought that “Al-Mathaf” (and several other transliterations) was the name of a town. This is just the Arabic word for “museum.”
The biggest take-away I gleaned from this internship had nothing to do with data-building, but rather with the nature of digital research. In our course work we spent a great deal of time, particularly with Professor Leon, discussing the limitations of virtual scholarship and collaboration. As an online student, both with George Mason and other institutions, I have experience both the frustrations and pleasures of working with the humanities in the digital world. Collaborating on a complex project with many people with various tasks as a virtual intern has been a wholly different experience.
The lack of direct guidance was both freeing and disorienting. I often found myself irritated because I felt like typical bureaucratic hinderances were exaggerated. Instead of just walking down the hall inform my supervisor I was finished with a task and needed something new, I had to wait. Generally, I felt my supervisors were dedicated to their roles, but occasionally I felt blown off. For example, since I was a late arrival in the Fall, the Smithsonian’s blog expectations were never explained to me, so when I submitted my first post it was rejected. Although I felt that I clearly expressed my availability to discuss what about my post needed attention, I was never connected with a supervisor. As a result, over a month passed before the expectations were explained to me.
Distance proved to be the greatest obstruction when the Conflict Cultures intern group constructed our final visualization project. Without body language during the group meetings, it was difficult to gage when I could talk or what people thought of my ideas. I wrote a separate blog post about my other frustrations, so I’ll not rehash them here. I will say that the moral to the story is that virtual projects, especially when large groups collaborate, need strong leaders and clearly stated goals. I never received from the leadership clearly articulated guidelines for the map, or where the final product would be stored. As we discussed in class, these two aspects- the end user and archiving- are central questions that need to be answered before embarking on a project. Without this information I feel the other interns and I provided the best deliverable we could, but to be honest I have doubts as to the usefulness or longevity of the result.
As I reflect on this experience, I am reminded of one of my bosses at my day job as a GIS Specialist at a small cultural heritage management firm. He is a collector. He’s constantly out at libraries, archives, and the State Historic Preservation Office gathering data. Then he gives it to me to do something with. Often, the data is completely unorganized. I spend quite a bit of time organizing the data and changing file names before I can decide if what he gave me is even useful. He functions under the idea that having as much data as possible is intrinsically good and useful. This just isn’t the case. Half the time I don’t even realize what I have, and when I do the storage is too cumbersome. In many ways, the museums database seems to be functioning under the same expectations. I have been left with the impression that the project assumes that once the data is collected it can be transformed at will into something useful and accessible. I have my serious doubts. As I’ve already discussed in another post, I don’t feel the data is being collected and stored in the best program. Additionally, I haven’t been told by the leadership how they plan on dissemination our database, just ideas about how it will be used. Given the fact that 320 hours of my life have been put into this project, I want to feel confident that the data will be utilized. Unfortunately, although well intentioned, the attitude of “If you build it, they will come,” often fails to reach a project’s goals.
Overall, I will remember this internship as a good, if not occasionally onerous, experience. I am pleased that I got to work with geospatial data for an entire academic year. Using Google Maps taught me the strengths and weaknesses of the platform and I did find many resources for my own academic work. As I have thought through this experience, however, there are a few aspects that do not sit well with me. The naming convention for the museums is chief among them. I admire that Conflict Cultures aims to empower local heritage organizations by teaching them the skills to reclaim, preserved, and protect cultural material in crisis situations. It seems contrary to this mission that we only record the museum names in English. While recording every museum in English makes the database searchable, I do think a field should be added for the native name. Such an addition would preserve the integrity of what the words are originally trying to communicate and allow the people who utilize these museums greater ease in finding them. Despite this problematic data gathering approach, I do feel very privileged to have worked on this project. As I have stated before, I do believe that the mission of Conflict Cultures is important and that the project has great potential to aid communities and advance scholarship.