Editor’s note: At SCPC, we’re proud to see our student assistants complete internships and take part in other enriching activities (like this). Of course, we then ask them to, “do a blog about it!” Here, Caitlin Mans (our second-year graduate student assistant) tells us about her summer at the Smithsonian.
As students from elementary to college head back to school each year, they are often asked what they did on their summer vacation. Most years my responses vary between where I went on vacation or describing whatever “thrilling” summer job I had, but this summer I can answer that I interned at one of the world’s largest and most well-known museums. This summer, I spent nine weeks interning at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History working with two curators in the Division of Home and Community Life. Though I was one of 96 interns total in the museum, I was one of seven in my division and the only intern in the entire museum who was working on two very different projects with two separate curators.
My first project was working with the division’s art collection featuring paintings, prints, mirrors, and hair wreaths (yes these are made out of human hair). This art is what families of the eighteenth and nineteenth century would have had in their homes both as a decoration and to commemorate family events. As a result, this collection is characterized by a range of artistic quality based on what families would have been able to purchase and also includes such personal items as hand colored marriage and birth records. My role was to start the process of updating these items records by coordinating photos documenting the art with the art piece itself, updating the records in the museums computer database using information from older catalog cards, and accessing what the problems were in the collection’s records. Overall, this project taught me how to work with online object databases as well as the problems that can arise in this work.
My second project was working on a business and consumer history exhibit that is in the process of being developed and is set to open in 2015. My particular project was helping to develop the biography section by first coordinating information from various curators and adding my own suggestions to create a list of people to be added as potential individuals to be featured in the biography section of the exhibit. Once a confirmed list of additions was decided on through meetings with curators, I created a very short biography for all 380 or so people on the list and then went through and found objects as well as suggested potential objects to be acquired that were associated with these people or the business they were engaged in. This information that I prepared will then be used by the curators to select individuals for the biography section as well as provide a larger database of people to include in the exhibit.
I know that this may seem like a significant amount of work and I was incredibly busy, but the experience made it more than worthwhile. This internship gave me much needed practical work experience in both collections and curatorial work. It also provided me with rewarding professional development due to seminars I attended, exhibit development meetings, and the relationships I created with the staff members and fellow interns.
Not only was this an exciting summer for me, but it was a especially important one for the National Museum of American History. In June, the museum along with most of the Smithsonian institutions, helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts by having a special exhibit of Girl Scout uniforms, badges and even special gifts in the gift shop for the tens of thousands of visiting Girl Scouts to enjoy. This summer the museum also gained a new director, John Gray, after having a interim director since last August. During one of my last weeks there, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend his first official staff meeting and his first official address to the staff.
Though it may seem as though my time in DC was spent at the Smithsonian and, sometimes I felt as though it was, I also was able to take advantage of what our nation’s capital has to offer. I spent much of my free time visiting the various museums, enjoying good food, and going each week to Eastern Market, an area with vendors selling produce, clothing, jewelry, and art. One of my favorite parts of the summer was attending a Washington Nationals vs. New York Mets game that went into extra innings.
I was also fortunate enough to be able to get some work done on my Master’s thesis by spending several Saturdays in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division. They have a really fantastic tool called a book2net book scanner which is able to scan papers to create files that can easily be put onto a flash drive for free, which made my research much easier than anticipated.
This summer was certainly a fantastic experience and each day was truly an adventure. It is hard to begin to capture in just a blog post what interning in the National Museum of American History is like or what it meant for me professionally, but all I can say is that it was a once-in-a-lifetime way for me to spend my summer vacation.