2008 PFIG Recipient Amelia Meyer
College of Arts & Sciences
2009 Graduation Year
Internship: Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC
Notes on the first week
I began my internship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (NMAH) on Monday, June 2. I am working in the Information Technology and Communications (ITC) division with the supervisor of the department, David Allison. My supervisor is the chief curator for an exhibit entitled “American Enterprise,” which chronicles the history of business and innovation in America from the colonial period to today. The exhibit will be object-centered, meaning that the objects themselves will be the chief storytellers of the exhibit. Inventions like the Eniac, the steel plow, and even the iPod will be on display and will tell the story of American invention. I am currently researching the pre-Civil War era to learn more about slave labor and wage labor in order to develop a prototype of one specific piece of the exhibit. I hope to collect quotations exemplifying the debates of the time over free labor and a slave-driven economy in order to present a “dialogue” to the audience. I am also researching an item that will be exhibited: an original booth from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. I hope to gather information not only on the booth’s history and function, but also on the larger consequences it represents for American capitalism and the free market economy. Lastly, I am also entering into a database various items and images that will be used in the exhibit.
I have already learned a great deal about how an exhibit is planned and how research is conducted in a museum setting. My supervisor has also begun teaching me about how to use electronic databases and other computer tools to make research and exhibition easier. I hope to continue to learn these techniques and to possibly even create my own database for information entry. I also hope to gather interesting and little-known information about the slave trade, free labor, and the slave economy that existed in the early 1800s. My work as an American Studies major has been focused on issues of race and racism in American culture, so this portion of my research will likely contribute to my overall knowledge of the subject. Ideally, this research will help me develop a specific and concrete topic for my senior thesis. Overall, I am looking forward to becoming more comfortable in this museum setting by learning more about the NMAH’s daily operations, the ethical debates that take place within the museum world about ownership and representation, and the purpose of an American history museum in the context of American society.
The first half of my internship has surpassed my expectations by far. I have been able not only to further develop my research about slavery for the American Enterprise exhibit, but also to expand that research to include other topics, as well as to learn more about the exhibit planning and design phase. I have completed research on the Great Depression as a new stage of American economic development, in which government regulation becomes a central issue. Coupled with my research on slavery, these two projects will contribute to a piece of the exhibit that is now being called "Perspectives" and that will hopefully be featured at various points throughout the exhibition space. I am now moving on to concentrate more on object-based research and on accessioning objects the museum has acquired. I will learn more about database entry, and I will also be able to conduct research on objects such as an old computer manufactured in 1982 and an old set of charge plates in the 1950s. It is extremely interesting to focus on such specific objects and to realize how important they are in the context of everyday life and culture in America.
In addition, I have been able to sit in on a meeting held between the chief exhibit planners, including my supervisor, and the exhibit designers from a firm located in England . We spent two days discussing the progress that has taken place on both sides of the planning process. This included a presentation by the designers of their layout for the exhibition space, a discussion of exhibit content from the curatorial side, and a tour of the new Newseum as an example of some of the latest museum technology available. It was interesting to tour this museum with a group of curators and designers; they offered interesting comments and analyzed the exhibits from an interesting perspective. My supervisor has been incredibly willing to allow me hands-on access to all aspects of exhibit planning and museum work. I have also met other curators of different collections, toured other museums and government buildings, and explored other departments within the Museum of American History . My work here has thus been extremely rewarding so far, and I will be meeting with a representative from the George Washington University Museum Studies Program next week to discuss the possibility of attending graduate school there. I am looking forward to my last weeks at the Smithsonian.
During the final weeks of my internship, my supervisor made sure that I gained a complete perspective on what it means to work in a museum both as a curator and as a collections manager. I toured some of the off-site storage collections of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), and I was able to see a variety of artifacts and storage locations. This gave me a better picture of the size and scope of the museum's collection, as well as the difficulty involved in managing all of these artifacts. Trying to imagine how many of these objects had probably never been shown to the general public, I developed a better idea of the importance of diversifying the various exhibits in the museum; only then can such a variety of objects be displayed to a general audience. During the final week, I also got to help catalogue a number of objects recently acquired for the Computers Collection, part of the Information Technology and Communications Division. Finally, I was able to spend time with my colleagues one-on-one in order to discuss with them their various experiences working in museums and their perceptions of museum work. I attended the first town hall meeting held by the new Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dr. Wayne Clough. This was extremely interesting because it summarized in many ways the difficulties of museum work: supporting research, maintaining the integrity of a public museum system, making sure a variety of perspectives and voices are represented in the exhibitions and collections of a museum, and maintaining staff and volunteer morale.
The eight weeks I spent interning at the Smithsonian were extremely valuable to me. Not only was I allowed to delve into my own research project and participate in exhibition development, but I also met a wonderful group of interesting and supportive people, all of whom taught me something about what it means to conduct historical research, plan a large-scale and far-reaching exhibit for the general public, and maintain a congenial and supportive atmosphere from day to day. I also took advantage of various resources in Washington , D.C. , including talking with an admissions representative from the Museum Studies Department of George Washington University . Working at NMAH confirmed my interest in museum work and made me even more excited to begin preparing for graduate school and for a career in museums. Presenting history to the public is not an easy task: one interpretation of history may be vastly different from another. It is important to recognize this, just as it is important to ensure that a variety of voices are not only represented, but more importantly that they are allowed to speak and share their own perceptions of history.
I will carry this experience with me as I begin applying for graduate school and considering where I would like to begin my career in the museum world. The Smithsonian was a wonderful place to work because of its devotion and obligation to the public and because of its dedication to research. The staff, and especially my supervisor, reflected these values. I look forward to seeing how American Enterprise develops in the coming years, and I cannot wait to see the end result!