The Stories We Could Tell. . . If We Paid the Interns

Picture it: Spring 1998, my freshman year of college. My mom says to me “You really need to get a job this summer.” I had spent my high school years babysitting and working in a doctor’s office. I really didn’t want the “typical” summer college job of food service or retail. But mom had seen something in the paper about an internship program, sponsored by ExxonMobil for undergraduate students to work at Dallas nonprofits. And that’s how I wound up in the basement of the Hall of State, randomly running across letters signed by Sam Houston.

Here’s the simple truth: I wouldn’t be in the museum field if it wasn’t for a string of paid summer internships during my college years. But this origin story is rapidly becoming extinct.

I went to a private liberal arts college that was a bit of a stretch financially for my family. The money I earned during the summer went towards the next year’s tuition bills. ExxonMobil’s Community Summer Jobs Program gave grants to about 75 Dallas area non-profits of all types, including museums and cultural organizations. (The program still exists, but it’s much, much smaller now.) I applied to exactly one–the Dallas Historical Society–to write curriculum using primary sources. At the time, I thought my future career was as a high school English teacher. Though we spent part of just about every vacation at a historic house–and though I was the youngest docent at my local historic house museum by about 50 years–I had never considered working in a museum. Until I spent the summer going through the Dallas Historical Society’s vast collection, uncovering all sorts of treasures. I also helped create a “virtual tour” (remember, this is 1998, so very cutting edge!) of various Bonnie and Clyde sites. We had to hop a fence to get a picture of Clyde’s grave, and this seemed like the very height of danger and adventure. At least for a history museum.

When I got back to campus, I switched my major from English to history. And that summer established a pattern for the rest of my college summers. While some friends spent their summers in exotic places, I just went home. Luckily, my parents lived in a suburb, so I could get internships at major museums and not have to pay for lodging. I was jealous of them exploring new cities–they were jealous of me not having to find lodging!

In the summer of 1999, I worked at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. It was my most boring internship–cataloging books for their research library. But it was an interesting summer. That summer, they launched a live web feed of Dealey Plaza–and got in a bit of trouble. JFK Jr. died, and I worked late one night, searching for pictures of the memorials to his father that were left on the grassy knoll. The rights to the Zapruder film were determined. The museum was on the national news three times that summer, and I started learning about rapid response to current events.

That summer, I also did a bit of research on the history of a building at Fair Park that was the future home of the Women’s Museum. In the summer of 2000, I worked there, helping to process loans as they got ready to open in September. I held Edith Head’s Oscar and Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles. I learned a lot about management styles and the politics around women’s history. I can tell many, many stories about that summer, and it wasn’t a huge surprise when the museum ultimately closed in 2011.

The Registrar, the other two interns, and me at the Women’s Museum.

Because of all this, I entered grad school with a wealth of practical experience. I started my first “real” job with tons of prior experience that helped me move up the ladder quickly. And though I’ve worked at the same institution for 16 years, these experiences still inform my work. However, there’s no way I could have accepted any of these extraordinary opportunities without a paycheck.

At Dallas Heritage Village, I’ve long taken the attitude that it’s better to not have an intern than to have an unpaid intern. The last time we had paid interns was the summer of 2008–right before the bottom dropped out. We had four that year, which was perhaps too many. But it was amazing! In the last decade, there hasn’t been room in budget, but we have had a few unpaid interns. But nothing about that is equitable for the field. They’re self-selected–we certainly don’t advertise for them–and we’ve worked out some sort of benefit to them (usually course credit). We write glowing recommendations. Sometimes we even manage to stay in touch as they enter the field. But I feel terrible every time we do it. Because this isn’t how we build a more diverse field. This isn’t how we make sure museum professionals make equitable wages at every stage of our careers. This isn’t how we remind the public and our boards that our work has value.

Earlier this summer, we accepted an unpaid collections intern, set to start in January. She needs it for course credit and, due to the pandemic, was having difficulty in finding any internships, period. And then, last month, we had a few unexpected staff departures which gave us a chance to re-examine the personnel budget.

The first thing I did was make that internship a paid internship. And telling her that it was now paid was the most fun I’ve had at work in a long time.

There is so much work ahead of us to make the museum field more equitable and diverse for both staff and our communities. In order for the external work to have any longevity, we have to get the internal work done first. Paid internships aren’t a quick fix for our field. It will not save us today, but it may save us tomorrow. We have to start building a new workforce today, and we must not assume that our future colleagues can afford to work just for the experience.

One of my dreams is to create a yearly post-grad curatorial fellowship at the Village. Trying to find funding for this has been on the backburner, but my hope is that next year’s internship might provide a great template for future funding. Finally, we’re starting to see some major gifts going to support paid internships–but only for art museums. Imagine the stories we could tell if similar gifts were made in the history museum field!

Museum Surprises in Houston

As a Dallasite, it is required that I dislike Houston. And after spending three days there recently for the Texas Association of Museums conference, I can’t say that I’ve totally changed my mind. However, there are some wonderful museums there, and much like my experience in Philadelphia, I was genuinely surprised by a few spots.

At museum conferences, you spend your evenings at museums, probably drinking and hopefully eating. (sometimes there aren’t quite enough appetizers to turn into dinner). Often, you just dash through exhibits, if you even take the time to stop catching up with old friends and see something. However, at this conference, at least once a night, I was absolutely delighted by at least one of the exhibits.

At The Health Museum, we decided at the last second to be good museum-goers and take the tour of the DeBakey Cell Lab. I had no idea what I was walking into, but it made my educator heart sing. Hands-on experiment activities for all ages. With all the official “scientist” stuff like lab coats and gloves and goggles. The science and technology on display was amazing. But what really captured my heart was the volunteer. You could instantly tell she loved the museum and the science and you. Someone asked her about her background and she replied “I was a psychiartist, but I always wanted to be a medical doctor. So as soon as I retired, I walked across the street and started volunteering.” The other thing that amazed me about the Health Museum was the diversity of its staff and volunteers. I’ve never seen a non-culturally specific museum with that level of diversity. And yes, Houston is a culturally diverse city, but museums don’t always reflect that. So, kudos.

The next night, the highlight was the Houston Museum of African American Culture. When we walked in, I noticed a banner about a Sandra Bland exhibit, but the date the exhibit closed was weeks before. Never fear! It had been so popular that it was held over through the end of April. It was an incredibly simple exhibit that talked about her life, her arrest, her death and her legacy. They divided a large gallery space into three rooms with black curtains, plus a large overview area. The first room contained a video reel of many of her social media posts. The second was video and audio of her arrest. Each of those rooms contained individual headsets. There was something so intimate about each person sitting with a headset, and yet it was still a collective experience. The final room was set up like her funeral, complete with programs from the service.

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In the large gathering area, there was a video with interviews about the “talk” African Americans have with their children about police interactions, as well as comments on all of the recent police shootings. The whole thing had me on the verge of tears.

But perhaps my favorite part was the exhibit label that asked (paraphrased) “Can museums be involved in social justice?” I think you know my answer.

On the final night, I must admit we skipped most of the museums, but we did go to the final stop–the massive Museum of Fine Arts Houston. We walked through their giant galleries, feeling completely overwhelmed. Our brains and our feet were tired. But we decided that we should at least take a glance at whatever was across the street. And that’s where we found our final surprise–an incredible exhibit of Indian art and culture: Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India.  The art and material culture were absolutely stunning–such rich colors. And I found myself desperately wanting to read (again, often rare in a jaded museum professional under the best of circumstances) but with no real energy or time to truly explore the exhibit. At the same time, the whole thing felt totally new and I realized how little I know about Indian culture. Though a fairly traditional art exhibit, it still felt very new and different.

Houston will always be Houston. But it’s got some great museums.

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The Houston Museum of Natural Science was delightful, but I wasn’t surprised that the dinosaurs delighted me. But I was VERY surprised that I had straight hair in Houston.

Museum Surprises in Philadelphia

Sometimes, being a museum professional ruins museums. We develop our inner checklist, the things that we judge others on. It may have nothing to do with anything a “regular” visitor cares about, but it causes us to think differently and move differently through an exhibit. I’ve warned family and friends not to visit a museum with me. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut about certain museums that disappointed me. But the fun comes in when I’m truly delighted and surprised by a museum experience. That’s when I gush.

Last month, I visited Philadelphia for the very first time. The official reason was a conference, but I stayed a few extra days so I could see what’s required of every history nerd. So yes, we visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the new Museum of the American Revolution. And I really enjoyed those visits (the George Washington tent experience at MOAR is worth all the fuss). But that’s not what I keep thinking about.

Instead, I keep thinking about the Ben Franklin Museum. My colleague and tour guide, Jenn, used to work within steps of this spot, but she had never been.

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The “Ghost Houses” on the foundation of Franklin’s house are also pretty nifty. And have held up surprisingly well as an exhibit for the last 40+ years. (erected for the Bicentennial.)

We learned later that they had taken content from the tricentennial of Franklin’s birth and re-purposed them. We didn’t care. Unlike anywhere else we visited in Philadelphia, there was this wit and sense of humor in the exhibits. Between the two of us, I think we actually watched every video and did every interactive.

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Might have watched this one twice. It was hysterical. And I just love this style of animation for history projects.

Do you realize how rare that is for two mid-career museum professionals? It takes a lot to delight us. It was stylized and engaging and used primary sources in an amazing way.

I loved the use of their mascot, a squirrel named Skuggs, dressed differently for each exhibit section.

If there had been Skuggs stuff in the gift shop, I would have bought one for every staff member. (they had squirrels, but no great outfits.) We noticed visitors of all ages equally engaged in the exhibit. They hit all the right notes and truly got the whole “Let’s appeal to the entire family” concept throughout the entire museum. Those of you who know me well know that one of my soapboxes is the museums that put their “kid-friendly” exhibit areas off in one corner, rather than integrating throughout the experience. Adults often need that level of engagement too!

Another unexpected delight was an exhibit at the Union League, a fabulous historic building just a few blocks from our hotel.

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Only took a picture of the outside of the building. But fabulous!

Jenn knew it was a great building, but it’s members only. Except for this lower floor exhibit area a few hours a week. So, we acted like we couldn’t read signs and at least made it into the main lobby. And then headed downstairs to the Heritage Center, where non-members are welcome, to check out “Risk and Reward: Entrepreneurship and the Making of Philadelphia.” It was a small exhibit, but truly spanned the entire breadth of Philadelphia history. It was diverse, went right up the present day, and borrowed from collections throughout the city. Again, we read most of it, talked about it, and did all the things a great exhibit should do. We even admired some of the casework! (As a curator, Jenn does this sort of thing all the time. It’s rarer for me!) It was also the first stop during my visit and such a great introduction to the city’s rich history.

And then there was the Betsy Ross House. Again, an example of us thinking “well, we don’t have a lot of time, but we’re close and I bet we can squeeze this in.” And it was a delight. They openly talked about the myth of Betsy and how it developed.

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Some of the many ways Betsy’s name has been used.

They integrated exhibits well into a historic house (something we’re struggling with right now at DHV). There was a wonderful re-enactor, which is so often done poorly. They reminded us of the risk she was taking by making the flag, something I had never really thought about.

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Of course she couldn’t sew the flag in the main house–she was rebelling. But I certainly had never thought about that detail before.

And they spoke about all of the other people that made the house and business work.

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Love these labels and these stories.

We learned so much! They shattered all kinds of myths, but did it in exactly the right way. Plus, they had one of the best gift shops, and I totally bought an unnecessary souvenir for one of my nieces.

So even though I’m often a grumpy museum goer, perhaps my delight at these sort of surprises makes up for it? Our expectations weren’t super high for either place. National Park sites or tiny history organizations that are buried under a giant umbrella organization aren’t generally know for great, innovative exhibits. And yet. . .

This is why I always make it a point to visit a few spots slightly off the beaten tourist path when I visit a new place. You just never know what sort of surprises you might encounter–and how you might be inspired as a museum professional. Or just as a regular person.