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USHMM Internship- Challenges

The challenges I faced and attempted to address throughout my internship occurred on both the visitor services front and behind the scenes with my exhibition/collections work. Belcher states that “the interface between the institution and the public” occurs in different points of contact, including hands-on and behind the scenes.[1] I was privileged to be able to experience both sides of museum operations and witness the joys and challenges of both. I also had to remember, while at portals, that although I was not directly dealing with the public on those days, the work I was performing would still affect the public and their museum experience through a different medium.

The biggest obstacle I faced in Visitor Services was overcoming my fear of speaking to large crowds and gaining the confidence to assert myself when needed. To deal with this and deliver group speeches, I relied on past Practicum readings such as Levy’s Great Tours, as well as our practice sessions during class. Based off of these learning experiences and advice, I made my group speeches my own while still covering all necessary topics that VS outlined. Yet, despite all preparations and readings, the best practice and way to overcome this fear was simply by going out there and practicing with the public. The best advice I received for this specific obstacle was from our supervisors. We were told, “Your first group speech will be like making your first pancake- it will be edible but it’s not going to look pretty. Yet, in time, you will learn to get it just right.” (Or something to the effect) This eased my fears because we were not expected to be perfect from the beginning and everyone in this field has to learn by doing in some instances.

Another challenge of working at USHMM was with the content. I have particular interest and conviction in Holocaust and genocide studies but nothing could prepare me for what it would be like to spend at least three days a week amongst such emotional content. I knew what I was getting into, but I suppose I underestimated just how emotionally exhausting it could be inside the museum. A few disrespectful groups who did not appreciate where they were, mixed with the contrast of the Holocaust survivors and my emotional connection to the content, created an overwhelming feeling. I had to realize that not everyone reacted the same way as I did and, unfortunately, not everyone would take something life-changing away from the museum. In order to cope, I found that talking with friends and family was helpful, as well as concentrating on those positive experiences with visitors. Also, working alongside interns, volunteers and staff with the same convictions made it bearable and completely worth it because a positive atmosphere was created where it felt like you could make a difference. While hope may not be a strong message seen throughout the story of the Holocaust, hope can be found within the museum simply by looking at the visitor-ship, the people who work there, and the mission statement for remembrance. We were united by a common purpose and mission- to tell the story- and these positive conclusions far eclipsed those feelings of being overwhelmed.

Finally, I witnessed challenges that Ramee and the exhibition/collections team face behind the scenes. I learned File Maker Pro rather quickly through immersion and spent most of my time helping with database work. Regardless, I could still see the challenges inherent in the position through interviewing Ramee and working with the staff at Portals. The need for efficiency in the face of tight schedule demands as well as effective communication both within and outside of USHMM became all the more apparent to me. (Especially in such a large institution that has a permanent exhibition as well as temporary/special exhibitions which then become traveling exhibitions.)

I spent much of my time tying up loose ends and searching for gaps within the database because Ramee had such a long to-do list on any given day. As I noted, good communication is essential and I experienced this specifically with loans and acquisitions of collections for the exhibitions. This was probably the biggest challenge I actually was apart of rather than just witnessed while at Portals. While Ramee was away, I had to represent USHMM’s exhibition team in communicating with a representative from Minnesota University Libraries. We were in contact for the purpose of borrowing artifacts for upcoming object rotations within the Special Propaganda exhibit. I entered into discussions with the representative, quickly realizing that she had not been in contact with USHMM for some time and therefore had many questions and concerns regarding the loans, transportation, and preservation while in our care. I tried to alleviate the concerns as best as I could over the phone, contacted Ramee, and then drafted a loan letter which was sent out in order to address some of her concerns. This also outlined what artifacts we were particularly interested in borrowing. As Fahy notes, it is important to know specific museum policy towards loans, acquisitions, and so forth.[2] The policy and Ramee’s advice helped to understand what was expected of me in the situation and all future instances.

In the future I believe I will be overcoming many communication challenges, like this, on a daily basis. This experience helps to prepare me for those upcoming challenges and frame what I can expect in general.

[1] Michael Belcher, Exhibitions in Museums, 5.

[2] Anne Fahy, Collections Management, 30-34.

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