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USHMM Internship- Final Reflection

This internship has made me even more aware of the nature of positions in the public history field. Prior to this internship, academic courses prepared me with proper background knowledge to the field including: what to expect, issues of debate within the field, how to handle situations as they arise, and the importance of identifying policies and governance structures within institutions (to name a few). Without that foundational understanding, I would not have been properly prepared to handle tasks at USHMM this summer. Yet, it is also true that those courses can only take me so far before I have to put that knowledge to the test through hands-on experiences. This exposes the true practicum nature of public history. Throughout this internship I was able to make correlations to coursework and readings as I encountered challenges, conducted employee interviews, and dealt with the public on-site at USHMM. I am truly appreciative of the public history courses and service project experiences that laid the foundation for this internship and my future career. (I still remember the comparison of a public historian to a doctor that was raised in one of our first seminar classes. A public historian is much like a doctor, in that a doctor cannot just start operating without adequate background knowledge and training. Yet at some point, that academic training can only go so far because the experience and practice is what helps you excel in your field and understanding.) Therefore, this internship at USHMM was very much a fusion of coursework and readings with the real-life application of that knowledge, creating a fulfilling experience.

In class as well as in several readings, we learned the importance of a mission statement and policies for an institution. During my time at USHMM, I made a point to become acquainted with the museum’s mission and its overall purpose for existence and operation. In identifying the mission statement, I could then be more aware of my role within the larger role of the museum. USHMM’s official mission statement is:

“The Museum’s primary mission is to advance and disseminate knowledge about this unprecedented tragedy; to preserve the memory of those who suffered; and to encourage its visitors to reflect upon the moral and spiritual questions raised by the events of the Holocaust as well as their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy.”[1]

While I was with VS, I was able to adhere to and advance USHMM’s mission by acting as a facilitator to the visitors. I could get them acclimated to the museum through answering general inquiries, make them aware of the mission of the museum, and identify what is expected of them while inside through delivering group speeches. I believe that the VS role is essential to forming a positive environment so that the mission can be accomplished as well as to creating a lasting visitor experience.

As Fahy notes, one must also be aware of museum policies when it comes to collections and exhibition work.[2] I was also able to experience first-hand something that I had only previously read about in coursework. A public historian must be familiar with museum mission and policies so that they are aware of their role and expectations inside of the institution. In collections work, one encounters these policies while conducting acquisitions, loans, appraisals, insurance and security arrangements, and record keeping. [3] While working with collection/object rotations within exhibitions, I was able to encounter some of these tasks and the policies that went with them, specifically referring to loans. Through this I was able to witness just how much politics or red-tape exists within the institution which creates schedule delays, troubles in communication, and overall frustration when working with deadlines. These are all concerns we certainly discussed in class, but the experience of it on-site put it into perspective.

Malaro’s work on governance structure was another course reading I often referenced during my internship. The course readings made me aware of what governance structures existed within an institution and the types of hierarchies and roles within that structure. The practicum experience at USHMM, however, transformed the governance structure from what I saw outlined on paper, to people that I could identify and witness as they performed their functions and roles within the institutions. It created a human and visual element while also allowing me to place myself within that structure. (At the beginning of the internship I asked for an outline of the governance structure as VS fit into the institution as well as the structure for Ramee within the exhibitions team)

Another work that was very useful during my internship, which I referenced in my last forum entry, was Barbara Levy’s Great Tours. I used her advice for group speeches, so that I made each orientation my own, a reflection of my interest and personality. When it came to irritating or disrespectful visitors, however, I had to rely on life experience to diffuse situations or problem solve. Again, a lot of the issues that arose in the public were solved using life experience, or just through practice. Answering various questions, public speaking, and problem solving with the visitors was a skill that can only be acquired through hands-on experiences.

My experience with Ramee at portals was very much a mixture of collections and exhibitions. Belcher indicates that this is the nature of the two pillars within any museum, as one cannot exist without the other.[4] Collections are the main resource for exhibitions, which is why Ramee and I had to work so closely with collections as we dealt with loans and object rotations within the P.E. and the special exhibition on Nazi Propaganda. In these instances, I was able to experience different work dynamics and how responsibilities overlap between members of the exhibitions team and collections- something I could not have witnessed within the classroom. [5]

Another aspect of the museum experience I could not have encountered within the classroom, is the environment of USHMM. The environment includes the physical structure, the design, and exhibitions. [6] During my internship I worked among this environment, which is very purposeful to the content as it creates a feeling of alienation to the public. My role in VS often times was to help the visitors navigate through this environment. If I had only served behind-the-scenes, I would have missed the extent to which environment affects the visitor experience and interaction with the museum and its content. By working on both sides I think I have acquired a genuine appreciation for both exhibition/collections work and visitor services. As I pursue a career in collections or exhibitions I hope to carry that appreciation for VS as well as a better understanding of the public and how to connect with them during their visit.

Additionally, the work I helped Ramee with in exhibitions exposed me to the frantic but rewarding nature of rotating exhibitions. There are various life spans to exhibitions within USHMM, and the special or rotating exhibits (like Nazi Propaganda) create a need for more object rotations, loans, and sometimes unanticipated changes in schedule—all of which I experienced while working at portals. [7]

Falk and Dierking’s work on visitor experience, additional readings, and our visitor observations laid the foundation for understanding visitor profiles, motives, and behaviors within the site or museum. [8] Sarah’s ISP project that I was able to be apart of in VS allowed me to gain practicum experience as I directly interacted with the public through conducting surveys to examine visitor reactions to the museum and their conclusions. This opportunity contributed to my knowledge and experience with the visitors and their roles within the museum. Additionally, I was able to learn Survey Pro for data entry which is another skill I acquired that I could not have learned within the classroom.

Finally, the personal connections and overall networking opportunities that were facilitated through this internship would not be possible if I had never moved beyond the classroom into practicum experience. I will treasure the friendships and connections I made that cross generations and professional backgrounds and have only helped to diversify my knowledge and experiences within the public history field and in life.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm.org/museum/mission/

[2] Anne Fahy, 29.

[3] Ibid., 19-21 & 30-34.

[4] Michael Belcher, 70.

[5] Ibid., 78.

[6] Ibid., 25-26.

[7] Ibid., 48.

[8] Ibid., 179-187.

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