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"Every researcher faces these problems, and knowing that I was struggling not because I was an intern but simply because the work was hard was actually quite reassuring."

Program of Study: American Studies
Internship: Smithsonian Institution
Location: Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Department of Medicine and Science

Briefly describe your internship and your responsibilities as an intern.
My internship was at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in the Department of Medicine and Science. I worked with items from the Bristol-Myers Squibb collection (which is a collection of over 1,100 medical instruments, apothecary sets, medicines, anatomical models, mortars and pestles, and related artworks and crafts). I worked specifically with a group of prints that depict medical scenes, portraits of doctors and pharmacists, and cartoon representations of illnesses and prevention methods. My internship entailed researching these images to determine their dates, the artists who made them, the countries of origin, and the historical significance of the scenes and people depicted in them.  I entered the information into the museum’s database catalogue and wrote descriptions about the pieces to be featured on an online exhibit on the Smithsonian’s website.

How did you find your internship?
I knew that I wanted to work in a museum setting. Being from the DC area, the Smithsonian had always been on my watch list. I had volunteered at the National Museum of Natural History before and that experience really made me want to pursue an actual internship. When I began looking for internships I began exploring the museums websites and applying to several different ones. Interestingly, I didn’t specifically apply to the internship I ended up getting. I applied to the museum and said I was looking to work with a curator and they found me the position.

What resources did you find particularly helpful in your internship search?
Talking to other students about their internship experiences was really helpful. My professors and advisors also gave me good advice. Once I had an idea about what I wanted to do I started searching the Internet. I also visited several of the sites I was considering applying to and met with some people there. All of these things helped give me a sense of what place was right for me.

Why did you choose your internship? What factored into your search and applying?
I was interested in museums so I applied to many different ones. I really wanted a Smithsonian internship, but I applied to some smaller local museums too, just in case. I was ultimately offered several different internships which allowed me to choose which one I wanted most. As an American Studies major, the American History Museum sounded like the perfect fit.
What were you most apprehensive about going into your internship?
Before I started the internship, (which was usually filled by graduate students), I was concerned I would be too inexperienced to be able to do the work. Entering a professional and intellectual setting as an undergraduate student was very nerve-racking. The internship was working with medical and scientific objects, which I didn’t know anything about. I was afraid I was going to be lost or confused and that the work would be too hard, but there were never any problems like that. I was more prepared for it than I thought, and whatever I didn’t know I learned as the internship progressed.

What did you hope to gain from your internship experience?
As a person who has always loved visiting museums, I really wanted to get involved in museum work. I wanted to understand how they are organized and run from behind the scenes and I wanted to work on a project that I could see through until it was completed. I hoped that the hands-on experience the internship provided would give me enough insight into museum work that it could influence whether or not I would like it well enough to pursue it as a possible career.

How did your internship experience influence your academic and career interests/goals/plans?
The internship experience showed me that museum work would be something that I would enjoy as a career. I really enjoyed the research aspect of my internship which allowed me to focus my career goals towards a research-related field. The experience also showed me that working at a computer and in a library all day was tedious, which suggested that I should look for something a little more active. 

What were the most challenging aspects of your internship?
After a year of sleeping in until 10:00, getting to work by 9:00 was a little hard. But I got used to it. Other than that I think the biggest challenge was conducting the research. For example, there were several prints that I was unable to find any information on, which was very frustrating.  I also struggled a bit because a lot of the pieces I was working with were not notated in English. I had prints that I needed to interpret that were inscribed in German, Dutch, Italian, French, and Latin, and not knowing any of those languages made it tough. But these were challenges of the job, and learning to deal with them gave me insight into the nature of museum work. Every researcher faces these problems, and knowing that I was struggling not because I was an intern but simply because the work was hard was actually quite reassuring.
What were most rewarding aspects of your internship?
Being in the museum gave me opportunities to see and experience things that I probably wouldn’t be able to see or do on my own. The best part of the internship was that I got to participate in projects that I wasn’t initially hired for. For example, I got to handle one of the museums new accessions. Doing the accession allowed me to fully understand the process in which pieces become part of a collection and was a really memorable part of my internship.  Another rewarding aspect of the internship was that simply by being in the museum I got to be surrounded by interesting things, people and opportunities. I was able to examine surgical kits, medicinal jars, anatomical models and many other objects in the Squibb collection, as well as pieces that other interns and staff members showed me from their collections. I was also able to participate in museum work that the general public doesn’t ever get to see. I got a behind-the-scenes tour of the new renovations and every day I walked though galleries that were not yet open to the public.  I sat in on business meetings and lectures and got to meet many fascinating and important people. I got experience in the clerical and business aspects of the museum simply by working there and I established connections that will be helpful in my later job searches.
Any funny/ embarrassing things happen during your internship?
Well, there was that conversation about John Dillinger...but that’s another story.
I can say that there was a great social aspect of the internship. The internship office at the museum planned a lot of social events for the interns which made the experience really fun. They organized tours of the Capitol building and the Pentagon, group trips to baseball games, movies, restaurants, and bars, and many other social events that allowed all the interns to get to know each other and feel more comfortable in the building. 

How do you feel your internship prepared you for the real world?
I think the internship prepared me for working in a professional setting. It was good practice for a 9 to 5. A Smithsonian internship is really helpful when pursuing a career, especially in a museum setting.  The internship also got me into the Smithsonian’s system if I ever want to return for a paid position.

What advice would you give to students to help them make the most of their internship experience?
It really helps to be outgoing and friendly. You never know who you are going to meet and how they will change your life. Start up conversations with everyone, even if they are only other interns or volunteers. Any networking is good networking and everyone you meet will have some sort of advice to give (even the security guards). Go to events and lectures and meetings that your office is having. Offer a helping hand whenever you can, to whomever you can. Be noticed and be involved, and opportunities you never thought you would get will present themselves.

Sierra Polisar