Thursday, 6 July 2017

MMSt 2017 INTERNSHIPS: PART FOUR

INTERNSHIP CHECK-IN

BY: TABITHA CHAN

This is the penultimate internship check-in post this summer (a.k.a. Part 4)!

Today's post features:

Cassandra Curtis: The National Music Centre - Calgary, AB
Charlotte Gagnier: Canadian Photography Institute, National Gallery of Canada - Ottawa, ON
Hannah Hadfield: Hamilton Civic Museums - Hamilton, ON
Kristen McLaughlin: Ontario Heritage Trust - Toronto, ON
Serena Ypelaar: Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre - Fort Smith, NWT

Describe what a typical day is like for you at your institution. What are some of your main duties and responsibilities?

Cassandra: 
I always start my day by doing the “rounds”, which involves checking the RH and temperature of all the galleries and making sure the artifacts haven’t been handled or moved in a way that affects the displays. From there it really depends on what needs to be done that day. This building is used for a lot of corporate/private events so we often have to move the display cases in and out of the galleries, which is time consuming and laborious. On Mondays and Tuesdays, when the building isn’t open to the public, we try and clean inside the display cases and the corrals. Otherwise, all of our time lately has been dedicated to preparing for an upcoming exhibit featuring stage costumes and memorabilia from a prominent Canadian artist (I can’t disclose who until July 8th!), which will open at the end of July. I have been helping to prepare the mannequins for display by stuffing arms and making sure the clothes hang naturally. I have also helped with two big moves, one where we moved three pianos to a lower floor of the building and one where we had to dismantle two display cases to get them down from a stage deck, both of which were great to be a part of but left me very bruised. Basically, as most other people have said, there really is no typical day!

Charlotte: My main project is working on our Spring 2018 exhibition. One of my tasks is helping my supervisor narrow down the selection of photographs and keeping our works list up to date. Sometimes the whole day is spent pulling works from the vault for viewing. I then move the chosen works to separate exhibition boxes and do all the paperwork associated with that. Another responsibility is researching various photographers for the exhibition’s related publication and updating curatorial files. For some of the photographers we don’t have much biographical information - I feel like a detective looking through old photography magazines, birth records and obituaries trying to piece together an understanding of their lives.

Hannah: It’s hard for me to pin down a typical day because I don’t really have a single project that I am working on. That being said, most of my days usually involve a few hours of researching collections for the deaccessioning project that I am working on at the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology. Sometimes this means I am working at a central collections storage location and other times I am at the museum itself digging around in the collections and records. Aside from researching, my days often include helping out with various preventive conservation tasks, attending meetings and going on field trips to the various museums in the Hamilton Civic Museum system!

Kristen: 
A typical day for me really varies, from archaeological fieldwork, to workshops, to running summer camps for kids, to cataloguing artifacts. However, when I’m in the office it usually consists of 2-3 main duties: working with the OHT’s database (MINISIS) to create a reference database for future public use on their website, including scanning artifacts, and preparing two exhibits for the Niagara Apothecary later this summer. I am also responsible for other duties in the archaeology lab and running archaeology workshops with kids in a 2-week summer camp at Spadina Museum in July.

Serena: To risk sounding cliché, there is no typical day! Generally speaking, I start with opening up the museum and gift shop and re-organizing the interactive elements if needed. When my morning routine is done, I get down to work on programming for upcoming events. I’m currently planning an interactive children’s program all about bison, which I will deliver at the museum in the next few weeks, followed by a program on the Fur Trade. On top of that, I'll be running weekly programming all July and August for the Town of Fort Smith’s summer camps and researching and writing interpretive panels for our upcoming exhibition on the Slave River. Sometimes I also help with exhibition installation and low-key collections care if needed, and I’m always giving tours to visitors who come to the museum!

Cassandra busy interning at The National Music Centre.
What is something you have learned in your first few weeks of your internship?

Cassandra: What haven’t I learned so far would be a better question! My supervisor is a trained conservator and has been using every available opportunity to teach me about proper conservation techniques and materials, which has been invaluably helpful. Beyond that I have learnt so much about Canadian music history, especially electronic music, which is something I knew very little about before starting here. Did you know that the first voltage-controlled synthesizer was built in Canada in the 1940’s? The sackbut, as it’s called, has been on loan to us from the Science & Tech museum in Ottawa and our electronic music expert was able to get it to make some sounds again, which was a huge deal. One of the best things about the NMC is that they have what they call a “living collection”, meaning that they not only work to preserve the collection for display but also to preserve it in a usable, playable state, so I have also learnt a lot about preventative conservation and era-appropriate restoration, too.

Charlotte: I’ve been learning a lot about the National Gallery’s acquisition process. In my first month I’ve read many justifications and am gaining a sense of how much research goes into preparing one. I was also able to sit in on an acquisitions meeting where all the works were put on display and each curator introduced the work and what its value to the collection would be.

Hannah: How to make padded hangers and use a sewing machine! This might seem silly, but I felt truly accomplished after the Conservator told me that I made a “nice padded hanger”!

Kristen: I have learned that when you work in government institutions, getting heritage projects going can either be very easy or very difficult, depending on the support of upper management.

Serena: I have learned about the importance of truly serving the community and acting as a local gathering place. Some of the exhibition space in the permanent gallery, especially regarding Indigenous Peoples in the region (namely Dene, Chipewyan, Cree, and Métis), have been curated in consultation with the local First Nations. I’ve come to a better understanding of how the relationships between community groups can impact what is and is not included in the museum. Some of our artifacts are of great significance to members of the community, so we aren’t just studying history in a “bubble”. For instance, we have one of the original copies of Treaty 8 on display, which is a document showing the complex relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Government of Canada in the region. The town also relies heavily on partnerships to accomplish local programming, something that cannot be overstated in a town this small (and one so focused on tourism).

Hi Charlotte!
What is something that has surprised you about museums that you did not know before working in a real one?

Cassandra: So far I have been most surprised by just how physical this job is! I often spend a large part of my day lifting and moving very heavy and often awkward things around, which I was not fully prepared for. After the first few days I learnt not to come to work wearing a blouse and skirt and instead to wear comfortable shoes and nice-but-old clothes that I don’t mind getting covered in dust!

Charlotte: Before this internship I did not comprehend just how many people and how many departments are involved in putting together an exhibition right from the start. Curatorial of course plays a central role, but from an early stage we have to be coordinating with the publications, exhibition design, framing and conservation departments, etc. Good communication is key to producing a successful exhibition.

Hannah: I really don’t mean for this to be a cop-out answer, but I have to say, everything has surprised me or at least intrigued me to some extent! This is my first experience working in museums, and so everyday I am learning or being surprised by something that I didn’t know before.

Kristen: Well I’m not really working in a museum; however, I’ve worked with several. The OHT is a government-run agency through the Ministry of Tourism, Culture, and Sport, and owns heritage properties (both natural and cultural) and easements. So I’ve worked with several museums around Toronto that are on OHT properties (Benares House in Mississauga and Duff-Baby House in Windsor), as well as OHT-run museums (Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden and the Niagara Apothecary in Niagara-on-the-Lake). So I’ve been able to see small museums work together and with other entities. I’m surprised at the role a government agency plays with multiple museums, something I hadn’t really thought about before. Also, that so many so spread out could be connected; I’ve been able to see a lot of Southern Ontario which, as a newcomer to the province, has been great!

Serena: I’ve already worked in museums and cultural institutions in Toronto, but I hadn’t worked in a small rural history museum until now. I was surprised and interested to learn about the amount of visitor and community input that happens here. Visitors often bring forward stories about their own experiences or personal histories in the Northwest Territories, and I am always in awe of how working in a museum is truly a constant learning experience. Our knowledge of local history is always evolving and increasing, which is a wonderful thing. Also, the museum’s library is extensive! As an avid reader and book historian, it’s been great to have access to so many northern historical books for research, specially as someone who is not from the region.

Hannah at the Hamilton Civic Museum.
What is an obstacle you have faced during your internship and how did you overcome it?

Cassandra: I suppose my biggest obstacle has been the same as it always is for me; my crippling shyness and general awkwardness around other human beings. I have mostly overcome it by now but only thanks to the warmness of the collections staff here and how they immediately treated me like a member of the team, even taking me out to a cute breakfast spot on my first weekend in town. If we’re being honest, though, I still get tongue-tied around the big bosses; that’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

Charlotte: Moving to Ottawa for my internship was exciting, but also daunting at first as any big change is. It helps to have a fun place to go to work every day and people have been quick to offer tips and share their favourite spots in the city.

Hannah: Overall I would say my internship experience has been pretty much smooth sailing. A few weeks ago, however, I was feeling kind of worried and frustrated about the work that I was being given because it was all predominantly research work. Don’t get me wrong, I love to research but I had also come into my internship anticipating more opportunities to do hands-on work in the collections. I was definitely feeling some self-doubt, and I was concerned that I had selected the wrong internship. I knew that I needed to discuss my wants and needs with my internship supervisor but I was nervous! Turns out the rumours are true, communication really is the key! But honestly, by sitting down with my supervisor to discuss the kind of skills I hoped to develop and work opportunities I would be thrilled to have, I not only felt so much better personally but my internship experience began to change. Now my workload has diversified and I have had so many opportunities come up to work on a variety of different tasks and projects that really get me up and moving in the collections. I’m a happy camper!

Kristen: It may sound weird, but being left-handed and building exhibits is so difficult. Scissors, matte cutting boards, pencils, etc. are not built for us lefties. So I had to cut possibly hundreds of the same labels because the lines kept going crooked. It takes so much practice and creative thinking sometimes to get over seemingly simple—and incredibly frustrating—obstacles. Finally, I found a different knife and made my own cutting set-up, using a specific table that allowed me full range and motion. They turned out not half bad! But I realize that it takes patience and careful thinking to overcome some problems that are sometimes embarrassing to admit. I mean, who would believe scissors could cause such frustration (aside from other lefties)? This is not something you necessarily think about when you’re excited to start building exhibits!

Serena: As I've mentioned, being largely unfamiliar with Fort Smith and the surrounding area makes it a constant challenge to act as a helpful guide to tourists that come to the museum. Sometimes during tours, when visitors ask me in-depth questions about the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories and its geography or history, I am unsure of the specifics, since I don’t always possess as confident a command of the knowledge as a local might. Working in Toronto museums was easier in that sense because I grew up there and am familiar with almost everything. Nevertheless, I’m always working to try and learn more about Fort Smith and its history, in order to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable interpreter. That said, I've come a long way since I started, and the learning never stops!

Kristen and her adventures with the matte cutter at the Ontario Heritage Trust.
What are some suggestions/advice you would give to a future intern who is hypothetically starting their internship in the same role as you?

Cassandra: Lift some weights! Seriously, this job has given me more motivation to get in shape than anything else ever has. I would also tell this hypothetical intern not to be scared to ask every question that comes to their mind because people who are passionate about their work are happy to share every detail of it with someone who expresses a genuine interest, and that’s the best way to learn a plethora of new and useful information that you won’t likely learn in school.

Charlotte: Ask lots of questions (museum related or not) – supervisors and museum staff are eager to share their expertise so take advantage of this opportunity!

Hannah: The advice that I would give to someone entering the same role as me (or any role really) is to say ‘YES!’ to everything. By continually asking for more opportunities and always accepting whatever tasks are offered to me I have had the chance to try a whole smattering of things that have been really valuable learning experiences! For instance, I was asked if I wanted to help inspect bug traps for the monthly IPM reporting. You might think this would have been gross or uninteresting but it was actually very interesting and I learned a lot about how to monitor the museum environment!

Kristen: I would suggest that they take initiative and ask to be included in events or meetings that interest them. It might take some people by surprise to see your interest but I think it will really pay off in the end. I would also suggest that they be passionate about what they are doing and to really learn from being in a unique government setting. Without pride in your work, what’s the point?

Serena: Make sure you are open-minded, and expect the unexpected. When travelling far away from home to complete an internship, your horizons will be stretched and you’ll often be outside your comfort zone – and that’s totally okay. Sometimes the learning experience is outside your internship as well, and some things (like cultural and historical nuances) you can only learn by actually travelling to a place and living there. In a programming role specifically, always be friendly and positive toward visitors and never stop creating opportunities for yourself to learn!

Serena animating the Hudson's Bay Company trading post at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre.
What’s your passion?

Cassandra: What a hard question. I suppose that, at its core, my passion is learning about a culture through what that culture produces, be that something tangible, like material history, or intangible, like music history. If I hadn’t chosen the MMSt program, I would have loved to study ethnomusicology; I’m fascinated by what we can deduce about a people and their values simply by studying their musical traditions, and Canada is no exception! It’s been wonderful to see the work that the NMC is doing to collect and preserve Canada’s musical history and I feel very fortunate to be able to play a small role in it.

Charlotte: I love photography, and at the CPI I’m lucky to be able to work with extraordinary works by some of the best photographers. I love learning about a photographer’s life and their process and how that knowledge changes my interaction with a photo, helping me read it in new ways and gain a richer understanding of the work and the story the artist wishes to tell.

Hannah: I’m not sure if I have exactly figured out what my passion is yet, to be honest. But I will say that over the course of the internship I have realized that I am at my happiest and most fulfilled when I am up and moving, solving problems, and working directly with collections. It feels really good to put things right and know that you have left the collections in better shape than when you found them.

Kristen: When I sit down and think about it, it’s tough! Growing up I was extremely shy and nervous. Public speaking was my worst nightmare (it still kind of makes me nervous). However, I’ve felt my best experiences and days are when my enthusiasm for something—history, archaeology, photography, books—is caught by those I’m working with or talking to, particularly visiting public. If you can share in a moment of excitement, intrigue, or joy with a perfect stranger, that’s when you know you’re on the right track. So I guess having those great interactions with the public would be my (museumy) passion. Otherwise, can I say something un-museumy, like photography? Writing? Archaeology? Travel? I have a lot of passions!

Serena: My passion is definitely sharing knowledge with the public and ensuring that visitors have a memorable visit that is educational and fun. I love the fascinating conversations I am able to have when giving tours or delivering programs, and when the interest is evident on people’s faces I get such a thrill knowing I helped facilitate learning through interpretation. Hearing from people who have different perspectives and come from different backgrounds is one of the most rewarding parts of the job!

Thank you Cassandra, Charlotte, Hannah, Kristen and Serena for giving us a taste of what your internships have been like. See you in two weeks for the last Internship Check-In!

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