Smithsonian Internship Reflection: Flying Through Folklife

2017 has been an incredibly transformative year thus far. I left my position as a Digital Strategist at a startup digital marketing company in Towson, Maryland. I completed almost every remaining requirement for my Masters in Museum Studies at The George Washington University, including the required number of hours for two different internships (almost two months early). Last but definitely not least, I moved to Wiesbaden, Germany. Due to the compressed nature of my internship timelines, the past few months have been a parade of priceless learning experiences so incredibly valuable that I feel it necessary to critically examine them in order to truly unpack all that I have learned. This week, I take a closer look at my Smithsonian experience.

First, however, I must distinguish my internships from the unpaid internships of which many museum professionals, myself included, are increasingly critical. They feel that internship work not rewarded with either academic credit or some other form of compensation is not only unethical, but also creates barriers within the field that purposely exclude minorities and individuals with diverse backgrounds not necessarily originating from Museum Studies or Art History. The American Alliance of Museums and #MuseumWorkersSpeak, among other organizations, have done some excellent work to raise industry awareness of this problem.

Several studies have now concluded that teams composed of diverse groups of people display the highest degree functionality. I feel strongly that this principle should be applied to the museum field. If museums and cultural organizations truly wish to withstand the changing political, social, and economic climate, they must adapt now. My internships were requirements for the conference of my degree, and should therefore be considered an ethical exchange of services, rather than a mislabeled volunteer opportunity with no guaranteed long-term benefits.

The Experience

The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage(CFCH) curates the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival – a two week celebration of folk cultures from around the world held on the National Mall. This year’s 50th anniversary festival is centered around a Circus Arts program, for which I served as a curatorial intern under Program Co-Curator Jim Deutsch. My duties can be broken down into three categories: research and curatorial support, institutional support, and support and consultation for the 2017 Folklife Festival Circus Arts program.

Mockup of Alash: Achai album cover

I assisted Jim with research for several of the papers he will present at the academic conferences he annually attends. Among my topics of focus were the influence of Hollywood and money on William Faulkner, and the conceptualization of the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a site of contested history. I also performed detailed preliminary academic and reputational reviews of Smithsonian Network programs, and provided editorial assistance for the Smithsonian Folkways record label, for which I will receive an album credit.

Alash: Achai album credits. You may just see a familiar name…

My most substantial responsibility was to provide support and counsel for the Circus Arts program. My extensive background in circus arts as both a performer and instructor was invaluable, as I regularly helped to bridge the information gap between the circus participants and the CFCH staff. The staff dedicate themselves to learning the culture and traditions of the folk group around which the festival is centered each year, and do an incredible job of conducting both academic and field research in order to present an accurate picture of the featured folk culture. I was happy to be a resource for this research process simply by sharing my working first-hand knowledge of circus culture.

The Flying Wallendas, courtesy of Tino Wallenda
Wonderland by Circus Juventas, photo by Bill Raab
Circus Bella, photo by Rob Scherl
AYCO Fest, photo by Jenna Lowery

During my time at CFCH, I compiled photographs of almost every participant group, assigned photos to all the festival signs, interviewed the great Tino Wallenda of the Flying Wallenda family, provided editorial assistance for a blog on the legendary Dolly Jacobs, attended site visits on the National Mall and in the Arts and Industries Building, and regularly communicated with talented and generous circus photographers. I also happily offered information, advice, and suggestions to curatorial staff regarding scheduling, logistics, equipment needs, and the many quirks of circus folk.

Keeping up my circus skills at Moonrise Fest 2014

The Takeaway

Far from coming to an end, the conclusion of my internship simply marked the beginning of a new chapter in my professional relationship with the CFCH – I have already begun the application process to serve as a Lead Volunteer for the Circus Arts program during the festival, for which I plan to return to DC as a visiting professional.

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