When you hear that an English major from Florida is interning at a local history organization, you may scratch your head at first, but it made perfect sense to me. When not studying the literary arts, I also minor in both museum studies and art history, eventually wanting to go into the museum field. Because of my previous work at my university’s fine arts museum, I feel I have a decent understanding of the “art” part of my minor, however, the “history” was sort of lost. At the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW) I got to work with the personal history of DC area, while also learning about the day to day at a history museum.
One of my first projects was working with the resident curator, Christiane, and the collection’s reference files. I was given a large stack of photocopied documents, magazines, and newspaper articles to sort through, categorize, and organize. A daunting task for any, but through this work, I was able to familiarize myself with the Greater Washington area and learn about the challenges the community faces. While reviewing files, I came across a few articles about the changing social climate of Washington neighborhoods with the introduction of a larger millennial population. I brought both the subject and my personal experience seeing the gentrification in the city to Christiane’s attention and she set me out on a research project.
She introduced me to the amusement park, Glen Echo. Located on the Potomac River, this leisure destination opened in 1891 and later became a major player in the desegregation of the Washington area. It was in the summer of 1960 when students from Howard University’s Non-violent Action Group (NAG) joined forces with local activists in the Bannockburn neighborhood -- among them many Jewish residents -- to picket the discrimination at Glen Echo. These protests eventually caught the eye of Hyman Bookbinder, a prominent lobbyist in DC and a Bannockburn inhabitant, who both joined the picketing and brought the issue to the then-U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. With the help of both Bookbinder and Kennedy, the management of Glen Echo backed down and allowed their first African-American guests in the summer of 1961.
While my initial readings of the influx of the millennial population on the DC area were mostly negative in regards to gentrification, my personal research on Glen Echo showed me that newer generations can still make changes for the better in their neighborhoods – like the students of NAG and the residents of Bannockburn. It was my first major research project that allowed me to uncover the history of the area, instead of my usual literary and artistic analysis.
My other projects included working with the program and outreach manager, Samantha Abramson, experiencing some of the behind-the-scenes of the various summer events that JHSGW put on. My duties included writing emails to invited guests, distributing an educational packet for nearby schools, and even creating a press release for one of our biggest events this summer, the inaugural Evelyn Greenberg Preservation Awards. This type of work showed me the amount of time and effort that goes in to fully engaging with a museum’s audience.
Everyone at the office made me feel genuinely welcomed and were happy to see me every day of my internship, and would even include me in on staff meetings as if I was part of the team. These meetings were informative as I would see the beginning steps of designing and planning a future museum, while also learning about the other departments of the office. The meetings were one of my favorite things because of how much information I was absorbing. Although my time here was short, seeing JHSGW during its formative years of planning their new museum left an impact on me and, while I’m excited to see my future in the museum field, I also look forward towards theirs.
Stephen Biegel is a senior at Florida State University, working on a B.A. in English Literature with minors in Art History and Museum Studies.