Prior to my internship at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, I had little experience in behind-the-scenes museum work. What experience I did have came largely from volunteering, which in my experience meant working with visitor services. As a graduate student in Museum Studies at The George Washington University, I have taken many classes designed to prepare me to work in a museum environment. When I started at GWU, I thought I knew exactly what kind of work I wanted to do in museums and where I wanted to go.
But while working at the JHSGW, I saw the variety of opportunities open to me in museum work. I have seen the possibilities of what I can do with my degree and it validates my decision to pursue an M.A. I am reconfirmed in my love of museums and the important role they play in society and culture. The most beneficial aspect of this experience has been in the small size of the organization. I have become familiar with six people, gotten to know each of their jobs and responsibilities, and have had the privilege of helping each of them with varying tasks.
I have called other museums for research, helped edit a program video, written program fliers, invitations, program summaries, been on a walking tour of downtown Jewish DC, organized and communicated with program partners, looked online for possible acquisitions, set up for special events, given tours of the historic 1876 synagogue, attended a talk at the Library of Congress, written the Executive Director’s opening remarks for an event, performed audience evaluations, researched Yiddish history in DC, handled archived materials, attended the 139th dedication anniversary of the synagogue, and went on a staff field trip to the Anacostia Community Museum and The Frederick Douglass House. And this is all without mentioning the letter-folding, envelope-stuffing, and challah-delivering.
As a non-Jew who has always been interested in Judaism and Jewish culture, I have become used to the often puzzled looks I receive when explaining what kind of museums I want to work in. But I have always felt strongly that cultural history should be available to everyone, regardless of whether or not you identify with that group. This is what the JHSGW is doing for their community, and I appreciated being welcomed by the staff. I cannot say enough positive things about my time here. Not once have I felt like “the intern”: the staff gives me meaningful projects, welcomes my opinions, and values my work. The most validating thing of all is being able to immediately apply things I have learned in a classroom in a real world setting. I see tangible evidence that what I am learning will be helpful in any future museum I work in. And isn’t that the ideal of what can be gained by having students complete internships as part of their degrees?
Jaclyn Kimball is a second-year Master’s student in Museum Studies at The George Washington University, where she studies collections management, museum administration, and history.