I Was a Washington D.C. Intern

I Was a Washington D.C. Intern

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I Was a Washington D.C. Intern

On June 9, 2003, my life took an interesting turn. It was a sunny day. Blue skies, humidity insanely high, and I found myself at 4th Street and Constitution in Washington, D.C. I stood before an angled architectural masterpiece by famed architect I.M. Pei; its pointed corners jutted out towards the grassy Mall and Capitol Hill as if it were some sort of Picasso-esque compass pointing simultaneously towards all the tourist hot spots. (The one corner, purportedly the sharpest building corner in the world, wore a dark gray spot about eye level where thousands if not millions of tourists had touched it just to see how sharp it really was). I found myself standing before it, not as tourist . . . but as an employee on my first day of work.

It all seemed a little overwhelming. How I ended up there still seems like a dream even today. Back in early 2001, while working in an art museum library in Nashville, Tennessee, I heard about the internships at the National Gallery of Art. They have quite the reputation in the art world. I bemused myself by daydreaming of one day being an intern there. At the time I heard about them I most certainly wasn't a good candidate. I only had the one art museum gig under my belt and I still really lacked direction in my career ambitions. But fast forward to 2002. I was no longer working at the art museum library (the position was eliminated due to budget cuts) and I was no longer living in Nashville (I moved to Tucson to attend SIRLS). There's probably nothing else like losing your job to really make you figure out what you want to do with your life. I realized several things: I wanted to continue working in an information provision setting, and I wanted to work with visual collections, specifically photographs. Because of those goals, I chose to immediately find my way in at the Center for Creative Photography as soon as I arrived on campus in Tucson. I started out as a volunteer and would go on to do an internship there. This critical experience was exactly what I needed to boost my resume to the level of D.C. intern candidate. So . . . six full months before June 9, 2003, I applied for an internship at the National Gallery of Art.

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I didn't know until March whether or not I was accepted.

First days are always the hardest in any job no matter what the circumstances. First days in a new city as an intern is even more so unnerving. Silly as it seems now, one of my biggest decisions was whether or not to wear a suit. To suit or not to suit. That was the question. I remember poring over my acceptance letter, carefully studying the directions: "You should plan to report to the East Building Entrance at Fourth Street and Constitution, NW at 9:00 a.m. . . dress is business." Those three little words caused me more heartache. I debated over whether business really meant a suit or if business meant looking sharp and stylish and wearing all black. I analyzed and overanalyzed those three words probably more than I did the Metro schedule. Finally I realized that looking sharp and stylish and wearing black is probably the best I could do, because the truth of the matter is: I didn't own a suit. Equally as intimidating as my choice for clothing, was that I was in stiff company. When I received my acceptance letter, I also received a list of the 23 other interns that would grace the halls of the National Gallery of Art. I would be working in the Photo Archives. Each of the 23 others would be working in various departments throughout the Gallery. As I read the list of interns and the schools they were attending, my eyes grew bigger and bigger. Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, École du Louvre. The list had its fair share of ivory and read more like a Who's Who than any roll-call I had ever been associated with. How did I end up on this list? Not that I am undermining my education, mind you, it's just that my gut reaction was that of unworthiness. But I quickly got over it. I realized that we all went through the same selection process and we all had to write the same essay. And they chose me as the intern in the Department of Photographic Archives. Not someone from Harvard, not someone from Yale. They chose me. A quirky girl originally from small-town Alabama, pursuing her master's at the University of Arizona. Obviously I must be doing something right.

By the end of my first week I had already mastered all that comes with city life: carrying two pairs of shoes at all times (one to walk in, and one to wear at work with my business attire); giving myself at least an hour to get to work in the morning (twenty-five minutes to walk to the Metro station, 25 minutes riding the Metro, and ten minutes to swing by the coffee shop for a grande iced hazelnut latte and walk to the Gallery); and reading the Washington Post to see what activities would be happening on the weekend (there is always something fun to do) . This was my routine for the nine weeks I worked in D.C. I never walked so much in my life.

Every week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, all 23 interns would meet in the lobby of the Gallery's East building (the angled behemoth mentioned earlier) so that we could be shuttled off to a departmental tour. On these days we toured a different department -- everything from the Conservation Lab, the Boiler Room, and the Framing Department, to the Greenhouse, the Library, and the Security Department. All in all we toured about 20 departments within the National Gallery. An employee working in the respective departments conducted each orientation. We learned how each department functioned within the institution, what its primary duties were, and how the employee giving the orientation for that department got to be in that position. Most of the employees giving the orientations were department heads of some sort. Interestingly, a good portion of them had been a summer intern at the National Gallery of Art when they were in graduate school. It was refreshing to know that all of this internship stuff was not in vain!

My schedule was 9:00-5:30 Monday-Friday. And yes, people, I got paid. The beauty of an internship such as the National Gallery Internship is that you are actually paid enough to live in the city for nine weeks. I don't mean I was paid a professional salary or anything, but it WAS enough to rent a room and pay for meals. Most of the interns lived in D.C.-area university dorms or sub-let apartments. National Gallery staff members told us that the reason they fought hard to get pay for the summer interns is that the quality and diversity of the interns applying is much greater than when the internship is done on a voluntary basis. The National Gallery feels strongly that its interns are employees. And I truly felt like an employee for nine weeks. I was issued a photo identification badge; my badge was activated so that I could access employee only areas; and I was given discounts at not only the National Gallery gift shop and café, but at the Smithsonian Museum gift shops and cafés as well.

So all of this sounds like gravy, right? But did I learn anything? I believe we all have fears that internships will ultimately end up as glorified slave-ships. But let me stress that this was not my experience at all. My specific project was directed by the Archivist of Modern and Contemporary Art, Meg Melvin. The project had already been outlined in the application announcement, so I pretty much knew what I would be doing. Meg was a great supervisor in that she gave me direction, yet did not micro manage my every move. But also, she recognized my strengths and gave me an additional project not originally outlined in the application so that I could have variety. In addition to my two projects, Meg also arranged for me to have tours of the Library of Congress Print and Photographs Department and the National Archives Still Picture Branch. Touring these departments and meeting the people there were great networking opportunities and allowed me to see behind the scenes of two of the most incredible photographic collections in our country.

The first four weeks I worked on the original intern project outlined in the announcement. The project consisted of going through boxes (and boxes!) of unlabelled photographs from the Art International Archive. Art International is a now defunct art journal that, in its glory days, was truly an international glimpse of the art world. Most of the photographs I would be working with were of artists from the sixties and seventies or of gallery installations or "happenings". It was my job to go through the back issues of Art International to see if I could find the photographs. Fortunately my visual memory skills were up to par and during the four weeks I was able to find and identify over fifty photographs in the journals.

The last five weeks, I worked on the project Meg thought would be interesting for me, given my experience at the Center for Creative Photography. I catalogued rare and non-circulating photographs. Most of these photographs were of artists in their studios, or older, late 19th century photographic processes. Learning to identify the different processes was fascinating and something I had never had the opportunity to learn before. Several photos were quite obscure and required a little research to either find out more about the photographer, or to find out more about the photos.

As I sat down to write this article, I found myself stumbling over the words to adequately describe everything that happened- the professional growth, the personal growth, and the cultural growth. I don't think anything I'll ever say will really get at the heart of the matter. But one thing I can say is this: if you ever find yourself daydreaming about doing an internship in Washington D.C. (whether it be at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art….the list goes on); why not go one step further and actually apply. You may surprise yourself and get in!
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