My first glimpse of the inner workings of an art museum came in the fall of 2017 when I began interning at the Georgia Museum of Art (GMOA). Located on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, the midsize museum has a rather substantial collection, with works ranging from ancient to contemporary. I worked under the Curator of American Art for the whole of my third year, a time frame which gave me the opportunity to see at least one project in its entirety, from the initial planning to the final exhibition opening. I wasn’t making coffee runs or picking up dry cleaning– and I only had copier duty every other week. It truly was an enriching learning experience for me. These are some of my main takeaways:
- Take out the headphones.
As many an intern will tell you, internships can often be boiled down to 50% hands on learning and 50% eavesdropping. While working at GMOA, I learned a great deal about curatorial practice– I regularly compiled exhibition checklists, reviewed loan letters, conducted extensive research, and wrote wall labels and brochures. I even had the opportunity to independently curate a collection of five pieces for the works on paper rotation. These kinds of projects were exciting and extremely fulfilling. I loved being able to see my hard work realized on and within the museum’s walls.
However, I do not discount any of the things I learned by simply being in the museum office for 12 hours a week. I love listening to music while writing, but on several occasions I found it quite rewarding to take out my headphones and listen to what was going on around me. GMOA had a relatively small office, and on any given day I could hear the preparator discussing issues with a curator, the director musing about donor relations with his assistant, or an educator raising concerns to the editor. What I gleaned from these snippets of overheard conversation was 1. some of the common issues that can arise in museum work and 2. the amount of teamwork and collaboration that a museum requires to run smoothly. Every individual decision affects each department, and it takes the whole staff in communication with one another to execute any project successfully.
2. Snip snip.
As a third year art history student, I was well accustomed to having my writing critiqued. I had become well acquainted with the feeling of turning in a paper after countless hours revising, only to have it returned with a healthy dose of red ink. It’s an experience I will melodramatically and unashamedly compare to heartbreak. But, one becomes accustomed to it, learns from it, and becomes a better writer because of it. I found writing in a museum setting to be a similar experience. I could spend over an hour researching and writing what I felt was a masterfully composed wall label, only to have it cut to a lackluster 50 words. It was still my writing, yes, but not the nice, juicy, eloquent (albeit verbose) parts! Learning to write for a non-academic audience has been frustrating at points, but it is a quite useful skill to have. It’s one that most undergraduate art history programs don’t often cover, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to develop my skills at GMOA.