Our museum is temporarily closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Read a message from our director, and check our website and social media for updates.

5 things I loved about interning with exhibition designers

Museum internships may be more varied than you expect. Intern Emma deVries shares experiences from behind-the-scenes, just in time for you to apply for a spring internship.

When I first arrived here in Washington, D.C., two months ago, I only thought I knew what being an exhibition designer would entail. I did not expect field trips, lunch design talks and many mentoring experiences during coffee breaks. This summer, I have been able to experience the life of an exhibition designer and can say with confidence that I have had the coolest internship ever.

Ford Mustang on display in the museum's lobby
Walking past this every morning? Sign me up!

1. New ways to experience museums

Now that I've experienced museums from behind the scenes, I will never look at exhibitions the same way again. It's hard to appreciate the time, creative problem-solving, and amount of caffeine that goes into making an idea into an exhibition. I now make more time to fully experience exhibitions I visit because I know how precious and personal such projects are.

I now pay very close attention to the visual connections between objects and their labels. Are they close enough together that visitors can easily decipher which label goes with an object? Is the graphic treatment consistent? Now that I've been trained to see these things, I can't un-see them! This may seem like a small detail, but it's a big one when you get it wrong 

2. Behind-the-scenes sneak peeks

A tour of the collections reveals treasures such as the whip used by Indiana Jones, the Batarang, and many other artifacts ranging from sports to the movies.
A tour of the collections reveals treasures such as the whip used by Indiana Jones, the Batarang, and many other artifacts ranging from sports to the movies

Many people don't realize how long it takes to put an exhibition together. In fact, I was exposed to exhibition projects that won't be visible to the public for years. After my experience in the museum, I get to tell friends, "I know what's happening in the renovation of the museum's West Wing! Spoiler alert: it's pretty awesome." I'm sworn to secrecy, but I can tell you that the new exhibitions will be dynamic, engaging visitors in new ways while showcasing incredible collections.

3. Fieldtrips

While visiting the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, I learned about the challenges designers face when creating a living exhibition. While there, I admired their interactive screens allowing visitors to access information about the animals.
While visiting the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, I learned about the challenges designers face when creating a living exhibition. While there, I admired their interactive screens allowing visitors to access information about the animals.

Research is an important part of the creative process and the design team was able to visit fellow museums, such as the National Air and Space Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Industry, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore to learn how other curators and designers overcome design problems and find creative ways to communicate with the public. In addition to learning about design solutions, we also got to watch a shark feeding at the aquarium. 

4. Fellow Smithsonian interns and staff

Interns Daisy Alonso (left) and Emma deVries (right) prepare to present their summer project to Director John Gray
Interns Daisy Alonso (left) and Emma deVries (right) prepare to present their summer project to Director John Gray

Over the last few months, I have been able to work with many amazing people. In the exhibition design department, my fellow designers have given me invaluable advice, whether it was during our crossword puzzle lunch breaks or in an impromptu printroom critique. It has been remarkable to be a part of the 80 intern strong community here at the National Museum of American History.

5. Getting to design exhibitions (and other things)

Early concept illustration for Warner Bros. artifact wall
Early concept illustration for Warner Bros. artifact wall

I've worked on a range of museum projects, from big to small. The main design project was a group effort with my fellow intern Daisy: we worked on the wayfinding here in the museum, which is a technical way of saying maps, signs, and other elements that help visitors move through the space effectively. Our project quickly turned into something that wasn't a normal wayfinding sign and instead became a sculptural icon for the museum. The most amazing thing about our project is that it's not going to be left in the concept stage. In the coming year, the work we have done will be implemented throughout the building.

My final project was the Warner Bros. artifact wall. I was asked to design a potential layout of the artifacts and the graphics for the labels. Through multiple iterations and feedback from my mentor Nigel Briggs, I designed the display concept above.

Being a part of these creative endeavors has been incredible, I'm looking forward coming back sometime in the future to see the fruits of my labor in person!

My advice for anyone who wants to pursue a career as either an exhibition designer or in museums is the same as the advice I was given when I first met my mentor Nigel: gain as much experience as possible. Whether it was working as a volunteer in a local museum or general design work, gaining experience is invaluable. Internships provide the most immersive work-life environment. Here at the National Museum of American History, interns are able to thrive and grow skills that directly apply to careers in museums.

Emma deVries was an exhibit design intern at the National Museum of American History in summer 2014. She is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.