This Thanksgiving, education specialist Ariel Gory reflects on an experience for which she is thankful: the opportunity to inspire future museum leaders.
I spent my summer with three teenagers—and it was a truly rewarding experience. I mentored Charlie Catacalos, Fatemma Moll-Amego, and Miyanna Fowlkes as they joined the museum's Office of Education and Public Engagement. The internship provided the local high school students with an opportunity to learn the principles of interpretation and public engagement in a museum setting and allowed them to select topics of their choice to research using the museum's collections, archives, and staff as resources.
Prior to their internship, the teens participated in our Youth Civic Engagement program through which they attended weekly trainings from Smithsonian staff on object-based learning, historical content, and facilitating visitor conversations, so they were very comfortable being behind-the-scenes in the museum by the time summer started. They helped in the development of curricula and activities surrounding the 2016 National Youth Summit and regularly engaged with visitors on the museum floor, sharing their DJ-themed cart inspired by the Places of Invention exhibition with visitors of all ages.
Toward the end of their internship at the museum, I sat down with the teens to reflect on what they’d experienced and what they would take with them. I was especially interested to learn more about their perspectives on working within the Smithsonian as they were dedicated participants in this new teen intern program.
One thing about the museum that stood out to Charlie Catacalos, who recently started school at Temple University, was the variety of careers that can exist in one building. They said, "I realized that there are a lot more jobs in a museum other than designing an exhibition or being a curator." As they begin to pursue a degree in Anthropology, Charlie is interested in becoming a curator one day who focuses on Mexican history. Charlie is also interested in LGBTQ history and representation in museum collections. During their time at the museum, Charlie researched the use of the singular they in museum texts. They had the opportunity to interview curator Katherine Ott, who is known for her advocacy for and knowledge of LGBT history. After extensive research into this subject area, Prince's Yellow Cloud electric guitar became Charlie's favorite collection object. For Charlie, the guitar reflected Prince, an artist who "pushed gender construct boundaries." They said, "It is cool to see that [representation] in a museum."
Miyanna Fowlkes, a senior at D.C.'s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, appreciated the exclusive feeling of interning at a Smithsonian museum. "I liked coming into the museum before anyone else and getting to go through the exhibitions without any visitors or any rush."
Speaking with knowledgeable staff members was another perk for the interns. Miyanna spoke with curator Fath Davis Ruffins and learned more about a historical figure she has looked up to for years, Madam C. J. Walker. Miyanna also conducted research on the 1960s Black is Beautiful movement in the hopes of helping other young people recognize its parallels to the natural hair movement of today. She believes it's important that teens know that the movement "is a lot more complex than [they] think" and that young people explore the stories behind the hair styles.
The ways that the National Museum of American History represents black stories in its collections intrigued Fatemma Moll-Amego, a senior at Edmund Burke School. During her internship, Fatemma thought deeply about how important it is for museums to move beyond addressing "black history with just one or two objects." She spoke with museum staff about how the museum works to tell these stories in new ways. A major highlight for Fatemma was watching the National Museum of African American History and Culture prepare to open next door. She was curious how the new museum and this museum would work together and how the entire Smithsonian might discover new ways to bring African American history to the nation.
But it wasn't just the teens who learned valuable lessons this summer. Staff members also benefited from interacting with the Charlie, Fatemma, and Miyanna. "I met with the teen interns multiple times," said social media manager Erin Blasco. "Every time, they asked great questions about how the museum works—not just who, what, and when, but why and how. They inspired me to examine some of the assumptions I make in my work as a museum professional and reminded me to consider perspectives beyond the usual ones. I really appreciate the experience of working with these three students."
While each of the teens experienced different connections to the museum's collection, they all left having had a truly unique experience as some of the Smithsonian's only teen interns during summer 2016. As Charlie described it, "it's just been a great opportunity. I don't know how to put it in words." For myself and the other members of the Office of Education and Public Engagement, I'd describe our experience working with and learning from the teens with two words: pretty cool.
Ariel Gory is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History. During summer 2016, she served as supervisor for three incredible local teenage interns: Charlie, Fatemma, and Miyanna.