By Bridget Wood
After graduating in December with a B.A. in History, I was left wondering “What should I do now?” Last year I applied for several summer internships with the world’s largest museum and research complex—The Smithsonian Institution—hoping I would be awarded a position that could give me experience toward a Museum Studies career. But the many hours I spent on applications was to no avail. The replies indicated that there were just too many applicants.
Later, with a little free time and big dreams, I began another batch of Smithsonian applications. It was a Saturday night in late January when I saw the email in my inbox; although it was not the typical acceptance letter. I had the attention of a Smithsonian Internship Coordinator! The message was short and to the point. My acceptance depended on my availability. After some back and forth, scheduling around his speaking responsibilities in Italy and other things, we established a time period that worked for both of us.
Before I left, I phoned a cousin who helped arrange D.C. housing connections, bought a warm jacket, packed my bags, and made sure to watch the Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian!
I arrived Sunday evening, and the next morning I waited at the pre-appointed meeting spot at a Moai, or giant Easter Island head, inside the National Museum of Natural History. There I met my internship coordinator and boss for the next three weeks. I was given a badge and taken to the Botany and Horticulture Library on the fourth floor of the museum, where I would spend my time working on a project entitled “Medicinal Plants of Antiquity”. At the library I met a volunteer from Chile who was also working on this project. She showed me a list of scientific plant names and explained that we were to look up the plants using books from the library and scholarly sources online. We set to work documenting each plant’s botanical and therapeutic properties, distribution, and season.
Before modern developments, plants were used as medicine. My plant list included species like Mentha aquatica, or Water Mint, which was used for everything from fevers and headaches to bad breath. Another plant, Stachys officinalis, or Betony, was used for cough, indigestion, and gingivitis.
Most of my internship was spent working on this plant list, or organizing and moving my Belgian boss’s vast collection of historical journals. His personal library includes over 20,000 titles. Thankfully, my task didn’t require me to sort through his entire library- only the journals. These included works in Greek and other languages. Although they were all doubtlessly informative, the journals I found most interesting were those produced by the famous fine arts dealer Christie’s. Later, I learned that my boss’s wife had worked for Christie’s.
There were dozens of heavy and dusty boxes—many of which had not been moved for ten years. Fire laws, however, required that these boxes be relocated away from the sprinklers they were blocking. Unfortunately, there was some confusion about what regulations allowed, so some of these boxes had to be moved at least four times before they were safely 18 inches away from any sprinkler heads.
Since most of Washington, D.C.’s museums are only open from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and I spent most of that time at work, I explored museums on my lunch breaks and weekends. I visited most of the big Smithsonian museums. At the National Gallery of Art I saw many famous pieces including the only known painting in America by Leonardo da Vinci, the Ginevra de’ Benci. Though not part of the Smithsonian, I was also able to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Geographic Museum, National Archives, Library of Congress, and U.S. Capitol. At the National Archives I saw one of the four original Magna Cartas from 1297, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence. The security guard said they were all authentic documents. At the United States Capitol I was able to go on a group tour and then walk the floors of both the Senate and House of Representatives.
Because I was off work for the President’s Day holiday, I decided to take a day trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon home. George Washington’s birthday is the mansion’s busiest day of the year because of the day’s free admission and extra shows. It was fun despite the cold snow-mud and long lines. I learned that Mount Vernon had its own food gardens and distillery. The mansion’s paint was even mixed on-site, and I was impressed with the dining room’s historic, yet vivid, shade of green. At Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, I ate a unique and tasty meal of peanut and water chestnut soup, with homemade bread pudding for dessert.
During my three weeks in D.C., I stayed with a new friend and her three roommates. Though my Internship offered no stipends or paycheck, I was given a discount at the various museum gift shops and one free IMAX ticket each week. I put the gift shop discount to good use buying so many books that I had to buy another suitcase before I came home. With the IMAX tickets I enjoyed The Hidden Universe, The Flight of the Butterflies, and Jerusalem.
On the last day of my internship a fine going-away party was thrown at the National Museum of Natural History; it wasn’t actually in my honor, but the honor of a woman who was to become the Director at one of Harvard’s museums. Still, I was invited to the party and it was a fun way to finish up my three weeks at the Smithsonian.
Bridget graduated with her B.A. in History from SAU in December 2013. She transferred to SAU after taking classes at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, South Arkansas Community College, Texas A&M. She graduated from Junction City High School in 2010, and is the daughter of Steve and Ramona Wood.