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History and government & law major gets a unique look at the museum’s inner workings

Sara Walter ’09 (Kempton, Pa.), a double major in history and government & law and Spanish, is passionate about her fields of study. This summer she is interning in the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C.

Her experience has been unique in that the museum is currently undergoing major renovations and is closed to the public, “which means I have had the opportunity to perform a variety of different tasks at the museum,” she explains.

These include hands-on work rehousing the massive Lockwood Greene collection of architectural and engineering drawings. “Lockwood Greene is a firm based out of South Carolina, and the collection I have been housing spans from the early 1800’s to the 20th century, and includes anything from textile mills in New England to courthouses in the South,” Sara explains. “It is an incredible collection not just because of the span of years, but how comprehensive it is – unlike any other the museum has ever seen.”

Walter’s internship experience is being supported by the Class of 2007 internship endowment fund.

She and two fellow interns, including art major Caroline Conway ’08 (Winchester, Mass.), are working in the Hall of Power Machinery conducting an inventory of the items and suggesting possible changes to the exhibition.

“It is very fulfilling to know that I helped considerably in work that will show once the museum reopens in 2008,” she comments.

Walter has also performed archival research on the artist responsible for the “Infinity” sculpture outside of the museum at the Archives of American Art, as well as working with the museum’s Hurricane Katrina collection.

“It was incredible to catalogue items such as a 1930’s clarinet that was destroyed in the flood,” Walter recalls about the experience. “It belonged to Michael White, a famous jazz musician in New Orleans, and only served as a symbol for the incredible loss of musical history in the region when the storm went through.

“As I continued my work on the collection, what interested me more was not just the objects themselves, but the stories the donors of the objects told when they gave them. And how they all had such a firm belief that because their mailbox or their dog’s collar was now in the Smithsonian collection, their story would be remembered and the horrible effects of Hurricane Katrina would not be forgotten. I learned that sometimes the most important part of history isn’t the object itself, or the placard describing it – it’s the people who gave the object its character.”

Some of Walter’s experiences at the Smithsonian have included enlightening others with her own research and interests. By invitation from the Smithsonian staff on July 10, she delivered a Smithsonian Institution Colloquium on her previous research of the 1946 Disney film “Song of the South” and racism. She presented her lecture to a full crowd of Smithsonian curators, administrators, staff, and other interns.

“It wasn’t until right before I began speaking, that David Haberstich, a curator in the Archives Center, noted to me that I was the only undergraduate intern who had ever presented her own colloquium in the series’ history,” she recalls. “Needless to say, this made me feel a bit more nervous about delivering it, but it was very well received. I was especially impressed with how people came up to me the day afterwards and asked for a script of my lecture and congratulated me on such an incredible job.”

Walter is looking forward to some exciting research possibilities under time, navigation, and robotics expert Carlene Stephens in the Division of Work and Industry, whom she most recently began working with.

She believes that the most important thing she has learned from this internship so far is patience.

“Museum work, I’m quickly learning, requires an infinite amount of patience, as exhibitions take upwards of five years of planning until opening, and everything is done in a slow, methodical manner to best preserve the objects,” Walter explains.

She compares this experience with her fast-paced internship last summer for Congressman Charlie W. Dent. “I am a fairly patient person, but working in a museum environment requires an entirely different variety of patience with the bureaucratic paperwork, the necessary delicacy in handling objects, and being able to plan everything out perfectly – something I wasn’t used to after Capitol Hill.”

Another benefit, she says, is the numerous opportunities she has had to befriend and spent time with her fellow interns, who share her passion and excitement for history.

Her future plans include attaining a Ph.D. in either history or political science in the area of how industry shapes communities, an interest that peaked during this internship.

“I have a profound interest in communities and societies and how they play such an integral role in American life,” she says. “I have been able to broaden my understanding of this area and integrate new perspectives on it through my internship.”

According to Walter, this experience at the Smithsonian has prepared her in multiple ways for her future endeavors.

“I really feel like this experience has helped me to fine-tune my future goals. I previously had very little experience in the history of technology, and working in such a hands-on, intensive way with technology not only taught me a lot about the objects themselves, but also allowed me to link them to the larger social issues and perspectives in which they were used or made. I have been able to fine-tune my research skills, particularly in using archival materials, and thus will be able to transfer these skills back to my studies. Most importantly, I have met so many professionals who have been so patient to listen to my questions and provide me with such thoughtful answers. When I express an interest in a subject, a curator will most likely suggest a few books I could read, a museum exhibition I could visit, a film I could watch, and also would probably invite me in for a discussion on that topic. I think the ability to converse in a professional manner about historical subjects is such an integral skill that can be transferred not just to a career in history, but into any field. It has fine-tuned my skills as a conversationalist.”

Walter actively participates in Concert Band, Pan-Hellenic Council (Philanthropy Chair), Alpha Gamma Delta, Arts Society, College Republicans (President), PA College Republicans Executive Board (First vice Chairwoman), Easton Republican Committee, Technology Clinic – Environmental Sustainability Plan, and Gateway Ambassadors. In January, she did an externship at the Ben Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

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