2015 4th Year Undergraduate, History Major, Ash Lawn-Highland
My internship at Ash Lawn-Highland was immensely valuable in so many ways, and I was given the opportunity to work alongside some of the most generous people and brilliant historians that I've ever met. Personally, though, I derived two primary benefits from my work at Highland. Through giving guided tours of the Monroe home, I gained perspective on how to effectively interpret history for an audience, as well as becoming a much more confident historian and public speaker. Before this internship I had considered myself a strong orator, but I learned that there is a big difference between speaking well and accurately, and actually engaging your audience - this internship made me skilled at the latter. Conducting research on James Monroe and our collections at the museum (and then assisting in the design and construction of a brand new exhibit!) are opportunities few undergrads are given, and I know that I became more thoughtful about public history and the "value" of objects this summer.
As mentioned above, although I had worked in museum spaces and taken public history classes before my internship at Highland, I never dreamed I would be given the academic freedom and professional opportunity that I got during this internship. In consultation with the executive director, I essentially designed a new exhibition on Monroe's foreign affairs career "from the ground up." This involved doing research on the objects in the collection as well as on Monroe's life and the lives of his political contemporaries. I was also tasked with writing new signage (and editing/improving it several times!), deciding on the layout of the room, and compiling a timeline that would be helpful to visitors. When it came time to pack up the old exhibit (the one my exhibition would be replacing), I did that as well! This meant gaining hands-on knowledge about how to handle very old (and very valuable) objects. Holding a piece of paper currency from 18th century Philadelphia in my hands, I've got to say, was a highlight of the summer.
Prior to taking this job with Highland, I'd had two particularly relevant academic experiences in the field of public history - Phyllis Leffler's HIST 3201 (History, Museums, and Interpretation), as well as my J- Term trip to Berlin, during which we explored the "living history" of the city and visited its several museums and monuments. During these classroom experiences, I was forced to grapple with a lot of questions regarding public history in a very abstract way - but at Highland I dealt with them directly and concretely on a daily basis.