The Value of Museum Internships

Guest post by Ingrid Rochon

As we Millennials begin to graduate and enter a highly competitive job market, we will inevitably run into the experience paradox. We’ve learned how to take tests and write papers, but we haven’t really learned how to do a job. For those that want to work in natural history collections, a lack of hands-on experience might seem a particularly prohibitive barrier to entry. I say to those of you, neurotic with worry over your future prospects as collections managers: fear not! Many natural history museums offer wonderful internships for students and recent graduates. I can speak from experience when I tell you that these internships are not just great ways to get the experience you need, but are, in and of themselves, life-changing experiences. I have spent the past year as an intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Northern Arizona. Previously, I spent four years as a student assistant at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. I feel that my years as an intern have been more of an education, and much more fun, than those spent in the classroom.

Ingrid Rochon with some of the many specimens in the collections of the Peabody Museum of Natural History

Ingrid Rochon with some of the many specimens in the collections of the Peabody Museum of Natural History

One benefit of museum internships is the unparalleled opportunity to learn directly from professionals. In May of this year I finished an 8 month stint at the Smithsonian that felt much more like an apprenticeship than an unpaid internship. With the help of my mentor, the amazing collections manager of the Mammal Division, Suzanne Peurach, I learned the various museum arts of preparing specimens, cataloging and installing new collections, finding and controlling museum pests, and more. At various times I was nose deep in field catalogs, formalin, loan paperwork, and Lepus guts. In short, I got to experience the day-to-day work of a collections manager and learned not just what the job entailed, but how to do it. The ability to connect with and learn from professionals wasn’t just limited to my mentor either – in my time at the Smithsonian I met researchers from around the world and talked with museum staff in many different departments. The museum community I found was incredibly welcoming, eager to teach and share knowledge, and excited about training a new generation.

Interning at a natural history museum isn’t just about soaking up new information like a sponge (though sometimes it might feel that way!). There are problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and real work amidst all the fun. To a large extent, interning teaches you to think critically and independently. After completing my first – and honestly, terrible – study skin, I had to learn to do them on my own and make them better through practice. An introduction to cataloging helped my future solo navigations through a sea of data. For the past three months I’ve been working to move an osteology collection to a new storage facility as part of my internship at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Having never housed any specimen larger than a fox, I’m suddenly faced with the challenge of transporting and re-housing horses, bison, sheep, and mountain lions. I’m not daunted! The opportunity to learn through trial and error, building off a basic skill set to overcome new problems, is what makes an internship fun and worthwhile.

The author learning to make better study skins - in this case, a Channel Island Fox

The author learning to make better study skins – in this case, a Channel Island Fox

Then there is the ability to learn from the collections themselves. Who wouldn’t want the chance to explore cabinets full of ostrich bones, wolf skins, vipers in ethanol? Working at a natural history museum is also an education in biology. I’ve cataloged my way through the diversity of life. I’ve gotten to explore abnormal physiology, witness a rainbow of individual variation within species and populations, and investigate the relationships that tie together the tree of life. For those with a scientific bent, every day as an intern is an exercise in wonder and awe. What more could a biologist ask for?

Finally, though the internship experience is clearly beneficial to the intern, I’ve come to realize that the relationship goes both ways. As funding becomes harder to find and staffing more difficult, museums, now more than ever, need interns. The work interns do is important and needed. For everything I’ve gained, I feel that I have given back significantly – and that is the greatest satisfaction of all.

Ingrid Rochon is a second year graduate student in the Museum Studies program at The George Washington University. She is currently an intern in the Biology Collections at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Next time on Cracking the Collections:

September 10 – Natural History Notes post by Katharine Corriveau

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