What could get a college student excited to leave behind her friends, city, and a summer of relaxation to spend nine weeks in a small town on the opposite side of the state? For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime paid archaeology internship at a beloved state museum.
This was the situation in which I found myself as the spring semester drew to a close. Thanks to the support and assistance of VCU professor Dr. Bernard Means and Virginia Museum of Natural History Curator of Archaeology Dr. Elizabeth Moore, I would be moving from Richmond to Martinsville, Virginia, where I had been accepted for a summer internship at VMNH. While I geared up to make the nearly 4-hour drive with all my belongings, friends asked what I would be doing in this town they’d never heard of. I tried to provide them a vague answer laced with technical terms they were unlikely to understand, such as “curatorial assistance” and “exhibit development.” I wasn’t trying to hide anything about the internship; it was simply that I didn’t actually know what it would entail.
My first week gave me a glimpse of how the summer would go. After being given the rundown of the museum and meeting all the staff, my days settled into something of a routine. The activity I was most often engaged in, however, requires a bit of explanation.
At VCU, I took a class called Visualizing and Exhibiting Anthropology. In this class, we were tasked with coming up with the text and images for a museum exhibit on archaeology in Virginia. We also had to select objects that could be used in our exhibit from an inventory of artifacts that had been 3D scanned by VCU’s very own Virtual Curation Lab. The chosen items would then be 3D printed in the Lab and painted to look like the originals in order to be put on display. The class was in partnership with VMNH, where the exhibit would open in the fall.
In all, some 220 artifacts were selected to be printed. At the museum, we received them in batches from Richmond, and the job of painting all those replicas fell to me. I spent a good part of most days painting, and over the course of those nine weeks completed nearly a hundred of the faux artifacts. Many of the 3D printed replicas will make up touchable interactives in the exhibit, while others will simply take the place of original artifacts we are unable to have access to for various reasons.
Not every day followed a routine, however. There were numerous field trips to pick up collections from other groups or individuals, or for information or media pertinent to the exhibit. I learned how to weld, pour silicone molds, and cast resin replicas. Additionally, I was tasked with reworking an exhibit on Virginia’s lithic points through time, and learned a great deal about identifying different kinds of stone tools in the process. During my last week, I created and wrote labels for a temporary exhibit on wildlife encountered and hunted by Virginia Indians.
As I helped push the exhibit my class had created, called “Exploring Virginia,” along its development track, it became clear to me just how much work goes into the making of a museum exhibit. If the class itself had taught me to think critically about exhibits for the first time, the internship caused me to truly appreciate the effort involved. Once the idea is conceived and mapped out (which, remember, took my class of roughly 16 students an entire semester), it must undergo exhaustive review and editing. Then, any interactives are planned for in detail, and ultimately constructed, often by hand. Marketing and public relations must be involved to entice people to visit the exhibit once it opens. Finally, the exhibit goes on display, but has to inevitably be touched up as the wear and tear of visitors takes its toll. The work seems endless, but also endlessly rewarding.
All of this gave me tremendous insight into the world of museum archaeology, and despite the obvious and not-so-obvious challenges that are intrinsic to such careers, I can honestly say I’m more excited than ever to pursue one myself. Many thanks to Dr. Moore for her unfailing patience and encouragement, and to all the VMNH staff for making my internship one of the greatest experiences of my academic career.