By Jeff Hampton
While audiences might love the hilarious chaos portrayed in the “Night at the Museum” comedy films, students in Baylor University’s graduate program of museum studies are serious about the potential of a life spent working in museums –– and the internships they complete at major facilities around the country are a significant tool they use in making sure that life gets off to a good start.
“Our philosophy is to have one foot in theory and one foot in practice,” said Dr. Kenneth Hafertepe, chair and professor of museum studies. “That comes out in the fact that we have PhDs who are full faculty, but we also bring in professionals to come teach in the Department of Museum Studies. As a result, our students are learning from the most recent scholarship and also learning from the latest professional experience.”
Theory and practice are put to the test in an internship, which is one of three options museum studies graduate students have for their “capstone” project. Three-fourths of the students choose internships, for obvious reasons.
“They look at it as practical experience they can gain prior to graduation,” said Dr. Julie Holcomb, associate professor of museum studies and director of the graduate program. “It’s networking, it’s making those connections. They see it as a very pragmatic step toward employment.”
However, not just any internship will do.
“It has to be an institution with a seasoned professional working with the student,” Holcomb said. “We tell our students, ‘We don’t want you to end up at an institution where you’re the most experienced person.’ What we want to see is a truly immersive experience where they’re connecting what they’re learning in the classroom to how that fits into the day-to-day operation of the museum.”
For that reason, Baylor professors are eager to help their students make connections.
“The museum world is a small world and we can help students find the appropriate fit,” Holcomb said.
Experience Points the Way
Baylor’s museum studies program encompasses education, collections and administration, and internships can provide students with experiences in all three areas.
Recent Baylor museum studies graduate Emily Clark (MA ’16) now works full time at Baylor’s Mayborn Museum Complex, and she credits her student internship at the Perot Museum in Dallas with paving the way for her future career.
“I think the most beneficial experience in working at the Perot Museum was seeing and understanding how a large museum is operated,” she said. “As the Mayborn Museum has increased the number of programs that we have and the way that we operate, I have drawn on the insight that I gained while working at the Perot.”
Clark’s internship included developing programs in a partnership between the Perot Museum and the Dallas Public Libraries –– an experience that confirmed that her passion encompasses informal science education.
“I worked on developing one specific program about computer programming that introduced me to the idea of making and tinkering in museums,” Clark said. “I now coordinate the Design Den –– the Mayborn Museum’s making and tinkering exhibit space –– and I love to observe how people learn when they are making and creating things. The first time I gave this any thought was while working at the Perot.”
In much the same way, museum studies graduate Sarah Miller (MA ’17), now the coordinator of hands-on maker activities at the Hewitt Public Library, saw a core class in museum education come to life during her student internship at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.
“It was so important for me to actually get to participate in the planning of education programs, deliver those programs and interact with the museum guests. Through this, I gained great experience and put all of my academic learning into action,” Miller said.
Valencia Johnson interned at Baylor’s Texas Collection archive, and after earning a MA in museum studies in May 2017 she received a Dulles Archival Fellowship at Princeton University’s Mudd Library. She has since transitioned into a contract position there as an archivist.
“I can tell you beyond a doubt that without my internship at The Texas Collection, I would not be at Mudd today,” she said. “The internship provided the strong foundation of physical processing that makes me marketable as a project archivist, in addition to my other qualities. It also provided a case study to apply what I learned in class. Also equally important, my internship offered a transitional space from viewing myself as a student to a professional. I was treated like a co-worker and encouraged to offer my opinions.”
Abigail Hofbauer, a museum studies graduate student who works as a graduate assistant in the Mayborn’s Design Den, said her internship at the Dallas Museum of Art helped focus her career direction.
“I am interested in art, exhibits and interactive experiences in museums, so my internship was a perfect melding of those three,” she said. “It took my academic interests and showed me how they could be used in the real world. It truly confirmed my goals to work in an art museum.”
Hofbauer said the biggest surprise of her internship was the advanced level of work she got to do.
“There is always the stereotype of interns who simply get coffee and take notes. However, I was able to interact with large teams of people at the DMA and had input into events and ideas for the future,” she said.
Holcomb said these are exactly the kinds of internship experiences that museum studies faculty want their students to have.
“Our students are poised and confident, and they stand out with resumes that go to the top of the stack,” Holcomb said.