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Curating a piece of America's history

When our students aren’t in the classroom, they’re learning in the real world. Because sometimes it’s these experiences that make the best lessons. For graduate student Chelsea Elliott, that means a summer internship with the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, where she's helping prepare a Vietnam War exhibit. 

ElliottStudent Name: Chelsea Elliott

Major: Public History

Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In January, I accepted an internship with the United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. for the summer of 2016. At NARA I work in the exhibitions department which has been allowing me to engage in very real and amazing work in the museum field. 

NARA provides public access to Federal Government records in their custody and control. They believe that public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, hold their government accountable, and understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government.

In October 2017, NARA will be opening a new exhibition on the Vietnam War, and much of my current work this summer is helping to prepare for this exhibit. As a graduate student in public history, I have learned that there is no right or wrong way to prepare for a new exhibit.

It has been such a great experience to learn the process of how the curators, researchers and registrars create exhibits at the national archives. Much of the groundwork for the exhibit has already been laid out and I am helping on the next phase of work. 

So far this has required me to understand the layout of the exhibit and work on finer details to prepare for items that will be on display in the gallery. Aside from working on the Vietnam War project, I have also been given the chance to work with social media and website redesigning. 

The archives does a wonderful job of engaging visitors through digital platforms and education outside of the classroom. The online platforms allow for visitors who cannot physically be at the archives to view and learn from documents in the collection. 

NARA uses a wide variety of social media platforms and I have been running one of a few Tumblr accounts this summer. Further, I have been given the opportunity to create labels for documents that will be on display in the coming months. 

In the Public Vaults, a permanent gallery space at NARA, original documents are rotated in and out of the space. This is done to show a wide range of documents in the national archives holdings, but also to preserve the documents by not having them be on display for a long period of time.

Preservation of documents is a very serious concern that NARA must always keep in mind when selecting and displaying documents. However, I will be writing a label on a statement given by a WWI prisoner of war. In order to prepare for this label, extensive research has been completed in order to understand the solider, his squadron, and POWs from the First World War. 

Through this process, I have also learned the art of label writing and what makes effective and engaging labels for visitors to learn from the document on display. In my short time here, I have been privileged enough to work under a staff of curators who have provided me with such a great learning experience and career advice that I will carry with me when I enter the museum field after graduation. 

The staff has allowed me to sit in on meetings and attend site visits to other museums in the D.C. area to learn what other museums and historical sites are working on and how. This career path requires consistent learning of new topics in the field, understanding the needs of visitors and historical topics.

All told, I could not have asked for a better internship and learning experience for my summer. Every day I come to work, I am humbled to be at such an amazing place. And in case you were wondering, no there is no secret map on the back of the Declaration. 

Vietnam War photo credit: Manh Hai

Tagged with History