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The sky's the limit

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 Pamela Curtin, that means a summer internship with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. She is working to engage visitors through active and experience-based learning, which will contribute to the second edition of the Museum Educator’s Manual.

Pam Curtin

Student Name: Pamela Curtin

Major: M.A. in Public History and Graduate Certificate in Cultural Resource Management

Hometown: Latrobe, Pennsylvania 

Internship: Education and Exhibit Development Intern, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Washington, D.C.

Every morning of my internship, I walk by some unique office decor. Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis hangs in the air much like it did when it flew the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The first American space capsule to orbit the Earth, John Glenn’s Friendship 7, sits in the shadow of the Bell X-1, in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. These are just a few of the most important artifacts from aviation and aerospace history on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

I have cherished memories of exploring the National Air and Space Museum as a child interested in both history and science. I remember the stories these artifacts told of exploration and breaking the boundaries of what we know about the universe. Working as the Education and Exhibit Development Intern at the Air and Space Museum has given me the opportunity to broaden and diversify how these fascinating stories are told.

I am working with my supervisor, Tim Grove, chief of museum learning, on a number of projects related to exhibition development and museum education. On any day, you could find me all over the museum – and sometimes all over the D.C. area. I am writing and researching for books on museum education and local history, attending exhibition team meetings and interacting with the public on the museum floor or out at the observatory.

The National Air and Space Museum is actually two museums: one is on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the other is the Steven Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., about 25 miles from D.C. Together, the two make the Air and Space the largest of the 19 museums in the Smithsonian Institution. It is among the most-visited museums in the world, having brought in 8.5 million visitors in 2015.

My internship coincides with an exciting “revitalization and transformation” at the Air and Space. The entire museum in D.C. will be renovated in the coming years. This gives us the opportunity to reimagine our exhibitions and how visitors experience the museum. In the words of Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton, the new museum will be “imaginative, stimulating and technologically capable.” The Air and Space is exploring innovative methods of presenting information and promoting interactivity, so that all visitors, no matter their background or learning style, can have a meaningful experience.

Pam Curtin

Exhibitions of this scale take years to develop. And they involve a lot of people. As part of my internship, I take part in exhibition team meetings and design charrettes for upcoming exhibitions. Each team member – educators, curators, designers, collections managers, registrars, archivists, advancement staff and editors – brings a unique skillset to the table. Educators help establish learning objectives, promote experience-based learning and advocate for the variety of learning styles within museum audiences.

One of my favorite meetings was one in which the exhibition team decided on a layout for the early flight gallery. The design they chose best tells the story of daredevil pilots and roaring crowds in the early twentieth century. It was an enlightening moment to see how large museum exhibitions are built not only through expertise and knowledge, but through teamwork and communication.

Museum educators also work to enhance the field of museum education. My primary project is researching how to engage visitors through active and experience-based learning. My work contributes to the second edition of The Museum Educator’s Manual, which will be published in 2017 by AltaMira Press in partnership with the American Association of State and Local History. My supervisor, Tim Grove, and West Virginia University public history program director, Melissa Bingmann, are two of the book’s authors. My chapter on active learning explores the roles of inquiry, interactive exhibits, games, play, and dialogue in museum exhibitions and programs. This book will help educators create more engaging and accessible museums for more diverse audiences.

Another book I am contributing to is the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History, also published by AltaMira Press. I edited some of my supervisor’s entries, which explore changing technologies, such as microblogging and web history, and new theories and approaches, such as history relevance and historical thinking. I researched and wrote entries on museum apps, STEM education in history organizations and primary source analysis. The encyclopedia addresses and provides commentary on a broad array of topics and trends in the history field. 

Working behind-the-scenes at a museum makes interacting with visitors even more rewarding. The Air and Space has an incredibly dedicated group of staff and volunteers. On any given day, a visitor can take a guided tour of the museum’s best artifacts, explore exoplanets with a teen educator, talk to a curator about preserving spacesuits, or even hear a NASA astronaut describe his or her time in space.

Air and Space Museum

I am always inspired by the curiosity of people I meet at the Air and Space. At the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory, I point telescopes safely at the sun and talk with visitors about what they see. In the interactive and STEM-based How Things Fly exhibition, I help at the design hangar, where children can create and test aircrafts. Every design is unique and I see a lot of future engineers. I run activities at discovery station carts throughout the museum, quizzing visitors on celestial bodies or explaining how astronomers find black holes. Working large family day events at both the museum in D.C. and the Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, I meet hundreds or even thousands of visitors in a single day all of whom are excited about the history and science of manned flight.

Everyone I have worked with has been so welcoming and eager to introduce interns to new opportunities. The Smithsonian Office of Fellowships and Internships and the National Air and Space Museum internship program gives interns so many enriching opportunities in D.C. We have toured other Smithsonian institutions, going on scavenger hunts through the National Museum of Natural History and meeting animals at the National Zoo. One unforgettable experience was receiving a behind-the-scenes tour of the United States Capitol. We discussed career paths while sitting on the floor of the House and got a unique view of the city from the Speaker’s balcony.

What I will remember most is the wonderful people I met at the museum. One of my favorite experiences was our All Night at the Museum event, in which 53,000 people over the course of 24+ hours celebrated the museum’s 40th birthday and the opening of the Milestones of Flight exhibition, which commemorates some of the most significant airplanes, rockets, and spacecraft in history.

West Virginia University’s public history program has prepared me well for this experience. I am thankful for the opportunity to spend a summer at my favorite museum sharing my love for history, science and education.

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