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C.V. Starr Center for the


Study of the American Experience

Wearing Many Hats


Date: January 24, 2014
It’s not always glamorous. Comegys Bight fellow, Erica Ward ‘13 experiences the various roles of an art curator – from collections care and exhibition research to parking cars – at the National Portrait Gallery.

As an intern at WC’s Kohl Gallery, an aspiring curator and an art history department star—she graduated with departmental honors and the Art History Award–Erica Ward ’13 was thrilled to have a chance to work as a 2013 Comegys Bight Fellow at the National Portrait Gallery last summer.

“It was an amazing opportunity,” she says. “I learned so much about what it might be like to work as a curator in one of the biggest museums in the country.”

Because the curators were so busy, interns were encouraged to do a lot of independent research. Ward wrote a 20-page paper on the American  circus, simply because she was intrigued by the way the circus historically treated the “other”—anyone who was foreign or simply different. She taught herself to use TMS, the software system the Portrait Gallery and many other museums and galleries use to organize their collections.

“It was a little scary at first, doing my own thing, but it turned out to be really fun,” she says. “I’d encourage anyone doing an internship to take advantage of the resources in a place like the Smithsonian and try to learn a lot on your own.”

The interns were encouraged to explore the Smithsonian and other D.C. institutions. “The staff urged us to use our Smithsonian badges to go to exhibits and museum lectures, so we did that a lot,” she says.

Her supervisor, Portrait Gallery Historian Amy Henderson, also put her to work researching a proposed exhibit about what women were doing after the Suffrage Movement. “It’s a very ambitious idea and I think she’ll eventually narrow it down, but I got to dig into the newspaper archives and read about women like Helena Rubinstein, Carole Lombard, Zelda Fitzgerald, and it was fascinating.”

There were other tasks—one day she was assigned to direct traffic while CSPAN filmed an exhibit on Martin Luther King, Jr. “I was so impressed with how much the curator knew, how eloquent she was. She did it in two takes!”

But one of her favorite jobs was the daily gallery check. “Every morning, two of the interns had to go through the galleries cleaning the cases and dusting the frames,” she says. “It was always very quiet and you had a chance to get close to the artwork and see things you might never have noticed. It is a really nice feeling, caring for art, realizing that, ‘Here I am, taking care of something in the Smithsonian.’”

Last modified on Feb. 10th at 10:05am by Jean Wortman.