The Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) in Cleveland, Ohio, has collected artifacts for the past 150 years. Its collection consists of a vast array of items ranging from automobiles to Cleveland Indians memorabilia to items once owned by presidents. The Cleveland History Center (CHC), the museum that displays these artifacts, will open its core exhibit “Cleveland Starts Here” in November 2017. The preparation of this new exhibit provides opportunities for internships, including the one I had during the Spring 2017 semester. The experiences I had during this four-month internship helped me to develop skills, gain knowledge about the museum field, particularly collections management, and build meaningful relationships with CHC staff.
Cleveland Starts Here (CSH) is a culmination of Cleveland’s rich history spanning more than two centuries. Along with an interactive tool that visitors will use to create their own digital collection and a list of influential people and groups in Cleveland’s history, the exhibit will feature one hundred objects that tell the story of Cleveland from the time of Moses Cleaveland to the present. The first task I was given was photographing these items to create an online catalog allowing people to view the objects outside of the museum. This task was a rather challenging one at times as WRHS’s storage spaces are scattered across the institution’s buildings. The exhibit contains archival materials processed by library staff, large artifacts that could not fit in the photography studio, and artifacts that could not be photographed for other reasons. Once those objects were removed from my list, the real work began.
The task of carrying these items from their storage locations to the photography studio may not seem daunting, yet knowing that any small mistake could cause damage instilled in me a greater sense of cautiousness. An example of this was when I photographed Abraham Lincoln’s life mask and hand casts. The material from which they were cast was not exceptionally fragile, yet knowing that the artifacts portray President Lincoln as he appeared during his lifetime made it more daunting. Other artifacts including a cannonball from the Battle of Lake Erie, the first baseball thrown at Municipal Stadium, and Moses Cleaveland’s wampum tobacco pipe were also items that I felt honored yet slightly intimidated to handle.
Once the items were in the studio and arranged on the backdrop, I had to learn how to operate the photography equipment. The setup was not difficult to learn, but being able to take the images in the right way was an acquired skill. The lighting umbrellas that provided the flash for the photos were especially tricky as they could be finicky when it came to settings and position. It took some adjustment to get the lighting just right so the flash didn’t create too much of a shadow or wash out the item. The varying sizes of items that will be used in CSH also required more adjustment to the equipment to capture the image in the best way possible. The process of preparing my photographs for CSH’s online catalog did not stop there. The next step was to transfer all of the images from the camera and edit them in Adobe Photoshop.
Another Cleveland Starts Here task that I had was assisting the chief curator with selecting items to go in display ‘towers’. These items are not in the same category as the other one hundred objects and highlight specific decades of Cleveland history. The focus of these selections were Cleveland sports memorabilia, Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaign materials, 2016 presidential campaign memorabilia, and 2016 RNC memorabilia. The goal of selecting items for the towers was to choose interesting items with local or statewide significance that would show different aspects of each section’s theme.
Other aspects of my internship were not Cleveland Starts Here related but remained in the realm of collections management. As I mentioned, much of my work for CSH consisted of retrieving items and putting them back in their appropriate locations. Though this was a slightly repetitive task, it was still intriguing to see the different items that make up the museum’s collection. Other projects during my internship were slightly more labor intensive. One in particular was helping the costume curator prepare for her exhibit, Wow Factor, in the Chisholm-Halle Costume Wing. I uninstalled cases from the Power and Politics exhibit, put items away, helped sand and paint cases and mannequin stands, and prepared the exhibit space for the grand opening. I also sewed accession number tags onto garments for the costume curator to complete the final step of accessioning, helped move the Tinkerbell boat that Robert Manry sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, and helped install paintings. While these tasks were not directly related to CSH, they display a truth about working in a museum: It is a team effort to complete tasks and the efforts never go unnoticed. The reward of helping in non-CSH related tasks was a learning experience that made my skills more versatile.
The collections staff also gave me the creative freedom to build my skills in exhibit design by allowing me to create two different exhibits. The first was a library display case based around Barack Obama’s political career for a showing of a movie about his life. This opportunity to create a small exhibit was very exciting, especially since I hadn’t gotten the chance to do exhibit design in my previous internship. The second exhibit I created was based on the Chase Brass and Copper Company collection. Chase Brass and Copper first came to Euclid in 1929 and made metal giftware available at competitive prices for Great Depression-era consumers. Creating this exhibit was similar to the first one yet it consisted of more thoughtful item selection, research, and label creation. There were two cases to fill for the Chase Brass and Copper exhibit and I chose a theme for each case. The items were arranged in the manner I saw fit and then I began creating the labels, which entailed researching the company and the influences behind the items.
The opportunity to attend weekly Cleveland History Center meetings was the aspect of my internship that I appreciated the most. The meetings gathered the curatorial staff as well as staff from various departments and the executive director. There are countless things that happen behind the scenes in a museum and these meetings allowed me to observe how things are conducted on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. Plans for events, ideas for gaining the public’s attention in different ways, and updates on the progress of CSH were only some of the things discussed during meetings. I appreciated the kindness that everyone showed me; I truly felt like I was a part of the team. My ability to attend meetings held me to a higher standard and that improved my experience in so many ways.
My four months at the Cleveland History Center ended far too soon, yet I am thankful for every day I had there. I learned so much about the museum field, especially in regard to curatorial/collections management work. The ever-changing work I did at the CHC improved the skills I gained during my first internship and created new, valuable ones. It expanded my knowledge of material culture, local history, and museum practices. I am extremely grateful for Angie Lowrie, Eric Rivet, Danielle Peck, and Patty Edmonson for all being so kind and insightful during this experience. The leadership they displayed during my time at this internship, along with the other things I learned, allowed me to gain more experience and skills that will build my potential for becoming a future museum professional.