My Semester as a Curatorial Intern

I began my photography curatorial internship at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) in August of 2018. Founded in 1913, the museum strives to help the broadest possible audience understand and engage with the world’s great art while honoring the highest aesthetic, intellectual, and professional standards. Having worked for the museum’s Visitor Experience department for a few years, I felt comfortable on my first day. I was excited and eager to begin my role as a curatorial intern.

Over the course of the semester I was assigned two projects that allowed me to channel my love for writing, research, and photography. My first priority was to write the copy for photographer Danny Lyon’s 1966-67 series, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, which documented the demolition of historic New York buildings as a result of urban renewal land development. I was assigned to write “quick facts” and “chats” that will appear on the museum’s smartphone app, ArtLens. Quick facts are 15-word sentences that encourage a visitor to look closer and engage with the image. The chats are 60-word blurbs that discuss something about the photograph or series. On my first day the assistant curator set me up with past examples and I started writing. I felt comfortable with this task because I had done previous research on Lyon’s work.

I truly enjoyed this project because I love the writing process. Until this point, I had little experience writing for an online platform such as ArtLens. My supervisor, Curator Barbara Tannenbaum, provided me with a didactic and label writing guideline. This was extraordinarily helpful. Considering what I was writing would accompany an app, it was crucial for me to situate the photograph within a context because the viewer would not experience it as part of an exhibition. It was important to write clearly, with simple prose, and to use words that an individual without an art historical knowledge would easily understand. These guidelines reminded me to choose my language wisely. Studies have shown museum visitors like to discover things on their own terms rather than be told what to look at. Therefore, I had to be cautious and avoid telling them what to look for.

One of the main challenges I had with this assignment was forcing myself to write during the day. I have always preferred writing at night but this experience forced me to do it in a professional setting during business hours. This project confirmed for me that I enjoy the writing process and it truly is a process. Through numerous drafts and feedback from my supervisor, I completed the assignment in late September. At the beginning of the internship, I set a goal to better my writing and learn how to adjust it for different audiences -this assignment allowed me to do just the thing. I also had the pleasure of attending a curator chat, in which Danny Lyon himself discussed the series. I enjoyed this lecture immensely and found it helped me put a lot of things into context. Hearing first hand how he explored Lower Manhattan and documented the historic structures slated for demolition was fascinating.

After completing the quick facts and chats for fifty-two images, I began my second assignment which was to research a substantial gift of Bruce Davidson photographs. This gift is comprised of 366 images, ranging in date from 1956 to 2013. The only information provided with the works was the titles of the series they belong to. The museum did not know the titles or dates for each photograph. My goal was to research the individual titles for each image, a date, where the works appear in print, and books on the particular series even if it did not contain the museum’s image. Davidson, however, does not title his works so his books had untitled publications.

As one could imagine, this was a tricky assignment. With little information on the photographs, I began by compiling a list of the different series and their dates. Then, I looked at the information included in the gift’s manifest which contained details about what was on the back or verso of the works. Many of them referenced Magnum Photos, a very large photographic collaborative that operates out of New York City. Other images included references to galleries and art collections, most of them in New York City as well. I used this information as a starting point for my research. In the two short months that followed, I dived deep into the life of Bruce Davidson. I examined a number of archives, looking at journals, magazines, newspapers, press releases, and more. I gathered the information as I found it. Some days I had more luck than others. In the end, I was able to find something, whether a publication or contextual reading, for nearly 40% of the works.

A crucial aspect of this assignment was to track what I looked through, useful or not, because at the end of the semester I created a research folder which would be kept at the museum for individuals down the road to reference. Due to this, I organized my research by series. I discussed what I was able to find, unable to find, and any observations I had about the works which may help someone pick up where I left off. I also created a bibliography separated into sections by sources that were available in the museum’s library and those that would need to be borrowed or requested from others. Additionally, I included sources which were not helpful. The third and final section of the bibliography listed the items I did not have access to or those I did not receive via InterLibrary Loan by the end of the semester.

I enjoyed this assignment immensely because I love compiling research. I have always thought of myself as a detective while searching through materials. Furthermore, it was extremely rewarding when I found what I was looking for. In conclusion, I am appreciative of my experience at CMA. My assignments were at times challenging but I considered them to be fun challenges. My internship validated for me that I can envision myself doing writing or research for a career. I learned new skills and was offered an opportunity to strengthen those I already had. Furthermore, it reminded me of why I chose to get into the Museum Studies field.

 

 

Installation view of Danny Lyon’s 1966-67 series, The Destruction of Lower Manhattan, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2018.
Danny Lyon discussing his series, the Destruction of Lower Manhattan, at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2018.
Quick fact & chat for a photograph Lyon took of Eddie Grant and Cleveland Sims for his series, the Destruction of Lower Manhattan.