Trying a Little Bit of Everything: My Experience as an Intern at First Ladies National Historic Site

When thinking about Ohio museums, First Ladies National Historic Site is not the first to come across most people’s minds. Before starting my internship, in May 2021, I barely knew of its existence. After spending over six months interning there, I better understand its importance and appeal. First Ladies was founded in the late 1990s by First Ladies National Library, was signed on as a National Historic Site in 2000, and has slowly transitioned operation to the National Park Service since the mid-2010s.

I was hired on as a visitor services assistant. My responsibilities included running the front desk at the Education Center, administering tours of the Ida Saxton McKinley historic home, and writing social media. Along with these expected duties, I was also given the opportunity to hop on other projects and branch out to other work to benefit the site and expand my experience. First Ladies National Historic Site has two buildings. The first building, where all visitors must start their visit, is the Education Center. It was built in 1895 as a City National Bank. When it was donated to First Ladies National Library back in the 1990s it was being used as a modern bank. Through their restoration they brought back the Victorian era bank style. The first floor holds the majority of the museum exhibits as well as the recreated bank teller booth where I spent the majority of my internship hours. The lower level has one more small exhibit space and a theater where a documentary runs on rotation.

At the Education Center I would greet the visitors, introduce them to the site, sign them up for tours of the historic home, and assist with any questions. This is also where the visitors would meet when it was time to leave for their tour of our historic house museum, the ancestral home of first lady Ida Saxton McKinley. When the museum is at full staff and no restrictions are in place, tours would leave every hour starting at 10am to explore all three floors of the home. Due to Covid and staffing, we had to limit tours in a variety of ways. When I first started in May there were no tours being held, but beginning June 1st, 2021 they opened the house for tours again for the first time in over a year. There were only three tours given throughout the day at 10am, 12pm, and 2pm. The tours had a capacity of five people and only explored the first floor of the home. Through the summer we were able to slowly increase capacity and open the home completely. Later in the summer the tours settled into a schedule with the same three times during the day but with a capacity of 12 people exploring all three floors of the home.

Aside from directly working with the visitors at the Education Center and the Ida Saxton house, I was also given the opportunity to contribute to the site’s social media pages. The interpretation team at First Ladies runs a Facebook and Instagram page. There is a new post daily that runs the same across both the Facebook and Instagram page. Creating social media posts is time consuming and was something the staff often struggled to keep up with. To make the creation of posts a little easier on myself, I chose a theme. I decided to research music at the White House and chose Mondays as my posting day so I could use the hashtag, #MusicMonday. Starting with Martha Washington I was able to work my way through Mary Lincoln during the internship. The goal was to focus on the first lady’s musical ability or what musical guests she entertained at the White House, but also bring mention to her presidential counterpart and family when needed.

My supervisors encouraged me to give a second purpose to the research I collected about music at the White House and create an article that would be published to the First Ladies website. Having already created the social media posts this process should have been fairly simple, compiling the social media posts and adding in extra details to create a bigger picture that is missed through the social media posts. Harder than expected, this was the very last thing I was able to complete before my internship ended but it took me two months longer than expected to complete due to balancing other site duties and projects.

Throughout my time at First Ladies there were two experiences that stood out to me. The first was the feedback and recognition I received giving my tours. When tours of the Saxton home began I was given a script of what to say and how to direct visitors through the home. As I became more comfortable I was allowed to add my own flair and adjust the tour to my own style and the individual interests from the tour group. Some groups were interested in Ida Saxton, other’s were interested in her husband, President McKinley, and then there were some visitors interested in neither but rather the history of the building itself and how it was preserved. Both of my supervisors attended one of my tours and were impressed with my tour and connection with the visitors. Their feedback was constructive and encouraging. I felt my passion for the work I was doing was being expressed and understood by visitors. This was something I had not experienced from supervisors in past jobs. Recognition for work done, even just a simple compliment, can help bolster employee work and morale.

The second experience that really transformed my time at First Ladies was participating in the First Friday events in downtown Canton. The City of Canton hosted an art event on the first Friday of every month. In the evening the streets downtown are closed off to cars, vendors set up booths, and there are musical performances throughout the night. First Ladies set up a booth with information about our site and a free themed craft. I helped Lisa Meade, the lead ranger, host the first month we attended in August. Lisa then offered me the opportunity to create the programming for the October’s event. I accepted and worked to create educational information and a craft tied to our site as well as to the First Fridays theme of Witches and Wizards. I created a small booklet giving some background on Victorian Halloween, a takeaway origami craft tied to Edgar Allen Poe, and a witch-on-a-stick craft to complete during the event. It was a big project but the attendees loved the craft and bonus materials so it was well worth the time spent. It gave me an opportunity to put my research skills, education background, creativity, and communication skills to work. This was my first time creating interactive programming but it was the most fun and rewarding experience I had while working at First Ladies.

Victorian Halloween Booklet Cover

There was one unexpected learning experience that occurred during my time at First Ladies, learning about business relationships and funding. The majority of my responsibilities involved working with the public and had little to do with the business end of work for the museum. Despite not being involved in the business discussions or decisions, it did impact me. First Ladies National Historic Site has two organizations that work together on the site, the National Park Service and National First Ladies’ Library. While I was not privy to the ongoings it was made clear that the relationship between the two had its struggles. There were many occasions when I or my coworkers saw opportunities for site improvements or additions to our current procedures to increase visitor happiness and community engagement. Unfortunately, our ideas could often not form past the early stages because of organizational roles, rules and regulations instituted by either organization, or funding. While this was frustrating in some circumstances it provided me with a realistic idea of how museums work, depending on my role there may be limitations or the need for problem-solving difficult situations.

My internship at First Ladies gave me my first hands-on experience in a museum. It has solidified my goal of working towards a career in public history or the museum field. I walked away from the internship with an understanding of how tours are constructed, how social media is created and managed, experience in creating programs, and a better understanding of how much more goes on behind the scenes. It has been an unforgettable experience that I believe has given me a boost toward the next steps in my career.