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What Public Historians do? A view from our Graduate Student Matthew Myers on his internship.

Dr. Thomas Cauvin -- Tue, 10/18/2016 - 3:07pm

There is much to reflect on with the completion of my eight-week internship in Rhode Island. The internship, which is a requirement for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Public History program, took place from June 6 through July 29, 2016. It provided me with a unique experience that allowed for the acquisition and refinement of new and previously known skills. The opportunity to work for two museums through connections with Chuck Arning from the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park  helped develop my communication, research, exhibit design, and collection management skills. Throughout the months of June and July, I split my time between the Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum in Warwick, Rhode Island and the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. My involvement with projects at both places taught me lessons that will be beneficial to future pursuits into a museum-oriented career.

The work I did for the two museums differed in assignments, and because of this I was fortunate to be able to practice multiple skills in the short time I spent in Rhode Island. At Clouds Hill, the task was to organize a collection related to the Slater family. The Slater family, specifically Samuel Slater were key contributors to the foundations of industrialization in New England. The owner and operator of the house museum, Anne Holst, is a descendant of the Slater’s and as such had a collection of unprocessed materials regarding her family’s history. The job for the Museum of Work and Culture was to aid in the creation of a new digital exhibit that will showcase the various mills of Woonsocket as well as the mill employees. The museum, which opened in the 1990s, is dedicated to telling the story of the native-born and immigrant men, women, and children who worked in the mills in and around Woonsocket. While the majority of my work there was researching specific time periods and mills I was also allowed to participate in a meeting with the exhibit designers. The overall goal in ranger Chuck Arning assigning me to two locations was for me to present my findings from each museum in order to help him and other rangers better interpret the history of the Blackstone River Valley.

(An example of the materials processed for the Slater Collection. This piece is a passport belonging to John Whipple Slater. Slater used this document for a trip to Hong Kong in 1898.)


During my two months in Rhode Island, the Clouds Hill Victorian House Museum and the Museum of Work and Culture assigned three main tasks for me to accomplish. The task for Clouds Hill was to process their Slater family collection. This involved making an inventory of the materials, separating and organizing the collection into boxes and folders divided by themes, and making a list of recommendations for future work on that and other collections. Luckily, I learned some of these skills, specifically what key information to record and the most effective way of doing so, in a collection management course I took in the spring semester. The other jobs came from the Museum of Work and Culture and the primary focus of both was research. First was to find basic information related to the mills in and around Woonsocket. The second research project was to find more detailed information about these mills. The museum will use this data in permanent exhibits they call Woonsocket Works & The Mill Memory Bank in which people can register former employees of the mills. Visitors can search this database in the museum to learn more about the people who worked there. Originally, the museum divided the research into time periods in which important movements of the city’s mill history took place. My period was 1925-1935 and the focus was on the newly formed labor unions and the relations between them and the mill owners. The research focus later shifted to specific mills buildings and the history of the companies which occupied them. For this, my assignment was the Jules Desurmont Mill building.

(The Jules Desurmont Mill building in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. This building was constructed in 1907, and for most of the time it was in use the mill produced French worsted yarn.)


Throughout the internship, there were few problems with either of the museums. For instance, the only difficulty encountered at Clouds Hill was the lack of archival grade materials  such as acid-free folders and boxes for proper processing of the collection. This was solved by the last step of the project which was to create a list of materials for the employees to purchase at some point and instructions on how to move the collection into these materials. The biggest problem with the internship regarded time spent researching and communication. For the first six weeks working for the Museum of Work and Culture, my task was to research a time period in Woonsocket. This suddenly changed in the seventh week when the museum reassigned me to the Jules Desurmont Mill building, leaving only two weeks for research. This problem taught me that exhibit design plans can change suddenly and the only way to deal with it is to shift with the change as soon as possible.
The skills I gained and improved throughout the internship will be useful to me as I will pursue a career in museum work and collection management. By working with Clouds Hill I was able to practice and improve my collection management skills, specifically recording and processing, and learn how to cope with a lack of materials for proper collection management. My experience with the Museum of Work and Culture has given me some insight on the process of exhibit design. Besides improving research skills, being allowed to take part in a meeting with the company responsible for creating the interactive exhibits, the memorial project and the mill project, showed the difficulty and effort in designing something that is both informational and appealing. The projects are taking an enormous amount of information and presenting selected pieces, through an interactive exhibit, in a way that is interesting to a wider audience. The interaction between the museum and the designers is something I think would be beneficial to show public history students. Being trained in how to discuss a project with designers who may not know the full scope of the museum, only the purpose of the exhibit, would be a significant skill for graduates to possess. Overall, the importance of communication and connections between various institutions was one of the main lessons I took away from this internship. I learned that it takes the help of other professionals, outside institutions, and in many cases a large team of volunteers in order for museums to be successful.


Matthew Myers (Graduate Student, Public History program, University of Louisiana at Lafayette)


This internship was funded by The Guilbeau Charitable Trust.