Undergraduate Work

  • William Mayer in the Anthropocene Living Room.

     

    Changing the Museum Experience Through the Anthropocene

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

    You probably have a certain expectation of what a natural history museum looks like. You would expect to see cases with filled with old dinosaur bones, taxidermic animals and dioramas. Perusing through museum exhibits of this nature, you might be surprised to come across a space full of couches and chairs, with books or news articles, in which to sit down and read. Not only that, but also a space dedicated to humans and nature in a largely modern context.

    The Anthropocene Living Room at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is such a space. A new addition to CMNH, the Living Room was designed to continue to communicate and engage visitors in information about the Anthropocene and reinterpret humanity as a working part of nature following the museum’s prior special exhibition on the topic, We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the current geological age in which we live, defined by the impact which humans have had on nature and the global environment, dealing with issues from climate change to nuclear fallout. This certainly feels like a new topic in a natural history museum, in addition to its non-traditional design. Over the course of my internship at CMNH under the advisement of Dr. Nicole Heller, Curator of the Anthropocene, I have been working to evaluate visitor interaction with and reception to this experimental new type of museum space.

    I have done a combination of survey work and observational data collection over the course of several weeks, and in my analysis, I have found positive results. Overwhelmingly, museum goers are interested in the Anthropocene. Around 70-80% of survey takers judged the Anthropocene as being relevant, both to natural history and to themselves personally, and they indicated that they are interested in learning more about it. Furthermore, visitors who have been in The Anthropocene Living Room or went to We Are Nature agreed even more so that the Anthropocene as a topic was personally relevant to them than the general populace of museumgoers. Not only that, but a sizable proportion of museum visitors is willing to, and even want to, spend time sitting down and reading books at the museum. Over half of those observed sat down in the couches or chairs in the space, and a third of all visitors engaged with reading material available to them.

    My experience working at the CMNH has been particularly enlightening for me. The Anthropocene Living Room and the Anthropocene at large provide a new perspective into the museum-visitor relationship and moving forward I hope that the work that I have done helps in developing an understanding of efficacy in the design of museum spaces.

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    • Academic Interns
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    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Ethics and Policy in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

    When first learning about the Ethics Intern position, I was under the impression that I was going to spend a lot of time at my desk taking notes and observing in office meetings.  Instead, I was tasked with researching and compiling information from several sources for the new Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) Code of Ethics. My research consisted of reviewing other museums Ethics Codes, cross-referencing different international and national ethics guides, meeting with the CMNH Ethics committee, and meeting with other CMNH heads of departments that would be affected by the newly updated rules. By the end of the internship, I was to make several suggestions for updates and additions to the Ethics Code to the Director of the CMNH and the Ethics committee to take into consideration for the new CMNH Code of Ethics.

    In my meetings with several department heads, I learned a lot about how different rules and policies affect different departments. Before becoming an intern at the CMNH my experience with museums ethics and policy it was limited with a focus on art. In my meetings with other departments, I gained additional knowledge of policy and regulations and their impact on various studies. However, because of my role in this project, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the overarching policies governing each. My understanding of “Ethical” correctly shifted beyond the decision of displaying an object to include other aspects. Such as the logistics of receiving an object, conservation, public engagement, inclusivity, and professional conduct. The best part of my learning experience was my meetings with other museum professionals and hearing their take on different aspects of the Ethics policy, and I was able to learn from their different field affected their views.

    I did learn a lot about the policy aspect of the museum, during my time as an intern. I also learned more about professionalism in museums and the inner workings of departments in a Natural History museum. As I move forward in my career, I will be looking back on this experience as something that allowed me to learn and grow as a worker and have a more complete understanding of policies and the inner workings of museums as a whole.

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    Lisa Canavan and the "Men's Work/Women's Work" exhibition

     

    Digitization and Exhibition of the PPL Archive

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Spring 2019

    I saw myself in a photograph from 67 years ago. Not literally of course, but I felt a kinship with a homemaker I never knew because I identified with her life. Thankfully, I never had to hand wash clothes in a shared hallway bathroom tub as the only source of hot water in an apartment building, or wash dishes in a clogged sink that had to be drained with buckets. But, as a wife and mother who stayed home to raise a family before going back to school to earn a third degree, I understand how hard women work and how often our contributions go unrecognized.

    This photograph of Mrs. Pagone and several more like it in the Pittsburgh Photographic Library at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh inspired me to create Men’s Work/Women’s Work, an exhibition highlighting how gender defined labor in the mid-twentieth century. As the Digitization and Special Projects intern, I wanted to create an exhibition that would acknowledge the hard-working women who often lived in the shadow of men, especially in an industrial city like Pittsburgh, where male labor and blue-collar workers were synonymous with the city itself.

    The Pittsburgh Photographic Library was created by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development to document Pittsburgh’s urban renaissance after WWII. It is an amazing archive of over 11,000 photographs documenting life in the city during the early 1950s. But since it exists in the form of negatives and proofs, the public only has access to the few that have been published. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh holds this collection and my supervisor, Brooke Sansosti, Digitization and Special Projects Lead, is in charge of making the collection accessible to the public. Working under her direction in the REcollection Studio, I scanned, edited, reviewed, and cataloged photos into the Historic Pittsburgh website [https://historicpittsburgh.org/]. I was also very fortunate to be given total creative freedom over an exhibition to be shown in the library’s Gallery@Main, giving the public a taste of the PPL.

    Through this internship, I learned many useful things. I received hands-on experience in exhibition production. I gained skills in digitizing photographic negatives and became more comfortable with PhotoShop software. As an artist, these skills are useful for creating as well as documenting art. I also came to appreciate the value of preserving archives. This archive taught me a lot about Pittsburgh in the 1950s and how far women have come toward equality since then, even as I recognize that there is still a journey ahead. It is productive to look into the past because it gives you perspective on the progress you may not be able to see from day to day, and allows you to move forward with a positive attitude.

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    • Image of Meghan Lees with Exhibit Case
    • Ground Floor Cases of Exhibit
    Image of Meghan Lees with Exhibit Case

    Meghan Lees accompanied by the introductory case of the Travelers Along the Silk Roads: 10th Century to Present exhibit.

     

    Digitizing the Silk Roads

    Museum Studies Intern at Archives & Special Collections, Hillman Library – Spring 2019

    It has been a fast-paced four years here in the University of the Pittsburgh and, with graduation a mere few weeks away, my time at Pitt is coming to an end. I have been able to explore an assortment of coursework, some of which I never expected to, and have found myself in both digital design and the arts. As luck would have it, I have had the pleasure melding those two aspects of myself together in my work as an intern at Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) in the Hillman Library. 

    As part of my primary task, I was given the objective of taking the currently displayed exhibit, Travelers Along the Silk Road: 10th Century to Present, and digitally recording it in a guide. Working with Slavic, European, and Global Studies curator, Daniel Pennell, I was allowed further insight in the wide range of research and media that went into the creation and running of the multi-case exhibit.  He gave me access to the files compiled by him and his colleagues and I was able to really see the narrative behind the exhibit.  It not only had the expected labels and images that you see in the exhibit, but also documents telling of the exhibit’s original conception and presentation, research not included in the final exhibit, and so on. Additionally, the Archives & Special Collections also had two book trucks of both primary and secondary sources on the Silk Roads that they used for the exhibit and I was given freedom of paging through the majority of them. 

    Most liberating for me was the actual aesthetic designing of the guide.  Of course, I had strict limitations in areas – what topics the curators of the exhibit wanted to highlight, which information goes on what page and the pictures that should accompany them, and then there’s the system as a whole that I used, LibGuide, which has its own set of limitations that comes along with it. But outside of that, I had free reign over what the layout of the guide looks like as a whole. They allowed me to share my insight on what would be most aesthetically pleasing and accessible for the viewer. I was given the chance to take skills I have acquired in my time here at Pitt and see how I can apply them in a professional setting. 

    After this semester, I feel I have a better understanding of how I can move forward.

     

    You can check Meghan's LibGuide here

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  • Conor Short inside the Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor

     

    Honoring Local Veterans

    Museum Studies Intern at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum – Spring 2019

    Pittsburgh’s Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum was built in 1910 as a monument to the Civil War veterans of Allegheny County. However, as American history progressed, the institution expanded its scope to honor veterans from all American wars and all branches of the United States Armed Forces. The mission of this museum surpasses education or the preservation of history. The primary objective of Soldiers & Sailors is to honor those veterans whose donations compose the museum’s collection.

    I was fortunate enough to complete my internship at this institution. My work was largely confined to Wednesdays and Fridays—during which I was involved in the cataloging and organization of the collection. However, the most important and exciting of my experiences came on Sunday March 31. Soldiers & Sailors hosted its 2019 Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor Induction Ceremony and the museum staff was generous enough to invite me.

    In 1963 the Hall of Valor was dedicated in order to honor veterans whose valor went above and beyond the call of duty. From the date of its conception to March 31st 2019, the Hall of Valor has inducted over seven-hundred veterans from every American conflict and from every branch of the Armed Forces. This year’s nine inductees included veterans of the Civil War, Vietnam, and the Second World War. Medals awarded during their service included the Medal of Honor, the Silver Star, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. The ceremony was held inside the central auditorium and allowed the veteran or the representative of the veteran to accept the induction and have his/her photo taken onstage. We were also honored to have one of the recipients attend the ceremony in person. Also in attendance was the Vietnam Veterans Inc. as the honor guard, as well as several local VFW posts. I was not seriously involved in the production of the ceremony, but I was content to simply sit in the auditorium and watch. The solemnity and dignity of the ceremony provoked feelings of sadness for those veterans who did not return from combat, respect for those who did, and the unrivaled admiration of all who served.

    I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at Soldiers & Sailors. I was able to engage hands-on with what I believe are some of the most exciting and most important artifacts in the world. I realize that is not a chance that everyone receives and I fully appreciate the privilege. However, witnessing the Hall of Valor Induction ceremony was by far the most memorable experience of my internship. Not only did it provide me with a fond memory, but it also brought to the surface the core of the institution’s goals and values which I happen to share.

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  • Eli Savage contributing to The Evolution of Sex and Gender lecture at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

     

    The Evolution of Sex and Gender: Chase Mendenhall on the power of diversity

    Author: Eli Savage

    Undergraduate student and CMNH content contributor

    Chase Mendenhall’s talk on March 7 in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) provided a broad and informative overview of the biological basis for sex and gender diversity. Mendenhall began at the cellular level, detailing how some bacteria extend fibers to one another that serve to transmit information that helps to promote each bacterium’s continued survival. Though this may seem irrelevant to us as humans, leagues removed from our distant, unicellular predecessors, he explained how this is the most basic framework for why diversity is crucial for groups to thrive. He used children playing board games as a human example: if one child finds a new game to play, it is in the best interest of the group for that child to introduce the new game to the group, expanding everybody’s options for play and allowing each child to pick a game best suited to their skillset, maximizing the group’s efficiency and well-being.

    Mendenhall then explained that an organism’s sex, as defined in biology as a near-universal rule, comes down to whether its gametes are relatively large or small. That, he said, was it. Everything else we tend to associate with biological sex—ovaries, testes, penises, vaginas, pregnancy, breasts, etc.—varies wildly, and are viewed in contemporary biology as gendered characteristics rather than sex characteristics. Gender, while a difficult term to define in any concrete and all-encompassing way, can be defined as everything that is associated with or extrapolated from an organism’s sex, from its body parts to its role in a family to the way it does or should act. 

    To illustrate these principles, Mendenhall listed numerous cases of non-human animals that diverge from human ideas of “the norm” when it comes to gender and sexuality. One of these was the long-tailed manakin, a species of tropical bird in which males exhibit almost exclusively homosocial behavior—two males will pair up for life and spend years choreographing an elaborate, beautiful courtship dance to perform for a female during the brief annual mating season. An interesting mystery in this dynamic, though, is that only one of the two males does the vast majority of the mating, and no difference has yet been found between the roles. It is unclear what the other male gains from this arrangement, aside from one chance in a hundred to mate with a female, but their dance, a stunning and mesmerizing display, would not be possible with only one bird.

    Another example was the clownfish. Mendenhall joked that if Finding Nemo had been accurate to the actual behavior of the species, the film would have gone very differently. Clownfish, he explained, live in groups of many males and one egg-bearing female. If the female dies, the males have a solution: one among them changes sex and becomes the new female. This process is beneficial to the survival of the group, and it’s hardly unique to clownfish—many species of fish, amphibians, and other animals practice sex-switching.

    Mendenhall finished his talk by returning to humans, providing two anthropological cases of gender and sexual diversity being beneficial to groups. One being the bissu of the Bugis society in Indonesia, an inter-gender priestly class, and the other being Native American two-spirits, or individuals viewed as containing male and female spirits in one body. Stressing that diversity is a key feature, if not the key feature, of the survival and development of all life. It is not something to be feared or discouraged, but embraced as a natural continuation of how we got to where we are now.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Annie Abernathy

     

    Identity Materialized: Touching On Activism in Artist’s Books

    Author: Annie Abernathy

    Archival Scholars Research Award Spring 2019

    *A version of this blogpost was originally presented at the event Archival Scholars in Action on March 22, 2019. Below is an edited version of that presentation.

    In collecting art made with an anti-institution mindset, there is often a contradiction between original meaning and current context. The collection of artist’s books and zines in the Frick Fine Arts Library is a site of this contradiction-- however, unlike many institutions, the library supports the original mission of the art: making these activist themes visible and accessible to the public. As a recipient of the Archival Scholars Research Award this semester, my project has centered around artist’s books from the 1980s and 1990s in this collection. I have been thinking about this research in relation to my library work. Specifically, how do we make decisions about what to collect? How do you collect within the fringes of what is a book and what is art and especially the grey area between the two? A lot of these questions concerning collecting depend upon materiality.

    One of the artist’s books I was immediately drawn to is a booklet of posters made by Fierce Pussy, a feminist artist collective working to bring lesbian identity to the public eye. They did this through disseminating posters around New York City. The artists describe their practice as “adamantly lo-tech, fast and low-budget” as they used what they had on hand, including using the photocopiers at their day jobs to produce the work. In this way, they chose the medium of the poster because of it was cheap and fast. 

    As a material, posters can be widely-disseminated and easily mass-produced. This is especially evident here as Fierce Pussy would have photocopied these designs on printer paper. Since it would have been affordable paper, more could be produced to invade the public space of New York. The medium of the poster itself reflects the dematerialization of the art object discussed by Lucy Lippard as it falls in the category of “art that can be shown inexpensively and unobtrusively in infinite locations at one time.” In this way, posters can be seen as both anti-capitalist and anti-institution because of their ephemeral nature. How exactly could a museum possibly collect an entire city block of wheatpasted posters?

    The posters of Fierce Pussy are an example of an artist thinking about public activism, where the large scale and volume of art objects reflects the scale of the intended audience. Contrasting this, Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards) #1 and 2 are examples of personal activism. Whereas Fierce Pussy’s posters are about 13 by 18 inches, these cards are each 2 by 3 and 1/2 inches. Their stark difference in size is underscored when these works are presented side by side. Calling cards like these were a performance piece by Piper in the late 1980s. She would hand out the brown card, for example, when someone made a racist joke at a dinner party, not realizing Piper’s race. And if a man flirted with her in a bar, she would hand him one of the white cards. She chose this material because of its intimate scale. This material is also connected to other social rituals such as business cards or even ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth century. These references further point to Piper’s personal approach to activism in one-on-one contexts. 

    Similar to the Fierce Pussy posters, these cards are also anti-institution in their ephemeral materiality, but as these artists have become more well-known, their activism has been co-opted and recontextualized in an institutional setting. This can be seen as both artworks in our collection are reprints sold by major cultural entities twenty years after the work’s original conception and use. In reprinting the object, there is a disconnect from the original materiality and meaning. For example, the fierce pussy posters are on a firmer type of paper with a spiral binding, giving more ‘bookish’ qualities. At the same time, however, this reproduction allows them to be collected by multiple institutions, such as the Frick Fine Arts Library, in order for them to be more accessible to a wider audience and to be accessible for research such as mine. 

    The materiality of artist’s books is integral to their meaning, so, of course, reproduction of these objects presents challenges. Similarly, artist’s books present challenges in exhibition making. In my next stages of this project, I will develop a pop-up exhibition for the Frick Fine Arts Library which will be on view April 10 from 1-3 pm. Featuring artist’s books from the 1980s and 1990s as well as contemporary zines and activist art, I hope to materialize these social issues of the past and situate them in the present social climate.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Special Collections Trip for Introduction to Medieval Art

    Author: Sarah Reiff Conell

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Taking an introductory class of 100 students with no recitation sections to Special Collections seemed, at first, a daunting task. My recent experience, however, radically shifted my perception of how feasible and rewarding this undertaking is. Professor Shirin Fozi coordinated with the professionals in Special Collections to organize small-group time slots for which students could register. The Special Collections team was exceptionally generous in their willingness to coordinate visits for students who were unable to make one of the scheduled windows of time.

    While it is often logistically necessary to use projected images to present objects covered in courses, these conditions can obscure the physicality of an object. Special Collections provides a space for different modes of contact. As a graduate student, it was instructive to witness how Dr. Fozi clearly described these works and their structure in a way that engaged the students. As the groups rotated through, I was able to hone my object descriptions through close observation of a masterful teacher and my own iterative practice. 

    Pitt’s fabulous facsimile collection supports meaningful interactions with objects, allowing students to turn manuscript pages, explore their contents, and discuss in small groups about the use of objects. It gives them real-world experience that informs their understandings and allows them to make better-informed inferences. For example, it was exciting to see students quickly drawing on their knowledge of purple codices from lecture when they encountered the Rossano Gospels. They were able to proficiently discuss the assertions of Pope Gregory the Great (that pictures are books of the illiterate) by toggling between the narrative illustrations in this manuscript and its purple-stained pages that betray a more elite audience. They then seamlessly moved onto the mixture of pagan and Christian imagery on the enigmatic Franks Casket, drawing on their exposure to other examples of composite objects from lecture. 

    Students engaged with a mixture of facsimiles, including three objects we had covered in class, three unfamiliar works that were comparable to things previously seen, and one artwork that we were going to discuss in the following class. Within this set, it was productive to have a variety of surrogates with which to engage. The diversely scaled manuscripts were paired with replicas from Dr. Fozi’s personal collection, the Franks Casket and a paper foldout of the Bayeux Tapestry. This collection provided punctuated moments for students to consider the role of form in beholding and use of medieval art. 

    Making the wonderful holdings of the University’s Special Collections visible to undergraduates early in their educational careers empowers students to engage with objects and enriches their time at Pitt. A brief introduction to the space and holdings of Special Collections is informative in and of itself, but it is clear that interacting with this rich corpus of facsimiles yields great rewards. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Mapping Mobility in the UAG

    Author: Ellen Larson

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture and University Art Gallery graduate fellow

    As University Art Gallery (UAG) graduate fellow, I am collaborating with HAA Professor Michelle McCoy, along with five undergraduate students on a pop-up exhibition to take place in the UAG mid-March. This exhibition supplements Professor McCoy’s HAA 1010: Approaches to Art History undergraduate course, focusing on Chinese art objects within the UAG collection. Students selected Chinese work, as a means of initiating in-depth original research on themes and ideas related to the art objects themselves or broadly connected to socio-cultural contexts from which these materials emerge. 

    In my role as a curator and mentor to undergraduate students, I am working with the class to conceive a short-term exhibition that presents these objects as portable agents of culture, whose value lies not only within the realm of connoisseurship and museum collecting, but also as transient catalysts of new knowledge activated through their physical positions within an exhibition-setting. Rather than uncovering specific temporal histories, the exhibition seeks to extend spatial and thematic connections between works centered upon mobility and exchange. 

    Selected artworks include ink paintings by Chinese master painter, modern nomad, and notorious forger Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). Following the Communist takeover and subsequent establishment of the People’s Republic of China on the Mainland in 1949, Zhang Daqian traveled to Macau, Argentina, Brazil, and Carmel, California, before settling in Taipei in 1978. Other featured works include rubbings depicting seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang, whose travels led him to regions throughout central Asia including parts of modern India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Xuanzang’s writings inspired the sixteenth-century Chinese classic novel Journey to the West. Additional objects include a selection of Chinese snuff bottles, whose aesthetic utilitarianism is juxtaposed with the non-utilitarianism of a ritual ceramic vessel displaying the abstracted character , meaning “good fortune.” This object references a common practice of pasting the upside-down character  in one’s doorway, allowing good fortune to descend upon the dwelling, as the words for “upside-down” and “to arrive” are homophonous. This is further suggested by the same Chinese term, which indicates the performative action of pouring liquid from a vessel. While the selection of snuff bottles and  ritual vessel are commodity objects, the latter serves as a striking example of totality found within the context of written language, material objects, and ritual practice. 

    Echoing the words of Susan Stewart, this particular presentation of objects replaces the notion of origin with classification, presenting “temporality as a spatial and material phenomenon.” [1] In addition to displacing one’s understanding of time, the collection’s relational organization highlights the exhibition’s function as a three-dimensional map into which gallery visitors are invited to physically enter. These objects represent points of exchange and connection; concealed and revealed only through their spatial relationships to each other. Thus, new knowledge is produced through space, and is further activated through the creation of multiple networks that traverse and transition from Pittsburgh to China, and beyond. 

    [1] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1984), 153. 

     

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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  • Dinosaurs in Their Time - The exhibit that I worked on during my first several days as conservation intern

     

    Conservation: Preserving the Past for Future Generations

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Fall 2018

    For the last four months I have worked as a Conservation Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. During this time, I have been exposed to a wide range of practices common among natural history conservators that I can apply to my future career. While before the internship I maintained a keen interest in the field of conservation, working under head conservator Gretchen Anderson has given me a newfound appreciation of conservation work. I have learned that conservation encompasses a wide range of responsibilities and expects that the conservation team work closely with many other departments, including exhibits, collections, and curatorial.

    Over the course of the semester I had the opportunity to clean and preserve taxidermied specimens, package and send out loans, assist with scientific imaging, and create a housekeeping plan for the entirety of the museum of natural history. Interspersed between these hands-on activities were cross-departmental meetings, instructional readings, and even classes to further teach me about the science of conservation.

    The housekeeping plan was the most urgent and important task of the semester, requiring that I met with staff from each section of collections, maintenance, and facilities. All of these departments worked together to set a standard that would keep the museum clean and all collections safe. Without the dedicated work of a conservator, museum collections would not last nearly as long as is now allowed.

    I appreciate the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s willingness to teach and willingness to give true responsibility to their interns. I have learned more than I would have ever expected, and I am excited to one day establish myself in the conservation field.

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