Internship at the National Portrait Gallery: Courtney Tompkins

[written by second year M.A. student Courtney Tompkins]

National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

When deciding where to pursue my graduate degree in Art History, an important factor was that the school be in a city where internships and opportunities for museum employment were plentiful.  I don’t think many would deny that Washington DC can answer this request.  The Smithsonian alone controls 15 museums in the district (and eight that are art related).  Throw into that mix the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Corcoran, and various art organizations.  The options seemed endless, and frankly, it was a bit overwhelming completing applications for many of these institutions.  But it paid off!

This past summer, I had an internship at the National Portrait Gallery working with the Manager of Public Programs.  The start of this position comes on the heels of my internship at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as an Interpretive Guide (see what I mean about DC being a Mecca of internships).  One might wonder, “Why all the internships?”  Well, my field of interest has shifted since undergrad, and since my previous job in Detroit.  After graduation, I worked for two years as a Curatorial and Exhibitions Assistant at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  It was pretty much a dream job for a 21 year old Art History major from Detroit, who, at the time, wanted to be a curator.  However, while working on an exhibition of African art, I was offered a glimpse of the world of museum education and interpretation, and I was hooked.

So, I have been seeking experience related to this field, and this Public Programming internship at the NPG fulfilled this call.  My primary responsibility was the development and presentation of the museum’s weekly program Face-to-Face.  On Thursday nights, an invited guest speaks about a portrait for which he or she has some degree of authority or connection.  The department also manages four other programs that I helped to organize.

However, my favorite responsibility was the creation of the portrait scavenger hunts.  First of all, this project required me to do some searching in The Museum System, and I honestly believe I am one of the few people who enjoys playing in this database.  Secondly, I enjoyed thinking of clever ways to link the selected portraits in the collection in order to send participants from gallery to gallery on the hunt.  For instance, in the Man Ray scavenger hunt I prepared, I could have very well guided visitors just to works by the artist, or to portraits of some of his sitters.  However, there was not enough of either of these options currently on view, so I was forced to think more creatively.  I included a photograph by Carl Van Vechten, and mentioned that he was also a prominent portraitist in the early to mid 20th century.  Jumping from there, I added a sculpture of Gertrude Stein by Jo Davidson, for Van Vechten was the executor of Stein’s estate following her death; but she was also a sitter for and friend of Man Ray’s.  So with this stop on the scavenger hunt, I was able to make multiple connections.  Yet, the most significant reason why I enjoyed this project was the realization that this is a way for people to actively engage with the collection, something that I truly believe enhances education in the museum, and the museum experience in general.

The National Portrait Gallery offers many other internships as well.  Learn more on the NPG website.

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