Nichole Rawlings’ Internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

[written by second year M.A. student Nichole Rawlings]

Ever since taking AP Art History my junior year of high school I have been hooked on the discipline.  A class trip to Italy solidified my interest in the field, and I went on to receive a BA in art history from Elon University.  I held an internship at the High Museum of Art during the summer of 2008, and became extremely interested in the possibilities of a museum career.  When I decided to go on to graduate school, my decision rested heavily on the strength of the academic program and its proximity to museums.  American University’s program certainly fit the bill!

After my first year in the MA program here at AU, during the summer of 2011, I had the extraordinary opportunity of interning at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in the Education and Public Programs department.  When I began applying to internship opportunities, I never dreamed that I would work with the Smithsonian Institution!  The mentorship and recommendations that I received from my professors here at AU played a large part in securing such a great internship, and I am incredibly grateful.

Now, you may be asking, “Why African art?”  It’s true that my specialty here at AU is in the Italian Renaissance.  When I was at Elon University, I had the opportunity to work with the school’s incredible African art collection to curate an exhibition entitled “Music and Art as Voice of Africa and the African Diaspora: Rhythm, Movement and Color.”  This experience was extremely important to me in several ways—first, I had the opportunity to work with actual art objects in a professional setting.  Second, I realized there was so much material available for exhibition that I was unaware of—the African objects that I worked with were fascinating, and I loved learning about them.

My exhibition experience at Elon led me to consider a wide range of museums for my summer internship here in Washington—at the National Museum of African Art, for example, I would have the opportunity to continue my education in an area I was unfamiliar with while gaining insight in to the museum profession.  After a rigorous application process and an interview with the Education department I was offered the internship with Education and Public Programs, and could not have been more excited!

While at the NMAfA, I had the opportunity to perform a wide range of tasks and gain invaluable work experience.  Some of my primary responsibilities over the summer were related to researching for future museum programming and providing support for summer events.  While interning at NMAfA I was also able to attend planning meetings with other museum departments and outside Smithsonian staff.  On several occasions I attended these meetings without supervision and represented NMAfA to outside institutions.  This allowed me to see the working dynamic of the entire Smithsonian Institution and to feel like a valuable member of the museum team.

This summer NMAfA hosted one of its largest Education programs, Community Day.  The event served as the capstone to a yearlong partnership with area schools and the program itself is dedicated to raising students’ awareness about Africa and its importance.  (Check out a great video about Community Day 2011). Much of my summer work was related to this program, and I learned valuable lessons related to public programming.  I was responsible for creating a timeline of events for the day, coordinating with performers and vendors, confirming their participation—when the Community Day schedule was implemented the day-of with no problems, I felt incredibly proud and validated.

Overall, my experience at the National Museum of African Art helped me to gain new knowledge about a particular art historical area and to develop my career goals.  This summer I realized that creating programming for visitors is a vital and engaging aspect of museum work, and I was able to experience it first hand.  As I begin considering life-after-graduate-school, I feel sure that my experience at NMAfA will greatly impact the opportunities that I consider.  I hope to earn a position that challenges me to grow intellectually while allowing me the opportunity to encourage the same growth in visitors.

To learn more about the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and its mission, check out their website. NMAfA has a wide range of cultural opportunities constantly open to the public, and they always provide a fun and educational experience!

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