By Colleen Ouendag, '12
History is not something to just be studied in dusty old textbooks. History is not a bunch of dates and dead people that hold no relevance to the present day. Rather, it is a living, breathing narrative that enriches and influences us here today.
It is because of this very nature of history that I have always been drawn to museums. Even when I was a little kid I would get so excited about going to a museum during family vacations because I knew without a doubt that I would be learning something new. Of course, it was always history museums that I would get the most geeked about. By my junior year of high school, I knew that I would spend my life with what can only be described as a mild obsession with American history.
It was this particular love that led me to apply for an internship at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids. The internship would involve working hands-on in collections and learning about artifact preservation. It seemed like the perfect fit for someone like me who was so passionate about history, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled to hear I was accepted.
My experience with the Ford Museum has turned out to be everything I imagined and so much more. I have had the opportunity to touch (with gloved hands, of course) objects that I may have never even had the opportunity to see before. The Ford Museum holds artifacts such as the pen used by President Nixon to sign the SALT Treaty, the gun used in an assassination attempt on President Ford, and a vast collection of gifts sent to the White House to commemorate the Bicentennial.
One of my primary duties as an intern has been to work on a data entry project for these artifacts. I take measurements of the artifacts, look up their donor information, and record descriptions and condition reports. While this may sound tedious, for me there is nothing cooler than being able to come in contact with objects that have helped form the smaller details of the American historical narrative.
One of the more exciting projects I had the opportunity to work on was the exhibit rotation from the “American Soldier” photo exhibit to the “American Eagle” exhibit on display for the rest of the summer. In doing this I was able to learn more about exhibit design and gain a greater appreciation for all the hard work that is put into the creation of an exhibit. Not only must the previous exhibit be carefully packed into crates for shipment back to its home location, the incoming exhibit has to have a condition report recorded for each and every artifact.
One of my favorite pieces I discovered while doing condition reports for the “American Eagle” exhibit was a large bearskin busby with a metal plate featuring an eagle on it. It was such an obscure piece that I couldn’t help but become weirdly excited about it. Aside from condition reporting, however, an exhibit rotation also involves setting up the actual exhibit. This means moving around large cases and assembling cases for the artifacts. If nothing else, I can now say that I have acquired the ability to move pieces of Plexiglas that stand eight feet tall.
My fairly ordinary internship experience underwent a slight shift in the week following July 8. On this date, former first lady Betty Ford passed away and the entire Gerald R. Ford Museum focused its energies on preparing for her memorial and funeral services. This included some photo documentation of some memorial pieces left at the museum by locals and preparing the bier for her casket. While I did not attend her funeral service, I was honored to be able to attend a family memorial service held at the museum. It was a simple, quiet service that beautifully commemorated the amazing life of Betty Ford.
While I don’t know if collections management will ultimately be my career choice, I can say with full confidence that a career in public history is where I belong. My internship at the Ford Presidential Museum has solidified this in my mind. For me, there is nothing more amazing than having a personal connection with history and being part of a team that shares a piece of our national story with the public. Taking history out of the pages of a book, out of lecture halls, out of the dusty corners of memory and bringing it into the present, where it can be made applicable and real to anyone—nothing is more thrilling to me. This is what museums are for, and this is what I cannot wait to spend the rest of my life doing.