The American at the American Museum in Britain
July 21, 2014 - Emily Cranfill
My relationship with the American Museum began when I applied to study with Advanced Studies in England and live, for four months, in Bath. Because I am pursuing a career in museum work, the internship at the American Museum was an obvious choice for me. Little did I know, when I was sending in my CV and letter of interest, how much the American Museum would influence not only my time in Bath, but the rest of my life – even in ways I know I haven’t yet seen.
One of the things that initially drew me to the museum was its unique identity as the only museum dedicated to American culture outside of America. I had spent the fall semester of my third year at Gettysburg College learning about, engaging with, and discussing what, how, and why museums do what they do. I was particularly interested in how museums – and American museums, specifically – understand cultures that are not their own. The American Museum in Britain was the only place I would be able to study this phenomenon from a perspective where my own culture – as an American student from Indiana – was the one being interpreted.
I’ll admit that I expected to see and experience some generalizations and stereotypes about America – cowboys, Indians, those sorts of things. And while the collections do include some “Old West” Americana, I also found that there were aspects of American culture that were much more thoroughly represented at the American Museum than I had ever seen in the States. The collections of quilts, each of the extensive period rooms, and the way that each group of people was represented – all went above and beyond my expectations, and were often better than their American counterparts at telling the whole story.
My work at the museum included a number of smaller projects and roles assisting with the goings-on of the museum; I spent a day helping to prepare small yarn animals for the Yarn Bomb, I worked on the displays that were used in the Kaffe Fassett exhibit, and I assisted in a workshop and several school groups. My main focus, though, was a project given to me by my supervisor, Zoe Dennington, Head of Learning & Events Programming. With a great deal of assistance from Zoe, as well as a number of other museum employees, I completed a Native American Story Walk, to be used for young children visiting in school groups. The Story Walk includes three Native American stories – myths and oral histories of how certain things came to be – and utilizes the natural landscape of the museum’s grounds to help the young students engage with the stories and the ways in which different tribes used to live.
During the four months I spent at the American Museum, I may have been there to work, to finish projects and complete tasks, but I came away with the feeling that I gained even more than I gave. I learned not only how the American Museum functioned, but I also wrote a dissertation about the ways museums, on the whole, must engage with visitors. I came away with a better understanding of my own goals for the future and an assurance that pursuing a degree in Museum Studies is what I’m meant to be doing when I graduate from Gettysburg. In addition to all of the wonderful academic and career-focused experiences, I made some really wonderful friends among the staff. I owe so much to the American Museum in Britain, and I am so grateful for the opportunity that I had to work there.
-Emily Cranfill, ASE Intern 2014.
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