Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian

by Danielle Hall

The halls at the Smithsonian are quite literally like an unending labyrinth. The National Museum of Natural History is more than just a museum. Beyond the exhibit halls of echoing exclamations of excitement and shrills from unhappy children is an even larger area; six floors in two separate wings dedicated to research, storage of collections and your run of the mill offices. This is where I spent the last three months as an intern.

At first, working in the museum was daunting. Finding my way was tricky, and every errand or meeting I traveled to alone required strategic planning and numerous retellings from coworkers on how to get where I needed to go.

The layout of each of the six floors is unique; mastering the layout of one does not mean you will have success as a navigator at any one of the others. Row upon row of cabinets fill some halls, their contents a mystery to me though I’m sure they were priceless treasures; one of a kind specimens like fossils or artifacts from ancient civilizations. On other floors there was no recognizable pattern of organization. It was more like a maze with every turn looking frustratingly similar and dead ends that appeared where I swore there was a through passage before. A map of the building on the wall in one hall is outdated. From its appearance, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was printed at the opening of the museum, 107 years ago.

The beginning of my internship was much like navigating the halls of the building I worked in. Upon my arrival I was more or less unsure. I hoped for the best and walked with a confidence that surpassed the thoughts of unease running through my head.  I was working as a writer for a Smithsonian run website called Ocean Portal, a combination education and news platform that was about all things ocean. Having just started fine-tuning my writing skills for journalism months before as a first year master’s student I questioned whether my writing skills would measure up to others working at an institution with such prestige like the Smithsonian.

My first assignment became my test, more from myself than from my boss. I was tasked with writing a full-length article for the digital edition of Smithsonian Magazine. My only guidance was the topic: sharks. Shark Week was fast approaching and the small Ocean Portal team of three (including myself) was pressed for time and manpower. At first the plan was to tag team an article. All three of us would contribute content. I began initial brainstorming for topics, hitting the web to research all things sharks. At our initial team meeting I suggested a few angles. I must have said something right since not only did one of my ideas become the focus of the article but I also was outright given the assignment as an independent project.

After the standard jitters of the first day wore off and my day-to-day activities became routine I found peace and comfort in my writing. I learned that I enjoy research more than talking to people. Interviews always cause a spike in adrenaline that I can never seem to calm. But digging through library shelves and combing through search engine results is more like solving a puzzle. After hour of sifting through materials I enjoy the satisfaction of fitting pieces together to make one fluid, cohesive piece.

Getting from point A to B in the museum quickly became a bit easier too. I learned my set routes, making mental maps to follow and finding reassurance in small points of reference. I even began to adventure a little and take small excursions to find alternate paths. I was often delighted in what I found. Behind the window of one door a stuffed tiger stands guard and at another turn a five foot staghorn coral specimen, priceless now due to conservation regulations, casually rests in the corner, it’s cumbersome size too awkward to fit in a drawer. My favorite find, simply for its absurdity, is an old display of computer technology from the 80s and 90s. Perhaps I was just shocked to see commonplace tools I used as a kid among artifacts thousands of years old.

Adventuring into the digital world of web based writing brought its own surprises. I learned a hard lesson in social media. Trusting collections managers to know technical information about specimens is risky business and I posted misinformation while managing the museum’s Facebook account after professing to my superior that I was confident in the source.  After a week managing the Twitter and Facebook accounts of both the Ocean Portal and the Natural History Museum I was more than happy to relinquish my duties once my boss came back from her conference. My sigh of relief was audible, however, I did learn a significant amount about social media management platforms, a skill I can point to in job interviews to come.

But in the following years when I look back at my time at the Smithsonian I will value the experiences beyond my computer screen. I made valuable connections with people I met and learned many lessons from chatting with coworkers during quick work breaks (though social chats of over twenty minute were not uncommon). Taking behind the scenes tours of collections, like the stored dinosaur skeletons from currently closed dinosaur hall, the ripe smelling, off-site necropsy lab, and the whale skeleton warehouse, were some of the coolest experiences I’ve had. I even saw the famous giant squid eye that is hidden behind cabinet doors in a private office.

I’m sure if I ever came back to work at the Smithsonian I would be just as lost as my first day three months ago, the hallways once again turned to meaningless paths leading into the unknown. But that’s okay. The tidbits found along the way are sometimes the most meaningful memories or lessons learned. In fact, I look forward to coming face to face with an Egyptian mummy in some forgotten back corner. I don’t even know how I would react.