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A Career in Collections

Posted: August 19, 2010
Three museum studies students—two graduate students and one recent alumna—put their educations to work in three very different ways this summer.

Robin Foley, a graduate student in the master’s program in history with a concentration in museum studies, spent two months at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., one of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums. Sabine Fisher, a graduate student in the multidisciplinary museum studies master’s program, was hired as a part-time collections assistant for the Resource Center of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society (BECHS). And Sonia Peñaranda, ’10, was hired for a short-term consulting project by Fisher-Price.

Peñaranda, who holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia, is a working artist. She completed an internship with the Burchfield Penney Art Center as part of her museum studies program.

At Fisher-Price, she helped the company develop a plan for archiving its historical records and products, which include iconic American toys developed by Fisher-Price and other companies that are now part of Mattel, Inc. “The company realized they have documents they want to take care of,” Peñaranda said, “including all the drawings and other things involved in the designing of the toys.”

Foley worked in visitors’ services at the Smithsonian Institution. “I really liked it,” she said. “People usually don’t interact with someone who works in the museum, and many people liked to have someone talking to them.” The museum features interactive carts, and children especially appreciated the opportunity to touch items as well as look at them.

Foley was interested in the discrepancy between what museum curators wanted to show visitors, and what those visitors wanted to see. “It was a very valuable experience,” she said.

Thanks to a cooperative partnership between BECHS and the college, Cynthia Conides, associate professor of history and director of the museum studies program, has served as BECHS director for four years. She will continue in that position through December 2010.

Fisher is one of many students who has benefited from the connection. First, she took part in a team assignment documenting paintings owned by BECHS. Later, she worked as an intern with its Resource Center, learning how to use software designed for museums. “You have to gather all the information, and photographs, about all your acquisitions, and put it into the computer,” said Fisher. “However, we still maintain two sets of cards for each acquisition.”

Fisher explained that the focus of the Historical Society’s collection is Buffalo and Western New York history. “It’s great,” she said, “because it gives students like me an opportunity to work with a truly wide variety of things: paintings, textiles, whale teeth, woodworking tools, seats from the Aud.” She’s found she especially enjoys working with cultural artifacts from daily life, such as bowls and cups, and large stone objects such as sarcophagi, tombstones, and architectural details.

“What is valuable about museums,” she said, “is the visual, tactile experience they offer.”
br />She appreciated the program’s professors, who give students access to behind-the-scene tours and an insider’s view of museums. “Hands-on opportunity is the most important thing about learning to work in a museum,” Fisher said.

The benefit is mutual, according to Conides. "Buffalo has tremendous cultural resources,” she said. “Individual and organizations as well as museums are unified in preserving this community's heritage. Training a new generation of museum professionals certainly helps these efforts."

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