A Day in the Life of a NPS Art Collections Intern A Day in the Life of a NPS Art Collections Intern
05 September 2022

A Day in the Life of a NPS Art Collections Intern

Written by: Jorie Van Nest

Before attending college and living on campus, I never settled in just one place for over a month or formed a stable routine.  This summer, as I move to a new state, rent my own apartment, and start a new job, I can plant my feet in firmer soil than any previous summer.   


For twelve weeks, I am interning for the National Parks Service at the Harpers Ferry Center.  I am grateful to be working in-person in West Virginia; it is an invaluable gift to handle tangible artifacts, learn experientially, and collaborate with incredible coworkers after more than a year of remote/hybrid schooling. My specific projects revolve around the Commissioned Art Collection which manages around 11,000 art and media projects commissioned by the Harpers Ferry Center. Before starting this position, I did not realize how much art the National Parks Service had! Though it is based in West Virginia, this collection contains art from across the parks. Since I am only a few days away from my official one-month marker, I wanted to illustrate a day in the life of an art collections intern… 

I wake up at 6:30am, make myself breakfast, and breathe before driving thirty-five minutes to work.  On Mondays and Fridays, I telework from my apartment, a little workstation set up at my dining room table. The drive is a great way to transition between my home and work mindsets—something that I seldom know as a college student with piles of homework, and especially while remote learning from home! 

I start work around 8:00am and get situated at my office desk.  Sometimes when I need a break, I look outside the window and watch a family of groundhogs as they scurry through the grass.  My primary focus is on writing accessible, narrative descriptions for art in the collection.  I think collections workers at the National Parks Service are some of the only people who can “travel” to multiple parks across the country in a single afternoon. When I say “travel,” I mean I immerse myself in art and record all the visual information in each piece.  This detailed process gives me a unique glimpse into coral reef care in the Virgin Islands National Park and lobster fishing culture in Acadia National Park to the point that I feel like I just took a trip to these places! In a few short weeks, I have become a well-versed in identifying the parts of a 15-17thcentury Spanish galleon sailing vessel, explaining how the inner mechanisms of textile mills work, and describing the architecture of Zuni pueblos in the southwest. 

While writing these descriptions, I record observations and update the language we use to talk about the represented communities and historical events.  Some of my recent work has been implementing anti-racist vocabulary into scenes of forced conversions of Native Americans in Christian missionaries as well as Civil War scenes to eliminate language that clings onto Lost Cause ideology.  Though some people believe interns are only assigned mundane, tedious tasks, I realize how essential my collections care position is to social justice efforts and overall community care.  The art in this collection belongs to the public and it an educational tool; it becomes a site for empathetic learning, conversation, and asking questions.  The way we describe art and those represented in it matters for how we learn to understand others, our environments, and ourselves. 

The second project I am working on involves rehousing the physical art collection into more protective, longer-lasting storage. Both my boss and I come to the National Parks Service from museum-oriented backgrounds.  While this project improves our storage space, it is also important the accepted mindset about this collection.  As we shift our thinking from resource to art, my boss explains how we begin to approach the collection as museum-quality artifacts and treat them as such.  This will ensure we store them properly, handle them gently, and value them as unique pieces rather than as filed paper records. 

Though I spend most of my time online or in collections storage, there are many other fascinating projects happening down the hallway.  Across the building, you will find different conservation labs dedicated to specific materials like textiles, paper, books, metal, and wood.  I appreciate the conversations I share with these conservators as we discuss our various projects and work on crosswords together over lunch. 

My workday ends around 4:30 or 5:00pm with the same commute in reverse. This time, the mountains fade to purple in the distance and the sunset outlines the clouds in gold.  I return home and cook dinner with my roommate, which is a wonderful way to unpack the day and decompress. 

Agency: National Park Service


Location: Harpers Ferry Center for Media Services

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