Works and Days

Union Pacific Railroad Museum, Reed Winter Externship Program, Liana Clark

Text reads “Meeting of Union Pacific Board of Directors, The Republican National Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 3rd, 2000”

Liana Clark, senior art major, joined the team of the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Iowa as a part of the Reed College Winter Externship Program.

On several occasions my mother has told me that I'm "the best person to go to a museum with." I'm sure others would disagree - not that they would be noting a different trend than she did. For as long as I can remember, I've been extremely critical of the wall text, the arrangement of art objects or artifacts, or whatever general narratives the gallery space is attempting to project with their exhibitions. This tendency to critique only intensified after I declared myself as an art major at Reed. Still, I never seriously considered working in a museum. For me, the fun of rolling my eyes at a reductionist perspective on an artist's legacy, or quoting Fred Wilson ("museums are great silencers of dissent") after reading an exposé that seemed to stretch the truth, was my own little exercise in futile expression of exacerbation. I didn't expect it to go anywhere.

One night, my housemate and I were trying to figure out what we should do over winter break.  We decided it would probably be worthwhile to apply for Reed's winter externship program, but since the form only lets applicants select a single location (and we didn't feel especially competitive), we laughingly chose the most intriguing - but hopefully least enticing to our peers - destinations.  Seeing as the Union Pacific Railroad Museum is not only a corporate museum (bound to offend the average Reedie's anti-establishment sensibilities), but it is also in Council Bluffs, Iowa (which in the middle of winter, didn't exactly call for the same uniform as the beach in Miami), it seemed like I'd have a good shot. I figured this could be my chance to see what it was really like to work for a museum. Besides, at the very least, it would definitely supply me with great material for the next time I wanted to complain about what was badly executed about a glass case of silverware in the Legion of Honor.

When I got off the airplane in Nebraska, the air was so cold that I started to worry my eyes would turn into ice cubes.  My host, Patricia LaBounty, who works for UP's museum, picked me up in her car (in which, for the duration of my externship, we traveled between her house and the museum... the whole four blocks) and took me across the river.  I wasn't sure what to expect, or how to prepare myself.  Was there any skill I actually had that would assist in this type of labor? Could I ever work in a corporate environment?

Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. In the days that followed, I worked on multiple projects, visited UP's corporate HQ, and, inadvertently, learned a great deal about trains.

While some of my assignments involved tasks such as taking down Christmas decorations (I'm Jewish, so this was honestly as novel as anything else I did), one of the more thrilling experiences was when I got to go into their storage.  I already knew that in the back rooms of museums, there contained far more objects than were on display at any given time.  Still, no abstract knowledge of this could compare to the sight of rows upon rows of filing cabinets, each filled with old photos, magazine advertisements, original lithographs, or inlaid wood bison.

I worked briefly with everyone on the museum’s small team, all of whom were wonderful to meet. One woman showed me their process for their inventory's digitalization, and we spent several hours taking photos, measuring the dimensions of, and noting in which cabinet we were placing, objects.  I had reservations about this type of archiving, which I assumed would be boring, but it was completely thrilling.  Nothing can compare to holding in your (gloved) hands a piece of genuine historic material culture.

My last few days were mostly spent doing research and writing copy for an upcoming show. Whether or not my notes became wall text, It was so strange and invigorating to write them down. It seemed like so much power, even if they didn't keep anything I'd written at all - it was still interesting to realize that the people who DID write the text weren't omnipotent gods OR bumbling idiots, and that my fury against the faceless writers was just really because I wanted more substance.

The UP galleries were packed with information, most of which was entirely new to me.  In the past, I’d thought that the problems I saw in museums were just par for the course, and that the stuffy people who worked behind the scenes were fated to always be a bit out of date and too hopelessly concerned with the respectability of the exhibition to give museum-goers anything to really sink their teeth into.  But now I’m forced to revise that idea. If museums exist to spread information, they have to appeal at some level to people with completely varying levels of prior knowledge.  And it’s not like they should focus on a nuanced critique of something that the audience might not even know exists.  In all, I think I’m more appreciative of the massive amount of labor required, and perhaps better able to deliver a more balanced critique – that takes the positive elements of an exhibition into account.

Tags: winter externship program, reed winter externship , art, curating, museum, gallery