By: Dominik Maslanka, 3rd Year Student in Latin American Studies and Museum & Hertiage Studies
On the sixth of May, 2014, I boarded my flight from Calgary to Houston. This was my first step towards taking part in something that I always wanted to accomplish: having the opportunity to work in a museum. The planning for this journey began in July 2013 when I took part in a field school to Puebla, Mexico. It was after a tour of the state archives that I expressed interest in a possible internship. Following a brief chat with the director of El Museo de la Memoria (The Museum of Memory), Dr. Juan Carlos Ramos, months of careful planning began, and with the help of two professors from the University of Calgary, Geography professor, Dr. Denise Brown, and Museum Studies professor, Dr. Michele Hardy. With their assistance, I was able to begin my practicum. The circumstances surrounding my time in Mexico were truly unique in that they provided me with an opportunity to pursue both of my scholastic interests: Latin American Studies, which is my degree stream, and Museum and Heritage studies, which is my minor concentration.
The six weeks that I spent at El Museo de la Memoria provided me with an opportunity to apply knowledge learned in various Museum and Latin American Studies courses and apply them to a working environment. My internship also provided me with an opportunity to practice an equally important skill: to further explore the Spanish language. I will admit, the prospect of being placed in a Spanish speaking environment did seem daunting after having taken but a few Spanish courses. With that said, I found that as I had no other choice, using Spanish became second nature, and after a few days communicating with my co-workers and with locals proved to be quite enjoyable. I especially enjoyed learning local expressions, which differed greatly from the ‘formal’ Spanish taught in class. Certainly, such colloquialisms could be learned by reading a novel or in a course covering local expressions, but were undoubtedly better received when experienced in a local context.
Over the course of my time at the museum, I had the opportunity to explore a variety of museum roles, from collections management to interpreting visitor data to acting as an English speaking tour guide. My itinerary covered the entire breadth of a museum’s functions. A memorable moment came when I was studying social-media efforts at the museum and I was invited to take part in a fifteen minute interview where I spoke of my experience in Tlaxcala. It was refreshing to see that people were as willing to learn about Canadian culture as I was to learn about Mexican culture. Moreover, this particular experience allowed me to see that although we may be thousands of kilometers apart, there is commonality between us as nations.
One may be inclined to think that because I was assigned to work in a specific museum, the majority of my working hours were spent in that particular institution. On the contrary, my schedule allowed me to visit a number of surrounding museums, providing me with an opportunity to experience a number of different museums within the state. This broad range of museums included those whose subject matter represented a national interest such as El Museo Nacional de Titere (The National Puppet Museum), located in nearby Huamantla, while others such as El Museo Comunitario Mixcoahtecutli de Matlalohcan (The Community Museum of Matlalohcan) focused on content that was specific to that particular municipality. This museum, in particular, featured a large number of artefacts, from textiles and archaeological pieces to a meteorite which had landed near the town. One may be inclined to ask if a museum such as this one, with its collection spanning a multitude of research areas, provides its visitors with pertinent information about the region or if the multiple elements detract from the quality of the museum’s collection. In my eyes, it was because of the multiple elements that a visitor such as myself could have a well-rounded view of all of the changes that the community had undergone over the years.
Having the opportunity to view museums in various stages of development presented me with an opportunity to become reacquainted with the purpose for which a museum is established. Many are accustomed to think of museums as institutions that house but the rarest of artworks and artefacts, when, in fact, they also play a vital role in preserving the history and traditions of the areas in which they are established, or the subject matter that they embrace. Among the more rewarding aspects of my practicum was having the opportunity to observe how various youth groups interacted with the exhibits. For many, visiting El Museo de la Memoria provided them with an opportunity to view what they were learning in the classroom in a more tangible manner. It was interesting to see that the students, (contrary to my experiences visiting museums as a young student in Canada) were quite interested in the museum’s content and followed directions attentively. The latter brought to my attention the importance of a good relationship between school districts and cultural institutions such as museums, because it is this relationship that sets the foundation for students to enjoy learning about the history of the region in which the museum is located. Perhaps what was most impressive was the fact that for being the smallest state in Mexico, the state of Tlaxcala had a large number of museums, especially when considering its relatively low population density. Conceivably this high concentration is due to the region having placed a high priority on investing in infrastructure and institutions that aim to disseminate cultural and historical knowledge.
Perhaps now I can take the time to summarize my experience over my six weeks of working in a museum in Mexico. What has this experience taught me about museums and living abroad? Has it instilled in me the desire to take up further graduate studies in the museum field? And lastly, what advice would I give other students who may be looking to follow in my footsteps and complete an international practicum of their own? I should begin by saying that the lessons learned through an opportunity such as this are invaluable for any student with an interest in museums and cultural management alike. Certainly, many museums do offer brief ‘behind the scenes’ tours for a few lucky visitors, but having the opportunity to observe how a museum functions as an employee allows one to appreciate all of the different roles of a museum and its staff. My time at El Museo de la Memoria provided me with the opportunity to experience the museum as an integrated whole with a director heading the operation, as opposed to being comprised of many different parts. As opportunities such as exhibition preparations presented themselves, I realized that although the director (and curator) was responsible for carrying out the role of interpretation and research, the other employees played an equally important role in supporting the exhibition through custodial work, such as setting up the exhibition, and bringing the new display to the public’s attention, through various media interviews and social media postings.
To conclude, a museum is only as good as the sum of its parts. When visiting a museum, I invite you to look around and appreciate the effort put forward by those who you may not see credited in the galleries, for their roles may not be immediately visible, but they are certainly not unappreciated. Moreover, as you can imagine, the greatest thrill of this experience was completing such a task in a foreign country. As a rather seasoned traveller, I had little to no problem adapting to my new surroundings. However, if I could provide a piece of advice for future students, it would be to have a good understanding of the Spanish language before going because as I learned in the beginning, it is rather difficult to come across an English speaker. Secondly, when embarking on such a journey, it is important to remain flexible. Of course the only fixed schedule one has to adhere to are the daily work hours, as I had learned, but other things can change rapidly, and the ability to adapt to those changes is an indispensable tool to have in your arsenal.
As my taxi left my hotel on a brisk morning in late June, I wondered about all that I had experienced over the past six weeks and how much more of an informed student I had become. Perhaps most importantly, my time has made me realize that although there is a long way to go yet, I would certainly like to continue in the field of Museum Studies and eventually find employment in such an institution. Lastly, if you are a student looking to participate in a museum practicum such as this one, I say go for it! The experience will likely stay with you for years to come!