Insightful internship at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C.

Caroline Cassinelli studies the distance learning program M.A. Visual and Media Anthropology in her 3rd semester. Here she reports on her internship at the renowned Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington D.C.

How did you come across the internship? How was the application process going?

I found this internship through online research, after exhausting several different internship search engines. I have always been interested in the work of the Smithsonian Institution and in the potential of possibly working there, so I searched through their internship options and found the ones at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

I filled out the online application, which included 2 references. I received word through email that I was successful in applying for the internship in late April, and I was required to submit several documents in order to confirm the position. Once all of these forms were submitted, I was officially accepted as a summer intern and I learned who my supervisor was and what project I would be working on.

You did your internship at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage – that sounds really interesting. Tell us more about this institution!

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex. Located in Washington, D.C, the Institution encompasses many different centers and organizations, most of which are found in buildings on the National Mall. The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) is one of the Smithsonian Institution’s smaller units, with a focus on cultural sustainability through research, education and many community programs. The Center’s motto is “culture of, by and for the people.”

At the Center, I was working specifically within the Cultural Sustainability department, which includes many different initiatives, such as Cultural Heritage Tourism and the Smithsonian Artisan Initiative. For my research tasks, however, I reached out and interviewed several staff members at the Center who are in different departments.

What did you expect from the internship? Could you please tell us more about your goals, task definitions and fields of activity?

My goals in this internship were to contribute meaningful research to the Center’s Artisan Initiative project, while also learning more about cultural sustainability in practice and the organizational culture at a large institution like the Smithsonian. Many of the staff that I interviewed have worked at the Center for a long time, and I really enjoyed my task of interviewing them regarding their projects, partnerships, and self-reflections on their work. In the internship I also intended to learn whether my personal research interest, deaf cultures and signed languages, was present within the Center’s work, and whether or not it could be/is currently defined as cultural heritage.

When I was informed that I would have the opportunity to write and publish an article for the Center’s online magazine, I was very grateful for the chance to integrate my research interest, schoolwork, and all of the new information that I learned throughout my internship.


Which general and study-related kinds of knowledge, skills and qualifications could you apply in the internship?

This internship used my previous knowledge about cultural institutions, intangible cultural heritage, and arts and culture programming. My past experience working in a museum ofanthropology was one of the most important qualifications for the position, but my work experience in customer service also prepared me. Being open, flexible, and communicative enabled me to make connections with those that I interviewed, and maintaining a professional manner helped me to organize the conversations based on my purposes.

My experiences with humanities and social science research was also instrumental in helping me to understand the context of the conversations that I was having. Possessing a broad knowledge of anthropology, social science, and cultural theory, all of which are derived from my studies in Visual and Media Anthropology, was extremely useful in this internship. This knowledge enabled me to relate to the cultural professionals whom I was interviewing.

Finally, time management, organization, verbal and written communications, and initiative were all very important skills that I used in this internship. Due to the relatively short duration of the internship, it was very important for me to create a detailed schedule and to follow it exactly in order to complete all of my tasks. Additionally, I received many different kinds of email and video communications during this period, so it was imperative for me to maintain efficient and clean digital organization of my files.

In your opinion, from which experiences will you benefit the most in your future career?

One of the major insights that I gained from this internship was the value and importance of initiative and responsibility. The tasks required for this internship were not set in stone; they were flexible and adaptable to my own skills, capabilities and interests. While this gave me a lot of freedom and flexibility, it also required me to be more proactive in my work, especially in regards to communications and organization. I was able to direct a lot of my own actions and to use critical thinking to assess the potential of my research against the needs of the organization. This ability to take initiative and action will be extremely valuable in future professional activities.

Another competency that I gained in this internship is in the field of conducting interviews. I have rarely conducted interviews before this internship, and when I have I was never the main interviewer, but rather an assistant. The experience of reaching out to the research participants, first arranging a casual conversation with them and then leading a formal interview was very beneficial for me. I gained more confidence in my leadership and organizational skills, as well as a stronger ability to communicate with people who have very different backgrounds and interests. This increase in my communication skills will surely be very useful in any future role, but especially in regards to my interest in working with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

The experience that I gained from analyzing the data that I gathered will also be very useful in my future career. As a future cultural project manager, it will be very important for me to be able to not only conduct research for my own projects, but also to evaluate their results and to state the impacts of them in writing. The necessity of applying for grants is a theme that was repeated often in my interviews, and the organization that I needed in order to complete this research project will serve me well when I am applying for funds in the future.


Last but not least: What is your final conclusion about your internship at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage?

Overall, I can say that this research project has been a wonderful opportunity for me personally and will hopefully be helpful to the work of the Center. It has helped me to better understand the work of the Smithsonian Institution and to develop a better awareness of what is relevant and current in the cultural professions today. The internship has broadened my interest in cultural project management and research and given me more confidence in my own abilities and research interests in the field. Writing and publishing a journal article was something I did not expect, and it really complemented my internship in a most valuable way.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us. All the best for the future!