The Internship Experience: It’s What You Make of It (And What Others Make of It)

By Rebecca Schmitt, M.A. Student, Department of History

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Rebecca Schmitt photo-documenting the Kathryn M. Lee, an oyster schooner currently undergoing restoration

For any graduate student in public history or historic preservation programs, probably the most nerve-racking requirement is the internship. Everybody wants an internship that is fulfilling, fun, and can help lead to a job later. All of us who have had internships can attest to the fact that there are bad internships, good internships, and great internships. Although sometimes you just have to take what internship you can get, there is always something that you can do to ensure that your internship is good or great. My summer internship is a good example of a great internship that was molded through not only the actions of others but also myself and my fellow intern.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to be one of two interns at the Maryland Historical Trust, the State Historic Preservation Office for Maryland (SHPO). My experience was funded by a Charles K. Hyde Internship Program scholarship, awarded by the History Department here at UMass Amherst. I was headquartered near Annapolis but was able to travel to many other places including Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

I worked within the Easement Program of the Office of Preservation Services. I had never worked directly with easements before this experience, but I quickly encountered both the benefits and difficulties of this type of protection. Put simply, easements are one of the strongest legal measures that exist to protect historic resources. They are voluntary and allow property owners to retain ownership of their property but give design review power to the administering agency — in this case, the Maryland Historical Trust. In order to alter parts of the property protected by the easement, such as building an addition or replacing a door, property owners would seek permission from the Trust.

Easements can be used to protect single buildings, landscapes, archaeological sites, or vast complexes of multiple resources. Although they offer extraordinary power to protect buildings and landscapes that may otherwise be lost or irrevocably damaged due to redevelopment, lack of maintenance, or historically insensitive renovations, they can also be difficult to administer due to the particularities of each site and the large number of properties under protection (the Trust currently protects approximately 800 sites including well over 1,000 individual resources). My project was part of a larger effort to improve administration of the Trust’s easement sites.

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Rebecca Schmitt standing in the ruins of Whitemarsh Church near Trappe, Maryland

My major project was to improve or create documentation detailing the appearance, layout, and history of specific easement properties. Existing documentation was usually either outdated, inaccurate, or simply nonexistent. For well-documented properties, the improvement was as little as new photographs. Other times, it required the creation of an entirely new site history and description of the property. My fellow intern and I focused on easement properties in Talbot County, on the eastern shore of Maryland. We worked with a wide assortment of properties including private homes, churches, a theatre, boats, an industrial warehouse, a railroad station, meeting houses, and even a lighthouse. In order to do this, we visited the sites to take photographs and examine the building for physical clues to the building’s history. Differences in building materials, rooflines, or fenestration patterns can reveal how a building has been altered. Then, we used archival resources or other internet resources, such as Sanborn or Plat Map databases, to find ‘paper’ evidence of how the building has changed. We brought all of these different types of evidence together into concise site histories that sought to explain why the site was historically significant and how it has changed.

Our project aids the Trust’s mission in two different ways. First, our work will be included in the Trust’s online Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties database for use by other researchers or property owners. Secondly, our work will provide information to the Easement Program to allow them to better determine when proposed alterations to easement properties are appropriate within the context of the site’s significance and past alterations.

As a budding preservationist, I am extremely glad to say that I accomplished quite a bit through my time at the Maryland Historical Trust. Not only will I have my written work in a database for use by other researchers, but I had fantastic experiences that did not even fall within my normal realm of work. Much of this was due to my amazing supervisors who were extremely focused on providing as many internship ‘opportunities’ that they could. One example of an opportunity was accompanying the Easement Inspector on inspection visits. Through these visits, I learned more about building technology and the pathology of building materials. On two other opportunities, we went to active construction/restoration sites, one to a private house and the other to the Maryland State House. In both instances, I learned the importance of being able to ‘read’ a building. Any of my classmates can attest to the fact that I am extremely passionate about getting historians out of the archives and paying attention to other types of evidence, such as folklore or oral histories. Buildings are another excellent example. Buildings are the objects in which history occurs. They are changed to suit new needs, new tastes, and new events. These changes leave behind evidence, such as nail holes or ‘shadows’ in the brick. A skilled architectural historian/preservationist can use these clues to ‘read’ the building and determine how a site has changed without ever stepping foot into an archive. Being able to ‘read’ a building can provide evidence when written documentation does not exist or falls short. Though this is more frequently done it preservation, it can be useful to anybody in public history or academia.

Other internship opportunities popped up when least expected. For example, during an informal chat on a car ride to a site, it was revealed that one of the Trust’s staff members had a contact at the headquarters of HABS/HAER/HALS in Washington, D.C. These three programs document historic buildings and landscapes according to extremely high standards. As such, they are regarded highly within the preservation world. Due to the impromptu car ride discussion, my internship supervisor was able to schedule a tour of the HABS office in Washington, D.C. We were also invited by the office to tour their collections at the Library of Congress. This experience was not only fun and informative but is one of those special experiences that I will forever be able to fondly remember (and brag about).
I also was able to attend a variety of other meetings, such as a Trust Board Meeting, a Heritage Area meeting, and Easement Committee meetings where I was able to witness the interplay of legal issues, public relations concerns, and historical appropriateness considerations that make the work of preservationists exceedingly difficult but also extremely rewarding.

For me, this internship confirmed that my choice of future career was correct, and I was able to cultivate new friendships and networking contacts along the way. The extra internship opportunities were sometimes made possible by my fellow intern and I simply asking to do other projects (such as observing the State House restoration). Other times, my supervisor and other colleagues went out of their way to arrange those opportunities.

This is an important lesson for anybody gearing up to find an internship. While internships can be just another hurdle to jump over on the way to earning your Master’s Degree or Public History Certificate, they can also be an extremely rewarding experience that helps you realize what career you wish to pursue. In order to achieve the latter rather than the former, you must make sure that you are getting the opportunities you want. Many times supervisors are just unsure of what types of extra things you may want to do beyond your normal project. Creating a good internship experience is not a passive action on either the intern or supervisor’s part. A good internship is a negotiation between both parties, and while as an intern you need to make sure that you do the job your were hired to do, you also need to make sure that you are getting all of the experiences that you want. Your internship is not only what you make of it, but what others make of it as well. Do not let opportunities pass you by through inaction; be proactive in your internship and make sure that you get all of the experiences that will allow you to walk away at the end of the summer feeling fulfilled and excited for the future.

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