Katherine Gendron loves museums. She has fond memories of family road trips across the state to visit them, and to this day likes to spend an hour or more alone in a museum enjoying the art and what to her still feels like a family atmosphere.
That’s why the California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) graduate jumped at the chance to apply for the new CSUDH-LACMA Anthropology Internship, which was launched in spring 2020 by the Anthropology Department in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
The internship is designed to provide CSUDH students opportunities to learn museum curation skills and gain hands-on experience assisting LACMA with its Art of the Ancient Americas collection and the digitization of its Mesoamerican artifacts. In March, however, the internship experienced sudden changes due to COVID-19.
“The opportunity to see what was behind the scenes of a world-class museum was exciting. I’ve always seen museums as a place to escape the real world, but now I’ve had the chance to get a glimpse at what makes them tick,” says Gendron, who is now at the University of Denver in pursuit of a master’s degree in geographic information systems (GIS) technology.
The internship was created by Ken Seligson, assistant professor of anthropology at CSUDH, in partnership with Alyce M. de Carteret, an anthropologist at LACMA with training in Mesoamerican art, archaeology, and ethnohistory.
The program offers students the opportunity to meet with de Carteret twice a month at one of LACMA’s offsite facilities to learn photogrammetric technology to create high resolution 3D models of artifacts, and throughout the process discover how individual artifacts are curated. The internship also includes an independent research project and concludes with a paper that is published on the LACMA website and in ESJOA, the Anthropology Department’s peer-review student journal.
A Change of Plans
Unfortunately, the pandemic forced the closures of many public institutions in March, a week after the cohort of four interns met with de Carteret for the first time. Seligson and de Carteret reconstructed the internship temporarily to an online format that focused primarily on the interns’ Mesoamerican research projects and the use of ArcGIS StoryMaps software to post articles about their work.
“Our vision is that each year the internship will focus on a special project that lines up with the goals of the LACMA curators, and our student interns were still able to make the most of this opportunity despite this year’s challenges,” says Seligson. “They demonstrated an amazing capacity to adapt and thrive amidst the sudden changes to the internship, and their university coursework. We are very proud of all that they were able to accomplish.”
Sarahi Vargas, who also graduated in the spring from CSUDH with her bachelor’s in anthropology, got a lot out of their meeting with de Carteret.
“The 3D photography was pretty cool and really interesting,” says Vargas, whose draw to archeology is discovering “what the past has left behind.” “When the internship went online, they offered us a lot of examples to choose from. My culture is a big part of my life, so I chose artifacts that tie into my experience growing up Mexican-American.”
Vargas’ article “Dancing Through Time,” draws parallels between art and dance through the ages. The piece leads with an image of a dancer in front of folding screen at a wedding in Mexico. “That dance is native to where my mom is from,” shares Vargas, who included postmodern choreographer Trisha Brown in her piece. “I learned about Trisha Brown because I was also a dance minor at Dominguez Hills. I really enjoyed all the work we did when we moved online. The publication process was a lot of fun.”
The other two interns in the pilot cohort were Fernanda Hernandez, who graduated with a B.A. in the spring, and Yesenia Rubi Landa, who will graduate in spring 2021. Hernandez’s article, “Examining Tlatilco Figurines,” investigates figurines from the Central Mexican site of Tlatilco, while Landa explored the journeys that ancient Maya artifacts have taken since they were first excavated by archaeologists. Her article will be published in spring 2021.
Gendron has always gravitated toward the southwest. For her piece “Art of the Ancient Ones: A Look at Hohokam Pottery at LACMA,” she studied pottery created by the pre-Columbian Hohokam culture of the American Southwest, known as the “Ancient Ones” by modern-day native peoples.
Gendron finds the amount of work that went into ancient pottery fascinating. “Pottery not only reflects the culture of people like the Hohokam, but it shows their incredible amount skill and the amount of time a person was willing to commit to putting a piece together,” she explains. “Finding the right materials, the pigments – a piece could take days to make.”
The artifacts that the interns wrote about are just a “tidbit” of what LACMA needs to research and digitally archive, says Gendron. While the pandemic did temporarily change the focus of the internship, she agrees with Vargas that the work they did that day with de Carteret made an impression.
“Being able to hold delicate 3,000-year-old artifacts in your hand, that was pretty special,” she says. “I think we took 800 pictures of just one figurine for 3D modeling. It piqued our interest as a potential alternative route to explore in this field.”
Vargas enjoyed the archeological writing aspect of the online research project and plans to focus more on it in her career. She also envisions herself at a dig on the Yucatan Peninsula “I see myself doing a lot of research, writing, and working in the field. I’d also like to do archeology overseas; even underwater.”
Gendron is also interested in underwater archaeology and plans to get her diver license. Her academic goals include a doctorate in archaeology, and she is proud to have helped bring a voice to LACMA’s Mesoamerican collection.
“There is so much more that still needs to be researched,” she says. “Just the learning experience alone of going through an internship’s sudden transition was educational and eye-opening.”