Author: Gwenyth Martensen, Museum Blog

An Insight into the Life of a Teen Curatorial Assistant

Published by Gwenyth Martensen

A library with bookshelves and a table in the center of the room, surrounded by 10 chairs
The Library, which contains the Thorek Manuscripts and Rare Books Collection, consisting of over 1,000 rare texts that span over 1,200 years of history and over 500 feet of shelving!

My interest in museums started at a very young age. The youngest of three children, I was often taken along to the Shedd Aquarium, to sleep over at the Field Museum, and my personal favorite, the Museum of Science and Industry. Although I had previously never been to the International Museum of Surgical Science, the prospect of being able to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a museum was intriguing. Being a Teen Curatorial Assistant has been an incredible experience and I have been given opportunities that few get in their entire lifetime. Over the course of the summer, I have been able to learn, research, encounter pieces of history, help with the de-installation and installation of exhibits, write social media posts, propose an exhibit for the museum, and interact with truly amazing people.

One of my favorite projects was cataloguing the books in the office. I was able to construct a plan of action that listed out the procedure to be followed, the organization, and the upkeep of the books. The books I encountered were truly fascinating, some dating to the early 1900s. The most interesting book I saw during my time, however, was in the second floor library. Written by René Descartes, the publication of the book dated back to 1685! With help from the other Teen Curatorial Assistant, Mariam, the office bookshelf is fully catalogued in a spreadsheet for future use.

Teen Curatorial Assistants Gwen and Miriam putting up a poster in the Plant Medicine exhibit on the fourth floor of the International Museum of Surgical Science
Gwen (right) working with Mariam, the other Teen Curatorial Assistant, to install the exhibit Plant Medicine

Another project that I really enjoyed was researching the paintings in the Hall of Murals and writing descriptions for the Museum App. Since the labels were taken down for a repainting of the room, I had no clue what the paintings were. Doing research and learning what the murals depicted was very interesting and there was an added bonus of being able to enlighten any inquiring visitors on the significance of the events. 

Friday, August 9th to Sunday, August 11th was the 7th Annual Hot Dog Fest. I had the pleasure of working both Saturday and Sunday at the International Museum of Surgical Science tent. I was able to interact with the festival goers, handing out brochures and encouraging them to purchase merchandise and visit the museum. Having never worked a tent at a festival, it was a very fun and exciting experience.

From the beginning of my employment in early June to late July, an exhibit called Deadly Medicine (curated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) was on display. The exhibit covered the Nazi regime’s focus on “racial hygiene,” also known as eugenics. While haunting, the exhibit was eye-opening and shed light on the multitude of atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust. It was fascinating to see the connection to the ethical issues we face today regarding the acquisition and application of scientific knowledge and the balancing of individual rights with the needs of a larger community.

A tent with a banner reading “International Museum of Surgical Science” outdoors at the 2019 Chicago Hot Dog Fest. Visitors are looking at merchandise displayed on a table.
The IMSS tent at the 2019 Hot Dog Fest

After the de-installation of Deadly Medicine, I got the opportunity to help install the next exhibit, Plant Medicine. Being able to participate in the installation process was very educational and gave me an insight into the functioning of museums. It was very gratifying to see the exhibit come to fruition after working on it all day. I was lucky enough to be able to work the opening reception for the exhibit. To see the visitors’ first reactions to the exhibit and the dialogue it incited amongst them was captivating.

Throughout my time here at the museum, I have shadowed many tours and garnered a lot of really cool information about the museum’s artifacts and medical history in general. When friends and family members would visit the museum, I was able to show them around, sharing all the information I had acquired through research and reciting the facts that I remembered hearing on tours. Even though I loved doing research and learning about the development of anatomy, antisepsis, and anesthesia, by far my favorite part of this experience was getting to interact with the museum personnel. Consisting of volunteers, interns, and employees, I was able to meet a plethora of people, encountering new ideas and perspectives along the way. My experience, while still amazing, would not be the same without having met and collaborated with these staff members. 

Knowing that my research, my inventorying and cataloguing, and my social media posts were going to be used made me feel like I was actually contributing to the museum. Of course, I had expected to be helping out in some capacity, but I was shocked at the extent of how tangible the help was. To be able to open up social media or the Museum App and see my words in use or to think that in the future someone looking for a book will open up my spreadsheet to find its exact location is quite surreal. Although my time at the museum was only over the summer, I know that I’ve made an impact, no matter how small. Reflecting on my time here, I know it is something I’ll never forget.

Gwenyth Martensen was a Summer 2019 Teen Curatorial Assistant at the International Museum of Surgical Science. She is a senior at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, where she is a member of the Academic Decathlon team. She plans to become an orthopedic surgeon and aspires to be a Team Physician for an NHL team.

This program is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

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