It’s taken me from birth through my first two years of college to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I want to work in libraries and museums. Therefore, it was a stroke of luck for me that the Michigan Libraries not only had an internship program but that they were offering an internship for exhibit design. This internship was one of the most valuable experiences I could have undertaken this summer, given my interests and my future career plans. Working on the Hispanofilipino Literature Exhibit required me to learn about the history and culture of a country I was unfamiliar with and allowed me to gain practical experience with design software and the process of putting together an exhibit, not totally from scratch, but still with a minimum of starting materials.
The already chosen materials included introductory text for the wall panels, relevant visuals for the wall panels, and books to be physically put on display (some of which were ancient, and some of which were only very old). The wall panels I designed will hang above the display cases where the ancient and (only) old books will sit and are supposed to narrate how and why the Spanish language was used in writing in the Philippines at different points in history. Designing the wall panels was my focus for the majority of my internship because the physical display materials were not accessible to me, whereas digital scans of visual materials were, but also because the wall panels control the flow of the exhibit.
To start at the very beginning, I had to read up on the history of the Philippines. I read history books, I read articles on translation in the Philippines, and I read the most famous Filipino novel, Noli me tangere. This research put the exhibit materials and topics into context for me and informed design elements, such as the borders traced from the Boxer Codex, a 14th-century manuscript.
This history lesson was also important to me as a student of both Anthropology and Museums. Both fields have long histories facilitating colonialism and imperialism. Only recently has it been encouraged that students challenge these origins, and an exhibit that highlights how literature was used for reform and resistance against colonial powers was a great way for me to start.
Part of this journey included relearning why Museums Studies classes emphasized the group approach to exhibit design: multiple viewpoints assist in checking biases. The chosen materials for one of the exhibit cases included photos of Filipino men killed in the Philippine-American war. As someone who spends most of a horror movie with their eyes covered, when I saw these images of dead bodies, I immediately wondered if it was content too sensitive to include. When I brought this up with my mentors, the feeling was that excluding these photos from the exhibit would be sheltering the audience. It would be omitting history, and erasing the Filipino people who died fighting for independence from American colonial rule. Their opinions and guidance were vital because, without them, I might have produced a sanitized history that washed out the violence and death perpetrated by the American colonial government during that time. Historical revisionism is an ethical concern that will continue to be a concern for me, as long as I plan on working in museums. Holding myself accountable, and asking coworkers to hold me accountable, is a process I will repeat many times in my professional career.
I learned other skills related to project management in exhibit design as well. As a perfectionist, I struggled a lot with all the little details. I wanted them to be perfect, and I struggled to meet deadlines when I couldn’t let something go. The flexibility and autonomy that this internship provided allowed me to identify the strengths and weaknesses of my workflow. I was also able to expand my skills with creative design software, and I have to say that anyone who has ever posted a Photoshop tutorial to YouTube contributed greatly to my internship experience.
Overall, I’m very grateful for an internship experience that was the perfect trial run for my future career. I want to learn and educate in a cultural or historical museum or library. I hope that the work I have done draws visitors to the exhibit, and creates in at least one person a new interest in history, literature, linguistics, and the Philippines. I also hope that visitors see how rich and interesting the U-M archives are, and are drawn to explore the archives and make new discoveries. One of my favorite parts of this job was the research, and the ability to interact with the digital collections. So few museums can or want to digitize their collection, and it was really cool to interact with such a wealth of information while I created this exhibit.