St. Olaf News
Student gains curatorial experience at prestigious Viennese museum
July 22, 2014
For St. Olaf College student Kirsten Schowalter ’15, an internship this summer with the Weltmuseum Wien — the Worldmuseum Vienna — was not only a chance to gain professional skills, but also an opportunity to apply her liberal arts experience in a professional setting.
“I was interested in working with Weltmuseum Wien because I felt the efforts of the museum were a summation of many of my experiences at St. Olaf,” says Schowalter.
Schowalter just completed an internship with the curatorial department at the museum, which is one of the most important ethnological museums in the world.
Home to more than 200,000 artifacts and ethnographic objects, including a feathered headdress thought to have belonged to Moctezuma II, the museum is housed in the famed Hofburg Palace, once the residence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s ruling Hapsburg family and currently the seat of the president of Austria.
The museum is undergoing a significant renovation that will reopen rooms that haven’t been used in years, making space for a number of new collections to be put on display.
“To give you a sense of scale, there are currently four exhibitions at Weltmuseum Wien, three of which are temporary,” Schowalter says. “By 2016, Weltmuseum Wien plans to open 15 new permanent exhibitions.”
Schowalter’s work related to the development of these new exhibits.
“I researched content that may be included in the exhibits and helped organize the objects so that the architects of the renovation project are able to have a smooth collaboration with the curatorial staff,” she says.
“It was a good experience for everyone involved,” says Barbara Plankensteiner, Schowalter’s supervisor and the museum’s deputy director, chief curator, and curator of the Sub-Saharan African collection. “Kirsten gained insider background and thought about both academic and field-related questions, and having a new person to work with always adds to the institution.”
Through the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, Schowalter’s internship counts for academic credit. She worked with Assistant Professor of Sociology Ibtesam Al Atiyat to investigate the sociological themes surrounding museums and prepare a formal presentation on the topic, which she will deliver on campus in the fall.
“Kirsten thought deeply about what constitutes a museum, reflected on the representation of other cultures at a museum located in Europe, and examined questions related to the ultimate purpose of a museum and the functions of power it serves,” says Al Atiyat.
“What is unique about her internship is that she was not simply going through the experience without engaging in a reflective critical assessment of the tasks she performed and the place she worked,” she adds. “The readings we added to her workload gave her internship a scholarly frame — a frame that fits well within the promise of liberal arts education.”
Schowalter says that the museum’s mission — to inspire “greater understanding of the global diversity of our world” — aligns with the course her studies have taken at St. Olaf.
“The museum’s work to communicate this diversity provided a platform for me to reflect on my experience at St. Olaf,” she says. “I’ve done coursework in Spanish, sociology/anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, history, dance, and political science, and been involved in Companydance. This internship helped me think about how I can communicate what I’ve learned from these experiences to others.”