My Smithsonian Internship: Furthering My Family Legacy

When asked what motivated me to pursue a degree in Arts Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an internship at Smithsonian Exhibits, my thoughts turn to my grandfather, Benedict J. Fernandez. A dyslexic Italian-Puerto Rican man from Harlem with no degree or a stable family to lean on while growing up, my grandfather became an icon of the arts and an inspiration to individuals around the globe, all because of his persistence. As one of New York City’s leading arts educators, photographers, and photojournalists throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, he transformed the ways in which photography was appreciated, practiced, and taught.

As a young girl, I was intrigued by grandfather’s work and as a college student, I have grown more and more fascinated with preserving his legacy. Alongside balancing school, jobs, and friends, I soak up as much as I can from my grandfather and grandmother, Siiri Fernandez, archivist of my grandfather's photographs: listening and recording their stories and memories. I have spent countless hours looking through books, contact sheets, and boxes of prints, admiring the thousands of mainly black-and-white photographs that my grandfather created, including collections featured in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of African American History and Culture, among many other renowned museums. It is fascinating to hear my grandparents reminisce about the stories behind each photo and read the thousands of personal letters and documents that chronicle my grandfather’s remarkable career. It is these afternoons with my grandparents that have inspired the path I hope my career will follow.

When I was offered the opportunity to intern at Smithsonian Exhibits, I felt as if I were dreaming. Finally, this was my chance to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and begin my own momentous career. As the largest museum, education, and research complex in the world, the Smithsonian is a wonderland for the arts, history, and science. It was the courses I took through the Arts Extension Service at UMass Amherst - Introduction to Arts Management, Arts Marketing, and Arts Fundraising - that prepared me for this internship opportunity. What I was not prepared for was how much this internship would teach me in such a short amount of time.

During my time with Smithsonian Exhibits under Director Susan Ades, I have gained a greater understanding of the operations that go into exhibition design at museums, galleries, and other cultural spaces. Working with talented model makers, fabricators, project managers, and editors I was able to see and document the processes of the Alexander Hamilton exhibit at the National Postal Museum, Outbreak at the American Museum of Natural History, and other projects for the Hillwood Museum and Gardens and the National Zoological Park. I have learned about curatorial work and the thought processes that go into presenting exhibitions to the public, both in person and online. I have learned about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating new exhibits. I have a better understanding of how project management, design, and fabrication processes play out. Armed with this knowledge, I will head back to Massachusetts with new expertise that will help me to fulfill both my academic and career goals. I am so incredibly thankful to have had the chance to intern with Smithsonian Exhibits and the Smithsonian Institution this summer.

I owe much of my inquisitiveness during my Smithsonian internship to my grandparents, all that I have learned through the Arts Extension Service, and my other UMass courses. As I enter the next chapter of my life, it is clear to me that educating others, igniting imagination, and inspiring creativity is the path I must follow to keep my grandfather’s iconic work and legacy alive.