Yale-Smithsonian internships offer exciting research opportunities

Maya Juman x-rays the hands a tree shrew specimen at the National Museum of Natural History.
Maya Juman x-rays the hands a tree shrew specimen at the National Museum of Natural History. The work required measuring the specimen’s tiny hand bones, which are millimeters long and less than a millimeter wide.

Yale undergraduate Maya Juman spent four weeks this summer at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) cleaning up a scientific mess concerning a species of tree shrew.

Juman, a junior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, is working with Eric Sargis, professor of anthropology at Yale, and Neil Woodman, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian, to analyze Tupaia tana, a species of large tree shrew that inhabits Borneo and other islands in the Malay Archipelago. The species is composed of 15 subspecies, many of which were identified in the 19th-century by methods now considered unscientific. The researchers are fact-checking their 19th-century counterparts’ work.

To that end, Juman’s internship involved x-raying and measuring the hands of more than 150 research specimens, called “skins,” to gather morphological data. She also had ample time to explore the NMNH and other Smithsonian museums before returning to Yale to continue her research at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

I’ve had a lot of experience behind the scenes at museums, but this was the largest and most complicated machine of a museum that I have ever seen,” Juman said. “Science can be insular if you let yourself be locked into your own little bubble, but what I loved about being at the Smithsonian was how they provided me opportunities to experience departments and spaces beyond my project.”

Following four weeks in Washington, D.C., Juman returned to campus and spent four more weeks in New Haven working with Sargis to analyze the data she had collected.  The research could result in a published paper with Juman listed among its authors.

Juman is one of three undergraduates who had joint internships this summer at Yale’s museums and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The internships, part of a pilot program, are part of a wider partnership between Yale and the Smithsonian meant to foster greater research collaboration between the two institutions and to prepare future generations of researchers and scholars. 

Joseph Zordan, a senior anthropology major, completed a joint internship with the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to develop recommendations on the display and interpretation of artwork portraying Native Americans in the center’s collections.

Beatrix Archer, a senior pursuing a double major in art and humanities, spent two weeks at the National Portrait Gallery studying programming around “Unseen: Our Past in a New Light, Ken Gonzales-Day and Titus Kaphar,” an exhibit that highlights the work of two contemporary artists in exposing the misrepresentation or absence of people of color in artistic narratives. Archer will use her experience at the portrait gallery to help develop programming for “John Wilson and The Incident,” an upcoming exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) that will address similar themes at the intersection of art and social justice.

In addition to the undergraduate participants, Angelica Clayton, a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine, had an internship at the Peabody Museum and NMNH studying historic computers and mathematical instruments, researching gadgets ranging from slide rules and early calculating machines to personal computers and video game systems.  

Elizabeth Williams, special projects manager at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, who coordinates Yale-Smithsonian programs, said the internships, jointly funded by both institutions, provide a fruitful way for students to engage in deep and meaningful ways with the Smithsonian’s and Yale’s collections.

We plan to eventually offer many more internships, as well as research fellowships for graduate students, based not only at Yale’s museums but across the university,” she said. “These initial internships were created with the idea that the students would work both at Yale and Smithsonian and then bring their research back to Yale to make the connection between these two world-class institutions very strong and visible.”

Complex histories

Zordan says he appreciated the opportunity to think critically about issues concerning the display and interpretation of artwork portraying Native American people. He spent four weeks studying materials in the YCBA’s collections and four weeks exploring the NMAI’s collections and display strategies. He spoke with curators and staff at NMAI and other Smithsonian museums, such as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History, to learn about their approaches to exhibiting materials relating to Native Americans.

Joseph Zordan studies a war club in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Joseph Zordan studies a war club in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, where he studied the Smithsonian Institution’s methods for the display and interpretation of Native American materials.

I’m learning that these histories of colonialism and British interactions with indigenous people are just as complex as we think they are, if not even more complex,” said Zordan, who grew up in northern Wisconsin and belongs to the Bad River and Red Cliff bands of the Ojibwe Nation. “It is not always easy to put them into a museum context in a way that captures the complexities and helps people to understand them.”

He says it is important to be mindful of the history surrounding depictions of Native Americans, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries when the trope of the vanishing Indian, which attempts to minimize or delete Native Americans’ presence in American history, began to influence artists and writers.

We need to work against certain kinds of narratives that serve to erase indigenous presence and agency in the Americas,” he said. “On the one hand, it’s important not to forget about colonialism and the harm it wrought on people, but we also must remember that indigenous nations had a role in diplomacy and warfare, and in the development of this country and much of the New World.”

In consultation with Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, the YCBA’s curator of education and academic affairs, Zordan is drafting recommendations on how the center might approach the interpretation and display of works portraying Native Americans.

Hopefully, it will provide a starting point for curators and educators at the YCBA to consider as they think their approach to displaying the museum’s materials relating to Native Americans,” Zordan said. “I appreciate the YCBA for giving me the opportunity to examine these issues in depth.”

Confronting contentious issues

The works of Titus Kaphar ’06 M.F.A. and Gonzales-Day on view in “Unseen” draw attention to the overlooked experiences and contributions of black Americans during the nation’s founding. They critique the absence of the black experience in portraits of celebrated historical figures such Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Archer said the exhibition could change visitors’ perceptions of other works on display at the National Portrait Gallery and the conjoining National Museum of American Art.

It is particularly interesting to have this exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery because the works of both artists are confronting histories of painting and image making and how they build narratives around power,” Archer said. “Some of Titus Kaphar’s paintings explicitly reference paintings that people can see elsewhere in the museum. The same is true of works by Gonzales-Day.”

Archer, who studies painting and printmaking, designed a program to encourage museum patrons to consider other works in the museum in a new context. Visitors would take photos of works on view in “Unseen” and then photograph other works and think about conversations that arise out of comparing the works. 

Beatrix Archer posing outside the National Portrait Gallery
Beatrix Archer spent two weeks this summer at the National Portrait Gallery as part of an art and social justice internship. The experience will help her devise programming for “Reckoning with ‘The Incident’: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural,” an exhibition opening at the Yale Art Gallery in January 2020.

She consulted with the exhibition’s organizers — Taína Caragol, curator of painting and sculpture and Latino art and history, and Asma Naeem, curator of prints, drawings, and media arts — about the programming they developed around “Unseen.”  Archer will help to create programming around “Reckoning with ‘The Incident’: John Wilson’s Studies for a Lynching Mural,” an exhibition scheduled to open at YUAG in January 2020. The exhibition’s centerpiece, “The Incident,” is a mural by Wilson depicting a black man being lynched by the Ku Klux Klan as an African American family watches — the father grasping a rifle as he angrily glares at the murderers. 

What I’m trying to do while in D.C. is think about how ‘Unseen’ is dealing with contentious issues in American history, particularly Ken Gonzales-Day’s works dealing explicitly with lynching, and think about we might approach similar issues raised by John Wilson’s work,” she said.

World-class collections

The internships exposed the students to the Smithsonian Institution’s vast resources and also were an opportunity to appreciate the educational and research opportunities afforded by Yale’s museums.

Archer has been a gallery guide at YUAG since her freshman year and last year completed an internship in the museum’s Prints and Drawings Department. 

Working at the art gallery and just having it accessible as a resource has been a core part of my experience at Yale,” Archer said. “As an art student, it is inspiring to to be able to walk through the galleries and view all of these incredible works in Yale’s collections.”

Juman, who will continue her work with Sargis and Woodman on tree shrews this academic year, said the opportunity to work at the Peabody was a primary reason she chose Yale. She has had work-study jobs in the museum’s collections management department since her first year. Aside from her research with Sargis, she has worked in the lab of Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, assistant professor of geology and geophysics.

It is a really great resource that gets overlooked by a lot of students,” she said. “The experiences I’ve had at the Peabody have made me who I am at Yale. I really can’t overstate its impact on me.”

Media Contact

Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548