Out West student blog

Summer in Yellowstone: Beyond Postcards and Photo Prints

Landscape view from Specimen Ridge in Yellowstone.
The vista from Specimen Ridge, an 18-mile day hike I did a couple of weeks ago, located along the south rim of the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone.

By Emily Santhanam
B.A., Anthropology, 2016
Curatorial Intern at Yellowstone National Park

During this summer in Yellowstone, my housemate and I have a running joke. Whether we’re convincing ourselves that hiking 26 miles in one day is reasonable, or rationalizing another stop for ice cream at the Mammoth general store, we eventually make our decisions with the words -- “why not, it’s the centennial!”

This year, 2016, is indeed the 100th year celebration of the National Park Service. While this might not be reason enough for a third huckleberry ice cream sandwich, it does add a certain sheen to the months I’ve lived here. Spending the summer working in the museum collections of the Heritage and Research Center has been incredible in and of itself – the crash course I’ve received in the curatorial field has already sparked my interest in museum studies programs – but to tack on the fact that I’m here while the Park Service commemorates 100 years of hard work and dedication to America’s National Parks? It’s a little unreal, to be honest.

Yellowstone National Park, established on March 1, 1872, is the corner stone of the NPS: it represents America’s will to conserve, preserve, and protect the natural wonders of this country. It seems serendipitous, then, that my job for the past ten weeks has been within the museum collections, assisting in the conservation, preservation and protection of the specimens and artifacts that help tell Yellowstone’s cultural, biological, geological, and ethnographic histories.

It’s unbelievable how much I’ve learned about Yellowstone simply by handling, researching, and identifying items in the collection; from turn of the century concessioners at Mammoth, to the absurd story behind the naming of Mt. Everts, to the problematic Native American dolls sold in the early 20th century, I now have knowledge I couldn’t have possibly anticipated. My parents came out to visit me here a month ago, and I suddenly found myself rattling off tidbits of information wherever we went – and, surprisingly, I didn’t mind playing tour guide.

It certainly helped that I’ve been tasked with leading tours of the museum collections every week. A naturally quiet speaker with a tendency to mumble, I never would have imagined myself being able to present to crowds about Yellowstone’s history; and yet, just a couple of weeks in, I’m beginning to enjoy sharing my knowledge with people, as well as learning from the stories and anecdotes they have to tell about their experiences here in the Park.

As my internship comes to a close, I’ve been spending less time cataloguing postcards and photographic prints, and more time working on my own one-case exhibit. The freedom and responsibility I have with this project is refreshing: I was able to choose my own research topic, write the text and labels, mount the photographs and explanatory text, and will soon be installing the exhibit in a display case of the HRC. My interests lie in Yellowstone’s history with the Native Americans who lived in and around the Greater Yellowstone Area at the time of the Park’s founding – which is a hefty topic, to be sure. The Yellowstone Library, housed on the top floor of the HRC, was a remarkably useful tool during my research phase, and the museum collections themselves have been crucial in showing how Yellowstone has historically used the stereotypical image of the Native American to sell souvenirs. With the installation period of the exhibit coming up next week, I’m anxious to see how this past month’s work will come together behind glass.

It’s a bittersweet feeling, knowing this internship is coming to a close. Being able to live and work within Yellowstone has been a dream, made even more special as this summer marks the centennial of the NPS. Now that I’ve begun to learn the ins and outs of curatorial work in museum collections, I’m eager to continue pursuing the museum studies field. It’s unclear where I’ll end up in the next couple of months (hopefully working another internship as wonderful as this one), but I have high hopes for my future career path. And why not – it’s the centennial, after all.

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