Michelle Cohn ’20 Intern with Asian Art Museum

My name is Michelle Cohn ’20 and this summer I joined the curatorial staff at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco as an intern for the South Asian Arts Department. The Asian Art Museum is an institution working to connect historical and contemporary Asian art and culture with programs that aim to link art to life through vast, diverse, and dynamic cultures. The staff at the museum is a tight knit group of individuals who all have varied experiences and backgrounds in the arts, many of them graduating undergrad with a studio art major.

My artistic outlook and interest in Asian arts was strongly informed by my study abroad program in Indonesia where I delved deep into examining the important roles played by Indonesia’s arts and religions in shaping sociocultural discourses in Bali and Java.

I started the internship in the beginning of June going in with the understanding that my work would vary as the summer went on, but my main task was to catalogue, store, and conserve photographs from 19th century India. The museum acquired photographs that were collected by the Maybury sisters (avid travelers who donated a multitude of items to the museum) from the SF Public Library. My most basic assignment was to organize them with a numbering system for easy accessibility to those wanting to look through them or do research using them. Some photographs had identifying markers, for example, the photographer might have signed it and put a location on it. However, most of them were blank and had to be sleuthed out. I did research in painting and photography books to discover the location of the images as well as who the photographer was. I also used official online sources such as the photographic British library or less accredited sources that have information on old postcards that were made using 19th century photographs of India.

I worked with the paper and painting conservator to help improve the storage of these images, which were originally in a box with no protection surrounding the photographs.

I carried out this project in the museum’s library where I got to know the librarian, John, who introduced me to donors and researchers who were interested in looking at particular objects about which John had significant knowledge.

In addition to this ongoing project which I worked on throughout the summer, I also worked directly with my supervisor, Qamar, the South Asian Arts curator, and other departments on different projects. I helped Qamar with initial object cataloguing, identifying objects through their acquisition number and registration, identifying research resources, and compiling lists of objects for display. I looked online and through the museum’s permanent exhibitions to determine what could go next in their rotation. I helped the registration department with cataloguing paintings in boxes for storage and organizing materials of past exhibitions and projects that were in disarray as a result of a fire that damaged and caused the loss of a lot of data. Qamar described my experience at the museum as equivalent to a hands on curatorial 200 level course.

My days working at the Asian Art Museum were filled with an incredible wealth of information. I felt that aside from my assigned work as an intern I was constantly exploring and learning from people’s experiences and research. I would roam the stacks in the library, flip through Qamars large binders containing chapters from books, journal articles, manuscripts, etc. The exposure to such a wide range of topics, histories, and cultures has been highly fulfilling and will carry me throughout my studies moving forward. This professional, creative, and disciplined experience proved to be extremely valuable for me as a student and potentially future educator!? I would love to talk further about the museum and my time there, so please reach out if you have any questions.

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