It was a daunting request: build a seat of power for a new nation.
That was the momentous task Pierre Charles L’Enfant was charged with by George Washington in 1792. The French-born architect had to envision a new capital for the young nation from a swath of private properties and plantations at the confluences of the Potomac River and the Eastern Branch (the Anacostia River). The result was a newborn city of political compromise and artistic imagination: Washington, D.C.
A little more than 70 years after L’Enfant began his plan for Washington, the capital was forced to undergo remarkable change as a result of the American Civil War. From the moment the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter through the beginning of Reconstruction, the city underwent a tremendous transformation, not only physically but also politically.
This birth and troublesome adolescence of our nation’s capital are explored in two of the inaugural exhibits of GW’s newly opened George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum: Seat of Empire: Planning Washington, 1790-1801 and The Civil War and the Making of Modern Washington.
As President George Washington charged Peter L’Enfant with the task of building the capital, so did the George Washington University charge a select group of its students with the task of assisting in the creation of the two exhibits that tell the tale of the city’s conception and the first steps in its evolution into what would come to be known as the world’s most powerful city. The experience of creating a museum exhibit with rare source materials—including original maps, prints, illustrations, and even personal letters—was an incredible opportunity for students like April Bryan, MA ’15, a 2015 graduate of the Museum Studies Program in GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
This once-in-a-lifetime chance to work on the new museum’s first exhibitions was one of the many “only at GW” experiences April almost didn’t get to embrace.
A first generation college graduate, April was preparing to put her enrollment in GW’s Museum Studies Program on hold when she received an unexpected letter from the Columbian College in 2014. Found amongst a pile of everyday mail—“the kind stacked with bills and credit card offers,” she says—the letter grabbed her attention immediately. April opened it on the spot and discovered that she was the recipient of the Lambert Graduate Fellowship in Arts and Sciences.
The Lambert Graduate Fellowship in Arts and Sciences
In addition to serving on the GW Board of Trustees from 2000 to 2006, Gene Lambert was a former president of the GW Alumni Association and founding as well as emeritus member of the Columbian College’s National Council for the Arts and Sciences. At the time of his passing in 2013, he was chair of the Heritage Society, a special recognition society that honors donors who support GW with a planned gift.
“As I read that I would be receiving this academic fellowship, my eyes welled with tears and I began to cry right there in the post office,” she remembers. “When I looked up from the letter, I saw a sea of smiling faces around me. Turns out I was smiling, too!”
April was in a tough spot financially when she received word of the fellowship. In addition to being a working student, she had the responsibility of providing care and support for her mother, which made April unsure if she could afford the time off work to tackle two required internship that academic year.
“My loved ones knew what a difficult situation I was in, so it was a true joy to share the news with them,” April remembers. “Receiving the fellowship helped fund spectacular internships that I wouldn’t have been able to participate in otherwise.”
Thanks to the Lambert Fellowship, April was able to pursue an internship at the National Park Service (NPS) Museum Resource Center, where she facilitated a total inventory of the Ford’s Theatre collection; created a small, historic doll show; cataloged 500 objects left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and assisted with the development and facilitation of the National Park Service’s and GW’s joint symposium, “Co-Creating Narratives in Public Spaces” last October.
“April brought an inspiring level of dedication and enthusiasm to even the most daunting tasks at hand,” says Ashley Intemann, a museum technician with NPS who worked with April during her internship. “April’s attention to detail was essential to the team, and her researching skills and knowledge proved to be an incredible asset. I know that she will do great things for the museum field!”
April also interned at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and worked on the National Air and Space Museum’s Satellite Eyes exhibition as part of a GW Museum Exhibit Design course.
None of these important experiences would have been possible, April says, if she hadn’t received the fellowship and been able to continue her education at GW.
The Road to Washington
For April Bryan, receiving the Lambert Fellowship meant that she could fulfill her dream of earning a master’s degree from GW’s illustrious Museum Studies Program, an aspiration that began when she was an undergraduate at Western Michigan University. After a professor classified GW’s program as one of the finest in the country, April conducted some research of her own and reached out to students in the program to learn more.
“I discovered that GW had relevant courses, strong and established networks in our field, and professors who are respected, active members of the museum community,” she says. “I knew I had found the right program for me.”
Written in the Stars
Today, Sam and April have both earned master’s degrees from GW: Sam, a Master of Arts in Teaching from GW’s Museum Education Program in 2014; April, a Master of Arts in Museum Studies this past May.
“Sam and I simply couldn’t imagine ourselves pursuing our graduate studies anywhere but at GW,” says April, who adds that both she and Sam still have the notes they took that first day of class with stars and circles around “GW”.
The reputation of GW’s program was known outside of academic circles as well.
April was working as an interpretation specialist at Kalamazoo Valley Museum (KVM) in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on the day she received word that she had been accepted into GW’s Museum Studies Program. She vividly recalls KVM’s Assistant Director for Collections and Exhibitions Paula Metzner, saying with a sparkle in her eyes, “Wow, April. GW is the Ivy League of museum studies. Congratulations!”
“I respected Paula’s opinion so much that her vote of confidence only encouraged me more to do everything possible to make the dream of attending GW a reality,” April says. “Sadly, Paula passed away in December, but I will remain ever grateful for the contribution she made to my academic and professional journey, and my life, by encouraging me to pursue museum studies at GW.”
KVM was April’s first professional museum experience after completing her bachelor’s, and she credits her colleagues there with teaching her the value of asking open-ended questions to encourage visitor wonder and investigation, as well as how meaning exists in the process of each individual’s museum experiences, lessons further developed by GW Museum Studies Program coursework and internships, she says.
“The curators and fellow specialists at KMV helped me recognize the importance of listening to all voices in the museum, no matter what role they play, for their voices echo the needs, hopes, and dreams of the communities that we serve,” April says. “All of these experiences helped me choose the exhibition development concentration in the GW Museum Studies Program and served as a strong foundation as I entered the program.
“I will be forever grateful to my KVM family for helping prepare me for success in GW’s Museum Studies Program and onward.”
When the new George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum opened in March, thousands of students, professors, researchers, supporters, and art and history enthusiasts flocked to the new building for a first look at its incredible collections.
Washington, D.C’s newest cultural destination, the museum joins the expansive collections and history of The Textile Museum with the Albert H. Small – George Washington University Washingtoniana Collection, an unparalleled treasure trove of rare maps, drawings, letters and documents, lithographs, and books relating to the history and evolution of the city of Washington and the nation’s capital.
Since Albert H. Small donated his Washingtoniana collection to the university in 2011, GW students and faculty have studied its pieces to gain a unique look at the history of the nation’s capital.
“The Washingtoniana Collection offers outstanding opportunities for students to work on real-life projects and engage with professional curators,” says Professor of Museum Studies Barbara Brennan, MFA ’98, who has taught three courses where students have used the collection.
In preparation for the museum’s opening, April Bryan worked as an assistant to the project manager that simultaneously led the development of Seat of Empire and The Civil War and the Making of Modern Washington, the museum’s two inaugural exhibitions that used the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana.
April organized, updated, and helped copyedit both exhibition scripts; collaborated with the design teams; and was integral in the research, proposal, and procurement of digital assets needed to support show pieces and help tell the exhibition stories.
“April was a unique combination of intellectually curious student and museum professional,” says Professor Brennan, who had April as both a student in her exhibit design class and later as a research assistant working on Seat of Empire and The Civil War and the Making of Modern Washington. “I could always count on her being engaged, enthusiastic, and dependable in her work, which was important to the curation of these two inaugural exhibitions.”
April’s final year at GW was marked with hands-on experiences that many young museum professionals could only dream of: internships with the Smithsonian and the National Parks Service Museum Research Center, as well as working on two inaugural exhibitions for a new museum.
While these types of experiences may be untypical for many students around the country, they’re the hallmark of the GW experience. However, many GW students—April included—would not have the ability to take advantage of these typically untypical opportunities without the scholarship and fellowship support of GW donors.
“Receiving this fellowship allowed me to take my mind off of my financial concerns, keep my mind on my studies, and embrace some truly incredible experiences” says April. “The fellowship made it possible to continue, without pause, my GW academic journey and helped pave the way to graduation.”
After completing her program and earning a Master of Arts in Museum Studies this May, April is already anxious to put her newly-minted degree to work.
“I am thrilled by the chance to apply the skills and experiences I developed and nurtured at GW and through the Museum Studies Program,” April says. “The gift of the Lambert Fellowship helped make the dream of becoming a curator possible and will help me touch the lives of visitors of all ages and learning styles for the rest of my life and career.”
View the full summer 2015 issue of Impact here.