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Undergraduate Researchers

Caitlin Smith

Caitlin Smith, Anthropology and Ancient Studies

“Interpretation in the Museum: An Ancient Gem in a Modern Context”

Museums are often presented as repositories for material culture from ages past or distant places. They are storehouses where visitors can go to look at and learn from objects they might otherwise never see in their lifetimes. This presentation adopts a different perspective, examining the museum instead as a reflection of modern mental constructs and interpretations of a past which we can never objectively know. It explores the history of the Gem with Oedipus and the Sphinx from its creation in Hellenistic Greece to its current setting in the Walters Art Museum’s massive collection, focusing on the gem’s changing functions and meanings over the course of its existence. My research suggests that as the gem has evolved from a private object to a public one, its uniqueness has been largely subverted. Instead, it is only one among many objects which the museum categorizes and employs to convey a highly generalized modern interpretation of the people and culture of Ancient Greece.

What research experiences have you had?
I’m working on two big projects right now. I’m working with Dr. Michelle Stefano of the American Studies Department and Maryland Traditions on the documentary she and another professor are making for their class. I’ve been doing fieldwork with her in Dundalk, mostly observations and interviews. The other project is my own and has inspired my URCAD presentation. I’m focusing that research on the effect of the museum environment on interpretation. I’ve been doing a lot of observations at the Walters Art Museum before, during, and after the tours I give there and compiling papers from various disciplines including material culture, ancient studies, and museum design. It’s been a very private experience, mostly to fill my own curiosity until now.

How did you find the research opportunity?
I began the research last semester in order to write a term paper for ANCS: 350 Myth and Archaeology. I wanted to find a way to bring my interest in museum interpretation into the paper which was meant to be an exploration of a particular ancient object on display. From there, it just kind of exploded. I had a lot of support from my professors, Dr. Tim Phin and Dr. Michelle Stefano, who helped me figure out exactly where to go with my research and what sources would be best.

Who did you work with on this project?
I worked on this research on my own, for the most part, though I did have the support and assistance of many professors in the Ancient Studies Department and Dr. Stefano.

Was this your first independent research project?
I would not say it was my first but definitely my first large scale project.

Do you get course credit for this work? Paid? How much time do you put into it?
I received credit for this project as it was originally a term paper. I was not paid (unfortunately) but I did put a lot of time into it. We were working on these individual projects over the course of the entire semester. I did observations every Friday during my tours and read a ton of articles.

What academic background did you have before you started?
I declared my dual major in Anthropology and Ancient Studies before I even took my first university class. I’ve had a near spotless record during my college career though I have not always put myself out there to do individual research. I’ve had a job since I was 14 so most of my academic work was restricted to the classroom.

How did you learn what you needed to know to be successful in this project?
I did A LOT of reading. Most of my information came from academic papers and books and information from the museum itself. I also found a lot of inspiration in the classes I was taking that semester with the aforementioned professors. Dr. Stefano, especially, taught me a new way of thinking about the museum and museum interpretation in AMST 420: History and Theory of the Museum.

What was the hardest part about your research?
Finding a good breadth of sources was a bit difficult at times. I was tapping into a few different disciplines in order to construct and defend my thesis and it was hard sometimes to ensure that I had a good balance of sources. It was also a lot to process at once. I had a bunch of notes in a few different places - it was really hard to get organized before I knew exactly what I wanted to say.

What was the most unexpected thing?
This paper/research has stuck with me a lot more than most of the terms paper and projects I’ve done over the years. I just feel like it’s not quite done, in a way. There’s so much more to say and consider. In fact, I’ve decided to continue this research for my master’s thesis. It’s kind of strange how this one paper for this one class turned into a project which will play heavily into the next several years of my life.

Is this the first time you have applied to present at URCAD? How did you find out about applying to present your work? Are you excited?
It is my first time applying to URCAD. I’ve known about URCAD for years but I’ve never felt that any of my work was good enough to present. I probably wouldn’t have applied at all in Dr. Phin hadn’t suggested it. Now that I’ve been accepted, I am very excited to share my work. I think it will be a great experience for me personally and a wonderful way to share my passion with others.

How does this research experience relate to your work in other classes?
I consider this research to be the joint result of my time in ANCS 350 and AMST 420. My classes and experiences came together for me last semester in a really inspiring way which is a lot of the reason why I’ve been so interested and dedicated to this project.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
Find someone or something that truly and deeply inspires you. Maybe you’ll find that in an internship or a class or even in a particular professor. It’s important that you love what you’re researching so that when it gets stressful and difficult and you feel like nothing is getting done, you’ll want to keep going anyway. And remember to have confidence in yourself and your work.

What are your career goals?
I intend to pursue a career in cultural sustainability be it in the museum, a non-profit, or elsewhere. I want to find a position which would allow me to mediate between cultural institutions and the people to which they cater. There are a lot of voices and stories that are lost in the construction of heritage and history which I think needs to be addressed. I would love to do that as a career.

What are you doing next for research?
I intend to continue my work with Maryland Traditions which may encompass a variety of projects. As I mentioned before, I also intend to bring this research into my graduate career and hopefully build on it over the next few years. It will absolutely play into my masters thesis.

What else are you involved in on campus?
I am a Humanities Scholar and a member of the Honors College. I was inducted in Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society this past fall.