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Blake Oetting meets Medieval Art at the Met

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This summer, as Swarthmore students left campus to pursue various jobs and internships, art history major Blake Oetting ’18 traveled to New York City for an internship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Working primarily at The Met Cloisters in Upper Manhattan for the education department, Oetting had a fantastic opportunity to explore his career of interest. He was one of eight undergraduate students, mostly rising juniors, seeking exposure to the world of art history and museum curating.

The Met Cloisters, Oetting explained, is a branch of the museum that displays the museum’s collection of medieval art. The museum’s mission is to educate and inspire their patrons as well as students who are interested in the field. For this reason, internships and volunteering programs at the Met are run and overseen by the education department.

Oetting and his fellow interns worked with museum educator Leslie Tait, who guided them through the nine-week program and introduced them to other members of the museum staff. During their time in New York, the interns led tours of the museum, attended lecture series taught by the museum staff, and followed several curators on tours of specific wings of The Cloisters. They also got the opportunity to visit other cultural institutions in the area including auction houses and other museums, and every Friday the interns at The Cloisters visited The Met Fifth Avenue to meet up with the interns working at that campus.

In his search for career options, Oetting came across the possibility of curatorial work and thought it would be interesting. His aunt, an art historian, informed him that most people looking to enter that field typically start off in the education departments of museums. Keeping his aunt’s words in mind, Oetting sought out an internship exploring the art world through museum education.

Oetting met with some resistance in finding an internship. Very few structured exploratory programs exist for undergraduate students. He found that the type of opportunity he was looking for was only offered by three museums: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Cloisters, and the Museum of Modern Art.

“Usually,” he explained, “[internships] are for recent graduates getting very formal training in specific departments.”

Oetting talked to Professor Michael Cothren of Swarthmore’s art department about the internships. Cothren worked at The Cloisters before coming to Swarthmore and was able to provide more information about their program. With his professor’s encouragement, Oetting applied to The Cloisters and heard in very early March that he had been accepted.

“The internship was pretty intense,” Oetting said, “so I had to do a lot of work outside the 9:00 – 5:00 framework.”

In addition to their daily work at the museum, the interns were expected to prepare an independent research project which culminated in a public gallery talk at the end of the summer. On top of his busy schedule, Oetting had a long commute from his housing in the NYU dorms downtown to The Cloisters. As a result, he said, he didn’t get to explore New York as much as he would have liked to, but it was exciting for him to be in such a culturally rich city.

When asked what his favorite experience was from his time in New York, Oetting could not decide.

“I think there were two parts that were equally cool,” he insisted.

First he described giving tours of the museum to kids from local summer camps. The kids ranged in age from 4 to 13 years old, and for many of them, this was their first formal museum experience. Oetting said that while some of the kids were a bit bored, there were some who really loved it.

“There were these moments,” he said, “where I could see these kids really understanding why art was important. That was really fascinating and reminded me why museums are really important in terms of making art accessible.”

Meeting the president of the museum and director Tom Campbell was another aspect Oetting loved.

“These very famous people in the art world were somehow accessible to us which was incredible,” Oetting marveled.

The interns were encouraged to schedule meetings with various staff members at The Met to ask questions about their role in the museum world.

“A lot of people who work there, an absurd percentage it seemed, were also interns when they were in college,” Oetting commented. “So it made me hopeful that this could pan out. Jobs are real!”

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