Below is a first person account from SOC Public Communication student Paige Rylander on her internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Working in the office of public affairs at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is like working in every science-related TV show you’ve ever seen. Some days the focus is on the discovery of a new mammal, the next day it’s cannibalism in Jamestown, and the day after it’s an ancient whale graveyard in Chile.
The Natural History Museum is the second-most visited museum in the world and all of its public affairs are handled by five staff members and one intern. For me, that meant acclimating quickly to the fast-paced, detail-driven environment that is the public affairs office. It also meant the opportunity for invaluable hands-on experience. My duties included scanning print articles and managing databases—but expanded to answering incoming requests, drafting fact sheets, brainstorming content for social media, and escorting film crews and press.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which seems uncomfortable) you’ve probably heard about the nation's Tyrannosaurus rex. The nearly complete 66-million-year-old skeleton, found in Montana and purchased through a 50-year loan by the Smithsonian, will be the centerpiece of the museum’s new 31,000-square-foot dinosaur and fossil hall, which is slated to open in 2019. As it turns out, people really like dinosaurs—and for me, this translated to increased calls and requests to the public affairs office. I fielded calls from Germany to Mexico, to a lady who was convinced she had found a fossil in her backyard in Missouri. It also meant that when I'd think of fun ideas I'd shout them out to our social media expert—which is how T. rex solidarity day got its start, among other inspirations.
Rolling Out the ‘Rex Room’ Red Carpet
For the opening of the Rex Room, a temporary exhibit housing the T. rex bones, I showed up to work obscenely early, set up the press table in the lobby and waited to sign in the press. My colleagues said it was an unheard-of turn out and we were even assigned a security guard as the media stormed our table. Then we watched the unveiling ceremony and the signing of the loan papers by the museum director, before rushing to get things set up in the Rex Room.
Visitors can watch scientists unpack and scan the bones and even watch a 3-D printer create models of the bones. We were allowing the press to have a walkthrough, with a chance to interview the scientists. Standing within inches of T. rex teeth, I instructed the press to line up for interviews and then escorted them through the room.
As amazing as this day was, it has become sort of the norm here. I’ve supervised interviews on the new “Chicken from hell” dinosaur discovery, walked by a mummy getting a CT scan, got an amazing tour of the entomology department, and accidentally stumbled past collections from Darwin and Teddy Roosevelt. The public affairs office puts me in a perfect position to get a taste of all the incredible things each department is doing and learn hands-on about different communications strategies and the natural world.