My summer ended before it began. Like so many others, my plans were uprooted by the first wave of COVID-19 that hit the United States earlier this year. Way back in April (what feels like ages ago now), I received an email telling me that the archaeology field school I had been accepted to was now cancelled. Months of filling out applications, getting funds together, making housing arrangements – pointless. Six weeks of locating burial sites, excavating graves, analyzing skeletal remains – gone.
Tired of wallowing in self-pity, I finally decided to look for some other opportunities that might give me the experience I was hoping to gain from the field school. I wasn’t going to let my summer be a complete waste. I hopped onto Handshake (a job search website for college students) and started looking for remote internships. However, it was too late to apply to most of them. COVID-19 had seemingly changed everything in our country except the application deadlines of all the internships I was interested in. Thus, my search had ended up just as my months of preparation for the field school – pointless.
Or so I thought. While I was looking for a summer internship, an opening at the Everhart Museum for this fall caught my attention. Intern positions seemed perfect for me. As an anthropology major, I was drawn to the task of studying and sharing people’s stories through their material culture. I sent in my application. A few weeks later, I was called back for an interview with Stefanie Colarusso, the Director of Programs and Events.
My internship got off to a rocky start thanks to (you guessed it) COVID-19. The day before my interview, I was feeling a bit under the weather. I decided to visit my university’s health center to find out what was wrong. Within two hours of scheduling my appointment, I had been tested for the virus and sent to quarantine in a hotel room. It was all such a whirlwind. In the rush to gather my things for the hotel, I forgot to pack business attire. I was going to have to meet my potential employer wearing sweatpants and a hoodie – probably not the best way to make a good first impression. This clothing complication, on top of the fact that I may have had COVID-19, turned the usual interview jitters into full-blown anxiety. Thankfully, it turned out that I had nothing to worry about. Stefanie was understanding of my situation and excited to get to know me – sweatpants and all. Three days after my interview, I was informed of my negative test result and released from quarantine.
However, the effects of COVID-19 followed me back to my dorm and continued to influence how I was able to connect with others working at the Everhart Museum. Because of the pandemic, my position had become entirely remote. All communication was virtual. Once a week, I checked in with Stefanie through Google Meet. We would discuss the objects I was interested in studying, the interpretive lenses through which I wanted to explore them, the stories I was unearthing in my research, and the progress I was making as I put this research into writing. Ironically, it was these unconventional meetings (screen-to-screen rather than face-to-face) that brought a sense of normalcy to my internship experience. They created a routine that forced me to keep track of time instead of allowing it to melt into one big pandemic puddle. More importantly, they made me feel like a part of the Everhart Museum even though I was working over 100 miles away in Syracuse, New York.
I’ve come to realize that this distance represents one positive effect that COVID-19 had on my internship experience – allowing me to have one. If the pandemic had not made the intern position a remote one, I would have never been able to apply in the first place. I would have never met Stefanie or the other staff members and interns that I got to know through Google Meet. The pandemic, in forcing us all to keep our distance, actually brought me closer to a great group people who shared my interests (but not my zip code).
Connecting the Past to the Pandemic
As I conducted my object-based research, COVID-19 allowed me to bridge another gap – that between past and present. The pandemic opened my eyes to the ways in which we as people have always used material objects to overcome obstacles.
For example, one such object that I explored during my internship was a kero from the Inca culture of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Peru. This wooden cup was used to drink chicha de maíz, or corn beer, at ritual celebrations and ceremonial gatherings. As part of these celebrations, pairs of kero would be exchanged between Andean rulers. Such acts of reciprocity allowed the Inca to overcome interregional conflict as they raised their keros to state and local cooperation. (Click here for more information on the kero.) Today, because of the pandemic, such physical gatherings are not possible. Instead, we use phones and computers to create virtual gatherings. These material objects allow us to overcome the obstacle that is social distancing, connecting us to friends and family members (and in my case, coworkers) in a way that is safe. COVID-19 has really made me appreciate this power of past and present objects to overcome barriers in order to bring people closer together.
Another object that offered pandemic parallels was the pair of nalın from nineteenth-century Syria that I explored.
These wooden platform sandals were worn to create a boundary between the feet and the wet, dirty floor of the Ottoman bathhouse. As the nalın of wealthy persons grew in height and ornamentation, they also came to represent a boundary between the upper and lower class. Thus, these sandals allowed the wearer to overcome both the physical contamination of walking through muck and the social contamination of being mistaken for a person of lesser status. (Click here for more information on the nalin.) The more I learned about the nalın, the more I was reminded of the face masks that we now wear every day. Like the sandals, these masks allow us to protect our bodies from the germs that threaten to attack them. And like the height and ornamentation of the nalın, the patterns and slogans blazoned across our masks allow us to put our identities on display for all to see. COVID-19 has opened my eyes to the ways in which such material objects are used to overcome obstacles, both practically and symbolically.
Learning from a Distance
Start to finish, my experience as an intern for the Everhart Museum was defined by COVID-19. The unfortunate cancellation of my summer plans, the sweatpants-clad interview during my quarantine, the virtual connections I made with my coworkers, the parallels I drew between my research and the pandemic – COVID-19 is (for better or worse) responsible for all of these. I cannot say that these moments were all smooth sailing. But I can say that I learned something from each and every one of them.
Above all, I learned that the Everhart Museum is more than a building. It’s a community of people who are passionate about bringing the stories of the past into the world of the present. I’m grateful to those at the Everhart Museum for welcoming me into this community from over 100 miles away.
Written by Vivan Kellar, Museum Interpretation Intern, Fall 2020.