What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Caroline Johnson on Interning at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

In this third installment of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” UT AMS doctoral student Caroline Johnson takes on the near impossible task of telling us what it’s like to be a Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum intern. 

I breached the surface of the L’Enfant Plaza metro station as the escalator carried me toward a particularly dismal day in Washington, D.C. Wearing my spirited red Toms and holding an umbrella to block the drizzle, I made my way to Independence Avenue. As I rounded the corner and saw the familiar blue and yellow of the Smithsonian symbol, my mind churned over a sea of questions—was I too old to be an intern? What would it be like? Will I fangirl over everything I do and see? Not to ruin the post, but the answers were no, near indescribable, and absolutely.

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I always thought it a sad reality we can’t put special narratives on our resumes, so I have decided to use this post to give you the two versions of my summer at the Smithsonian.

The first is what I like to call the “LinkedIn description,” and it is as follows:

As a curatorial intern in the Aeronautics Division at the National Air and Space Museum, I worked with the curators of the permanent military suite galleries spanning WWI, WWII and the Cold War. My primary duties included conducting archival research at the National Archives and Library of Congress as well as contacting key personalities and their families for participation in the exhibits. Since I specialize in visual history and the Cold War gallery will be a new addition to the military suite, most of my energy was spent collecting media relating to topics such as Vietnam airstrikes and photo transparencies from the Berlin Airlift and Korean War. (If you’re thinking that sounds like history nerd heaven, you are 100% correct.)

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Caroline at the National Air and Space Museum, Summer 2018

The second version of my summer contains the narratives that don’t quite make it into the bullet points on my resume. As a devoted FRIENDS fan (the TV show), I have titled each experience accordingly:

“The One Where She Almost Breathed on Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit”: During my first week, my supervisor gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of NASM’s Udvar-Hazy Center, located in Chantilly, Virginia. While in the preservation lab, a specialist pulled back a large sheet draped across a human-shaped figure. I stared at the freshly revealed artifact laying before me—it was a spacesuit. That alone was a special moment, and then I saw the label, “Armstrong.” Yes, friends, there in front of me, with no glass and subject to my very own mortal breath, was Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. Keep in mind, this was my first week.

“The One Where She Befriended the Berlin Candy Bomber”: One of my first tasks was to track down Colonel Gail S. Halvorsen (USAF, Ret), better known as the “Berlin Candy Bomber” or “Uncle Wiggly Wings” for his efforts in dropping parachutes containing Hershey bars and bubble gum to the children of West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift in 1948. After weeks of calling various air bases and historical societies, I received a phone number. Much to my surprise, Col. Halvorsen picked up! At 97-years-old, he is one of the most humble, kind, and enthusiastic human beings I have had the pleasure of speaking to. He referred to me as “sunshine” on subsequent calls, and I assume that makes us friends.

“The One Where They Went to the CIA”: “I’m going to need your social security number. We’re heading to CIA Headquarters on Thursday.” My supervisor casually dropped this line as he stopped by my cubicle on his way back down the hallway lined with model spacecraft. This vignette is shorter than most, as I feel it keeps the air of mystery alive. I can say, we spent a little too long in the gift shop. As I sit here sipping my coffee from my official CIA mug, however, I have no regrets.

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The view from the top of the Naval Observatory

“The One Where Marine II Landed Thirty Yards in Front of Her”: I often accompanied my supervisor on tours he would provide visitors and other groups of invited guests. On this instance, I met a group of interns at the Naval Observatory, and their supervisor extended an offer for me to tour their facilities. In addition to viewing the telescopes and incredible library with copies of works by Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the VP decided to make a guest appearance during the tour. We stood outside as Marine II landed on the front lawn, and then watched a secret service agent chase the VP’s dog across said lawn.

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The WASP Congressional Gold Medal, located at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia

“The One Where She Cemented her Dissertation Topic”: A few times this summer, I found myself at a seminar table consisting of brilliant individuals who work around the clock to provide the most exciting digital content to NASM audiences. The 160th anniversary of aerial photography, and the 75th anniversary of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were fast approaching. With some encouragement from my supervisor, I volunteered to write these posts, and I ended up doing a bonus story on archival WASP images. My favorite part of this experience was seeing the public interact with the posts on social media, and it only confirmed my desire to return to UT and churn out a prospectus focusing on women in aviation. Yes, this is a shameless, self-promotional plug for you to read these posts, as I greatly enjoyed writing them!

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Books and resources for writing on women in aviation and conducting archival research

And so there we have it, the professional job description, and just a few vignettes to bring the experience to life. Though perhaps atypical in format, I figured it was the only way for me to convey the human element behind the trove of professional experience I gained this summer.

In academia, we are trained to teach, to write, and to distill and present information at a rapid rate, yet we often forget we are building a wide range of skill sets in the process of doing so. I never thought my family aviation history, archival work, enthusiasm for Cold War material, and research on women in visual culture would combine in the most unexpected fashion to qualify me for this experience. To me, that has been the beauty of working in an interdisciplinary field: if you pursue your varying interests with a passion and seize opportunities to expand your knowledge base (or even to write in unconventional forms), you might just find yourself spending a summer in the sky, where, at least at NASM, I saw no limits.

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