Fifth year architecture student Tayler Harrison had the internship of a lifetime: working at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC). The monumental museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in fall 2016, is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.
“It was inspiring to work in the presence of the people who helped to build the museum,” Harrison said. The building itself is amazing: the physical space reflects the messages that the exhibitions convey, she noted.
“It felt like the internship was tailored to my experiences as a black design student,” she shared. “Working at the museum strengthened my interests, and now I have a clearer lens of what I want to do.”
Harrison interned with Michelle Joan Wilkinson, PhD, a NMAAHC curator and acting associate director for curatorial affairs, where she is expanding the museum’s collections in architecture and design. She co-curated two inaugural NMAAHC exhibitions: A Century in the Making: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture and A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond. In 2018, she served as lead organizer for the museum’s three-day symposium, “Shifting the Landscape: Black Architects and Planners, 1968 to Now.” Wilkinson holds a 2020 Harvard Loeb Fellowship.
During the internship Harrison had the opportunity to research and write, and visit local sites of interest such as NPR’s headquarters and the Glenstone Museum.
“The internship was such a meaningful experience,” she said. “I was able to genuinely contribute and learn more about the history of black architects in the U.S. I studied drawings of the works of black architects, such as the work of Julian Abele who was born in the late 1800s and became one of the chief designers of Duke University’s campus.”
The Smithsonian internship was an inspirational experience, working with influential people in the nation’s capital, she said. “One day Colin Powell came to a staff meeting! I felt I was in the midst of greatness,” she shared.
She also enjoyed working with other student interns with interests in different areas of study, who came to Washington, D.C. from universities across the country. She interned alongside students of art history, engineering, music, and design disciplines. “It was interesting to see the work other students are doing, and how we were all able to tell the story of the journey of African Americans through different lenses.”
In Washington, D.C., she also had the opportunity to observe professionals trained in architecture that are using their degrees in different ways, providing inspiration for potential career possibilities after graduation. In the future Harrison would love to go into curation, and bring together her interests in black architecture, urbanism and museum education.
Throughout her studies at LSU, Harrison has found herself drawn to the intersections of design, art, and history. “I want to use my architecture education in a way that explores art, culture, and communities,” she said. “I’m interested in curating, and am drawn to exhibit and museum design. I’m exploring urbanism now in my research, and my internship experiences are influencing the work I’m creating now in studio.”
Harrison, who is originally from New Orleans, is focusing her final project on urban design in her home city. “I’m translating what I’ve learned, and bringing it back to New Orleans,” she said. “I’m passionate to work on solving problems in my home city.”
Reflecting on her internship experience: “I’m so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had so far.”