Hands on History Profile: Erika Walser

Hands on History Profile: Erika Walser

In this profile of a student in the Department of History and Art History, Professor Suzanne Smith interviews Erika Walser about her internship at the Manassas Museum.

Where was your internship and how did you find it?

My internship was through the Manassas Museum in Old Town Manassas. I grew up in Manassas and have worked in Old Town since 2006. My supervisor at the museum was Doug Horhota, the Program/Education Director at the museum. I sought out the internship for the opportunity to become more involved in Old Town Manassas, my hometown, and to gain experience in public history. While my internship was at the museum, I spent most of my time “in the field” at the Manassas City Cemetery and doing independent work.

What were your main responsibilities on the job?

My main responsibilities were to survey, record, and update the Manassas City Cemetery data and to manage the other volunteers working on the project. I had to make sure that the data was accurate and up-to-date. The information will later be published online for interested parties—especially genealogists--to search and locate specific graves.

What were the most rewarding aspects of your internship?

This project was a humbling experience for me. It made me think about the juxtaposition of the time period of the graves, most of which were from the 1800s, and the world I live in today. Out of respect, I took a few extra seconds to think about each entry as a whole human life and what it might have looked like. What particularly struck me was the number of infants and children that were buried in the Manassas cemetery. Some died the day they were born, but a lot died days, months, or years after; which, I would imagine, was even worse. I wonder what it was like to lose a child pre-modern medicine, when it was a seemingly regular occurrence. Was it easier because a lot of families went through it?

The most rewarding aspects of the internship were working with Mr. Horhota as my mentor in public history. Mr. Horhota was easy to work with and shed a lot of light on what it means to be a public history professional. It was exciting for me to not only be a part of recording local history, but to record the history of my own hometown.

What was your biggest accomplishment?

My biggest accomplishment was surveying to every (non-Confederate) section of the cemetery. I was worried that rainy weather would prevent the team from getting a chance to look at every grave, but we ended up having enough dry days to get the job done. Instead of getting a little bit of work done on multiple occasions, I put in a lot of hours on fewer days. Evidence of my long hours came in the form of a sunburn. I would not say that the project is over, but I feel good about producing a solid foundation for a final round of verification.

What did your internship teach you about being a professional historian?  Did anything surprise you?

I learned a lot about what it means to be a professional historian from Mr. Horhota. It means you are very busy, are involved in all types of projects, and spend a lot of time out of the office! I love that working in history does not mean you are chained to a desk [though I am sure it might feel that way sometimes]. Only half of my job was spent at my computer and I was able to spend the other half outside!

Is there anything else you would like to share about your internship experience? 

I highly recommend interning at the Manassas Museum. The museum is always putting on fun events and working on interesting projects. Everyone at the museum is friendly. There is a lot of fun and learning to be had at the Manassas Museum. The internship did not feel like “going to school,” but more like a meaningful project that I was lucky enough to participate in, and I appreciate that. As a History major, it was encouraging to actually participate in history, rather than just study it.