BA in Art History

Max Kibblewhite, 2015

Max Kibblewhite

So what are you up to now professionally?

After graduating, I decided to set my sights on the museum family I grew up with as someone born and raised in the Washington DC area: I wanted to work at a Smithsonian museum. As of 2016, there are nineteen museums, a zoo, thirteen gardens, nine research centers, and countless other outposts of the Smithsonian. Where was I supposed to start? I started with an internship auditing and editing audio transcripts of interviews with American Artists with the Archives of American Art. My time there led to another internship in Communications with the National Air and Space Museum, then a short stint writing for the Smithsonian’s internal newsletter The Torch while I remained at NASM as a Welcome Desk Volunteer. When a position opened up for a Visitor Experience Assistant at the National Museum of Natural History, I thought it was a distant moor from my art history background, but a job is a job, and it was a firmly lodged foot in the door at the Smithsonian. I quickly realized the borders we build between the arts and sciences really don’t exist, and it takes all manner of minds to make museums run smoothly.

As part of the Learning Venues and Visitor Experience branch at the National Museum of Natural History, I get to introduce everyone from casual tourists to lifelong learners to the largest collection of natural history in the world. My goal every day is to make learning about the world around us as accessible to as many people as possible. This could mean helping someone navigate the museum, aligning their interests with our exhibits, or breaking down an unforeseen barrier with on-the-fly problem solving. Much of my undergrad work focused on marginalized communities and their representations in media, the arts, and public spaces – now I get to work closely with our accessibility manager, putting together guides for visitors with different disabilities and honing in on how to personalize a museum visit to best support a visitor’s needs. Our museum has literally thousands of tactile objects accessible to both young hands and blind and low vision visitors, and hundreds of volunteers roaming our halls helping interpret the exhibits to all languages, ages, and learning levels. One of my roles, along with the rest of the Learning Venues and Visitor Experience team, is to help keep every day moving along and all those plates spinning and to make sure the different needs of every person who visits our museum are being met.

How do you think your art history major at Mason prepared you for your career?

Art history gave me the tools to help answer the common “so what?” question. Why should we care? How does something that happened 100 years ago affect me now? How does nature affect me? Why does it matter what shoes I buy or what words I use? It’s true, sometimes things might not affect everyone, but sometimes something you think didn’t matter at all actually can impact your life and the lives of people around you. Mason helped me appreciate that people living today are still players on the mass scale of history and that we are part of this great conversation that has been happening for thousands, if not millions of years.

Why did you choose art history as a major in the first place?

I changed my major eight times in undergrad, looking for the right balance of communicating with visual language and interpreting what that language was saying. There are so many interesting stories out there, whether they’re being told by artists with a brush or a camera or by fossils and stone layered in the Earth’s crust. Those stories are worth sharing, and story after story adds up to give us a broader view of where we came from in history, and the history we ourselves are going to leave as we’re catapulted into the future. The art history professors are what made me fall in love with the program, with their passion and dedication and eye for detail. I try to carry that same detail-oriented passion with me into the museum and hope to never lose sight of it!