Interning at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in Germantown, Pa.
by Katie Beers
It was the summer of 2007 and I had just graduated from Temple University with a history degree. I had created a fantasy that, armed with my bachelor’s degree, I would go right into working in collections at one of the many museums in Philadelphia. Maybe I would wear a lab coat and dust things! Even after four years at a university, the fantasy remained pretty scant on details.
It turned out — as things tend to turn out for fresh-faced graduates — that museum jobs requiring only a bachelor’s degree are so few and far between that they’re practically nonexistent. But I hadn’t realized that yet. I was young, happy, and had a full-time job at Whole Foods that allowed me to make enough money to pay my bills and go out drinking whenever I wanted. This was just going to be my “paying the bills” job while I looked for a “real job.” Since I couldn’t get a job at a museum, I settled on an internship.
The internship was at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion in Germantown, Pa. and it was big, old, musty, and awesome. The stone mansion was built in 1859 by its namesake Ebenezer Maxwell, a gentleman who made his fortune in textiles. It’s two and a half stories tall, with a three-story tower, multiple porches, a garden out back, and one of those bell systems for the servants like they have in Cinderella and Downton Abbey. It’s truly a beautiful and gothic building. (True story: This mansion served as the inspiration for the mansion used in the original Addams Family.) Rotten, damaged and unused, the building was almost torn down and turned into a gas station in the ’70s until a group of locals got together, raised some money, and saved it. It was then renovated with floors, carpets, furniture, even wallpaper from the time period. It was gorgeous and I loved it.
The internship I had wasn’t really an internship as much as it was free labor, or just plain old volunteer work. There was no pay and no course credits offered, but it was advertised as an internship and I looked at it as a resume builder — a stepping stone to my future career. Had the work been miserable or boring I probably would have quit, but as it turned out the work we did was my favorite thing to do: touch old stuff. That stuff included cast iron pots and pans, opera glasses, furniture with claw feet and golden inlays, fainting couches, hats with peacock feathers sprouting out of the top, wooden beds that still used ropes to support the mattress (that’s where the “sleep tight” part of that phrase comes from), dollhouses and lots and lots of beautiful and ornate dresses. Everything was mine to touch, to hold up to the light and move this way and that, and well, if we’re being perfectly honest, to play with.
We were a motley crew. My fellow interns were an Orthodox Jewish man who was my age and a woman 10 years older who had just returned home from the West Coast. Every Tuesday I would take the regional rail and walk three blocks to the mansion. Once there my fellow interns and I would put on our white gloves (like the kind magicians wear) so our oily fingers wouldn’t stain anything, pick up a 100-year-old doll, place it on a white sheet and take pictures of it, updating the museum’s collection for the digital age. The older woman actually had museum experience, so she became our de facto leader. She explained why we had to wear the white gloves, how you should never actually move the moving parts of older toys, how to work with antique fabrics and other fascinating tidbits.
We found forgotten, odd treasures that had been left in the dresser drawers of girls who had died over a century ago: Victorian Opera glasses, jewelry boxes made out of seashells, and sentimental hair art displayed in shadowboxes — strange pieces of art which were created from the hair of people long since dead, their tresses pulled out of combs and brushes and then spun into flower shapes and hung on the wall. I once reached up to a high shelf, felt something fuzzy, and then realized I was holding a dead mouse, but that was only once and I didn’t get the hantavirus so I put that experience in the win column.
It lasted a summer and then it was over. In truth, I lost money since I had to pay to take the train out to Germantown every day. Within a few years I accepted the fact that working in museum wasn’t the path for me. But would I take it back? Never. I had so much fun and made friends that I still keep in touch. I learned a great deal and even though what I learned doesn’t relate to my current career at all and while it didn’t turn out to be the resumes builder I hoped it would be, it still made for some good stories.
Katie Beers lives, works, and writes in Philadelphia. She is a lifelong creative writer and has many angst-ridden journals from adolescence to back this up. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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