UAM Summer Internship Blog 2022: Great Expectations

The U of A Museums Summer Intern, Zoe, shares her insights and time in the Dentistry Museum Collection.

When I initially applied for the Student Internship in Museum Innovation, I was excited to branch out of my niche experience with clothing and dress artifacts. Still firmly enamoured with the world of textiles, I figured I would explore a few collections — peruse the natural sciences specimens, brush up on my history and classics knowledge — and slip right back into my comfort zone. 

Then I stepped into the Dentistry Museum Collection

Spending time in the Dentistry Collection is like wandering through a curio shop full of frightening (and unsettlingly familiar) oddities. Cabinets with drawers full of dentures and probes stand alongside shelves lined with analog machines and rotary drills. Some objects hail from the barber surgeon era of dentistry, while others are teaching models and devices from the early days of the University of Alberta’s School of Dentistry. 

Opening each cabinet and drawer was like stumbling into a new era of medicine with every incredible advancement building on the last. In my experience, this is the main benefit of object-based learning: conducting research on tangible, enduring, visual representations of a certain point in history. Objects can tell us about the people who made them, as well as the culture from which they were produced, in a way that puts you closer to that history. 

So when I had the incredible privilege of helping to curate a display for the official announcement of the Geoffrey and Robyn Sperber Health Sciences Library I took the opportunity to immerse myself in the collection. I learned about the dental key — a useful implement for tooth removal in the hands of a practiced dental surgeon, but a force of destruction when wielded by an unskilled amateur – and the various materials historically used to make dentures. In the process of preserving these objects for future study, I also had the chance to learn about digital database management practices like object photography and data entry. 

Now that I’m another month into my summer with the U of A Museums unit, I can say I’ve been surprised at how the reality of museum work differs from my own expectations. I’m especially enjoying my encounters with collections staff as they introduce me to their unique field of study. Curators and collections managers are like tour guides to object-based learning, as well as the personal publicists of their respective collections. 

My next stop on this wild ride is public art cleaning, so if you see me scrubbing down statues on campus feel free to come say hi! Watch this space for my next entry on the importance of condition reporting, plus how to clean a 12-foot-tall sculpture and the ins and outs of pest management. 

Did you know: the U of A Museums’ Search Site provides access to information and photos for many of our 30 collections’ objects and specimens? Try it out today — you might be surprised at the incredible artifacts available for study from our museum collections!