Summer Centered: Miranda Johnson ’19 Helps Weave the History of Silk in Washington, D.C.
The history major is researching the silk industry at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
In many ways, the story of America can be told through its textiles, and Miranda Johnson ’19 is exploring that history this summer at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The history major from Pasadena, Calif., is working as the textiles curation intern at the Washington, D.C., museum, garnering hands-on experience with archival work thanks to funding from the John B. Hurford '60 Center for Arts and Humanities (HCAH).
One of Johnson’s first responsibilities included helping her supervisor, Madelyn Shaw, a curator in the museum’s Department of Home and Community Life, do preliminary research for an exhibition proposal. Her work for the proposal ranged from flipping through fashion magazines from the 19th century to looking through museum collections for fabric samples and sewing tools to poring over census data and patent records on specific pieces for background data.
Currently, Johnson is working with items in a collection from one of the first major American silk manufacturing companies, the Cheney Bros. Silk Mills, updating both the Smithsonian’s online database and the hardcopy records, “photographing, and educating myself about weave structures, spinning, and dyeing methods.”
“On any given day, I might also go to a department meeting with my supervisor, go to a colloquium, or run an errand to another Smithsonian museum or to the Library of Congress,” Johnson says.
She knew she wanted to work in a museum or archive this summer, and was drawn to the Smithsonian by the possibility of getting to work with Shaw, her current supervisor.
“I’ve been interested in the fashion history and textiles for a while, but I saw her speak a year or two ago on Civil War-era textiles, and it really drove home to me how much cool work there is to be done if we treat textile history as a serious field of study,” says Johnson who applied to the internship through the Smithsonian after contacting Shaw personally.
Johnson is enjoying the “free reign” she has at the museum to select pieces to focus on and research. And she knows her work in the Smithsonian will be invaluable preparation for the research she’ll eventually do for her history senior thesis. Until then, she’ll continue playing a part in organizing and profiling items in the museum’s fabric collections.
“The fact that some of the stuff I’ve found and chosen could eventually end up on public display is really gratifying,” she says.
-Andrew Nguyen '19
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.