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Westover Student Presents Paper as Museum Studies Intern

Westover senior Liv Burns (left) and Art History instructor Ali Hildebrand at Liv’s symposium presentation
Westover senior Liv Burns (left) and Art History instructor Ali Hildebrand at Liv’s symposium presentation

Middlebury, Connecticut – Liv Burns, a Westover senior and this year’s Sonja Osborn Museum Studies Intern (SOMSI), presented her symposium paper, “Nicholson’s Deviants: The Search for a Moral Message in William Nicholson’s An Alphabet,” to faculty and students in a February 21st program at the School.

A resident of Lake Mary, Florida, Ms. Burns is the sixth SOMSI student to participate in the program, a collaboration between Westover and Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, which was originally the home of Westover’s architect Theodate Pope Riddle.  

In her paper, Ms. Burns explored taboo social stereotypes of Victorian England in the context of Nicholson’s collection of woodblock and lithographic prints for children. She examined the artist’s process of creation, specifically when censored for younger audiences.

Throughout her time as a SOMSI intern, Ms. Burns worked closely with Allison Hildebrand, Westover’s instructor in Art History and Humanities who also serves as the School’s SOMSI coordinator.

“Through the symposium experience,” Ms. Hildebrand said, “interns select a work from Hill-Stead’s collection, develop an original argument on the piece through extensive research, and present their paper to the public in a forum. The process of writing the paper challenges students to analyze their work through a synthesis of scholarly research, consider their audience’s engagement in their topic through their visual presentation, and develop confidence in presenting their argument to the wider community. This rigorous academic piece of the internship really balances the intern’s experience with their hands-on museum work at Hill-Stead.”

At Hill-Stead, Ms. Burns worked on a wide array of projects, from photographing 50 hats in the museum’s collection to assisting in research on pieces of furniture that trace their origins to the days when the institution first served as the home for Theodate Pope Riddle’s parents. For her symposium paper, Ms. Burns conducted research at Hill-Stead, the Yale Center for British Art, and in Westover’s Archives.

“The interns are really given a rare opportunity of working with a team of experts on a project of their own creation and seeing it through to completion,” Ms. Hildebrand said. “Over the first six years of the SOMSI program, what has struck me is how invested, dedicated, and creative every student has been to developing themes connecting Westover and Hill-Stead. How the student interns have taken on all the tasks surrounding their projects – not just undertaking the research, writing their paper, and working with the staff at Hill-Stead Museum, but also working with Westover faculty and alumnae – never ceases to impress me. The comprehensive experience of the program and the self-directedness of the students to coordinate their projects very much captures what it is to be a Westover student.” 

“I have found that the hard work involved in writing a symposium paper like this – revision after revision - could have been daunting,” Ms. Burns said. “But it really has made me feel more confident in my abilities as a student, researcher, writer, and most importantly, passionate public speaker. I now feel prepared for college-level theses,” she added with a laugh.

“As a student,” Ms. Burns said, “I am constantly looking for an excuse to learn something new and different, and to widen my educational experience here at Westover, and beyond. The best thing about the SOMSI internship is that it isn’t narrowly defined; you can adjust it to fit your interests and immerse yourself in a particular subject.”

Ms. Burns has been an editor for The Lantern, Westover’s literary magazine, for two years and has been the editor-in-chief of the School’s yearbook for three years; in fact, her interests in literature, journalism, and design were a factor in her decision to focusing her research on Nicholson’s An Alphabet.

“With her love for journalism and publication design,’ Ms. Hildebrand said, “Liv really owned her internship experience by writing an article for Westover’s alumnae magazine, working to print a quotation by Theodate on the School’s letterpress, and exploring the topic of alphabet books for the content of her symposium paper. This internship experience really demands a lot of our students – from performing public roles in the public programs at Hill-Stead, to working alongside museum curators in a professional setting, from coordinating projects between a number of Westover departments, such as the School’s Archives and the Alumnae Office, to investing in rather challenging research, some of which took Liv to the Yale Center for British Art’s library.”

Westover is a selective boarding and day school in Middlebury, Connecticut, with 205 students in grades 9-12 from 17 states and 20 countries. The School offers its students more than 20 Advanced Placement courses as well as signature programs in science, engineering, art history, and music.

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