Nadia Westenburg
(MA 2017) is a museum technician at Zion National Park in southwestern Utah. Prior to moving to the desert, Nadia held several curatorial positions and internships at various institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Nadia is an avid outdoorsperson and long distance backpacker, having hiked over 5,000 miles on long trails in the United States and Europe, including the entire Appalachian Trail in 2015 and Pacific Crest Trail in 2017. Her Qualifying Paper, entitled, “A New Deal for the Parks: Interpretation and Poster Advertising for the National Park Service, 1938–41,” examined a series of fourteen silkscreen posters printed for the NPS, contextualizing them within graphic design techniques and styles of the early twentieth century, as well as developments in the national parks during Roosevelt’s New Deal and the history of outdoor recreation and tourism in America. Working with the archives and museum collection of Zion National Park, Nadia is currently curating an exhibition celebrating the park’s centennial anniversary in 2019. Nadia recently talked about her studies at Bard Graduate Center and her career.

What attracted you to Bard Graduate Center’s program?
I was first introduced to the BGC through my undergraduate art history adviser after writing my senior thesis, “Expressions of National Identity in Twentieth Century Chairs.” I was excited to learn about a program where I could apply my knowledge and analytical skills to a wide array of objects, since I was drawn to decorative arts as more authentic, humble expressions of cultural history—and often less highbrow or staged than “fine” art. I was particularly attracted to the program’s interdisciplinary nature and broad scope of subject matter, all enveloped under the umbrella of “material culture.”

In my experiences backpacking and living outdoors, I had learned the significance of material culture in my own life. Long distance hiking is a lifestyle usually associated with a detachment from the perils of modern society, including its emphasis on material possessions, in favor of a deeper relationship with the natural world. While this is a rather romantic notion, I actually found that I developed a deep connection with each carefully-chosen item in my pack. Carrying everything I needed on my back, I became very critical of, and simultaneously attached to, the objects with which I chose to surround myself. These experiences solidified for me the role of objects as holders of great significance, both for individuals and for cultures and communities. Given these interests and the program’s exciting breadth of opportunities for study, I knew the BGC was the best place to engage in this type of scholarship.

What was your focus of study here, how did you find yourself involved with it?
I came to the BGC with an excitement to study a range of subjects, but with a particular interest in modern furniture carried over from my undergraduate work. I was able to foster that passion while exploring many other topics thanks to the BGC’s extensive offerings and consortium opportunities, and finally settled into an emphasis on nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American material culture. The highlights of my BGC experience were many of our field trips around New York City, using the city and its history and collections as a larger classroom and campus. These included countless trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for in-depth looks at objects and meetings with curators, trips to Bowne & Co. at the South Street Seaport and to the Art Students League where we saw modern uses of lithography and other printing techniques, and unforgettable trips to private collections.

I narrowed my field of study during the second year, when I was writing my Qualifying Paper on silkscreen posters printed for the National Park Service in the late 1930s, which stemmed from Paul Stirton’s class on modern graphic design. I found the posters to be visually attractive from a design standpoint, but was also intrigued by the larger story they told about the history of the park ranger programs that they advertised and the repetitive use of certain images and iconic photographs used throughout NPS advertising and literature. Writing my QP, and also helping to prepare a digital exhibition on the visual culture of Prospect Park for the late David Jaffee’s class on nineteenth-century New York City, allowed me to define my field of interest even more precisely to outdoor recreation and tourism and the material and visual culture surrounding our modern relationship with the outdoors.

You are working for the National Park Service. Describe your position —- and how you came to it. What sort of projects are you working on?
I currently work as a museum technician at Zion National Park, which is a perfect fit for me as it combines my interests in both history and the outdoors. During the many years I lived in New York immersed in academia and museums, I longed to live in a place with easier access to mountains and trails, but when I was hiking and living outside, I missed having regular opportunities to geek out about history. I knew I was never going to feel happy or fulfilled in a career that neglected one of those major passions. From my QP research, which involved lots of digging into the archives of both the National Park Service and individual parks, I knew that all the major national parks had their own museum collections. After taking time off to travel and hike upon finishing my degree, I knew that a career with an NPS museum was the logical next step for me.

Zion’s museum and archive have a very small staff and oversee a vast collection of objects—including natural history specimens, archaeological artifacts, photographs, ethnographic objects, fine art, ephemera, and more—so my work is always varied. I have worked extensively with the park’s historic photograph collection, and recently finished inventorying, identifying, and digitizing a collection of over 10,000 negatives and prints. I assist with accessioning and cataloging new acquisitions, and write weekly posts for the park’s social media pages highlighting historic photographs and museum collections. I also respond to research requests and conduct object and archival research for both employees and outside researchers. I am currently curating an exhibition celebrating Zion’s centennial anniversary of when we became a national park in 1919. Although the area has long been home to many Native American tribes, the main emphasis of the show is to highlight the role that the National Park Service has played in protecting the park landscape and its various resources, including wildlife, vegetation, geology, archaeology, and museum collections. Researching and curating the exhibition has allowed me to look even more closely at the history of the NPS and its changing policies and priorities over the last century. I’m very grateful to have a job that allows me to be constantly learning new things about the subjects in which I’m most interested.

How has your experience at Bard Graduate Center helped you in your career?
Fundamentally, my experience at BGC introduced me to an enormous range of material culture and objects across various media, time periods, and cultures. Working in Zion’s collection, I have encountered all sorts of objects, ranging from excavated sherds of ancient Native American pottery, to a silver coffee urn from the park’s early lodge, to the personal effects of the area’s first White explorers, and the BGC gave me the skills and knowledge to approach all of these with both familiarity and curiosity. My favorite thing about the BGC environment is how it fosters study of even the most niche subjects. The program’s emphasis on the significance of material culture encourages students to approach and interrogate any and every object with academic rigor. It allowed me to pursue my passion for studying the visual culture of outdoor tourism, and my research on the subject—as well as the familiarity I developed with many parks’ collections and individual histories—undoubtedly helped me land a job with the National Park Service.