Designing a Career in Cultural Heritage
While at Lewis & Clark, Mila Wolpert was one of the star achievers of the history department. We caught up with her shortly after she completed a curatorial assignment at the Althorp Estate in England, the seat of the Spencer family, whose aristocratic lineage dates back centuries. It was the home of Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales, who is now buried on the estate grounds.
Responsibilities at Althorp: My one-year position started the day after I finished my master’s program at the University of Cambridge. Working with one of Europe’s premier private collections in one of England’s most renowned historic homes, I had full access to unique artwork spanning 500 years of history. They wanted me to care for, research, and manage their collections during a period of refurbishment and reconstruction.
An estate favorite: My favorite collection was in Wootton Hall, the home’s two-story grand entryway named in honor of English equestrian painter John Wootton. It’s one of the most beautiful rooms in the house, covered in paintings done in 1733.
Most interesting assignment: I worked directly with Lord Charles Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother, and his wife, Lady Karen Spencer, going into attics and cellars and finding things they hadn’t seen in decades. The most interesting part of my job was directing the salvage plan, which turned into a 120-page document. If a fire broke out, I would have been one of the first people called to help save the Spencer family’s irreplaceable treasures.
L&C experience: I gravitated to Lewis & Clark’s international focus because of my dual heritage—I’m Serbian and American. History classes drew me in with detailed stories connecting people and the places they’re from. I’d studied French in middle and grade school, not intending to continue in college. But French studies allowed me to learn about the whole francophone world, to delve even deeper into French culture by communicating with people in their native tongue.
Impact of the Paris overseas study program: I quickly learned that the pace of life in Paris is different from other places I’ve lived— sometimes faster, sometimes slower. I observed and adapted. Art and culture are very important to Parisians. Our professor took us to museums every day, some famous and some off the beaten path. Often after class, I’d go to the Tuileries Garden to relax and take in my surroundings. I chose Paris because I could see a future there, working in leading museums and cultural institutions.
Undergrad internship at the U.S. Embassy in Paris: My internship was extremely independent and hands on. I frequently visited the Ambassador’s Residence and was responsible for translating research and historical documents. I translated letters from a 19thcentury French baroness relating to the building process of Jackson Square in New Orleans.
Future career plans: Before college, I didn’t know that cultural heritage was a discipline. My work at the embassy showed me how to apply my history major to create a career path, using my knowledge of French language and culture to make connections and work internationally. I hope to secure a Fulbright U.S. Student Research Award to France in October 2022. If selected, I’d document the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Collection, now housed in the current Ambassador’s Residence. I’d do archival research, working directly with French institutions and art historians for the first time. In my position at Althorp Estate, I learned how to manage, research, and take care of an art collection—skills I can implement in any future museum or heritage job.
—Interviewed by Pattie Pace