Four years ago, when Claire Denny decided to attend Catholic University, she set her sights on an internship at the Smithsonian. She longed to be part of an organization that would enable her to explore her interests in anthropology and art.

“I’m interested in cultural anthropology, in looking at living populations,” she says. “I really like learning about people and their stories. And everyone has one.”

A Class of 2017 graduate, Denny has just completed a plum internship that combined her anthropology major and her minor in studio art. This spring she worked 20 hours a week at the L’Enfant Plaza offices of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

“I really like learning about people and their stories. And everyone has one.”
– Claire Denny

The center produces a festival that gives selected artists the opportunity to display their work — making music, weaving baskets, sewing quilts, and so on — to appreciative crowds on the National Mall. Among its other projects, the center showcases traditional artists from across the United States who were awarded the National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for excellence in folk arts.“I worked on the digital side of this project,” Denny says. “What they’re trying to do is create an online storyboard, so that people who can’t be here in person can click on the map and see all the previous Heritage winners from a particular region.”  She wrote short bios of artists, gathered photos, and worked within the center’s archives to find digital snippets of music.

She worked Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at the Smithsonian, leaving Tuesdays and Thursdays for classes. Making her packed schedule busier, she also worked as a resident assistant in Gibbons Hall. (As a junior, she held the same post in Opus Hall.) Through the Office of Campus Ministry, she regularly visited the elderly at the Jeanne Jugan Residence operated by Little Sisters of the Poor.

“We try to give residents company,” Denny says. “We go over and chat with them during dinner, or maybe play some games or work on some crafts. It’s about forming connections with people who are pretty isolated. All of these residents have really cool stories. I’ve been blessed to get to know them.”

She has encouraged other students to join her at the nursing home as well, stressing the importance of regular visits.

“I tell people, ‘If you go once, that’s wonderful, but if you can go more than once, that’s how you start to form friendships.’”

Denny hopes to continue combining her love of art with her love of meeting people and hearing their stories. Learning about someone’s past, she finds, is a little like uncovering lost treasure — fitting for an anthropologist.