Cappuccinos, flaky pastry, cute bridges and the Guggenheim. In Venice. Emily Martin’s year abroad…

What was interning at the Guggenheim in Venice like? To be honest, everything you might imagine and a thousand times more amazing. This write-up proved to be a little tricky to do, because every time I started to write it I wasn’t satisfied with how it sounded. The grand canal didn’t seem impressive enough, the bridges weren’t appearing cute enough, the markets came across cheesily rose-tinted, the architecture of the city was too disneyfied, and my experience of the Guggenheim itself was overly nostalgic as though I were reflecting on another lifetime. I felt as though I was writing a sickly-sweet travel brochure and none of my descriptions were doing justice to the four months I spent there. This is the problem with perfection; it sounds rather impossible and naïve when you attempt to explain it. However, I’ll try again… Eighth time lucky maybe!

The view from work down the Grand Canal

On my fourth day in Venice, I was doing some shopping and getting a few things for my little flat, which had a great big lion head knocker on an enormous front door that opened onto one of those little side streets off the Grand Canal in Dorsoduro, (the bit of Venice that sticks out and finishes in a point), when a lady asked me (in Italian) where such-and-such a street was. It was at this moment that I realised I blended in. I had been feeling rather British, and acting rather britishly too, smiling politely, nodding a lot and standing at the back of queues. Impatient by nature, this had rather been getting on my nerves as clearly the Italians are not known for their waiting in line abilities (for example, but please also insert here pretty much all stereotypical differences between our two nations that you know of). However the very instant I realised I wasn’t a tourist on an extended holiday I threw myself in, with a sort of ‘if you can’t beat them (and I didn’t want to), them join them’ attitude. The firmly ordering a coffee from behind a group of Venetians who wouldn’t budge from the counter in a bar, like the scene in Eat Pray Love, took a bit of courage and a lot of practice, but after a month I had it down. Eating a sugared, flaky brioche with my morning cappuccino, one handed standing at the bar, trying not to look like a three year old with crumbs everywhere and holding onto a scratch of elegance took a lot more work. I set that as my personal goal…really that should have been written into the Learning Agreement contract for the year abroad under ‘cultural integration’.

Over the four months I’m not sure I could pick a day that wasn’t brilliant, but a few moments stick out in my memory, and are my go-to stories… Acqua Alta was amazing to see and have to live with. Everything flooded, this year was particularly bad and splashing through a deserted St Marks square with a few friends at midnight, on the night of my birthday, with the water pouring into my wellies, and wading up to the doors of the basilica looking at the mosaics in the portico was magical.

Splashing in a flooded St Mark’s Square…
Venice at Christmas

Christmas was also wonderful. Instead of going home my family came out and we enjoyed a very different Christmas; shopping in Rialto Market and going to listen to carols in my favourite church because of the stunning altar piece by Titian (Basilica dei Frari, and Assumption of The Virgin). The whole city was covered in twinkling lights and Christmas decorations, hot wine flowed in place of spritz and the lack of teaming tourists turned the streets and squares silent, as the mists swept through the canals and shrouded visibility to a few inches.

Misty Venice in the winter

Then there was the Guggenheim, the internship, and the whole reason I was in Venice to begin with. As interns we did all the behind the scenes opening, cleaning sculptures, guarding rooms, learning everything we could about the art works on display and Peggy Guggenheim herself, whose house the gallery used to be and who, despite anything you might have heard, was really an incredible woman ( probably because of anything you might have heard). We gave talks on the art, the gallery, Peggy, and eventually full guided tours of the whole collection which is comprised of some of the most remarkable works of art. If you aren’t aware of the Guggenheim Collection in Venice (everyone seems to have heard of the one in New York) have a look… It is beautiful, select and full of high quality works.

Emily giving a talk in the galleries

In my fourth month I was made assistant capo, which meant I was awarded a clipboard and a walkie- talkie and helped run the internship program, this was a fantastic little promotion because it meant I was able to really understand how a museum is run, the importance of certain aspects and the value of integral components; such as art works, reputation and ethics. There is an awful lot more than meets the eye! In a truly hands-on way I was able to help curators and registrars  with installing and organising the temporary exhibitions, do condition reports, help with restoration projects and facilitate press conferences and publications.

Doing practical gallery things…

Of course, as with any placement like this, the people around me were just as important as anything else and I have made wonderful friends from among the other interns but also from the long standing staff and I went back to shadow  Dr Phillip Rylands while I was studying in Verona (the second part of my year), who has been the Peggy Guggenheims director since the gallery opened in 1979, to properly understand what his role fully compromises. From my experience of the visitors I have become truly appreciative of lovely people! It is astonishing how many personal issues people can air in an art gallery at the ticket desk. I could write a book of anecdotes I witnessed when visitors thought no one was watching… Arguments sparked by Dali were continuous, amorous affections in front of Magritte were surprisingly common and Pollock did his infamous job to divide an audience the second you mentioned his name. In the midst of the general public we also had a few more well known visitors. Jude Law stopped by (wasn’t the friendliest), Novak  Djokovic and his stunning wife came (as lovely as his TV interviews), Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife) chatted to me with her husband about Pollocks’ early portraits. She looked far too familiar but I only realised once she smiled at me on the way out, I kept my cool…it wasn’t easy. It turns out I’m really not great at celebrity spotting. One day I was walking through the galleries checking everything was alright when a really lovely American family greeted me, all smiles. The man made polite chit chat but he was very interested in the museum so  told him all about it, we chatted for about twenty minutes. I noticed a few visitors taking photos in his general direction but I didn’t think much of it, after all it’s an art gallery. I realised it was time to organise the other interns to close the museum so he thanked me for the conversation and I  left. It was only once a few fellow interns, members of staff and other visitors asked me what the man I had been chatting to for so long was like that I twigged he might be someone famous… Turns out I had been asking Laurence Fishburne and his wife Gina Torres, among other things, if they travelled much and if they liked modern art (they do). My bad,  I’ve never seen the Matrix.


Carnival in preparation

So, what was interning at the Guggenheim in Venice like? It was the best experience and it has made me more enthused than ever about following a career in museum and cultural management. Especially after the wobbly year we’ve had (Brexit) that boost of motivation hit at just the right moment, so all in all, it couldn’t have been better.

Emily is studying for a BA in History of Art with Italian. For more details about her course, click here.

One comment

  1. My daughter will be interning at the Peggy Guggenheim in Feb-April 2016. Loved reading of your experiences, especially the day-to-day tasks interns are involved in. THANK YOU for posting!

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