From computer science to cultural artifacts: UTC student’s internship at Bessie Smith Cultural Center yields unexpected insights

Photography courtesy of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga / Maxwell King
Photography courtesy of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga / Maxwell King

Maxwell King, a 20-year-old computer science student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was hanging out in the department's commons area one day last spring when a dean walked through the area.

"Who needs a summer internship?" the department leader asked the students.

King raised his hand.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Specifically, African-American history.

For three months this summer King worked sorting and cataloging artifacts, photos and documents at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on M.L. King Boulevard.

For most pre-professionals such as King a meaningful internship is a prelude to the adult work world. He immediately recognized the opportunity, although it was only tangentially related to his major.

Four days a week, seven hours a day from mid-June through August, King photographed and labeled about 1,000 items of historic significance at the Cultural Center, a museum named after the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, and focused on African-American history. He essentially created a digital directory for a raft of important items curated by the cultural center.

King found himself being absorbed by the work.

"When you have something in your hands that came from across the Atlantic Ocean, it's hard not to be a little bit fascinated," he said in an interview.

King's internship was funded through his department's Small-Business Intern Initiative Fund, which, in turn, was seeded with a $25,000 donation from KaZee, an Atlanta-based, minority-0wned software company.

King threw himself into the work and learned along the way.

Something of a perfectionist, he said he took pride in framing the photographs he took so that every element of the artifact was visible. In addition to photographing and cataloging the items, sometimes he had to do research just to determine what he was handling.

A case in point was a strange item that appeared to King to be a musical instrument.

"OK, what is this?" King said he thought to himself.

He did a quick internet search and determined it was a stringed African instrument called a "masenqo" -- which he duly labeled a put away.

Another time he found a 19th century map of Chattanooga focusing on the areas that we now called the North Shore and the arts district on opposite sides of the Tennessee River. Seeing few streets on what is now such a vital part of the city gave historic perspective of the city's growth.

King says his aspiration is to work in computer networking, perhaps with a local utility/internet provider such as EPB.

In the meantime, he says his summer internship taught him new social skills and work habits that will help him set a foundation for his career.

About Maxwell King

* Age: 20

* Hometown: Chattanooga

* High School: Hamilton County Collegiate High School at Chattanooga State

* College Major: Computer engineering, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga