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Interning in Paris: 8 million visitors, 35,000 works of art and one after-hours look at the Mona Lisa

Art history major Meredith Tavallaee lands top internships at Paris’s Louvre and the Cluny Museum

The crowd at the Louvre taking photos of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, displayed behind a protective glass wall. As an intern, Meadows art history major Meredith Tavallaee observed Louvre curators examining the famous painting during its annual inspection, when it is taken out from behind its protective glass. Image from Flickr/Creative Commons; credit, Charlie Phillips.

Meredith Tavallaee atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

When senior Meredith Tavallaee applied to the SMU-affiliated Paris Field Study and Internship Program last summer, she hoped to land an internship at an art museum for fall 2013. Little did she expect that she’d land not one, but two internship positions, one of them at the Cluny National Museum of the Middle Ages and, to her delight and surprise, another at the Louvre, one of the world’s largest and most highly regarded art museums. For Tavallaee (B.A. Art History, B.A. French ’14), her double Paris internships have been dreams come true.

Authentic masterpieces up close

The Louvre is over 200 years old. First opened in 1793, it is home to 35,000 works of art, including masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Delacroix and Ingres. Eight million visitors flock to the museum each year to see world-famous works such as Michelangelo’s Slave and the ancient Venus de Milo.

Tavallaee’s duties include research and documentation of works in the museum’s renowned Department of Italian Painting. There are days when she gets to see masterpieces the way Louvre conservators see it: within touching distance, and without crowds.

“On Tuesdays when the museum is closed, I’ve been able to look up close at art that I have studied at SMU!” she exclaims. “It's amazing to actually see paintings that I have studied and been tested over. For example, I watched a conservator examine Raphael's Portrait de l'artiste avec un ami, which I studied in my art history Italian Renaissance class last year. Every Tuesday I am able to go into the museum and watch the movement of the art, conservators examine the art and even go where the Louvre keeps the art in reserve.”

The timing of her internship was fortuitous: She was there when the conservators took da Vinci’s Mona Lisa out from behind its protective glass wall for its annual inspection.

“Seeing the Mona Lisa was unbelievable,” Tavallaee says. “It is only taken out once a year and it was a very big deal. A lot of security was there. I was fortunate enough to be able to see it front and back, without the glass in front of it, and even go up close to look at her.”

Handling Bronze Age artifacts

In addition to her internship at the Louvre, Tavallaee is also assigned to work at the Cluny, Paris’s National Museum of the Middle Ages, best known for its 15th-century tapestry series La Dame à la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn). There, she works in the documentation department, primarily in the récolement (proofing) section. “By law, every museum has a récolement department that is in charge of locating every work of art,” she explains. “I literally go through the original inventories and catalogues of the Cluny and check where the objects have been moved to and see if they are still there. I have also been able to sit in on meetings with the chief conservator and hold and examine various objects from the Bronze Age.”

While in Paris, Tavallaee will also pursue research for her art history honors thesis on a group of Gothic ivory statuettes, Descent from the Cross, in the Louvre’s medieval collection. The research is made possible in part by an SMU Engaged Learning grant; she will speak about her experience on February 6, 2014 at the Engaged Learning Symposium in the Hughes-Trigg Forum on the SMU campus.

Read more about the Musée du Louvre, the National Museum of Middle Ages, the Paris Field Study and Internship Program and other Department of Art History internships.

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