Ryan Melbert is a Public History student who currently has an internship with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (the DNR). Through this experience, Melbert has been able to take part in multiple valuable opportunities, ranging from trips to historic sites for historic preservation to working with the DNR’s Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology (DHPA) and their research database, SHAARD. Melbert hopes to encourage others interested in historic preservation and/or state archaeology to consider and pursue this internship and other similar opportunities.

A Glimpse Behind the Curtain: What Life Is Like Working for the DNR

So…you’re interested in seeing what the Department of Natural Resources has to offer, now what?? Well to be honest, you can’t just go waltzing into the office, claim a desk, and start eating the shared cookies. After all, you’re not an intern—yet. If you have ever wondered what goes down behind the scenes of the Indiana DNR, fear not! I will show you. I have left footsteps and left a cookie crumb trail for you: here is your very own how-to survive/step to guide/worst case scenario booklet that will tell you what it’s like to be working at the Indianapolis Department of Natural Resources.

Image of Ryan Melbert sitting at his desk during his public history internship with the DNR.

Once again, you’re not an intern just yet. First, we need to get you in the building. Finding your way to the security check point is easy. Finding any office among the long corridors of the government center is not so easy. The building itself is a maze, let alone twisting underground tunnels that can help people get from place to place. My first day I took a couple wrong left turns and ended up in the cafeteria (which may have been on purpose), so it’s important to follow the signs. Finally making your way to the DNR side of the building, you hop on a system of escalators to get you to the office. In front of you are the words “Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology”. This is your office.

Working for the DHPA is a blast! Your time spent here will be varied in many ways. Attending National Register meetings and Archaeology discussions, as well as working with SHAARD. SHAARD is the state’s research database that logs all sorts of historical structures that have been surveyed. It is a massive database that contains buildings sorted by physical condition, county, and status according to the National Register of Historic Places. There is a key for some of these buildings, ranging from demolished, non-contributing, contributing, notable, and outstanding. This classification denotes its standing according to the National Register requirements. As an intern, you are an integral part of using SHAARD to find different locations to write about, file information under, and examine. My first week, I began a project logging physical survey cards of state registered cemeteries into the database, scanning them by hand into pdf forms. I forgot to mention that these cemetery surveys are organized alphabetically by township and county name. There are numerous townships within each county, and over ninety counties in Indiana, so you will have to pick up where I left off… good luck!

Perseverance is key here, as well as breaking up the work. For me, I made a game out of it. I wanted to see how many counties I could get through in a day (Spoiler alert, my record is two days per county so it will take some effort). Regardless, survey database work can come in handy with more than just one project. My second task was to find various barns and write a short biography about each of them for a Facebook post. To accomplish this, I was to use SHAARD and search for barns throughout the state. I wanted to make my list in a way that could give the reader a sample of everything. Sticking with this theme, I found barns from different locations, with different shapes, and different colors. I did not think I would ever learn so much about barns. I thought barns themselves were just buildings to store farm supplies. Instead, I fell into a rabbit hole about sizes and shapes, including the very deep history of round barns throughout Indiana. It is incredible the things you can find on the survey database by just getting lost in your research.

Historic Preservation and the Recommendation of DPHA

That being said, office work is not the only thing you will be working on at the DHPA. Being an intern is very fun, you get to sit in on special meetings and projects for all types of work within the office. Just yesterday, I went on a trip down to the southern tip of Indiana visiting the city of New Albany, Indiana. The reason for this trip was not a last-minute vacation, but to log the condition of a few buildings the DHPA are monitoring. The reason for monitoring lies with historic preservation grants. In a nutshell, organizations and people alike can apply for grants from the National Park Service to help fund their restoration, rehabilitation, and preservation projects. For instance, if you have a historic building with strong ties to the community or culture of a particular location, and it needs to have its windows restored to historic era standards, the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology can help. They work with the National Park Service and act as your middleman to fixing up your historic building. Once a building accepts funding and the project is completed, it is put on a list to monitor its condition going forward for the next 10 years. Every year, a team from the historic grants section must go and review the condition to notify the NPS that it is doing well.

As an intern, tagging along on one of these trips might seem like an adventure—and it is! You get to learn much about historic preservation and the techniques used to restore/preserve/rehabilitate old buildings that can still serve a purpose in their communities. The city of New Albany itself is going through a new revitalized movement. It has beautiful architecture and many historic buildings within the district have applied for grants from the NPS. While there are modern touches, many of the buildings within the town make you feel as though you are walking through a time period long forgotten. It is definitely nice to see old buildings having new lives again, thanks to the help of The Historic Preservation and Archaeology Division.

Another fun trip was when I went to sit in on a National Register review board meeting. Assuming your internship aligns with another review meeting you should attend too given the chance. By siting in, you get the opportunity to learn about the process that the same historic buildings I previously mentioned need to go through to be added to the national list. When I went, I arrived at Fort Harrison Inn, a piece of Indiana history located near Fort Harrison State Park in Lawrence, Indiana. The inn itself was used as a hospital in the 1800s and has been an actual hotel where you can check a room out  ever since. It is a very beautiful building, and today it is used as the meeting place to decide which historic Indiana buildings will be voted to add to the National Register. These meetings are open to the public and many people who own a historic building up for a vote attend to voice their opinions on why it should be added.

While as an intern you may not always be out of the office, it is certainly nice to know that there is more to your experience than a traditional internship. I have not had to pick up coffee or bake cookies once, although I am sure my coworkers would love me to surprise them with some baked goods. I am excited to continue in my intern roll though, I like getting a taste of everything. When I first applied, I was not sure exactly what the DHPA would have in store for me, but I am certainly thrilled to be a part of it. So far, I have nothing but praise as the team is great, and I learn something new every day. While I am not finished in my internship, it is definitely evident that there are some traits that might help if you’re applying. Having work do to is not a problem as there is always something to finish, but managing that work is key. I think by splitting up work on one project in the morning, and work on another project in the afternoon works best. I find that working on creating Facebook posts in the morning is easier than afternoon. In the afternoon, I can work on SHAARD data entry, and I always end my day by looking over some tasks for the next day. Of course, it is important to try to utilize my time wisely and work as much as I can on my current tasks, and I think that is a good rule of thumb. This is because occasionally, meetings or trips to sit in on can come up, and I need to stay on top of my work so I can attend.

Overall, my time spent at the DHPA has taught me a lot and I am happy to be included. I would definitely recommend anyone interested in historic preservation or state archaeology to check it out. It also is a good balance of new experiences so one thing does not get stale at all. I tend to be a person who does not like routine, so this internship is amazing, and I am so excited to see what else the Indiana DHPA has to offer!



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