Happy May to all those graduating seniors! Honestly if you are, in fact, graduating from college right now, please do something nice for yourself because most people don’t have to persevere through a global pandemic to achieve a Bachelor’s degree. I’m proud of you! Hopefully you’ve got a spectacular job opportunity lined up, but if you don’t, you might be considering or planning on a summer internship. Maybe this internship is paid, and maybe it isn’t, and that probably depends on what field you’re seeking work in. If this is a museum internship, we hope it’s paid, but we’re not holding our breath.

That being said, some incremental change is happening. We’re living through a labor movement that’s seeing increased wages for service jobs, unionizing across sectors from factories to museums, and empowered workers. Fortunately, paying interns has factored into these conversations. Many organizations from Art Bridges to the Mellon Foundation to big-name museums such as The Met are funding internship programs. Even small institutions are figuring out ways to make intern programs more equitable. A decade ago when yours truly was a little baby college grad, this was unheard of. During undergrad, I did one internship in exchange for credit, but had to drive 40 miles away from my university and pay for parking to do it. I was fortunate to land a paying job with regular hours four days per week after graduation (outside of the field, obviously, as a medical office manager) so that I could volunteer my day off at an art gallery. I applied for tons of prestigious 1-year fellowships at landmark museums, not realizing at the time how coveted they were and what pedigree I would have needed to land one.

Obviously, interns should be paid for the work they do. The inequity of who can afford an unpaid internship vs. who can’t is just the tip of the iceberg. A big, white, classist iceberg. For starters, when we talk about inequality in who can afford to work for free vs. who can’t, we’re talking about a tiny minority of people vs. MOST people. MOST people cannot afford to work for free, not if it’s full time or enough hours to interfere with a full time job. In the arts, folks tend to have this picture of people who can’t work for free, and they associated all those coded words with the person that fits that picture. “Underserved.” “Urban.” “At-risk.” “Inner city.” While we should absolutely be thinking about how to create and nurture more opportunities for folks who grew up in poverty, are first-generation college grads, and Black and Brown young people who have been boxed out of white spaces like museums, this is just a fraction of the people who cannot afford to work at an internship for any meaningful amount of hours per week for free. The people who can afford it, again, are a tiny minority. So in thinking about how pay can make internships more equitable, think about how you’re recruiting interns. What are your goals for where the interns come from? Is there a specific community local to the museum that isn’t represented? A university you’re looking to deepen ties with? Are you looking for interns with some work experience? Is the purpose of your internship to offer museum opportunities to first-generation college graduates or work with students who come from a certain low-income bracket? Be intentional about the goals for your internship program.

Operative words there being – internship program. Listen. It’s hard to turn down young people who are looking for somewhere to get experience, for all of the reasons that we’re covering in this post. But if you do not have a dedicated internship program with the following elements:

  • A DEDICATED WORKSPACE. There is nothing more demoralizing than being shuffled around/not knowing where you’re supposed to go every day when you get there/having staff members you don’t directly work with tell you they need that space for something else.
  • An existing on-boarding process. Set up a tour, walk the intern through how to check in and out of the museum every day, and go through it with them the first few days they come in. Have a welcome packet that goes over lunch, breaks, dress code, important phone numbers, etc. and make sure they get a tour of the building, both exhibit spaces/galleries, and offices.
  • An existing application process and intern guidelines. Are there grounds for dismissal? Outline the expectations and if the intern is also a student, make sure their faculty supervisor has them as well.

I would say – don’t take on interns unless you have everything in place that you would have for an employee, but I know it’s too much to ask that all of these things exist for employees in some cases.

The other key element of ensuring that what you have is an internship program relates back to those goals. An internship program benefits the museum field, and the intern, before it benefits the museum and the internship supervisor. Yes, interns should be paid for their work, but I worry about what this shift will do in a field that already expects INTERNS who work for FREE to come in with a SKILL SET. Do they know how to do research? Did they present a decent writing sample? Have they had informal experiences that drove their interest for the department they applied to intern in, such as babysitting for an education intern? Ok, they’re qualified. Without being critical of the museum field’s expectations of people who sign up to work for FREE, paying interns isn’t going to help rectify our inequity issues, it’s going to make them worse. Sure, there are those self-motivated young people who take it upon themselves to learn everything about everything and they figure out how to get far without much help from others. But there are a lot more people with tons of potential who didn’t grow up knowing that museum jobs even really exist. If you don’t even know a job exists, you’re not going to make much headway on getting relevant experience, especially by the time you’re 21. And especially if you were preoccupied working at the type of paying job you can actually get before you’re 21. Yes, we hire interns because we have work that needs to be done, but at the end of the day, the difference between an intern and an employee should be that the intern is getting as much, if not more, out of their time at your museum than you’re getting out of them. If you need someone just to take work off your plate and you’re not prepared to mentor them, you need an employee, not an intern.

Finally, one more thing that paying interns won’t fix is the way that folks often will only get hired for an actual job if they interned at a museum with name recognition. I was assisting with a search to fill a position once that we were trying not to make into an “any warm body” situation, but cutting it really close. My supervisor at the time insisted on interviewing a candidate who really did not have any relevant experience, and would have had to relocate for the job, simply because they had attended a prestigious graduate program. His prestigious graduate program was not going to help him hit the ground running on day one. So many hiring managers, probably because they don’t actually know what is essential to all of the positions they oversee, hire for name recognition over actual experience. My partner nearly went broke when he moved out to the East Coast commuting into the Big Apple just to get an NYC museum on his resume. Paying interns does not magically erase the level of privilege that it takes to live in a major metropolitan area for a summer. Again, an internship is not actually a job – as long as it took place at a reputable institution, and the intern can demonstrate they did good work and give a reference from their time there, it doesn’t carry as much weight as we typically assign that they were able to land a big-name museum internship.

With so many issues surrounding internships, I think there’s some movement to abolish them and just hire people for jobs. If we could hire young people like a mall kiosk, I’d be down for that for sure. I would love to live in a world where bored 20 year olds could test out museum jobs and decide they love or hate it with no consequences, but the operative concept here is the “no consequences.” Packaging internships as something you do for free to gain “valuable experience” is as bullshit as paying an artist “in exposure,” but at the the end of the day, internships do provide valuable experience. Even the bad ones. Because museums are so often understaffed and every employee wears many hats, it’s important to have an opportunity to learn and to fail. Of course an internship is made valuable by good mentorship – that could be another essay in and of itself and lamentably one that so many people who manage interns still need to read. But even if a supervisor is a moron or quits the second week into an internship, learning about the behind-the-scenes of a field without highly visible jobs is still important. Likewise, which also deserves it’s own post, interns are really important to the museum and the museum field. They bring fresh perspectives, keep us in touch with what’s being taught in college programs, keep us in touch with what people who don’t spend their waking hours poring over the same label text think about….and they bring friends!

There’s plenty more to say about museum internships specifically. I imagine this blog will revisit internships in the future. Have you ever had a paid internship? What stage of your career was it at? Does your institution still take unpaid interns? Are there conversations about changing the status quo? What meaningful experiences did your internships provide? How can we improve the pipeline to museum jobs beyond just proving pay for internships?

Posted by:museumdrip

3 replies on “In Defense of the Interns

  1. This is a very important topic! My family (includes East coast, Midwest, and the upper nether regions) have all had to participate in the unpaid internship game. Some of us needed it for our resumes, some needed it to finish degree requirements, and all needed the experience (good and bad). As we all move into places/positions where we are able to impact change in this process, it is our duty to do so. I commit to creating a Paid Internship Program!
    Love you blog!!

    1. Yes! I’m hearing from so many people that a paid internship would have disqualified them from graduating! We need this to be industry standard across the board in many fields, because just letting the larger, wealthier institutions who can afford to pay interns be the only ones doing isn’t going to help diversify the workforce!!

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