In our last post about internships, the topic was the ways in which internships would not be saved merely by paying interns. I wanted to get into some good debates about the value of internships, the value interns bring to organizations, why paying wasn’t the only thing that would make a difference, since plenty of internships are just equally comepetitive positions with the added stress of being temporary assignments – there were so many things to get into, I thought. But the research I did asking folks to talk about their interning experience and the ensuing conversations after publishing led me to realize that for the majority of folks in careers where interning is a must, we’re not even ready to get into the deep debates. There’s so much surface work still to be done. There are so few worthwhile internship experiences largely because there are so few worthwhile internship mentors and supervisors. I consider myself to be a pretty good internship supervisor, but when I’m looking for resources to do a makeover or build a new intern program, I’m always struck by how few resources there are on the World Wide Web that can help with these tasks. This post is a how-to guide.

But before we get into that, because this is about the flex, first we’ll back up and talk about why musem internships are A Thing in the first place. Many professional fields have practicum aspects – as they should! I’m all set with a teacher that’s never had to spend an entire day with 25 little monsters or a nurse that’s only read about how to take my blood. This is part of my reason for calling this series in defense of the intern: hands-on learning is critical! After all, as an eductor, I believe experiential learning is the most valuable kind. Clearly internships have a super bad reputation in the non-profit sector, so let’s find a solution that benefits everyone instead of throwing up our hands.

Truth bombs, and cream cheese bombs

That being said, it’s pretty easy to see why people dunk on arts & culture internships: they have become a code word for exploitation. And despite there being plenty of other blog posts and articles written about how they exploit young people, we have just begun to start to see some progress towards some tiny, incremental change. Interns have long been expected to work for free for nothing but the promise of a “foot in the door.” When the time for hiring came, those hopefuls are often passed over for someone who was privileged enough to have a better internship on their resume. (Again, see the last post on the subject for more on that.) The debate has focused on whether or not interns should be paid (they should) instead of why we’ve allowed internships to just become another competitive line on a resume when it’s something that we essentially require in the museum field. Of course, as humans, we are hierarchical, and yes, when someone is applying to be a teacher or a nurse, the place they did their student teaching or student nursing is going to be something the hiring managers take into consideration. But I’m pretty sure it’s not like a “we’re putting the teacher who did their student teaching at Sunny Flower Elementary at the top of the pile. We’re only calling this riff raff that student taught at Butterfly Meadow or Rainbow Sky if it falls through.” The practicum is required for those careers. They did it, they passed it, now they all start on a level playing field. That’s not the case for museum interns, paid or not.

Furthermore, because those practicums are required, the students completing them in those fields are (more or less) respected by the colleagues at their workplaces. I suppose I can’t make a sweeping statement like that, but I guess what’s more accurate to say is that it is frowned upon to explicitly disrepect those folks because by rights they have to be there. Not so much in museums, where interns are seen as voluntarily choosing to work for free and thus subject to whatever vitriol is thrown at them. Remember museum jobs aren’t real jobs, just a way for houswives to amuse themselves, so if someone is working for free in a museum, that’s really a them problem.

So – what’s a museum professional with a summer intern to do? I mean, if you’re reading this shortly after it’s published, you probably already had to figure that out, but hey, it’s never too late to get better. If it’s already gone off the rails for you this summer, bookmark this page and do better next time. Here’s a very specific how-to guide on how to make an intern feel valued and for you to both feel like you got something meaningful out of the arrangement. These tips are obviously geared towards museums, but I think many could apply to other fields, too.

  1. Pay Your Intern

Is your intern unpaid? Talk to your supervisor about how to implement a paid program next year. One great tip is to talk to your area Community Foundation or other community funding sources. They may choose not to pay the intern directly, favoring university credits, which can actually help students with tax responsibilities. As long as your intern is a current student, this can work well – even students on full scholarship have fees and other expenses. However, if you accept recent grads as interns, they obviously need to be paid real money. Start the conversation.

2. Set Expectations with Your Colleagues for Your Intern

Before you choose your intern, set clear expectations with yourself and your colleagues about the obejctives for this internship. What is the institution looking to get out of this internship? Will you be the sole person the intern works with, or will they report to different people on different projects? Will they attend meetings outside of your department? How will you, as the supervisor, address times that you’re out of the office or working on a deadline or just have an “off” day? Are there colleagues identified to work with your intern on those days?

3. Logistics.

If you were to ask a museum professional what the most important part of an internship was, I feel like “lunch” wouldn’t be most people’s answer – but sometimes it is.

Logistics. Where will they sit? I once had an otherwise lovely internship ruined because I had to sit in an absolutely frigid room while it was over 100 degrees outside. (As a 30-something I know now that I should have just brought a parka in a tote, but it was tough.) When do they eat lunch, where do they eat it, who do they eat with, where is the microwave, what if they forget some cutlery? I had an intern once, bless his heart, who never once packed his own spoon and had to ask the museum cafe for one Anyway, it was fine because we ate lunch together. Where do they sign in? What’s the dress code? What do they do if they’re late? Put together a packet that answers all of these questions and please, make sure they have a dedicated, comfortable workstation, even if it’s makeshift.

4. Set Your Expectations with the Intern

What’s the work environment like? Is it ok if they text you they’re running late a few times a week, or ask to leave early, or is that going to affect your letter of recommendation negatively? (That might sound leading, but I actually prefer my interns to leave a little early so I have time to regroup before I leave.) Will they be mostly lending a hand with programming? How involved should they be? Are they responsible for projects? What do you consider to be a completed project? Set these expectations in your initial emails once they have accepted the internship, then schedule weekly check-ins to reinforce them.

These are real stories from real strangers on the World Wide Web

5. Introduce Your Intern to Your Colleagues

Introduce your intern via an all-staff email, at an all-staff meeting if you have those. Walk them around and introduce them to departments just as you would any new hire. If your institution has multiple interns across departments, coordinate with the other supervisors so you’re not interrupting your colleagues daily. And if there are multiple interns, make sure that your insitution has time for them to meet and interact with each other. Set up meetings with other staff so that your intern has the opportunity to learn about other jobs in the museum besides yours, and make connections with people who aren’t just you.

6. Include Your Intern in Your Day

Include your intern in as much of the day-to-day goings on of your museum as possible. Unlike other professional fields that I was speaking of aspirationally above, museum jobs have very little visibility in the world, and so just because someone is interning in one department, doesn’t mean that is the department they’ll ultimately want to work in for the rest of their career. PLUS, museums are infamous for having “siloed” departments that don’t mix well together. Help to break the cycle by getting your intern comfortable with multiple aspects of museum work.


BUT ALSO, NOT TOO MUCH WORK. Whether your intern is paid or unpaid (but in that case, see item #1), what they are is an entry-level member of your team. As a member of the team, they have a job to do, but as an entry-level member of your team, they do not replace an experienced, degree-holding staff person. Is this a tricky balance to strike? If it seems too daunting, please don’t take on an intern.

8. Be a Mentor

Althought there aren’t a ton of resources on how to put together a great internship, there are a ton on how to be a good mentor. Just Google it.

Talk to your intern like they are a person. In addition to having weekly check-ins for performance-related reasons and inviting them to lunch to make sure they’re eating lunch, use this time to actually talk to them. They shouldn’t feel like an outsider, even if their hours are limited. All of the “best internships” are marked by having a great mentor, and to be a great mentor, you need to establish mutual respect, which means you know your mentee’s strengths and weaknesses. To learn these, you need to know them a little bit. Please don’t be that person that says “I’ve had dozens of interns – I can’t possibly get to know each one personally.”

9. Don’t Perpetutate Painful Work Patterns

Likewise, please don’t be that person that continues the “they have to pay their dues” cycle. This is a great article a friend shared after reading the first installment of “In Defense of the Interns.” It’s about how we do not need to continue the cycle of making people’s early careers a living hell, and makes a great point about how creative, empathetic, collaborative workers cannot be reverse-engineered once they’re a few years into their career. Even if interns aren’t young, they’re fresh because they’re new to the field. This is your chance to nurture creativity, collaboration and rewarding a fresh perspective. This better equips the museum field to continue growing and improving. Yes, all jobs will be hard sometimes, and it’s ok to be realistic with your intern. But an important part of an internship program should be investing in the next generation of the workforce.

10. Interns Are Supposed to Get More Out of the Internship Than You Are

That brings me to my final point, which was in fact already made in part I of this series: if you’re getting more out of having an intern than they’re getting out of being an intern, this isn’t an internship. If this doesn’t work for you, please don’t take on an intern. The point I make in that post and am reiterating here is: the problem with internships is not only that some are paid and some are unpaid. The real exploitation is that we expect interns to come to us with marketable, hirable skills, and we squeeze every drop of productivity out of them for a few months, and then send them on their way without gainful employment. Please treat your internship program like an opportunity for your interns to learn. They might make mistakes. It will add more to your plate as the supervisor. If that doesn’t work for you, please don’t become an internship supervisor.

I think that’s pretty definitive

Posted by:museumdrip

5 replies on “In Defense of the Interns, Pt II: Supervising a Meaningful Internship

  1. An excellent article. Internships should be paid. What is appropriate pay? If I still worked for a private non profit museum I would advocate strongly to my board. Since I work for a County and run its three museums I would ask we hire a prospective intern as an Extra Help. The down side to this approach is it takes literally months for your average County to hire even part time help. Because of this I would suggest prospective interns to decide in February if they want to work for a County like us. Our Extra Help get paid minimum wage on entry so it would be the same for a paid intern. We were able to hire a high school junior during the summer of him going in to his senior year and he was able to work a couple of full shifts each week in the museums because of Covid. Keep pushing!

    1. Thanks for sharing this insight into your own experiences! I absolutely think that each museum has to work out what works best for them in terms of pay – I advocate finding a scholarship sponsor in the community for museums who are simply strapped for the budget. But as you’re pointing out, there are multiple avenues. Creating equitable pathways to enter the field will have a lasting impact on wages for everyone!

  2. This is a very important topic and I am glad you decided to write about it! While my internship was not in a museum setting, many of your points are relevant to my experience. I was fortunate to have a supervisor who not only gave me a great experience but had me stretch my skills to grow ‘outside’ the box. After 42 years I still reference my internship as the time that solidified my career choice and I still use the skills learned during that time. My intent is to mentor each intern (and I have had many) so that they too are able to reflect back and say, “my internship was important to me professionally and personally and I will pay my experience forward!”

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