Internships offer a valuable way for young people interested in working in museums to learn more about the opportunities that the sector offers them. In a sought-after profession it seems almost expected that even the most junior applicant will have some experience and internships help to provide this.
We asked the MuseumNext community for their experiences of internships and found that 59% of the museum professionals questioned had done internships before starting work. These individuals felt that being interns had helped their careers, with 39% describing it as very useful.
The time spent as interns varied widely, but 25% of those who had undertaken an internships in a museum had done so for over 12 months, with just 4% spending doing so for less than a month.
A staggering 48% of these people received no pay for their work as interns, with only 8% receiving a living wage.
Having looked at their experience as interns, we now asked them about current practice in the museums they worked in.
88% of those responding to our survey said that their museum offered internships. The renumeration for these internships mirrors the experience of those currently working in museums with 53% receiving no pay for their work.
We also dug further, asking museum professionals for their views on internships.
‘They should always be paid! Unpaid internships perpetuate a lack of diversity in the field because only some folks can afford to work for free’.
‘Worth it for the experience, but tend to only be available to those with money behind them’
‘I got my job from my internship’
‘They’re unfair but necessary in the sector. They favour wealthy people whose parents can afford to help them financially’
‘No pay was an issue for me. Although individual staff made me feel welcome and valued, the lack of financial support was financially challenging. For many the lack of pay would have acted as a barrier into gaining experience into the sector.’
‘They are far from ideal, but an unfortunate reality of our current system’
‘Our current approach is to offer flexibility to allow interns to take on paid work around the internship, and to limit the length of internships to a few weeks. We also ensure there is a learning and development plan for each intern, so that the internship is tailored to their training needs, and provide training and mentoring as required. We are seeking funding to allow us to provide a living wage in future.’
‘I completed several internships throughout my education. Every one of them useful to my career only because of the great leadership that guided and mentored me. They made my time at those institutions well worth it, fun, and educational. I can’t stress enough how important internships are to young aspiring museum professionals.’
‘Our interns receive minimum wage, which is set in the United States at $7.25/hour unless a state chooses to pay more, which mine does not. Additionally of all our interns are full-time students at the university where I work, so the liveable wage is tough to answer since the internship pay is not presumably their only means of financial support.’
‘Our industry needs to drastically change it’s reliance on unpaid labor. We need to value our interns appropriately.’
Many comments echo’d the points in our recent piece on the cost of internships to the museum sector. Internships do provide an excellent opportunity for those who can afford them, but this restricts who works in museums.
My fear is that by showing how widespread the practice of interns working for long periods without pay is, this may provide an excuse for others to do the same. But if we want museums to have a positive impact on society, we need to consider how internships can be reformed to be more inclusive and less exploitative.
I think that there is that desire, but how do move towards towards fair paid for interns when funding is limited?
– A note on our research. 420 museum professionals took part in this survey on July 10th 2017, with the majority of these being in Europe and the United States. Participants were recruited from our MuseumNext mailing list and posts on Twitter and Facebook.
About the author – Jim Richardson
Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with museums for over 20 years, with 16 years of that leading a creative / digital agency working in the museum space. Jim now splits his time between running MuseumNext and consulting on tech and innovation in the cultural space.