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The cost of internships to the Museum sector

Last month an email popped up in my inbox via an industry mailing list:

‘I am recruiting an intern to lead on building and populating a digital image archive for Heritage Open Days, England’s largest heritage festival run in partnership with the National Trust. It’s a great opportunity for someone looking to build experience within England’s heritage sector and/or who is thinking of a career in digital archiving’.

Clicking through to the advert I learned more: ‘We’re building a new image archive to help us promote this extraordinary festival, and are looking for someone to take the lead in developing it, populating it with our rich stock of images, reviewing how it works, and training the team in its use’.

The role was six months, working 17 hours per week in central London and of course, it was unpaid.

To me, the level of knowledge and experience required for the role outlined above didn’t sound like an internship, but even if it was I wondered who can afford to work in central London without pay for six months?

Should the route to building ‘experience within England’s heritage sector’ or the museum sector, require someone to come from a background where they can afford to live in London without salary for six months?

The Sutton Trust estimated in 2014 that a six-month unpaid internship would cost a single person living in London a minimum of £5,556, I can only imagine that this has increased since then.

In a sector which has a real problem with diversity, can we seriously look around us and wonder why museums are so white and middle class when we erect barriers to entry by requiring an ever increasing level of qualification and experience to work in them?

In 2014 the Sutton Trust released a report on internships, stating that the high cost of unpaid internships excludes those from less wealthy backgrounds and limits social mobility.

They say that the increasing importance given to internships by recruiters means that opportunities for those from less wealthy backgrounds are increasingly limited.

Their recommendation was that all interns should be paid the minimum wage. This would help to level the playing field and give those who can not afford to work without pay the same opportunity to gain experience as those from wealthier backgrounds.

The National Trust replied to my request for comment on their internship: ‘Our voluntary internships provide a great opportunity to involve a wide range of people in our work whilst gaining work experience for future careers. We work to ensure that the opportunities we provide are as accessible fair, well-managed and as meaningful as we can make them. We run an annual survey of our interns – last year’s survey revealed 94% of interns agreed they enjoyed their internship and 90% would recommend an internship with us.’

While I have no doubt that an internship with The National Trust (or indeed a museum) would be worthwhile, I question the cost.

The cost not only to the intern working without pay but to our sector in lost talent, lack of diversity and a limited world view.

To me, this seems too high a price to pay for unpaid internships.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. Having run a creative agency focused on the cultural sector for sixteen years, he now splits his time between running MuseumNext and consulting with cultural and tech organisations around the world.

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