The Museum Internship: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?Posted: November 21, 2016
Here at Leadership Matters we believe in mentoring. It’s generous, it builds connections across the museum field, it makes us stronger. So, putting my money where my mouth is, I recently advised a young colleague to look for museum internships. And she found some. One is paid and required a formal application process, while several are unpaid. Some of the unpaid ones could be accessed through my connections and required an interview. A few weeks later, we spoke at NEMA (you can read about that here: Five Gender Myths and What Happened at NEMA) where more than a few attendees deplored the fact the museum field, while scratching its collective head about why the field isn’t more diverse, sets up a host of barriers to emerging professionals, not least of which is an expensive graduate degree followed by an internship(s) which is likely unpaid. Participants in our NEMA session suggested there should be a field-wide moratorium on unpaid internships. So what to do? Folks new to the field need experience. Internships seem like they answer that problem, but are they a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
In my case, my mentee isn’t committed to the museum field. She’s not even committed to graduate school. She’s a recent college graduate with a degree in art history. Museum and archives work have been her go-to job choice since middle school. But teaching also calls to her. While chatting with her I pointed out that a brief internship with a defined scope might help sort out what, if anything, about the museum world appeals to her. And if it does seem appealing, does it matter enough to check the big box of graduate degree? And yes, she would be the first to tell you she is lucky and privileged. She is able to live at home or with extended family and participate in the internships available to her.
So if or until the field grapples with this problem at some 30,000-foot level, what should graduate students or new museum professionals do? In no particular order, here are Leadership Matters’ ideas for individuals, organizations, and graduate programs.
- As with any job search, be strategic. Know what you want out of your experience. Random experience brought to you by an internship is not an answer. Strategize about what you need. What builds and connects with what’s already on your resume?
- If you’re looking at something unpaid, make sure the organization defines your role. What will you do and for whom? What are your takeaways? Is there academic credit? Does that matter to you if your degree requirements are complete?
- And even if you’re not being paid or getting credit, ask what else the organization offers interns: paid attendance at workshops or a regional meeting, free admission to events that support your areas of interest; parking or travel supplements; opportunities to speak or publish. Don’t be bashful. You’re offering time and skills. This is not indentured servitude. Get something back.
- Can you manage financially and balance an internship while paying your bills, eating, and having any kind of life?
- If not, consider volunteering. I know it sounds a lot less fancy, and in many cases it is, but as a volunteer you donate your time, which puts you more or less in the driver’s seat. Nonetheless, everything from bullet point one still applies only more so.
- If your area of specialty is development, communications, leadership, or anything found throughout the non-profit world, don’t confine yourself to museums. Look everywhere.
- Internships are not scut work. Good internships can launch careers. Be honest: If you don’t have the time or temperament to supervise internships, for goodness sakes, don’t do it. The museum field doesn’t need Cruella De Vil.
- If you have a donor or donors interested in education, consider helping them create a named (paid) internship. Your organization benefits as well as the field. Conversely, if they would rather endow a position, ask the board if it would consider shifting funds from the endowed position to create fellowships or internships in other departments.
- If you can’t fund a position, can your organization ally with a local college or university and offer an internship for credit? And while you’re at it, gather some of the students together and ask them to help structure the program. What works best for them?
- Be realistic with your students. Understand the job market.
- Create alliances (and internships for money or credit) with museums nearby. If you’re a virtual program, consider leveraging your brand in an internship partnership.
- Build opportunities for students to meet and work with museum staff into your program. Require them to have mentors, not just advisors. Mentors aren’t advisors.
- Too often getting a job feels like another job. Teach students how to strategize about what it is they want as they build careers.
If this week is a holiday for you, best wishes for a happy time with family and friends. And when you have a moment, share your thoughts about the internship conundrum here.
P.S. And for more detailed information on classifying someone as an intern, you may want to read this: Four Takeaways—and Good News—for Nonprofit Employers with Internship Programs