The Museum Internship: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?


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?

Graduate Schools

  • 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.

Joan Baldwin

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

6 Comments on “The Museum Internship: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?”

  1. Caren Ponty says:

    Hi Anne,

    Here’s another conundrum regarding internships. If doing them for credit and unpaid, students still have to pay tuition for the course. Thus an unpaid internship for credit costs students thousands of dollars.

    On the other side, unpaid internships come with definitions that employers should be adhering to and must provide some type of learning above and beyond the job experience. Technically, paid interns are temporary employees and treated virtually the same as regular employees with respect to labor law. The following rules by the FHLA apply to private for profit employers and government employees, but you might want to think about this as well. You may legally hire an unpaid intern if the following six criteria are met:

    -The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.

    -The experience is for the benefit of the intern.

    -The intern does not displace regular employees but works under close supervision of existing staff.

    -The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

    -There is no guarantee of a job at the conclusion of the internship.

    -Both parties understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the internship.

    • Good Afternoon Writers and Readers of this Thread,
      I wrote this on Museum-L back in September 2013

      Here is what we (Pink Palace Family of Museums, Memphis, TN) do regarding interns, part-time staff, and volunteers….and I recommend it.

      1. Internship The only way you can be an intern is to be enrolled as an undergraduate or graduate student at an accredited college or university and you are student in a department that offers academic credit for a college/university approved INTERNSHIP program. The student’s advisor contacts the museum and an internship agreement, written by the college/university – outlining the expectations of the internship experience for the student – after the buy-in from the museum……is approved by all parties (the student, her/his academic department, and the museum. The student does the internship, does what is outlined in the internship agreement, academic credit/hours are awarded by the college/university. The internship is then completed. The student receives NO compensation for the internship….in fact, the student is paying her/his college/university tuition for the internship. The museum’s end of the deal and the student’s end of the deal……are for each party to perform those activities outlined in the signed/dated INTERNSHIP AGREEMENT.

      2. Part-Time/Temporary Staff Employee The museum hires many people for various positions at the museum and related facilities. These people maybe undergraduate or graduate students……they don’t have to be. Some PT/T staff don’t even have college/university degrees (if a degree is not necessary for the job). PT/T staff are hourly employees and they are paid for their work. They do not receive academic credit for their work. We do not call these people interns. We call them staff.

      3. Volunteers The museum has a formal volunteer program. It consists of an orientation phase and an assignment to a museum department, whose activities appeal to the interests of the volunteers. When I retire in four years, I want to be a museum volunteer, so I won’t have to wear a coat and tie, manage seven departments, administer budgets,…… and I can then finally…….“work” in the museum’s collection department. Volunteers are not paid for their work. People who are not paid for their work are called volunteers. BTW….. Board of Trustee members are volunteers.

      I hope this helps.

      Best Wishes for a Wonderful Weekend,

      p.s. (I wrote this today, November 21, 2016)…. “I enjoy reading Leadership Matters 1213.” Thanks!

      Wesley S. Creel

      Administrator of Programs

      Pink Palace Family of Museums

      3050 Central Avenue

      Memphis, TN 38111


      Office 901.636.2370 telephone number

      FAX 901.636.2391 FAX number


    • Harmonia Balanza says:

      Thanks for a thoughtful article–you make many good points. Internships ARE valuable, so let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. I’ve heard many students over the years attest to the life-changing value of their internship experiences.

      One small point: technically, not-for-proifts are not legally required to adhere to the six guidelines (only for-profit firms), but I think they’re valuable to consider, since they help make sure the internship is transparent and of use to both parties. As for the school credit issue,
      consider that the work done at an internship is the bulk of the content of the course for which the student is getting credit.

  2. lyndakelly61 says:

    Thanks for this post Joan. There was a (heated) discussion on internships a few years ago on Nina Simon’s blog. Worth re-visiting and the comments are interesting too:
    I don’t think the issues have changed much…

  3. Cassidy says:

    It’s kind of a circular problem with no solution. Get rid of all the unpaid internships, and people have to compete with the well-connected for the paid ones and with the experienced for entry level jobs without having anything to draw on.

    I’m not sure there’s such a bright line between interning and volunteering. In some cases, with large institutions that have their own programs, yes – but a lot of students will also contact institutions in order to initiate an internship centered around some sort of research project, which is usually called an internship as that looks better on a résumé than “volunteer”, and, after all, they’re learning while they do it.

    Perhaps encouraging internships to be more like volunteering would be a good midpoint – reduce the number of required hours, allow more flexibility, etc.

  4. robertlfs says:

    I will do as Wesley Creel has done and post something I wrote three years ago on the subject. As with Wesley at the Pink Palace, all interns I supervised were enrolled for course credit as UG or G students – otherwise they were volunteers. In addition, I have just done a quick review of the graduate assistants I had over the years and note:

    from 2007 – 2016 I supervised 23 Graduate Assistants for 2 years each. All but two are either currently employed in museums or enrolled in a PhD program. My rates for interns I supervised are similar.

    I just co-edited a volume published by Rowman and Littlefield (Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset) in which six of my former students/interns have articles.

    My point is that, yeah, there are lots of folks that exploit interns in the same way that paid staff are exploited. It is not at all unique to the Museum field. In fact, according the BLS, museums have a lower unemployment rate than the “average” rate. Here is my rambling on some of that from three years ago as well

    Not much seems to have changed on this discussion over the past several years.

    ************* 2013 post on the subject **********************

    The only context I experience internships are students who register for course credit as UG or as G students in our museum studies certificate program at the University of Memphis. In six years, one student out of perhaps 40 received a stipend from a local museum (a Smithsonian affiliate). Several others have done internships through SI in DC and received stipends. All of our internships have a “contract” where the student, the museum, and university faculty agree on the terms of the internship. On more than one occasion, most recently this semester, I have intervened on behalf of the student if the museum supervisor does not live up to their end of the internship.

    For internships I supervise, I am committed that after the 150-hour internship, the student leave with the basis for a conference paper/poster or more. That is, I see the internship as the opportunity for the student to get a line on their resume that says more than “intern” but includes specific tasks and skills for which they were trained. To that end, I personally spend a great deal of time with interns at our museum. In fact, this semester, I worked every Saturday, with no extra compensation, to accommodate the schedules and training needs of two interns. When I supervise an internship, I expend as much time and energy on the intern as if the student were enrolled in one of my courses – in fact the internship is listed as a course. Excepting those with tuition waivers/scholarships, students are not paid to take my Museum Practices, Applied Archaeology and Museum, etc. etc. courses, nor are they paid for the internship course.

    So the governing authority for our museum is 20 million in the hole this year and we run our museum on a shoestring. What we do have is a small but dedicated staff and a set of volunteers, including the recently retired 37-year Collections Manager of the Pink Palace who work with our interns. Our mission in part mandates that we “. . . provide the University Community and the public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities . . .” I consider our responsibility as public servants mandates that we provide internships – and that those internships be quality experiences. I am also very clear that we only have internships for course credit. In all other instances individuals participate as volunteers or temporary paid staff.

    Having said all of that, I completely concur with the many comments in this thread, especially those addressing private industry on the concern about the proliferation of unpaid internships. In the same way as a teaching assistant can be a valuable experience, I am concerned about the exploitation of adjunct faculty on college campuses today.

    My concern in this discussion is that the we not throw out the baby with the bath water. I am very proud of the quality internships that our museum offers. In fact, all of our current full-time interpretive staff who make wages that are competitive in the Museum industry served as student interns at our museum in the past. As well, when I tick off in my head the new hires in Memphis museums over the past few years, I count several graduates of our Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program who served as student interns at the museums where they are now employed.

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