The Internship CommitmentPosted: July 30, 2018
If museum salaries are not what they should be–and in far too many cases they’re not–then the dark underbelly of museum and heritage organization employment must be internships. Rarely defined, at least in any universal sense, they are sometimes discussed as if they were the pupa stage of a museum career–somewhere between a national history project prize and a first job.
Long ago in museum history, trustees used to look happily around the board table and say some variation of “We can get a grant for that.” That was code for we know there is public money available, we just need to find it. Those sentiments were frequently followed by “Maybe we can get an intern!” or another more recent variation, “Maybe we can get a high school student.” The latter is often in reference to projects involving IT, video creation, social media or coding, the assumption being that students facile with their cell phones might become students who create beautiful web pages for free or at least for less than full price. Sadly, at some institutions interns are the go-to for thankless, repetitive work, marketed to make it look resume-building. In fact to paraphrase the inimitable Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a museum in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an intern.”
Let’s be blunt: Here at Leadership Matters, we’re not fans of indentured servitude of students. They need to be paid. And they need the same respect you offer any employee. Being young or inexperienced doesn’t mean you don’t have good ideas. It just means that the context for those ideas may be a little ill-defined.
An internship is a complicated proposition. First, an excellent internship is some brilliant combination of teaching, mentoring, and learning by doing. It weaves together equal amounts of respect, experimentation, failure and independence. And in the end it’s a gift to museums as a whole. Why? Because you and your organization, serve as that person’s introductory chapter to museum work. If you are dithering, disorganized, unimaginative or demanding in the tradition of Cruella de Vil, your intern may u-turn right into another field.
Second, if you are going to manage an internship, you need to be a good teacher. And you need the time to teach otherwise your failure to explain clearly will mean extra work for all involved. When you write your internship job description, create a week-to-week syllabus to help you and your potential intern see what they will learn and how. If you need help writing internship announcements, we recommend the New England Museum Association which offers sample templates and job descriptions.
Last, pay your intern. Internships usually take place over a finite period of time–a semester, a summer, a winter term. If your organization can’t afford $200-$250 a week which is not even close to minimum wage in many states, or housing (which is often necessary for out-of-town/state interns, perhaps you should reconsider. Is it possible that in your organizational heart-of-hearts, you want cheap labor more than you want the responsibility of an internship?
The museum field is increasingly hard to break into. It doesn’t necessarily pay well, but it requires a graduate degree as an entrance ticket. The other entrance requirement is a string of seemingly endless internships and volunteer projects. Don’t be the organization that offers mindless work capped with a hollow recommendation letter. Be the place where work is interesting and really matters. Be the place that teaches. An internship is a choice, for both individual and organization. Choose wisely.