The Internship Commitment


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.

Joan Baldwin




6 Comments on “The Internship Commitment”

  1. robertlfs says:

    I must admit that the posts against unpaid museum internships as horribly exploitative are completely at odds with my experiences. Until my retirement I served on the Advisory Board of the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis. A requirement for the certificate was the completion of two 150-hour internships, for course credit. In fact, the students (or most often their tuition waivers) were charged the three credit hours for the internships. Over my 10 years in the program, there were a handful of students who applied for and received internships/fellowships at the Smithsonian or Met and were paid for the experience. Locally in Memphis, I cannot recall any students who were paid for their internships. However, upon completion of their internships, students would routinely be hired to continue or expand on their projects on a part or full-time basis. As I scan my list of student graduates of the program, many are now employed full-time in museums (e.g., National Civil Rights Museum, Metal Museum, Brooks Museum, Dixon Galleries, Pink Palace, and where I retired as director, the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa) where they carried out internships prior to graduation.

    For all internships there was an agreement signed by the intern, the host museum, and a faculty member in the Museum Studies program stipulating the mutual responsibilities of all three parties. On more than one occasion I was involved in the termination of an internship when either the museum or intern did not live up to the terms of their agreement.

    The notion that internships are primarily viewed as cheap or unpaid labor is completely alien to my experience. As the museum director, I consistently found the need to limit internships at our museum simply because of the one-on-one staff time necessary to meaningfully train the interns. All interns created products that became lines on their resumes. In Q and A with alums and current students in our program, the alums consistently, and I mean very consistently, rank these unpaid internships as the most valuable part of their formal educational program.

    To be clear, I have only had students as interns for course credit. Any other relationship is either as a volunteer or a paid staff member.

    In sum, I certainly acknowledge that many institutions are very exploitative of free labor and not paying their way. However, I encourage a discussion that does not paint all internships with a single brush. Colleagues I work with take internships and mentoring of students very seriously. For more of my own perspective on this subject see:

  2. Dear Mr. Connolly–You are no doubt correct that there are many good internship experiences as there are bad, and the fact that your students had a strong graduate program and an advisor/teacher behind them was important, but good doesn’t cancel out bad. The fact that some–in fact many– in the museum field do the right thing doesn’t mean that others don’t exploit students and new museum professionals. This post was written for museum leaders–particularly at smaller organizations who are creating internships without an alliance with a graduate program.
    Joan Baldwin

  3. L. E. says:

    While I agree in principle, I wonder what the suggestion is for small, local museums/historical societies. They do not have funds to pay interns and they often do not have the capability of creating the week-to-week syllabus or other organized document besides announcements and job descriptions.

    I’ve seen much against non-paid internships, but no tools, training or other practical information to help this small organizations find a way to comply.

    Does this mean these organizations should not have interns?

    • I agree with L.E. to the letter. I am involved with a small, young, volunteer-run museum which is doing well, but needs help, and would love to have some “tools, training, or other practical information” concerning how to make an internship a viable option for us.

      • Jane–
        I don’t know whether you are able to attend the Small Museums Conference in College Park, MD in February, but I think this is a perfect topic for either SMA or your state or regional museum meeting. In putting together a panel, you will meet and learn from museum staff who may be at a different place in the circle than you are, and join them in discussing ways to solve this situation.
        J. Baldwin

      • That would be wonderful, but traveling across the continental U.S. for a conference is not even in my realm of possibilities. Perhaps it will be video-taped and made available to others who cannot, for whatever reason, get to this or a similar conference?

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