Finally, ok, I’m weighing in.
I hesitated for a long time because it wasn’t clear what I could add to an already robust conversation. But this topic is a logical extension of the series of posts in which I’m trying to untangle the perverse economics that characterize museum labor.
Part of the confusion swirling around this issue is the fact that it touches on a bunch of relationships that overlap with each other, to some extent. For example:
Formal internships associated with academic programs: educational internships, associated with college and university degree programs, that align with the requirements of unpaid internship programs as outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act. These prerequisites include educational training, being structured for the benefit of the intern, and being of “no immediate advantage” to the employer. “On occasion,” the Department of Labor’s guidelines candidly observes, “operations may actually be impeded.” (Which reinforces my belief that when museums provide internships for students, it’s the museum that provides uncompensated labor, effectively loaning their staff to act as unpaid instructors.) Sometimes these internships do, in fact, come with a stipend provided either by the college or by the museum.
Volunteers. Civil society is premised on volunteering—on people giving freely of their time in order to contribute to social causes that align with their values. Volunteering creates a non-monetary economy of trust, shared values and social capital. Museums are fortunate to be a popular outlet for these civic impulses. 95% of museums use volunteers, with the median ratio of 6 volunteers to every paid staff person. In 2009 Museum Financial Information Phil Katz and I estimated that somewhere between one and three million people volunteer in US museums in any given year, for a total that could be as high as 2.8 million hours a week. At the current Independent Sector estimated value of $22.55 per hours of volunteer time, that’s $63 million in contributed labor per week—$3.28 billion per year. Volunteers don’t get paid, but they aren’t free, either: (developed by the American Association for Museum Volunteers) specify that “basics” for a volunteer program include orientation, training, supervision, evaluation, recognition, records keeping and risk management. Allowing people to volunteer is a serious commitment for a museum, and it includes negotiating expectations (even sans paycheck).
When we look at unpaid, non-academic internships, people are quick to call legal foul, and in the case of for-profit companies this is quite correct. But the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, in light of the value Americans place on volunteerism, “recognizes an exception for individuals who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation…to non-profit organizations.” goes on to [foot]note that “WHD is reviewing the need for additional guidance on internships in the public and nonprofit sectors.” That sheet was issued in 2010, and as far as I can determine the “additional guidance” has not been provided. I bet staff at the WHD are finding it difficult to distinguish between a volunteer, who has no anticipation of [monetary] compensation, and an “intern.”
There’s the rub, isn’t it? When is someone an unpaid intern rather than a volunteer? Why would someone want to be called an intern (rather than "volunteer"), even without pay? Because it looks good on a resume, of course. It implies (rightly or not) that they received structured supervision and training. It implies they were doing work that prepared them for a paid position. It signals their professional intentions.
This isn’t a case of “you say volunteer, I say intern—but it’s the same thing.” Museums that offer unpaid internships create a situation in which people desperate to get paid jobs in the museum sector pay for the privilege of getting a foot in the door. Maybe not as blatantly as Donna Versace and Anna Wintour, both of whom (all proceeds going to charity, of course). In the case of museums, the “payment” is the salary the intern is choosing not to earn along with, potentially, a lifetime of lost wages. (2013 research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows that . And starting salaries have an enduring effect on future wages. is on the effect of graduating in a recession, but many of the factors it explores—starting in low level jobs, possibly not in your preferred career track, lack of mobility in the marketplace—apply to museum positions in any economy.)
As I see it, there are two potential arguments for museums not to offer unpaid, non-academic internships that do real work and are not primarily for the benefit of the intern.
The first argument is ethical. I’ve postulated in previous posts that the fair market value of a museum job is the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing and unpressured. If applicants are not “willing and unpressured”—If they believe that working without pay is the only road to the position of their dreams—unpaid internships fail that test, and valuing their labor at zero is not fair.
On the other hand, some might argue that no one is threatening aspiring museum workers with unemployment if they don’t agree to work for free. Applicants could seek employment in another field, even if that means waiting tables or pulling espressos. And given that the vast majority of people angling for entry level museum positions have undergraduate degrees from a four year college, and many have graduate degrees, they may well do better than Starbucks. If you position working in a museum as a luxury, rather than a necessity, I see no ethical compulsion to make that luxury affordable to all.
But if you take that route—museum jobs as luxury goods—you run smack into my second argument, which is practical rather than ethics-based. As many writers have pointed out, requiring applicants work for free effectively restricts our field to people who can afford to pay the price of entry. That generally means people who are more affluent, and people who can rely on support from their families. That often means women. It often means people from families with a tradition of academia, families that value the trade-off of salary for scholarship. It pretty much precludes diversifying our staff (by race, gender, socio-economic condition) to better reflect our audience. And it ensures we will be seen as ever more disconnected from our communities and their needs.
As I follow the debate about unpaid internships, I read glowing testimonials to how these positions have fostered lifelong friendships, paired people with career mentors, and provided invaluable experience. That’s great. I hope that many more people have such nurturing experiences as they enter the field. I just think museums ought to pay them for that work, when we are filling positions that are our pipeline of entry level professionals.
To offer a fair wage—whether that’s reimbursement for bus fare and a heartfelt thank you, or $40k a year with retirement benefits—make sure that the museum and the prospective worker have a shared and accurate understanding of what each seeks from the relationship. And if the worker expects an entrée into the profession—pay ‘em, whether you call them an intern or not.