Hi, Nicole here! Last week, AAM brought together over twenty museum professionals from the Washington, DC area for an intimate and in-depth dialogue about museums and internships. This convening gathered interns, museum directors, leaders of museum studies programs, and other museum professionals to talk candidly about the issues shaping internships as pathways to museum work. I was honored to lead this project with the support of my colleagues here, including expert moderating efforts by CFM’s own Elizabeth Merritt and thoughtful framing by President and CEO Laura Lott. This dialogue is part of the larger arc of my work as a Mellon/ACLS Public fellow with CFM. You may recall that I’ve been exploring museums, equity, access and inclusion in the context of the future of work here on the blog and in my fellowship more broadly.
Last week’s dialogue on museums and internships was only a preliminary step in in-person engagement with these themes. Tomorrow, I’ll be posting on how CFM is grappling with these issues in greater depth with our demo in the MuseumExpo at the annual meeting. I’ll also post more about the outcomes and specifics of this dialogue in the weeks to come (whew, there’s a lot to process and share). But, for now, in this week’s Monday Musing, I want to share a few big themes and questions that stuck out to me--and solicit your feedback on how changes in the internships pipeline might impact the future of the museum field.
One of the issues that arose early in the conversation was the challenge of defining what an internship actually means—both for interns and for host institutions. The US Department of Labor has established six criteria to help "for-profit" private sector interns determine whether they qualify for minimum wage and overtime according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Dept. of Labor emphasizes that internships must, primarily, be for the benefit of the intern. In short, internships must be mainly educational. The National Association of Colleges and Employers, however, is pushing for more expansive standards. They offer their own, concise definition of internships and outline seven criteria that opportunities should meet in order to be considered proper internships. I recommend taking a look if you’re at all interested in best practices for internships in multiple sectors.
What’s striking to me across this discussion, and in the in-person convening, is just how complex the issue of internships and fair compensation actually is. Even the policy experts in the room disagreed on the specifics and terms (e.g. stipend vs. payment, experience vs. job). While I, personally, am compelled by the importance of providing payments to interns, I understand the thorniness of funding challenges—especially for smaller museums—that make these issues so tough. I’ve been reading Emily Turner’s post on the Incluseum blog for guidance on the ethics of paid internships and strategies for best practices. AAM has also compiled a list of readings that offer insight on the issue.
But a bigger question for me, beyond the challenges of defining the term itself, is the issue of internships as part of a broader pipeline toward museum employment. As many in the field continue to stress unpaid internships have increasingly become pre-requisites for museum work; meaning that those who can afford to work for free—or who are able to finance unpaid internships through other paid work—will be primarily the people who can take advantage of these opportunities. Internships, then, have bearing on both training and sustainability. If our field is unable to attract and retain a diverse museum professionals, how can we hope to remain relevant and relatable to the publics we serve? We must consider what strategies are available to help us do just that. What might it mean for museums to explore other forms of credentialing beyond the internship? What kinds of funds can museums employ to make sure that opportunities are broadly available to people who cannot afford to work for free? What models are there for successful internships that involve retention and how can we make sure that our field reflects the broad diversity of the communities that we serve?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this huge issue of great importance for the future of our field! What examples or recommendations have you or your museum turned to?