The term ‘internship’ is ambiguous, and continues to mean different things to different people. In its classical sense, it could be taken to mean a period of unpaid work of fixed-length, with a minimum commitment of three or more days per week. Such work is often taken up by candidates keen to gain important, first-hand work experience in the sector. While there can be little doubt that unpaid internships can have huge benefits for individuals seeking to develop of a career in museums, the proliferation of free and unregulated labour in the sector is not without significant problems.
The traditional recruitment model for museums has long been known to be a broken system. Competition for entry-level posts is fierce, and so only those candidates with previous experience stand a chance of being selected for them. Often, the only way to get experience is to work for free, and the quickest way to get experience is to work for free intensively – three or more days per week, for as long as that can be sustained.
Discrimination against poorer candidates and impact on sector workforce diversity
To be tied to such an intensive commitment raises an obvious question: When is there time to carry out unpaid work? For many, the simple answer is that there isn’t. Sacrifices have to be made, savings dipped into or financial support sought from friends and family. As unfair as it is to be in that position, it is still one of comparative privilege. Others will have to fit an unpaid internship around whatever work they can get, often in low-paid positions such as bar or restaurant work. Others still will not have even that option – the costs of housing, food and utilities simply forcing them out of internships altogether.
The simple fact is that internships are not open to everyone on an equal basis. They discriminate against those from poorer backgrounds. Given the number of paid internships that remain out there, this has obvious and resoundingly negative consequences for the diversity of the sector’s workforce. As a model for recruitment practices, Fair Museum Jobs believes that the institution of unpaid internships cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.
No one should have to work for free
The second reason that unpaid internships are bad for the sector and its workforce is far less complex. No one should have to work for free if they do not want to. Yet many emerging museum professionals are being forced into this very same situation, as they are desperate to fill out their CVs. So obvious is the unfairness of this, it makes further elaboration of this point both difficult and unnecessary.
Interns are vulnerable to exploitation
The sense of desperation faced by many interns can make them extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Unscrupulous employers may see those desperate to break into the museum industry as means by which to get important work done on the cheap. An internship may offer many dividends for the host organisation, but leave the intern with nothing in the way of useful skills or professional development. Knowing that an intern may be motivated by nothing other than a desire to flesh-out a CV and obtain a professional referee, some host organisations may even go so far as to withhold providing a reference for the intern until they have already provided a hefty amount of free labour.
Internships risk replacing paid jobs
The responsibilities that an intern may devolved in their role can vary greatly. Some are given routine but nevertheless important tasks to carry out under closer supervision, while others have a list of duties that can appear very little different from those of an actual paid job. In some cases, interns may be carrying out exactly the same duties as were once undertaken by paid staff at the same institution.
Internships and formal learning outcomes
For internships which come with a heavy set of roles and responsibilities, an unspoken understanding has developed that the candidate will be reimbursed with experience, training, learning and development instead of actual money. While we would contend that that system is far from ideal for the reasons set out above, it is worth noting that some programmes do not even provide their interns with this paltry exchange.
This year, we have already seen an example of an unpaid internship being advertised with an extensive ’job’ description, but with no mention whatsoever of any formal learning outcomes. It is hard to imagine this as anything other than exploitative free labour.
Positive Steps Forward
The following is taken directly from Paragraph 3 of the Fair Museum Jobs Manifesto.
3.1 The term ‘internship’ is vague and continues to mean different things to different people. Fair Museum Jobs does not recommend the use of the term, but when used it must meet the following criteria:
3.2 Internships must be paid, at least, at the level of National Minimum Wage (for all other paid roles, see Paragraph 2 above)
3.3 Internships must be of fixed length.
3.4 Internships must have clearly defined learning and development outcomes, which are clearly set out on the role advert.
3.4 Internships must be provided with adequate training and support, and a named manager or supervisor.
3.5 Internships must not replace roles which were previously paid jobs.
3.6 For the avoidance of doubt, internships should be advertised with the word ‘paid’ in the role title.
The difference between internships and voluntary roles
If there is ambiguity and an ill-defined line where paid jobs end and internships start, so there is similar confusion about the boundaries between internships and voluntary roles. Pay, as discussed above, is an obvious area of distinction. For the avoidance of doubt, Fair Museum Jobs has developed the following guidelines for voluntary roles and placements, taken directly from Paragraph 4 of the Fair Museum Jobs Manifesto.
- Voluntary Roles, Placements and Unpaid Labour
4.1 When advertised, a voluntary role must clearly and unambiguously be stated as such and must not be allowed to pose as a paid job. For clarity, the word ‘volunteer’ should be included in the role title.
4.2 Entitlement to reimbursement of expenses (or absence thereof) must be clearly set out in the job advert.
4.3 Voluntary roles should not exceed a minimum time-commitment requirement of 1 day or 8 hours per week (except for shorter-term periods) and ideally the volunteer should be able to commit as much or as little time as they like, within reasonable bounds. Volunteers can be free to choose to commit more of their time beyond this minimum.
4.4 Voluntary positions should not ask for minimum qualifications or prior experience of specialist technical knowledge (e.g collections management systems or documentation standards).
4.5 Voluntary positions must not be used to replace roles which were previously paid, or which carry duties and responsibilities one would normally expect from a paid role.
4.6 Adequate training and Personal Protective Equipment must be provided, depending on the nature of the role.
4.7 Each volunteer should have a designated supervisor, manager or mentor.
4.8 Appropriate volunteer agreements should be in place between volunteers and hosting organisations, so that the expectations of both parties are understood.
4.8 Organisations should not seek to claim title to Intellectual Property produced by their volunteers.
4.9 Commercial, profit-making organisations should not advertise for voluntary roles, with the sole exception of placements, as defined below.
4.10 Placements are understood to be fixed-term periods of unpaid work, within the context of an educational programme, with clearly defined learning and development outcomes and adequate training and support.
The future for museum recruitment?
Defining and regulating internships and voluntary roles is a good first step, but alone it cannot the issues caused by entrenched patterns of entry into the sector.
Fair Museum Jobs is campaigning actively in other areas that we believe will make sector recruitment more equitable, such as salaries and the requirements for entry-level positions. However, we would be keen to see more schemes such as paid traineeships and apprenticeships – particularly those designed to allow candidates from non-traditional backgrounds to gain a foothold in the sector. We will support and champion such initiatives, even if creating them is beyond the scope of our movement.