Nothing comes for free

Alistair Brown, 25.09.2014
Changing the culture of unpaid internships
I spent Wednesday afternoon at Quarry Bank Mill, a beautifully maintained old National Trust property outside Manchester, whose tranquil setting belies its grimy past as a cotton mill at the forefront of the industrial revolution.

It is the inspiration for the Channel 4 show The Mill and there was plenty of evidence of the drama, exploitation and hardship of real life at the mill in the displays and from the excellent volunteers and interpreters.

A great place, therefore, to discuss working and volunteering in the cultural sector. I was taking part in a session run by Helen Goodman and Lisa Nandy, two Labour shadow ministers who wanted to find out more about what is going on in the sector. And while the conversation was wide-ranging, one issue seemed to provoke the most debate: unpaid internships.

The Labour Party – along with many others – are increasingly worried about the way that unpaid internships are shutting off access to the culture sector for young people who lack the resources to support themselves through a period of unpaid work. They are also concerned that work that should be carried out by paid professionals is being done instead by unpaid interns.

This is an area that I think the culture sector in general is really struggling with. Few could argue with the principle that people should be paid for the work that they do, nor that we should be encouraging the most diverse mix of people to work in museums.

Yet there is a real demand for quality training and work experience in museums which we can and should cater for. Look, for example, at the thousands of applications for 20 places on the Museums Galleries Scotland scheme. That’s a case where bursaries are available to support interns – an example of best practice.

But not all museums are able to find funding for internships. In a sector that is already wrestling with cuts and low-pay, some museums simply cannot fund intern positions. Others have been guilty of offering internships for positions that ought to have been paid posts. Does this mean that museums shouldn’t offer internships at all?

I think that the presumption needs to be that internships ought to be paid wherever possible, and those that offer unpaid internships should be prepared to be subject to extra scrutiny. But there are actions that museums can take to mitigate the effects of unpaid internships.

The Museums Association (MA) has already developed guidelines for this, which require interns to be paid expenses and receive genuine training as part of a clearly structured programme, and say that internships should last a maximum of three months if unpaid.

Others from the sector have also been looking at this. Arts Council England has provided an in-depth set of guidelines. At Wednesday’s event I was particularly interested in the National Trust’s rules, which state that unpaid internships must be limited to three days per week to allow unpaid interns the time to combine their internship with some paid work.

While it doesn’t solve the problem, it does offset some of the impacts around limiting access to other groups. Could this be a way forward for museums in general? And what else can museums do to strike the right balance on this difficult issue?

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06.10.2014, 17:58
I am a volunteer at 2 very important museums in the UK and I have to pay for all my expenses but also to buy tools as they won't while they don't treat us well and ask to do jobs that take hours by hand but would take minutes if they just invest in the right machines. They have many other machines which are rusting because they won't allow us to use them as they are too afraid of health and safety but they are not doing anything to change that. The problem with this last thing is that they don't understand anything about machine operation and they don't have anyone with authority to decide if we have enough training. I can only see me and many more leaving this museums sooner or later as it is very dissapointing and frustrating.
02.10.2014, 16:35
The issue has always been swept under the carpet. I was once a 'victim' so to speak. I did a six-month internship in a National Museum in Nigeria as a 'Compulsory' during my MA Degree in Anthropology. I averaged 24 hours weekly on the job; set a research agenda for the Museum on University Museums in the country, conducted pilot studies in three universities with functional museums and collections, and presented a report in a joint staff seminar. All was considered pro bono!