All work and no pay

Internships often leave people feeling exploited and undervalued, and they can also threaten workforce diversity. Geraldine Kendall investigates
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
Every morning, large numbers of highly skilled young people will turn up for a full day’s work at the UK’s museums and galleries. Some may have moved from far afield for the privilege of working at some of the world’s top cultural organisations.

Their roles range from menial tasks such as data entry and stuffing envelopes to cataloguing objects, managing projects and caring for collections. But they all have one thing in common; there will be no pay cheque waiting for them at the end of the day. They belong to the army of unpaid interns and volunteers that oil the wheels of the UK’s arts and heritage sector.

In the past two decades, interning and volunteering to gain work experience has become endemic in the museums and galleries sector. Curatorial or conservation work requires particularly specialised skills, meaning that practical, hands-on training is essential.

In that sense, placements (both formal and informal) offer an invaluable bridge between academia and work. But this culture has brought with it a number of thorny issues that the sector has been slow to address.

The first and most pressing problem was highlighted by the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg last year when he launched a strategy to boost social mobility. Simply put, unpaid work placements give an unfair advantage to the wealthy and those living near urban hubs such as London, where high-profile work experience can be found.

Rising student costs

Not only are there a lot of talented people who can’t afford long periods with little or no income, but placements are often won through informal contacts.

According to the Museums Association’s (MA) head of policy and communication, Maurice Davies, no matter how well meaning their intentions, museums that offer such work experience are creating “unintentional barriers” against those with less economic means and social capital.

This issue is becoming more urgent as the jobs market contracts. There has always been lots of competition to get a job in a museum or gallery but the environment for new entrants is tougher than ever before, with hundreds of highly qualified candidates vying for even the most basic museum posts.

As well as being educated to postgraduate level, “it’s almost becoming a requirement that you’ve worked for free”, says Kathryn Newman, who graduated from a master’s in cultural heritage in 2010 and has finished a number of unpaid internships since then.

“Employers are looking for a lot of volunteering experience because it demonstrates that you’re committed. That’s great – if you can afford it.”

With devastating cuts hitting institutions of every size, budgets for training and skills development are often first in the firing line. “Museums have gotten very spoilt,” says Davies.

“They’ve become over-reliant on paid staff being overqualified on their first job so they can hit the ground running. You can understand it, of course; they would be mad not to employ the people with more experience on paper.”

But this means that entry-level professionals can spend up to two years working for free before their CV looks impressive enough to compete for a paid job. Such a lengthy period on negligible income is even more worrying for the next generation of graduates.

In England, students starting this September can expect to leave university with debts of £30,000 and more. The salary threshold for student debt repayments was recently raised to £21,000, but what is less widely known is that compound interest on loans starts building up immediately – long before the graduate begins earning decent money.

This means the longer it takes for a graduate’s salary to reach the threshold, the more they will end up paying off over time, a measure that favours those who get ahead fastest.


Not only does unpaid work create an uneven playing field for young people, it also means the sector could be losing valuable talent at a time when museums are being increasingly asked to demonstrate their impact and value to communities.

Shahana Khaliq is a BA graduate who saw off more than 3,200 applicants to win one of just 20 places on a paid interns programme launched by Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) last year.

“I come from a low-income, ethnic minority background where going to museums wasn’t really an option,” says Khaliq. “Now I am working in outreach with [similar] communities. It’s easier for me to bring the museum to them and hear their stories and their interpretation, which is a great service.”

The huge demand for the MGS initiative demonstrates how scarce such equitable internships are. The scheme, which is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s (HLF) one-off Skills for the Future programme, offers each participant a tax-free £15,000 bursary.

From the beginning, it purposefully set out to attract people from diverse backgrounds through an open recruitment process that did not require applicants to have previous museum experience. MGS interns programme manager Jane Jeffrey says she hopes this model could become an exemplar for the sector.

Some felt that it discriminated against more qualified candidates, but Jeffrey stresses that “the diversity score was kept separate from the rest of the recruitment process and was only to be used in the event of a tie”.

The year-long internships offer participants extensive support and tangible outcomes, with each placement tailored not only to meet each participant’s needs, but also to address what core skills the sector may require in the future, such as marketing and project management.

“Some of the material it is generating will provide skills development for the benefit of the sector as a whole,” says Jeffrey.

But not all internships are as exemplary. The issue of unpaid work experience poses increasingly significant legal and ethical problems for museums, and several media stories have recently cast an unfavourable spotlight on the practice.

In 2010, Luciana Berger, the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, submitted a parliamentary question asking England’s national museums and galleries how many unpaid or expenses-only interns they had employed in 2010. The answer, 455, generated a slew of negative headlines.

“Nine-month unpaid internships at museums are exploitation,” said the Evening Standard, while MPs questioned why institutions receiving a generous public subsidy were unable to pay their interns.

The organisations in question, including the Horniman Museum, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, argued that the issue wasn’t quite so black and white.

Many of those included in the total were carrying out work experience as part of university courses, they said, a type of work placement that is exempt from remuneration under the government’s own code of best practice.

The British Museum has changed its terminology to distinguish between the different kinds of work experience it offers, says David Saunders, keeper of conservation and scientific research. Internships involving people who are not yet qualified are now called “student placements”. These placements are a compulsory part of a course of study.

“They don’t receive remuneration,” Saunders says, whereas the three graduates working in his department all receive bursaries from the Institute of Conservation, which runs a well-respected internship programme with the HLF.

“I won’t hide the fact that we benefit from having [student placements],” says Saunders, although he argues that it works both ways.

“They get to network and put into practice the things they have learned in theory. We get to see who the stars of the future are.”

Tales of exploitation

Unpaid work, whether through volunteering or more structured schemes, is often justified by museums on the basis that it’s worth it for the experience. By and large, institutions try to offer high-quality training, but real exploitation does exist.

Among young professionals, hair-raising tales of illegal contracts, unrealistic expectations of commitment, and bullying attitudes are not hard to find.

One anonymous graduate, who has interned for free at six institutions since completing a master’s in art history in 2010, tells of her experience at a well-known London gallery and museum where interns outnumber the paid staff by two-to-one.

“[The gallery] is a prime example of a smaller organisation that’s using interns as free labour,” she says. “We were brought in as part of a new managerial policy which I would almost say is illegal. The internships are very badly organised and there’s no thought given to what they’re offering the intern.”

The graduate describes how she and many of her fellow interns were set to work in the office in mainly administrative roles. “They’re not providing any kind of mentoring process,” she says. “The whole time I was there I probably saw the curators twice. There’s a big problem with museums and galleries getting around minimum-wage legislation. They use the word ‘voluntary’ to escape paying.”

Following debate about the issue of unpaid work, Arts Council England and Creative & Cultural Skills published guidelines last year stipulating that interns should be paid the minimum wage of £6.08/hour – or the London Living Wage of £8.30/hour – if they fall under the legal definition of “worker”.

This description applies to the majority of contracted interns (volunteers and student placements are exempt), which means some museums might find themselves at risk of legal reprisal in future if they fail to comply. In recent years, some interns from other sectors have successfully sued for back pay.

In today’s tough economic climate, a question mark remains over what museums can realistically do to stamp out unethical practices and provide better financial support to unpaid workers – save from shutting down their interns programmes altogether.

Most of those asked agree that funders and government bodies should be lobbied to provide new entry routes and better support and protection for young professionals.

Davies at the MA says that universities need to be more upfront with students about how difficult it will be for them to get a job in the sector, and that graduates have a responsibility to speak out against bad practice.

But ultimately, he says, “the responsibility sits firmly with museums. It’s museums that are selecting people with all this prior unpaid experience.

“A serious, grown up, equitable sector shouldn’t expect that,” Davies says. “You don’t see accountants working for free.”

Geraldine Kendall is a freelance journalist.

The Museums Association is undertaking research this year into diversity, equality and skills for the next generation of museum workers

How the interns see it

Shahana Khaliq is currently interning at Glasgow Life as part of the Museums Galleries Scotland bursary programme

“Since I graduated, I’d applied for jobs that I felt I was good enough for and the interviews had gone really well, but my lack of experience always set me back.

I wasn’t able to apply for volunteering because at one point I was working three jobs. I come from a family where I support my mum – simply put, I have to be paid. The MGS programme was a godsend to me. I’ve got so much experience under my belt already.”

Paul Tourle is carrying out a paid internship at national fundraising charity the Art Fund

“My current internship is fantastic and it’s really giving me professional experience. In other placements, I’ve been doing very menial work. Roles like that are just something for your CV. Normally you pitch up and spend a month or three following someone around photocopying and feeling downtrodden. Fewer unpaid internships and longer placements would be great.”

Kathryn Newman is interning part-time at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

“I’ve seen quite a few internships advertising for admin roles or PAs and it’s something that really shocks me – that’s very exploitative. In my experience that hasn’t been the case.

For the most part I feel that museums genuinely want to give people a leg up. For me, working for free has been worth it for the experience that it offers. Being trusted and given the responsibility to participate and lead projects is very important.”

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