The Horniman Museum used 29 unpaid interns between September 2009 and 2010

Seven in 10 regard unpaid internships as exploitative

Patrick Steel, Issue 111/05, p4, 03.05.2011
MA poll reveals culture of unpaid internships at many of the nationals

A poll on the Museums Association (MA) website has found that 71% of the sector believe that unpaid internships in museums are exploitative.


Are unpaid museum internships exploitative?

The survey follows the publication last month of the government report, Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers, which stated: “It is a fact that obtaining an internship often depends on who, rather than what, you know. Many young people miss out on the opportunity because they lack the necessary contacts or face financial barriers if internships are unpaid.”

Research by Labour MP Luciana Berger has revealed a culture of unpaid internships at government-sponsored museums, from a handful of days to nine months’ full-time.

In the 12-month period to 8 September 2010, Tate had 126 unpaid internships over its four sites; the Horniman Museum had 29; the British Museum had 24; National Museums Liverpool had 22; the National Portrait Gallery had 21; and the Natural History Museum had 20.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport also had one unpaid internship during this period. "The figures for internships I have unearthed are merely the tip of the iceberg,” said Berger.  “Interning for long periods for free is a hidden scandal. No one should have to work for free.”

Maurice Davies, the MA’s head of policy and communications, said: “Internships that are paid and openly recruited are obviously a good thing, but unpaid internships place restrictions on which people can take them.”


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MA Member
17.06.2011, 16:41
What the sector really needs is more entry level trainee posts. But in the short term, here are some tips for prospective interns that might help improve things:

Find out what duties you’ll be expected to carry out before you start. Perhaps in paper/email form so that you’ve got something to refer to.

Be clear about what you’re interested in, and what you hope to gain from your internship. Friendly negotiation will help you strike a balance between your needs and those of the institution.

Shop around. You might really want to work at a particular institution, but if you suspect that you won’t be treated fairly, this is not a good sign. Can you get the experience you need elsewhere?

Expect to carry out some mundane tasks, this is the reality of working life. However, just because your mentor doesn’t have a PA, this is not an excuse to stick you in front of the photocopier for 8 weeks – this is exploitation. Again, a balance should be struck.

If you’re unhappy with your internship, don’t just stick your head down and get on with it, speak up. Be friendly, point out the positives and constructively suggest how to improve the negatives. A good ‘employer’ should be receptive to this. If they’re not, leave.

The key point here is that the more prospective interns ask to find out their potential duties, and clearly outline their expectations before the internship begins, the more the ‘bad apples’ will realise it’s not acceptable to treat them as unpaid drudges.
22.05.2011, 16:59
I graduated with a history of art degree five years ago. I found there was no support for graduates like me who wanted to go straight into museum employment without further study. Unpaid Internships were/are the norm and they gave me the practical experience I needed but it was frustrating that employment opportunities were not forthcoming. I have seen adverts that clearly state the museum cannot offer any form of employment at the end of internship. This is wrong and it makes me feel uneasy. Museums should be doing more to welcome new young graduates and taking an interest in what they can offer. Paid internships are now gradually appearing but beware; some are open to graduates aged 18-25. I have missed the boat but this is an encouraging step in the right direction. Hopefully things are changing for future graduates.
MA Member
18.05.2011, 15:10
I agree that unpaid internships can be exploitative, but I'd like to comment on some of the selection criteria.

My institution recently offered 7 paid internships funded through HLF, and the selection process was designed to be as open as possible. The successful candidates are from a mixture of backgrounds, but I think most have no postgraduate qualifications and at least 1 has no degree at all. It is always worth applying, and competition is huge for these places, but I believe that many museums take equal opportunities seriously and are genuinely trying to open up this career to people from all sorts of backgrounds.
13.05.2011, 20:24
Regrettably, I must agree with much of what is written below, particularly the idea that having connexions is considered to be OK by the Prime Minister. More to the point, HR in museums appear to be using internships as a way of getting the staff they want, that fit a job criteria, whose faces fit, that filter out those from ethnic minorities and those who are older and trying to change careers and have different experience. Basically, it seems that nowadays in order to get an internship you really need a PhD! Well, actually, that probably goes for a lot of academic jobs, where in the past accumulated knowledge by other means, and experience by other means counts for much. If you don't have the PhD, or let's say the piece of paper that says you have been on a course of Museum Studies or something like that, don't bother to apply - even for an internship - you won't get past the HR people who don't think outside boxes, unless your parents or yourself happen to know the Director of the Museum!
MA Member
11.05.2011, 15:45
I don't think unpaid internships are generally exploitative (although I recognize that there are instances where exploitation occurs). I do feel, however, that there needs to be a better rate of conversion from internships to paid work. I have done a number of internships, and have found that each one has made me increasingly eligible for further, better internships, rather than for the jobs that I would like. It is so easy to get in a rut, jumping from one internship to another, and this needs to change.
MA Member
11.05.2011, 15:19
The difficulty is that most museums and other heritage organisations must fund raise to support internships, and this is not always the priority. It may be time we offered employment to students after they complete their course instead of an internship. It may mean more contract work, though at least it would be paid. Paid internships are useful as they offer a higher ratio of learning to working that you would not normally have as an employee. Employers need to recognise that there are different learning needs at different points in a career, and plan accordingly rather than expecting unpaid work.
10.05.2011, 18:09
All work deserves to be remunerated. It is well known that most museums are strapped for cash. However, those that offer internships could at least offer to pay a stipend to cover some of the intern’s basic costs, such as transport and lunch. Furthermore, not everyone who would like to intern in a museum has a family to support them financially. So it is likely to result in only the elite having the means to do an internship.

With the current situation in the UK, university fees have trebled and many many young people will already have a mountain of debts to pay off. Why burden them even more by continuing the exploitative system of unpaid internships?

Museums often take the stance that they are doing interns a favour by offering them unpaid internships and giving them some work experience. Yet the reality of the situation is that prospective employers all too often don’t recognise internships as work! I suggest the term “internship” be discontinued and be replaced with something like “assistantship”.
MA Member
09.05.2011, 18:02
The trouble with unpaid internships is not so much that they exploit the labour of the intern, but that they maintain an unfair system. Those not fortunate enough to have the means to support themselves while working for free, often long hours, are discriminated against in a job market where getting the all-important work experience depends on working without pay. This flies in the face of all the noble speeches about how museums should be inclusive and representative, and how important it is to have a varied workforce. No diversity program in the world is going to give us that if at the same time the job market is skewed to favour those who can afford to do an unpaid internship. Or could it be that certain museums only wish to employ people who uphold middle-class values, and offering full-time unpaid internships is a convenient way of filtering out "the wrong sort"?
07.05.2011, 18:01
I have gotten several unpaid internships with my skills and not connections. Nevertheless I felt used working at the museums. I learned amazing practical skills but I did so much more than the paid employees. I wasglad to gain the experience but I lost a lot of money and struggled to support myself while having a full time internship. At the government museum I did so much work that I really funk I should have been paid for. They would have never gotten so organized or saved manyof the pieces in the collection without me working there. At a university run museum most people did equal work and many student workers got paid. I did not get paid because I did not go to the unversity. I did as much work or even more than the paid workers. I had more knowledge of periods and styles of clothing that i worked with than any of my fellow workers. The museum go so much out of me because I wanted to learn and the only way I could learn was to be unpaid. It is completely unfair that the museum business does this and it really runs on all it's slaves interns. I want to be paid for the work I do just like a so called experienced employee. I want to learn but with what cost (my money, my pride, etc) can I gain knowledge in the field.
05.05.2011, 12:46
I work in Austria and the situation here is quite different. We would like to inivite 2 student interns to work over the summer months for 6 week periods each, 10-15 hours per week. However, unpaid work of any kind is mostly prohibited (only "job shadowing" is okay!) I think this rule is unfair because it prevents motivated young professionals from getting ahead and obtaining valuable experience. That said, the number of unpaid hours permitted per week should be government regulated. For example, up to 40 hours for the first 8 weeks and then up to 20 hours thereafter. Employers should not be able to "hire" an intern for more than 6 months without pay.
05.05.2011, 10:21
Sorry, I wasn't finished the last post! Following on from below - I found it hard to get a break because I kept being told I didn't know the collections well enough, but how can you get get to know the collections in an instiution if you haven't work with them? My point it, without internships people will never get this chance. However, I do believe it also perpetutates the practice that only those who are lucky enough to have done an internship, will then go on and get paid jobs because of this experience. It really is about getting your foot in the door - maybe as long as your face fits. I'm a bit torn about starting this because of the advantages it gives people who are already well educated and experienced rather than people who have had less opportunity. I agree that we should be diversifying the industy and most internships don't seem to do that. They just provide a vehicle for more of the same. This is not the fault of the people trying to get jobs, it is the fault of the organisations for not looking broadly enough at the skills other peole can bring. We should not need to have special programmes set up to ensure diversity happens, it should happen in all institutions as a given. We should provide at least a basic volunteer allowance for lunches and travel costs so that people who are less well off can have an opportunity to learn and be involved. But, nobody want to spend money on interns, which is a shame because they can teach us a lot about new practices, and bring life to existing staff teams. I hope I can involve interns in my org and that they will really benifit from working alongside us and feel valued and appreciated.
05.05.2011, 09:35
I have have very mixed feelinjg about this. I am a development officer and I was thinking about trying to set up a couple of interns per year at our smallish service. My only motivation for this is to be able to give someone a chance to develop their skills and get experience of working in a real environment. This comes from my own expereince of not being able to get into the area of museum work I wanted to try (cuaratorship) due to what I can only describe as snobbery. Despite have an MA in museum studies, working overseas, volunteering, having a relevant 1st degree, being commited to learning...I could not even get an assistant curators post!
05.05.2011, 08:35
David Cameron has made it clear he is 'cool' with using connections to help family and friends! I feel deeply uncomfortable with this sentiment and don't feel it it right for institutions to use their status to get people to work for free. At a time when we should be trying to diversify the workforce in museums to keep them relevant to the communities they serve, this can only damage this aspiration by the fact that the only ones who can benefit from these internships are those who can afford it!!
04.05.2011, 19:17
Top Tips for making sure an internship will be vuluable for you:
make sure it has a detailed job description and that this is relevant to what you want to gain. Also, make sure it has a start date and an end date (don't let it drag on, once you've got what you want out of it, move on).
04.05.2011, 19:14
I have to admit I agree with the 71% and say that yes, sadly some of the internships out there are exploitive. I have undergone 4 six month internships, 3 of which provided me with excellent work and research experience. I have been lucky, as two of my internships have been paid. For the two that were not paid, there was a massive difference in each experience. In one of them I felt valued, part of the team, and felt that I was gaining valuable experience in the area I wished to forge a career in. In the other unpaid internship I felt undervalued, used, and ignored. At the end of the day, if you are willing to volunteer you want to feel appreciated and this to me is the point that makes the most difference. Interns should be mentored to make sure they are getting all they can from the experience, they should not be left to complete tedious jobs that provide them with no skills whatsoever (that's when it becomes exploitation). On another note, I believe that most people can afford to volunteer if they are serious about wanting to get ahead in their career. I completed 2 internships whilst working full time (basically working 7 days a week for a few months), although this was difficult I felt it was what I had to do to have a chance. While I know not everyone would be prepared to do this, I am a little tired of hearing that only people from ‘privileged’ backgrounds can afford to carry out internships – when some people work extremely hard alongside volunteering just to get by.
MA Member
04.05.2011, 18:41
I understand that museums do not have the funds to pay interns in full, but the least they could do would be to provide travel/lunch expenses. A 6 month internship at a south kensington museum travelling in from South London would cost almost £1000 in travel for me... are we now expected to pay for work experience? This is as shameful as auctioning interns recently shown in the news, as the applicants are only ever going to be the ones willing to pay the cost of travel.

There is a fine line between volunteering your time, and being exploited as a young graduate with useful skills and no guarantee of a job at the end of it
04.05.2011, 17:27
Or advice? :)
04.05.2011, 17:24
Are unpaid internships exploitative? I think it depends. @ anonymous 14:18, I agree. I'm an undergraduate student and I have two days off, so I intern and volunteer with a lot of free time I have, my place offers expenses / lunch which is good. However, I'm about to start a work placement (full time) for a year in Sept, in a theatre, which is unpaid, but they can't pay my travel expenses (don't have the funds). It's a great opportunity so don't want to miss out...any suggestions?
04.05.2011, 16:42
What about career-changers? Not all graduates are young. I have commitments so cannot afford to take unpaid work to gain experience.
MA Member
04.05.2011, 14:18
I was once an intern and I now use interns for project work. I do not believe the majority are exploitative. It is often the only way that young graduates can get the crucial experience necessary to give them an advantage in the recruitment process for 'entery level' jobs in the sector. A good internship should have a set period (summers are popular), be flexible around the student or graduate's other commitments (often a part-time casual job in the service industry) and offer tangible benefits and training to the intern and a tangible output for the institution. Internships set up in this way are a win-win in my experience.