Exploited interns, happy volunteers

Maurice Davies, 09.10.2013
Reaction to the Cuts Survey 2013
Public concern about museum interns keeps growing. Last week, the BBC ran a piece about the MA’s 2013 survey, leading on the finding that more than a third of museums and galleries cut staff last year, while nearly half increased the number of interns and volunteers.

Astonishingly, this attracted over 350 comments in just one day. Against the background of increasingly aggressive government sanctions against unemployed people, national feeling is running high about young people being expected to work for free.

“Where will it take us?” Asked Alan Ward in the comments. “When will it all end? When all employees work for nothing and all employers pay no wages nor other payments? Perhaps the employees will be expected to pay for the privilege of having a job?”

In fact, away from museums, there are already examples of young people having to pay agencies to find them unpaid internships. And, arguably, part of the cost of some museums studies courses goes towards securing an unpaid placement.

It’s astonishingly grim for most young people trying to get a first step on the museum career ladder. If it was tough five years ago when I wrote a report on the subject, it’s much worse now, with high youth unemployment and more people than ever being trained for fewer jobs.

The culture of unpaid museum internships has become strong, but they are often misleadingly muddled up with volunteering. There’s a world of difference between volunteering for leisure or social reasons and interning to try to get a job in museums.

This was pointed out ten years ago in a great paper by Kirsten Holmes and museums could do more to distinguish between the differing motivations of different types of volunteer.

Of course, socially motivated or “leisure seeking” volunteering is a great thing, as another commenter on the BBC piece asserts: “I can't believe there are people arguing against the motive of a person working for free for the benefit of their community and/or intellectual interests.

“To bar people from doing such, only to ensure that the more greedy will be paid to do it, is ludicrous and selfish. Many volunteers are retirees and have a tremendous body of knowledge to pass on to others, doing it for free should be applauded.”

But as Kirsten Holmes observed a decade ago, not all volunteers fall into the happy and retired category. Expecting young people to intern, unpaid, to get work experience is problematic.

As another commenter, Philip Allen, puts it: “I'm all for volunteers. I do it myself. But it shouldn't be at the expense of someone earning a wage for their family. And young people desperate to get into a job shouldn't be exploited as unpaid interns.”

To see the results of the Cuts Survey 2013, click here


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23.10.2013, 21:38
I wish I could say the situation in the US is fairing better but it seems we are all facing the same issues. I manage the volunteer & intern programs for a well-known museum and I receive applications daily from individuals who outwardly state that they hope their volunteer time will help them with securing a paying job within the Museum some day.

It's difficult to navigate around this issue when I cannot possibly promise them that the position will lead to anything other than general exposure to the Museum field.

While I agree that volunteering and interning is important (having had to do 2 full-time, intensive internships myself before landing a paying gig), it makes me wonder what professors and counselors are telling students these days.

I know my Art History adviser stressed that I gain experience but not at the cost of performing job functions of what should be a paid position.

There needs to be more understanding in our field of what qualifies as an "Internship" and what defines "Volunteering". I think the confusion and interchanging of these terms is partially to blame for the situation we face now.
MA Member
22.10.2013, 14:54
The experience that is now required to secure a junior job in many museums across the UK is increasingly disproportionate to the role. An MA in museum studies and a number of years experience seems to be expected, regardless of what the job will actually entail, with a pay scale that is laughable compared to similar skilled roles. However, I digress.

The term 'internship' now seems to be used by many organisations as a way to get free labour. It is totally unreasonable for young people (or those of any age) to be expected to volunteer for periods of up to years at a time with the vague promise of a non-existent job at the end of it.

This situation is not helped by organisations such as the Collections Trust who recently ran an online Q&A about 'getting that first job in a museum'. The panel of senior museum staff concluded that volunteering was essential for young people when want to get a 'foot in the ladder' - we will not change the culture of working for free if even the organisations guiding the industry are promoting this sort of attitude!
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
23.10.2013, 10:43
I share your concerns about free labour and the lack of actual jobs, but it doesn't follow that all volunteering is bad and exploitative. Volunteering while looking for work, or alongside a paid job, has always been a good way for people (especially those new to a sector) to gain more skills, experience and contacts.

It is only going to become more important - the question is how can the sector support this and ensure that volunteering opportunities offer real value.
Chris Wood
MA Member
15.10.2013, 18:53
Unfortunately, he doesn't go far enough. He is still working on the assumption that there are only two kinds of volunteers - the retired people giving something back to society or doing it for leisure, and young people doing it to gain experience for a paid job. The latter he implies are all interns, but that assumes a more structured relationship (even if unpaid) than simply volunteering. I'm not undervaluing either group, but there are quite a few of us who don't fall into either category - people who can no longer call themselves young, and who may bring tremendous knowledge and experience from other sectors, but who are building up museums experience by volunteering with a view to getting a substantive, paid museum job. The paid 'trainee' and 'intern' roles don't help us - they don't pay well enough (even the Norfolk Museums traineeships, which are well paid for traineeships) to give up the day job if you have a mortgage and/or a family to support, yet they're not available part-time! And, whilst I wouldn't criticise anyone doing one, if they're aimed at bringing more young people into the museums sector, then they serve to increase the competition for the substantive jobs that do exist. I'm not arguing for special treatment for those in the middle, just to be recognised!
09.10.2013, 15:11
I graduated in 1981 with an 'appropriate' degree in the middle of another great recession and cuts-fest. To get a museum job I worked in a National museum for three years, as a plain volunteer. Interns had not been invented then. I applied unsuccessfully for jobs all over the place and the paid job I eventually got was as a 'trainee' in a nearby local museum, on a tiny wage. There was plenty of competitioin for jobs then. Yet ast that time there were only two post grad courses for aspiring museum professionals. Then, as now, you could get a job without a post grad, of course, but how much worse must the present situation be for the aspiring, with St Andrews, UCL, UEA, Newcastle, Aberdeen, Glasgow and on and on "offering" such courses to the unwary? Should the museums profession and the Association be endorsing these courses, or exposing them as superfluous money-makers?