So You Want to Give Your Internship Program an Ethical Makeover…

Emily Turner has been working hard to overhaul the experience for interns in the education department at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, WA. In what follows, she shares the lessons she’s learned in the process along with an incredible list of resources that she’s collected overtime. We suspect that her list of resources will be extremely helpful to many of you interested in making progress on issues of unpaid internships!

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Whether you were inspired by AAM’s recent list of resources or whether you’ve been sitting on the idea for years, it’s likely you’ve imagined your museum as one where all interns get compensated for their work and chances are, you liked it. My own turning point on the issue came with my third and last internship, a personally meaningful one but exploitive. I was working 20 hours a week on top of my full-time job and taking on specific portions of my supervisors’ workloads, all to the tune of “we would totally hire you but we don’t have the money.” To find myself supervising unpaid interns less than three years later was a shock and frankly, upsetting. Rather than attempt to rationalize the situation in a way that would help me sleep at night, I decided to take action to shape the internship program into something I could more comfortably accept responsibility for.

There might be several things that hold you or your institution back from fully eliminating an unpaid internship program, in which case it’s worth taking a look to see if adjustments can be made that benefit your interns. Improving is just as crucial as removing unpaid internships, and improving can actually carve a path towards the removal process. If you can firmly delineate what are/are not appropriate intern tasks and instate robust policies and documentation the more likely you are to begin shifting the institutional culture around internship practices.

This was the path I decided to take: baby steps in the right direction. The big question that presented itself once I chose to act was of course…How? How on earth does one give an internship program an ethical makeover?

Everyone has something to say about unpaid internships, which makes finding one key resource hard to pin down, let alone one specific to museums. Most guidelines reference legal definitions for for-profit companies. Since non-profits rely heavily (and legally) on volunteers, there is little to be said concretely in the way of appropriate intern compensation or responsibilities. In combing through articles and essays, it became clear that most museum internships look more like unpaid entry-level work rather than a volunteer position or facilitated learning experience. Although there seems to be a growing sentiment that those of us in museums should be reexamining what our internships look like, it’s still rather unclear how one might go about transitioning out of this ethical dilemma. In the end, I resorted to download and print everything I could get my hands on. I then highlighted recurrent themes and ideas  to create a list of the most frequently cited characteristics and approaches to creating a strong, legal, and ethical internship program. The resources I found most useful were:

  • Program Descriptions of strong museum internships that reflect a belief that internships are mini-mentorships combined with hands-on learning. These are internships that provide professional learning opportunities, stipends, exit interviews, support emerging museum professionals of color, and can even include museums who pay teen advisors. Taking a look at these pages can help illustrate best practices associated with equitable internships and specific adjustments/additions you can make to your own.
  • Conversations with other museum workers currently improving/removing unpaid internships. Just because public accounts of these experiences are rare, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Use your contacts.
  • This article quoting an interview with a non-profit lawyer who gives clear examples of lawful vs. unlawful internship practices.

I emerged from this process with a monstrous list, which I condensed by merging commonalities and themes, and then used as a framework for brainstorming specific adjustments I could make for our department’s interns. The following is a version of what these results of this process look like. It is by no means exhaustive, nor will it necessarily apply to internships at your own institution.

  • Internships are first and foremost a learning experience for the benefit of the intern, not you; they aren’t a replacement for paid labor. Expect to have less time for your own work because of the time needed to make intern work useful, to train them, be a direct supervisor, etc.
    • Be willing to take on interns with little experience but who demonstrate an aptitude for collaboration, enthusiasm, and flexibility.
    • Fight for those candidates looking to test the waters or get a foot in the door rather than those who are ready for employment.
    • Write a list of ongoing, intellectually stimulating projects that either mimic work that has already been done or that you would be willing to put additional work into should your department wish to use it.
    • Decrease your number of interns. If you can’t dedicate the time needed to take care of them, you shouldn’t have so many.
  • Interns learn skills transferable to another setting.
    • Find readings and resources for their orientation packet that will be the most interesting and useful to them.
    • Include research of what other museums do as part of tasks and projects so interns can compare what the work can look like in across museums as a whole.
    • Have regular check-ins throughout projects to demonstrate how-to’s and next steps, or to provide feedback and monitor progress. Schedule a brown bag lunch to discuss a topic of the interns’ choosing.
    • Schedule a small training/workshop on a skill of their choice.
  • Give interns recognition and appreciation.
    • Open up internal job postings to interns and forward paid job postings from other institutions.
    • Create a weekly bulletin board with upcoming local museum events, museum news items,  fun examples of museums on social media, and short, relevant readings.
    • Bring in snacks!
  • Treat your internship program like mentorship.
    • Host an intern lunch where interns can meet staff from other departments and ask questions about their work and career path.
    • Meet with interns individually to discuss interests and goals for their internship. Work with them to select a personal extended project, guide them through the process, and provide feedback on their work. Perhaps even have an end of program gathering where interns can share what they’ve been working on with each other.
  • Provide structure and evaluation.
    • Write/update clear learning objectives, goals, and assignments.
    • Provide a warm welcome and orientation to the organization.
    • Have them fill out a self-evaluation twice during their time at your museum and meet to discuss their progress.
    • Provide them with an exit survey and interview.
    • Keep a training checklist so you know who has learned what at all times.

The great thing about this list is that it sets you to have a strong internship program. What will eventually become the intimidating giant, however, is the full removal of unpaid internships. Taking the next steps towards actually paying your interns is a much lengthier and complicated process, and resources in this arena are even scarcer. It’s nearly impossible to find public success stories of gaining intern compensation at museums, and for good reason: it’s a sensitive topic rife with internal politics. Not to mention the fact that there is no one solution, given that every museum comes with its own history, internal dynamics, and financial situation. Still, there are bound to be commonalities across our experiences discussing the topic with leadership, proposing to remove unpaid internships, or the actual transition to a paid intern program. In my research and conversations with colleagues past and present, this certainly seems to be the case, and the following approaches have spoken the loudest:

  • Phase it in: advocate for one paid position at first, propose to at least offer a metrocard, or perhaps a very small stipend or debit gift card as a gift.
  • Gather strong evidence: find all of the hard numbers, facts, and testimonials you can to state your case. This can come in the form of outside surveys and data, or internal information such as the monetary value of the total number of contributed intern hours, or interviews with them about their experience post-internship.
  • Tailor your case to your audience: because this move requires institutional buy-in, find talking points, allies, pathways, and solutions that would appeal specifically to those that need convincing.
  • Use your resources: talk to your museum’s lawyer or grant writer (if you have one) to see what options are available, approach local colleges known for supporting offering unpaid internship stipends, or find a coworker who is willing to help you with this project.

At this time, this is where my process stands. This is just one story, and I believe it’s crucial that we begin to share with each other what approaches have and haven’t worked so far in our attempts to tackle this issue. Let’s crowdsource best practices and seek advice from colleagues! So far we’ve had amazing conversations about the nature of our relationship to unpaid internships, but it feels we are now in the moment of “Great! So now what?” So… now what?

What words of advice would you give others seeking to remove unpaid internships? Do you have a success story? Was there a strategy that failed miserably? We all want to know.

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Emily Turner is a museum educator and creative historian working, studying, and living in Seattle. She got her start in informal education five years ago and never looked back. Prior to running around and doing what she loves at the Museum of History and Industry, she was running around and doing what she loves with the museum-going children of New York. As an educator and artist she is interested in the ways community history, art, and social justice intersect. You can find her on Twitter @emkturn. 

Want more resources? You can access the list Emily put together HERE.


  1. Emily, thank you for these thoughtful and helpful suggestions. All of these “makeover” elements should be achievable by any organization – whether interns are paid or not. And igniting a fire for justice might help open those conversations, too.

  2. Thank you so much for creating a clear set of standards against which to evaluate current internship programs. It will be helpful to have this list on hand when advocating for greater resources and staff time devoted to intern supervision.

    I am curious what you think about for-credit internships. I worked at a university museum and fought hard to replace unpaid internships with paid and/or credited internships. That took a substantial amount of coordination with community learning staff at the university, and was a difficult sell to the development department. (I didn’t know that those VIP internships were so important to our endowment.) While students get real units from credited internships, I still feel like there might be an access/equity gap; students are paying (the university!) for the privilege of interning. While it’s not quite the same as an unpaid internship, it still feels…off. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Hi Zoe – Personally I find for-credit internships just as much of a culprit, and often times they are even worse specifically because of the point you made – students are paying for the privilege of interning. Now of course, it all depends on the institution whether this is true or not. But there are a couple of numbers that float around in studies that suggest most students don’t arrange for credit because of this issue. On the other hand, I’ve had interns who need to arrange for the credits because doing so officially makes them a full-time student, which qualifies them for their financial aid package. I think any instance where students are required to pay for the credits they receive for unpaid labor is extremely exclusive (especially for degree programs that require internships) and a labor rights issue to boot.

      My question for you is, what did that fight to get paid internships look like for you? Please share!

    2. Joan Verla · · Reply

      Credit-generating, service-learning courses (in any area of study) combine classroom experience with real world experience. Universities and non-profits who abide by the internship course description are providing valuable, credit-worthy experience to students, as opposed to the notion that students are paying for the privilege of internship. Typical service-learning courses require 3-15 hours/week on site (for the semester) for 2-5 credits. It’s a 3-way partnership that needs to have a clear description of services.

  3. Hi Emily, Great that you’re doing this. I hope you found the articles about our program in New Mexico, which began paying museum interns in 2005. For us the issue was practical as well as ethical, interns who are low-income cannot afford to work for free, and paid internships are the only way to level the playing field for them. Also, there is some data showing that paid internships have a statistical impact on employability while unpaid internships do not. Our own statistics will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Museum Education. Our museums are funding stipends by writing them into grant proposals, using foundation funds and private donations, and transferring money from contract services line items in their budgets. Once the commitment was there, they were able to be very resourceful and creative about it.

    1. Mimi – I did not see these – I will add them to the list of resources right away! It’s so important to share what transitions can look like, so thank you. I noticed you were able to get a full-time person devoted solely to taking care of interns, which is amazing. Keep up the great work – I’ll look out for the article in Museum Education!

  4. Thanks Emily – I look after the internships at an Australian university. In Australia it is rare that museum internships are paid. I often have to remind host supervisors at cultural institutions that students are paying fees for the internship, giving up paid work, and generally they work in a publicly funded institution (very few private museums). The present government has just imposed what is known as an ‘efficiency dividend’ which is devastating – more job losses but this then means that intern opportunities increase. I think it is timely to consider an ethical makeover from our position as educators.

  5. Thanks for sharing my dissertation research as a resource, Emily. Side note: as a professor I only post internships that are paid and/or include housing/stipend. Glad to report it’s a growing list. Wish there were more museum education internships for me to share.

  6. Thank you for this very useful information Emily. Nicely done.

  7. Hi Seph, thanks for letting us know that you used this content in your article! We’re glad you found it useful and that it can reach more people.

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