Redefining the Internship

By Monika Bernotas and Alli Rico, Young and Emerging Professional PAG Chairs

Internships have been an important part of career development in the museum field. However, they do not consistently meet the needs of the interns and the institutions they serve in their current format. For some, internships are a great way to build relationships with solid mentors and grow in careers as museum professionals. For others, internships can be the opposite, often providing an intern with little real-world experience, without the benefit of even a small stipend. Mismanagement of internship programs harms not only the interns, but the institutions they serve, wasting valuable time and energy. It appears that an overall misunderstanding of what an intern is and does is a major shortcoming of the way internship programs are implemented in the museum field, and the redefining of the concept would be of great benefit to all.

We acknowledge and value that internships are an essential part of learning about the museum profession; however, their educational value does not pay the bills. The forthcoming white paper, “Redefining the Internship,” is not meant to provide answers, but rather to articulate the question: How can we make internships better? We seek to provide food for thought as the field works towards a better model of labor policy as a whole, with the following objectives:

  • To reflect on the findings of the 2015 NEMA Think Tank session “Redefining the Internship”
  • To provide a definition of “internship” so that museums can evaluate their existing programs based on a common definition
  • To offer both guidelines by which institutions can evaluate their internship program, and action items they can implement to meet the new definition


The 2015 Think Tank session “Redefining the Internship” explored the nature of internships not only in New England museums, but the field as a whole. It was born of the observation that internships are often a prerequisite for earning a professional position in a museum; however, many emerging professionals, challenged by the job market, are forced to take internships after graduation, more than likely unpaid, in order to gain experience and keep their skills fresh until they can land a job.

We engaged with professionals in our network who were connected with internships, either by managing programs, managing interns individually, or who had expressed an interest in examining the overall value of internships to the field. Key challenges facing museums and internship programs were discussed, and potential solutions to these challenges were explored.  We found that the challenges and solutions related to five distinct “umbrella” words that became the framework for the session itself.  These “umbrella” words were: Professional Development, Management, Structure, Evaluation, and Knowledge Sharing. The goal was to generate actionable items and solutions to the challenges set forth by the current internship model, by hearing from the field about their experiences and what they believed would help their institutions work with interns for the greater good of the field.


It became clear early in the process that while there are many positions called “internships,” the word “intern” often meant a number of different things.  Internships come in many lengths and levels of commitment, and it is easy for institutions to take on interns, particularly unpaid interns, without considering what the significance of that role is. In our process, we identified three forms of internships, including project-based internships, volunteer/interns (a term that we would like to coin in response to this is “volintern”), and program-based internships, which became the focus of our project.

Once our target was identified, we were able to start the redefining process.  Just as defining roles and functions is important for paid positions, so, too, is it important for internships.  We understand that museums and institutions come in many shapes and sizes and that roles are defined differently at each one.  We hope, however, that our definition of “internship” will provide a framework for guiding internship program development in the future, as well as providing a tool by which to evaluate existing programs, with the hopes of possibly altering the structure to reflect the actual nature of the intern’s role.  With that in mind, we defined “internship as something:

  • completed by an individual who identifies as an emerging museum professional and is in the process of attaining an educational degree either directly or indirectly related to a future in the museum field. 
  • considered employment and paid as such, though there should be no expectation of a job offer at the end of the internship period.
  • an opportunity to learn both practical museum and basic professional skills, meaning that the intern should complete their experience with an understanding of how their host institution functions, on both programmatic and administrative levels. 
  • goal-oriented, meaning that the intern should leave their position with a sense of accomplishment, having contributed to a certain project or process, with tangible results from a project, a strong sense of self-worth, and an educational experience that allowed for the intern to take the theory learned in graduate school and apply it in practical ways.


Our session was a huge success, with over 40 people actively engaging in a discussion that felt as if it could be the topic of a conference in and of itself.  It was clear to us at the end that our work had only just begun, and to make a real impact from the discussion would mean a lot more work by professionals across the field. Our participants came up with actionable strategies to implement at the individual, institution, and field-wide level.  Following are a sample of strategies that may be helpful in our approach to making the newly-defined “internship” a reality.


Taking personal responsibility for the success of your internship is part of making or breaking the internship experience, and we encourage all current and future interns to consider these strategies.

  • Manage Expectations - This cannot be stressed enough. Do not enter an internship with the expectation of being hired at the end of it. Legally, a host organization (whether for-profit or nonprofit) cannot make the promise of hiring you, particularly if the internship is for college/university credit. Furthermore, at the moment it is unlikely that you will be paid well -- if at all -- for your work. This is a field-wide issue we are trying to address, but it is important to understand that these things take time to change. Like any situation, be sure to keep your expectations in check, and it will benefit you in the long run.
  • Ask Questions - ALL THE TIME! - Never be afraid to ask questions. In fact, not asking questions is something you want to avoid. Part of being an intern is learning and growing. How can you do either of those things if you don’t ask for help and clarification? Asking questions shows that you are eager to learn and willing to admit when you don’t know something. It will also help your manager - perhaps you will ask a question that you will both learn the answer to together!


Museums of any size could implement these strategies as part of their internship program to facilitate a better experience for both the museum and the intern.

  • “Spend the Day with the Director” - Oftentimes, the skills required to become an assistant or executive director are not taught in grad school programs (unless a student is in an MBA or similar program). These skills are crucial to the continued success of the field. Creating an event within your internship program where your interns are invited to spend the day or the afternoon with the director will allow your interns the opportunity to ask important questions about becoming a director, and show them you care about their career growth.
  • Professional Development Opportunities - This could be as simple as paying for an intern to attend a NEMA workshop. Show your interns that you are invested in their continued growth and development in the field. Help your interns build their resumes, by offering them advice, feedback, and recommendations when applying for jobs.


These are actions that should be taken across the field, either facilitated by an overarching organization, or through collaborations between institutions.

  • Internship Program Toolbox - A series of documents could be produced and made available to institutions that are interested in building up their internship programs.  These could include a collaboratively-produced internship application, standardized internship contract, pre- and post-internship reciprocal evaluation forms, internship orientation, and intern management training materials.  Common materials can reduce the administrative costs of internships, as well as make internship processes transferable between institutions.  
  • Intern Cohort Experience - When a group of interns starts their experience at the same time, social and professional development events could be organized for those emerging professionals to gather and unpack their internship experience outside the institution.  This could be particularly valuable for summer interns, for instance, who may be temporarily located in the area.  Developing a social network outside of their internship institution can build social-professional skills and networks, while also providing additional insight to the internship experience field-wide.

This is just a sampling of our findings in our internship adventure!  Please look out for the forthcoming white paper from NEMA and continued discussions about making internships work during the NEMA 2016 conference in Mystic!


(Photo Credit: Mount Holyoke Museum of Art.)


Posted by dawnsalernomysticartsorg on
Great topic and research - please keep up the good work. You've been talking to internship managers and it could be helpful to address the potential problems with internships from their perspective: how do we find funding for internships? Many of us may have channels to certain schools and we get a regular feed of interns - should screening of them be different/more competitive, to mimic the job market, and if so, how much do we weigh their learning experience against our need for talent? And the potentially unpopular do we make a case for paying an intern, if we can get an equallly experienced permanent staff member for the same pay that requires less supervision? While museums have no control over university programs, it may be interesting to address how universities also require tuition be paid for a semester that is spent on an unpaid internship.
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