Skip to content

Po-tay-to Po-taa-to: On Unpaid Internships

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Finally, ok, I’m weighing in.

I hesitated for a long time because it wasn’t clear what I could add to an already robust conversation. But this topic is a logical extension of the series of posts in which I’m trying to untangle the perverse economics that characterize museum labor.

Part of the confusion swirling around this issue is the fact that it touches on a bunch of relationships that overlap with each other, to some extent.

For example:
Formal internships associated with academic programs: educational internships, associated with college and university degree programs, that align with the requirements of unpaid internship programs as outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act. These prerequisites include educational training, being structured for the benefit of the intern, and being of “no immediate advantage” to the employer. “On occasion, the Department of Labor’s guidelines candidly observes, “operations may actually be impeded.” (Which reinforces my belief that when museums provide internships for students, it’s the museum that provides uncompensated labor, effectively loaning their staff to act as unpaid instructors.) Sometimes these internships do, in fact, come with a stipend provided either by the college or by the museum.

Skip over related stories to continue reading article

Volunteers. Civil society is premised on volunteering—on people giving freely of their time in order to contribute to social causes that align with their values. Volunteering creates a non-monetary economy of trust, shared values and social capital. Museums are fortunate to be a popular outlet for these civic impulses. 95% of museums use volunteers, with the median ratio of 6 volunteers to every paid staff person. In 2009 Museum Financial Information Phil Katz and I estimated that somewhere between one and three million people volunteer in US museums in any given year, for a total that could be as high as 2.8 million hours a week. At the current Independent Sector estimated value of $22.55 per hour of volunteer time, that’s $63 million in contributed labor per week—$3.28 billion per year. Volunteers don’t get paid, but they aren’t free, either: Standards and Best Practices for Museum Volunteer Programs (developed by the American Association for Museum Volunteers) specify that “basics” for a volunteer program include orientation, training, supervision, evaluation, recognition, records keeping and risk management. Allowing people to volunteer is a serious commitment for a museum, and it includes negotiating expectations (even sans paycheck).

When we look at unpaid, non-academic internships, people are quick to call legal foul, and in the case of for-profit companies, this is quite correct.  But the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, in light of the value Americans place on volunteerism, “recognizes an exception for individuals who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation…to non-profit organizations.” Fact Sheet 71 (Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act) goes on to [foot]note that “WHD is reviewing the need for additional guidance on internships in the public and nonprofit sectors.” That sheet was issued in 2010, and as far as I can determine the “additional guidance” has not been provided. I bet staff at the WHD are finding it difficult to distinguish between a volunteer, who has no anticipation of [monetary] compensation, and an intern.

There’s the rub, isn’t it? When is someone an unpaid intern rather than a volunteer? Why would someone want to be called an intern (rather than “volunteer”), even without pay? Because it looks good on a resume, of course. It implies (rightly or not) that they received structured supervision and training. It implies they were doing work that prepared them for a paid position. It signals their professional intentions.

This isn’t a case of “you say volunteer, I say intern—but it’s the same thing.” Museums that offer unpaid internships create a situation in which people desperate to get paid jobs in the museum sector pay for the privilege of getting a foot in the door. Maybe not as blatantly as Donna Versace and Anna Wintour, both of whom let people bid on the privilege of interning in their companies (all proceeds going to charity, of course). In the case of museums, the “payment” is the salary the intern is choosing not to earn along with, potentially, a lifetime of lost wages. (2013 research from the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows that graduates who did an unpaid internship in college made less than students who did no internship at all. And starting salaries have an enduring effect on future wages. This research from Yale is on the effect of graduating in a recession, but many of the factors it explores—starting in low-level jobs, possibly not in your preferred career track, lack of mobility in the marketplace—apply to museum positions in any economy.)

As I see it, there are two potential arguments for museums not to offer unpaid, non-academic internships that do real work and are not primarily for the benefit of the intern.
The first argument is ethical. I’ve postulated in previous posts that the fair market value of a museum job is the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing, and unpressured. If applicants are not “willing and unpressured”—If they believe that working without pay is the only road to the position of their dreams—unpaid internships fail that test, and valuing their labor at zero is not fair.

On the other hand, some might argue that no one is threatening aspiring museum workers with unemployment if they don’t agree to work for free. Applicants could seek employment in another field, even if that means waiting tables or pulling espressos. And given that the vast majority of people angling for entry-level museum positions have undergraduate degrees from a four-year college, and many have graduate degrees, they may well do better than Starbucks. If you position working in a museum as a luxury, rather than a necessity, I see no ethical compulsion to make that luxury affordable to all.

But if you take that route—museum jobs as luxury goods—you run smack into my second argument, which is practical rather than ethics-based. As many writers have pointed out, requiring applicants to work for free effectively restricts our field to people who can afford to pay the price of entry. That generally means people who are more affluent, and people who can rely on support from their families. That often means women. It often means people from families with a tradition of academia, families that value the trade-off of salary for scholarship. It pretty much precludes diversifying our staff (by race, gender, socio-economic condition) to better reflect our audience. And it ensures we will be seen as ever more disconnected from our communities and their needs.

As I follow the debate about unpaid internships, I read glowing testimonials to how these positions have fostered lifelong friendships, paired people with career mentors, and provided invaluable experience. That’s great. I hope that many more people have such nurturing experiences as they enter the field. I just think museums ought to pay them for that work when we are filling positions that are our pipeline of entry-level professionals.

To offer a fair wage—whether that’s reimbursement for bus fare and a heartfelt thank you, or $40k a year with retirement benefits—make sure that the museum and the prospective worker have a shared and accurate understanding of what each seeks from the relationship. And if the worker expects an entrée into the profession—pay ‘em, whether you call them an intern or not.

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership



  1. Thank you so much for writing this post. I had an academic (unpaid) internship during grad school, and have been trying to find a paid position in a museum since I graduated in 2008. While I do feel that I was 'compensated' appropriately for the time I spent, I also agree with everything you said about non-academic unpaid internships. I've refused to even apply for those because they looked like the museums were taking unfair advantage of people trying to get a toehold in the door. Thanks for voicing exactly what I was thinking but couldn't put into words.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree, except for this: "no one is threatening aspiring museum workers with unemployment if they don’t agree to work for free." In point of fact, if you want to work in museums, but don't take internships (mostly unpaid) in college and grad school that give you both experiences to put on your resume and actual skills that you will need in the field, your likelihood of landing the paid museum job you want is slim, because this field is so competitive that entry-level workers are already expected to have years of experience. This competitiveness is the same force that drives and keeps museum wages down: "…fair market value of a museum job is the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing and unpressured." Unfortunately, no one enters the museum job market unpressured, knowing that there are plenty of unemployed PhDs creeping up behind them if they decide the job they want really isn't paying a wage commensurate with their experience, skills, and training.

  3. Thanks for weighing in, Andrea. What I was trying to point out is that people don't have to work in museums, if they feel they will not be fairly compensated for their time. Especially with the economy slowly recovering, there are jobs that are more available in other fields. (My crack about working as a barista not withstanding.) So–the choice isn't "unpaid internship or unemployment," it is "unpaid internship or another line of work." That is what results in bidding war for unpaid jobs among those who are willing to take that economic hit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.