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Resources for the Museum Industry to Discuss the Issue of Unpaid Internships

A vigorous discussion is under way among members of our museum community regarding the issue of unpaid internships, and its implications for the diversity of museum professionals, now and in the future.

Led by #MuseumWorkersSpeak, a group that strives to “turn the social justice lens inward” for museums, a growing number of advocates is calling for changes to ensure that all candidates, not just those of ample means, can have access to jobs in our field.

We embrace respectful, informed debate that acknowledges all sides of an issue. David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said in a speech December 8 at the National Press Club, “We must learn to think as a community.” Skorton added that seemingly intractable issues, including social injustice and economic inequality, “require close listening, emotional distance, weighing of arguments and counterarguments, and among the most critical, the direct participation of those most affected by the issues.”

Internships and unpaid work at museums take many forms, as noted by Elizabeth Merritt in her 2014 blog post for the Center for the Future of Museums. She distinguishes between formal internships (associated with college or university degree programs), volunteers, and unpaid non-academic internships.

Unpaid internships also feature prominently in an article for Museum Magazine by Nicole Ivy, PhD., a museum futurist at the Center for the Future of Museums and a public fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies. Nicole writes:

“Barriers to diversity exist at many points in the pipeline to museum employment. Chief among these are high student debt as a prerequisite of entry into the field, the prevalence of unpaid and underpaid work and a hiring process in which homogenous groups replicate themselves. By addressing these issues, museums can position themselves to engage and attract professionals that reflect the breadth of our rapidly diversifying society.”

Diversity in the Museum Workplace is the theme of the January/February 2016 issue of Museum magazine, with articles about the “sacrifice measure” of working in museums by Elizabeth Merritt and bringing self-examination to museums’ inclusion work by the founders of The Incluseum, Rose Paquet Kinsley, and Aletheia Wittman.

Sessions at the Annual Meeting in 2016

We take seriously our role as a convener of important dialogues on topics that matter to our industry. At our 2016 Annual Meeting & Museum Expo, we will feature more than 30 sessions relating to diversity and inclusion, including one titled “Museum Workers Speak: One Year Later,” and another titled “Diversity: From Talk to Action.” The Center for the Future of Museums is also hosting a session, titled “Reducing Hiring Bias in Museums,” that explores tools museums can use to combat unintended bias in the hiring process.

Additional Resources

Here are links to helpful resources for those who want to learn more about the issue of unpaid internships and the broader questions around diversity in the career pipeline of museum professionals.

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