How to make the most of museum interns

This week after class, I was thinking a lot about museum conferences. If I ever had the opportunity to submit a proposal for conference talk or presentation, what would I want to talk about? After mulling it over, I came up with my answer: internships. A huge part of my personal narrative as a museum studies student, and I’m sure many other students in the field, has been rolled up in internships.

I’ve interned at quite a number of museum institutions over the years, and have had some great experiences, and some not-so-great experiences. Of course much of the responsibility lies with intern to have the best experience, and it is important to work hard and be responsible. However, museums also play a role in this relationship.

I want to stress that this list really only encompasses my personal experiences with internship programs (though I would love to incorporate the experiences of other interns), and is not meant to be a criticism of museum internships as a whole. Many museums, I’m sure, already have fantastic, integrated, and involved internship programs. However, I’ve found that internship programs can be sometimes overlooked due to lack of funding, staff, and time. The following tips are things to keep in mind in order to make the most of your interns!

  1. Give interns a framework.

Often, museum interns are supposed to be in charge of a semester-long project that will advance their knowledge and skill sets. In certain situations, this might be predetermined by the museum, but frequently it is left in the intern’s hands to decide what this project will be. While museums might think that this free choice allows the intern to focus on their specific interests, coming up with that first big project might be a little overwhelming. Give the intern a framework to work from; a push in the right direction. What are examples of previous intern projects? What is something that the institution has always wanted to do, but never seems to have the time or staffing needed?

In Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum, she details how often participation thrives on constraints. “If your goal is to invite visitors to share their experiences in a way that celebrates and respects their unique contributions to your institution, you need to design more constraints, not fewer, on visitor self-expression. Consider a mural. If given the chance, very few people would opt to paint a mural on their own. The materials are not the barriers—the ideas and the confidence are.” Just like museum visitors, interns might not be ready to paint their own mural right off the bat. However, given guiding principles, examples, and a clearly defined timeline, they just might.

  1. Find out if your interns have any special skills.

This goes deeper than just checking over an intern’s resume. Maybe they read stories to their little sister every night so would be excellent for story times with young children, maybe they design jewelry in their spare time so have an eye for design, or maybe they are on Instagram 24/7 and know how to get 200 likes per post. Any of these could be a great asset to your organization – and you won’t know unless you ask!

  1. Opportunities for involvement are key.

So maybe your museum has fallen behind on data-entry into their Collections Management system, or there is big deadline in the curatorial department coming up and a large amount of research is still unfinished. Even though it’s an easy choice to keep the intern behind a computer for eight hours a day, it’s probably not the best idea. It’s important to section off time in your intern’s schedule for involvement with the public, the museum space, the staff, and the volunteers of your museum.

These opportunities will firstly help them to get to know your institution better. Your volunteers are probably some of the people who know most about you, and are the most passionate about your museum. It is also essential that interns get to know the staff and make connections. Have an informal gathering or after-work happy hour and invite the interns, be sure to include them in all staff functions and meetings (where applicable), and send around an introductory email when interns come on board. Brown bag lunches are a great idea, especially in bigger organizations.

  1. Keep in touch.

Give interns a reason to continue to be involved in the organization. You never know, they could be future staff, members, or even future donors. Whether this takes the form of a social media group, an email listserv, or a yearly appreciation event, any form of communication will be highly appreciated by your interns!

 

I would love to continue expanding and editing this list. Anyone have any internship horror stories? Dream internship experiences? Tips you would share with museums that have interns? Tips for interns? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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3 comments

  1. Oh my goodness, Stephanie- you hit several good points in this post about internships! I am in the same boat as you, and have had good and bad experiences with internships that have unfortunately tainted my view of internships today compared to my view of them when I first began interning at various places as an undergraduate student. I have found that a LOT of internships, whether they be in a museum or other setting, involve the intern simply doing busy work or work that a supervisor does not have time for/does not want to do-especially when it’s unpaid. Surprisingly, this has been the case in several collections management internships I have had, in which my supervisors sometimes just wanted me to move random things or organize a set of files that have been sitting on a shelf for however many weeks or months. In those situations, I felt as if I was not only doing busy work, but also that I was doing bits and pieces of a larger project (and sometimes bits and pieces of two or more projects) that could have helped me gain so much more experience and been more meaningful if I had been involved with the entire project from the beginning. And even when I felt like I was trying my very best to network and do my absolute best at some of my internships that turned out to be not so great, it was kind of like I was always a lower priority to my supervisors than their own work or other full-time co-workers. I understand that it is a competitive field, and of course interns must do their part as well, but the internship supervisor must also make the efforts you listed above and perhaps more.

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    1. Thank you for your insight Rachel! It’s good to know that most of these also apply to collections interns (I’ve never had a collections internship before). I also agree that staff members usually see interns as a lower priority relationship than their relationships with staff, which is disappointing. Even though interns are usually temporary positions, they are probably some of the most eager & enthusiastic people that really want to develop new relationships.

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  2. Hi Both. Proposals for Museums and the Web 2017 are open right now. This could be a super interesting proposal for a lightning talk. You can find all the details here: http://mw17.mwconf.org/guidelines-for-proposals/

    It’s also worth applying to volunteer at the conference. You’ll meet good people, get to see behind the scenes at the conference, and it will help make it all a little more affordable 🙂

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