Museums and cultural heritage sites of all sizes often welcome interns and fellows to complete work, move projects forward, and bring new perspectives into their workspaces. In turn, completing an internship or fellowship can be rewarding for young professionals as they develop their skillsets and networks. These programs are vital for the field as they train the next generations of the cultural heritage workforce. Before welcoming young professionals into your space, it is important to consider how your organization will make these development programs a mutually beneficial experience.
Defining Internships & Fellowships
Across the workforce, the boundaries between internships and fellowships are a bit blurry. These terms are often used interchangeably, but distinguishing them could help small museums and heritage sites better articulate and design internships and fellowships that fit their institutional needs and capacities.
An internship is generally understood as a short-term opportunity for students seeking work experience. The museum industry tends to define internships as structured learning experiences that provide students with job training. The role is similar to an apprenticeship, where young professionals learn to perform museum work by doing it under the supervision of a mentor.
As Pamela S. Schwartz points out in her 2012 thesis Seton Hall University Making It Count: Professional Standards and Best Practices in Building Museum Internship Programs, that it is important for staff at museums and cultural heritage institutions to understand the purpose of internships and how they differ from temporary employment. Below is a chart from Making It Count outlining a position typology including interns, volunteers, employees, and consultants. The chart emphasizes the educational purpose of internships that use an established set of duties or a project to teach targeted skills defined in a pre-determined agreement.
Somewhat less clear are fellowships, which can sometimes seem like a more advanced internship. The University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Office of Grants and Contracts Administration helpfully defines fellowships as scholarly opportunities for emerging professionals at the graduate or post-graduate level which allow the fellow to shape their development or academic research. This is consistent with how many organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution, regard fellowships. While fellows are considered to be working full-time with a supporting stipend, their appointments can range from a month to an entire year.
In sum, fellowships typically center around research and provide fellows with time to craft and define the scope of their project while it progresses. Internships can focus on any area of museum work and give students working experiences on projects clearly defined by the host organization.
Depending on your organization’s finances, you may or may not be able to offer paid internships and fellowships. However, incorporating paid opportunities for interns and fellows into strategic plans and grant applications can help you structure internships that create an equitable and practical experience for young people while allowing your institution to benefit from interns’ fresh perspectives, energetic interests, and recent training.
Museum professionals champion paid internships as ways to create “pathways to careers in museums” and better align with Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility efforts. Paid internships are a fantastic way to improve organizational diversity and ensure an equitable environment that allows people from various backgrounds to participate in career development opportunities. Professional organizations like the National Emerging Museum Professional Network lead an ongoing advocacy campaign to end unpaid internships as part of their efforts to promote salary transparency in the field. Framing unpaid internships within broader conversations of labor, they point out how internships are an extension of the devaluation of museum work that is reflected in low salaries. The network invites institutions to support this movement by signing their 2021 Paid Internship Pledge and even offer a lottery-based internship fund to help students.
Below are some ideas for how your small museum or historic site can use your network and existing structures to find funding for internships and fellowships.
- Apply for Grants – Applying for grants is an excellent way to obtain funding for structured internship projects that help your organization meet goals outlined in your strategic plan.
- Approach Universities – Professors, librarians, and counselors at Universities are often looking for opportunities for their students to gain experience in the workforce. Some universities can partner with institutions to provide paid internships through their own or joint grant funding or endowments.
- Ask your Community – Would any of your community partners be interested in sponsoring an intern or fellowship project related to their interests?
- Fundraise – Establishing fundraising campaigns that help you complete projects and pay interns or fellows is a win-win situation.
- Revisit your Budget – As you develop strategic plans and budgets, can you find any funding that could be set aside for internship or fellowship projects? Could they be incorporated into your exhibition or collections budgets?
Wages and stipends for internships and fellowships can vary significantly based on the work, experience required, location, and the length of the project. Organizations should keep in mind cost of living, possible commutes, and equipment needs that may impact an intern or fellow. Tools like the living wage calculator or the National Association of Colleges and Employers recommendations should help determine an appropriate pay rate.
Structuring a Project
Taking time to plan a position that considers the aims of an internship or fellow and your organization’s capacity is essential. Dedicating staff and thought to this effort is necessary to ensure the success of these opportunities for the institution and emerging professionals.
Planning an internship should begin with understanding your institution’s practical needs and capacities. The University of Delaware’s 2022 Internship Agreement form is an excellent example of how most universities articulate expectations for academic internships and will give potential supervisors an idea of how they should support students learning.
Consider the legal and ethical obligations of hosting an internship. Staff should review the Department of Labor’s 2018 “Primary Beneficiary Test,” which can help determine whether or not a prospective project is appropriate for an intern. Familiarize yourself with the National Association of Colleges and Employers list of best practices and ask your team:
- What exhibition, collections, programming, or other related project tasks do we have that could be done by an intern?
- How could our organizational culture benefit from having an intern or fellow join our staff temporarily?
- Does our staff have time to provide meaningful mentorship, feedback, and training to a fellow?
- What skills or background would a fellow need to already have to complete a project at your institution successfully?
- Will the work experience gained through an internship at your organization qualify an intern for a position working with you or another institution?
- Will interns walk away from their internship at your organization with public or internal materials that they can add to their professional portfolio?
- Can your museum offer a structured educational experience that aligns with a student’s specified learning goals?
- Is the identified project discrete enough to be completed within a few weeks or months?
In the process of structuring an internship or fellowship, staff should keep in mind that projects should be able to be completed within a short period of time on a seasonal basis. Internships and fellowships can take place at any point in the year. Still, more students seek internships during the summer months.
Internships tend to be held over a few weeks or months. Students may work a few hours a week or full-time. The timetable below is representative of a typical internship.
|Season||Duration||Average # of hours per week|
|Fall||August through December||10-20|
|Winter||December through February||20-35|
|Spring||February through May||10-20|
|Summer||May through August||20-35*|
*Internship hours could be extended to 40 hours a week, but keeping in mind how these are intended to be considered part-time positions, it may be more appropriate to limit hours to 35 per week.
If you intend to supervise students completing internships for class credit, acquire a basic understanding of course credits and how you should structure projects to meet university requirements. It is important to note that for-credit internships do not restrict compensation. The table below generated by Sustaining Places summarizes the different credit hour amounts and how that can translate into hours of work and assignments based on material from the University of Pittsburgh’s guidelines.
|Number of Credit Hours to be Earned||Number of hours worked over the semester||Academic Assignment or Equivalent Final Product Examples|
|1||40 hours over the semester(3-5 hours a week)||5-page research paper; collections blog post|
|2||80 hours over the semester(6-8 hours a week)||10-page research paper; portfolio of label writing or cataloging records|
|3||120 hours over the semester(10 hours a week)||15-20-page research paper; portfolio of label writing, cataloging records, or teaching aids|
|15||480 hours over the semester(40 hours a week)||50-page research paper; small exhibition; digital webpage; portfolio of completed work|
The next step of structuring your internship or fellowship is to write a post to advertise the opportunity. Staff should plan to advertise an internship at least two and half months before the position begins. This posting is similar to job descriptions and should include the following information:
- Title of the opportunity (e.g., Curatorial Research Intern, Exhibit Production Intern)
- The assigned supervisor or point of contact
- Expected start and end dates and weekly schedule (or note that the weekly schedule is flexible)
- A simple description of the duties and responsibilities an intern or fellow will perform
- A list of expected outcomes the student will accomplish
- Required skills, educational background, or qualifications
- What skills the intern(s) will gain
- Application procedure
Advertising a Posting
Once a posting for an internship is prepared and approved, you need to advertise the position. Announcing the post on your own webpage is a great start, but sharing your post on a job board or other platform can also help you find the ideal candidate. Below is a round-up of a few places to advertise your internship, besides any institutional website you might have.
Listservs, job boards on professional organizations, and schools and universities are excellent platforms for advertising an internship posting. Sustaining Places recommends the following resources:
- Museum-L (Listserv)
- Museum-Ed Discussion List (Listserv)
- The University of Delaware’s Muse Weekly (e-newsletter)
- Career Centers at your local University or College
- Individual Professors or Educators in a relevant discipline
If you are a student or emerging professional looking for a position, there are several places to begin your search. You can look at your University’s job boards, drop by a career fair, or surf the web. Here are some sites with intern and fellowship postings:
When the internship appointment begins, supervisors should provide an orientation that clarifies workplace responsibilities and expectations. Familiarize the student with your organization’s staff as well as relevant volunteers, community partners, workflows, and preferred communication styles. This information can be delivered orally but is most effective when enclosed in a handbook given to the intern or fellow.
During an internship, supervisors should prioritize mentoring students. Before taking on an intern, supervisors should prepare themselves for managing and supporting young professionals. While projects and duties might be independent in nature, make sure that there is time budgeted in your day-to-day schedules to check in with them and review their completed work. Remember that in addition to introducing students to your organization, you are teaching them how to apply their classroom knowledge to the realities of museum work. In most cases, this is the beginning stage of a museum career.
Take time to ask the student questions to see how you may support them in their career goals. Consider how this internship or fellowship fits into the stages of a museum career that Sarah Erdman outlines in The Care and Keeping of Museum Professionals (Erdman summarized her work in this 2019 presentation for the Texas Historial Society). As you learn more about your intern or fellow, ask yourself:
- Can we add or replace responsibilities to align with the student’s interest in learning a specific skill?
- Who can I introduce the intern or fellow to based on the work they are interested in?
- Are there other collections or organizations relevant to the student’s project to which I can introduce them?
- What interpersonal or professional skills should we work on during this internship?
Depending on how an internship is structured, supervisors may also be tasked with evaluating their interns. This is most commonly done with for-credit internships, where students are graded based on their performance during the internship. Supervisors can expect to complete evaluation forms that provide critical feedback on the student’s progress at the internship’s conclusion and may be asked to perform other duties based on the project or the student’s needs. While there is no standard across higher education on credits, requirements, or evaluation, supervisors should be prepared to think through these elements depending on where an intern may be coming from. The University of Pittsburgh’s “Guidelines for Undergraduate Academic Internships” has helpful background information on what hosts of academic interns should anticipate.