Museum Internships: Today and Tomorrow

Petra Chu, Director of the MA Program in Museum Professions at Seton Hall, organized a session at the recent American Association of Museums annual meeting in Houston, Texas, about museum internships. Wanting to ensure that graduate students who do internships as part of their training have the best possible learning experience, Dr. Chu organized the program as a series of roundtable discussions, each exploring issues pertinent to developing stronger museum-university partnerships and better teaching and learning opportunities for graduate students in museum studies. The various roundtables discussed internship standards and structure, legal and ethical issues, academic credits and stipends, supervision and mentoring, and evaluation.

Dr. Chu and Kym Rice, Director and Assistant Professor in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University, led the discussion on legal and ethical issues. Participants from Morocco, several Texas museums, New York, North Carolina and Washington, DC, engaged in a lively discussion sharing their experiences and practices and both exploring and explaining the legal technicalities that shape different kinds of internships.

The purpose of internships for graduate students is exposure to the day-to-day life of a museum and practical training in that context.
The principal question posed to the group was, “Is it ethical that museums, in this time of economic downturn, treat interns as employees rather than as students who are undergoing training?” It was noted that most students take internships for credit and must, therefore, pay tuition for the internship. If they are then treated as an employee – given a job to do without the close supervision that they would receive as an intern – their learning experience can be severely hampered. As a result, the students are short-changed and the academic institution compromised. All agreed that this practice has ethical if not legal ramifications. Both the academic institution and the museum are obliged to guarantee a rich learn

Ideally, an internship would be structured to avoid even the appearance of an intern ‘filling in’ for a regular museum staff person. An intern would have two supervisors, one from the museum (also known as the intern’s mentor) and one from the graduate program. The mentor would be responsible for both coaching and evaluating the student in all aspects of his or her work at the museum, giving guidance on issues related to personal conduct, interpersonal communications, and the like as well as aspects of the intern’s professional responsibilities. At the end of the internship, both the mentor and the student would submit reports on the experience and the student’s grade would be based upon an amalgamation of the two.

The discussion also touched on developing two documents to help shape the internship. On the part of the museum, a job description for each internship that outlines the focus of the internship project, the institution’s expectations, and the benefits to the intern would help museums studies programs select suitable candidates for internships. Similarly, museum studies programs might specify the kind of expectations they have when they place an intern in a museum. This description would clarify for museums what the university expects the student to learn and accomplish during their work with the cultural institution.

In conclusion, all participants in the roundtable discussion agreed that the goal for both museums and museum studies programs should be to maximize the internship experience for all parties involved — the students, universities, and museums. A summary of all of the roundtable discussions is being compiled and will be published in the coming months.

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