Monday, December 9, 2013

How to create better museum professionals and organizations in just 5 easy steps.

That title is a little misleading, nothing in museums is ever easy nor is it ever resolved in just five steps. If you think about it the title of this week's post is an outright fallacy. I'm kidding, of course. Now on to my five simple steps.

11. Pay people. 

Sounds simple enough, people deserve to be paid for their work but if it were that easy there would likely be no such a thing as an unpaid internship. Now I understand that not every institution can afford to pay all their interns, and that completely eliminating an entire internship program would also be a mistake. As I discussed in my previous post the amount of resources that an unpaid intern has to contribute in order to work for free is just ridiculous. So while the system as a whole finds better ways to provide experience for young professionals your institution can make some small changes to help offset the resource commitments unpaid interns make. At the absolute very least provide your unpaid interns with robust benefits or other compensation for their work. If any funds can be secured to cover transportation costs it would be a step in the right direction. Consider using your professional development or discretionary funds to purchase them a membership to a professional organization for a year. Again I realize funding is a perpetual issue but $70 for a membership can really impact an emerging professional's career. And not to put to fine a point on it, but if your institution cannot find a few hundred dollars for some intern appreciation then you have much larger problems and you should refocus your work to fundraising for your museum not mentoring interns until such a time when you can find a source of funding for your internship program.

12. Remove internships a requirement for degree. 

Students should not have to do unpaid work, independent from their educational institution, in order to graduate. Now I know this flies in the face of the entire purpose of the museum studies degree. Degree programs were developed because few professionals had the practical, hands on experience, needed to work in museums. Internships are a large component of gaining the practical skills but unless you have a museum at your institution or a formal agreement with another institution, cut the requirement from your program. It isn't a good idea to rely on institutions that have no formal agreement to accept your interns so that they can graduate. Why not channel all that unused internship energy into helping graduates find jobs? Crazy thought, I know.

13. Look beyond your interns when hiring. 

Rewarding interns with a job later on may absolve some of your guilt for having exploited them for so long but the fact that this is the view we have of unpaid interns reveals how damaged our internship programs are. If we truly want to break our addiction to the unpaid intern we have to start making hard choices. No one wants to slight an intern, especially one that would be an employee if there were funding to hire them but increasing diversity in the workforce, including diversity in educational and experiential backgrounds, is good for the field, good for organizations, and it's good for interns. Too often museums choose the easy candidate, the intern that knows the ropes already. The problem with this attitude is an intern that has learned the ropes at one museum only knows those ropes. They're indoctrinated into the culture of your institution, for better or worse. How are museums supposed to be innovative, diverse organizations if we only hire internally? Investing in employees is important but hiring from outside the organizational box is equally important if you expect to be an adaptive organization. Make it clear that volunteering or interning is not a road to a job. Part of breaking the intern/volunteer circuit is looking to pro bono recruiters, like Taproot Foundation, to find project support. The arms-length distance that third-party organizations provide removes the temptation to hire any warm body that volunteers with your organization because they deserve a job after working for free for so long.

14. Mentor people. 

Perhaps I am just imagining a more idealistic past but for some reason I can't help but think that mentorships are a long lost art form. Somewhere along the line professionals stopped thinking training your replacement was an important aspect of your own career. I don't mean train your replacement to file paperwork the way you like it, I mean take over as the next generation of professionals. If you love your career, and believe in museums, and stop to think more than a week in advance you must realize that at some point you will no longer be in the field. If you care about what happens beyond your own personal career it is your responsibility to train younger professionals to become leaders. Use your own free time to contribute to the system without the expectation of reward like a job or money, or a foot in the door. Give your colleagues and future replacements what they were actually looking for; a mentor, not an internship. Why? Because it is how you ensure continued vitality of your profession, and it’s your responsibility anyway.

15. Stop working for free. You’re enabling abuse and worth more than that. 

Obviously this last step is for interns. Look, I know that finding a job is hard and it's so tempting to offer to work for free just so you can get your foot in the door. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of good reasons to intern or volunteer with an organization but using an internship as a path to a job is not sustainable. You can't intern at every organization where you hope to get a job. You might not think that your one unpaid internship isn't that bad but you have to realize that you are part of a system and collectively, unpaid internships are leading the profession, and your career no where good. You are a professional, a person who had committed time, money, and resources in order to get a job in a museum. Your investment deserves recognition. You volunteer with and organization because you believe in the mission, you complete an internship for the experience. Any other motives for completing an internship or volunteering are disingenuous and cheapen the profession. If you want to increase your chances of getting a job work on your skill sets and other professional development, not logging more volunteer hours.

© 2013 Patricia Lord

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