Crafting an internship agreement

Whether you’re an intern or a mentor, it can be intimidating to start a new internship. It helps to clearly articulate internship expectations at the outset.

Every internship is different, but there are enough commonalities among museum internships that agreements between interns and institutions likely will include some basic ingredients.  Here are some things an institution might include in such a written agreement.

Emphasize that an internship is a special experience and a privilege.  Interns have access to spaces off-limits to the public, and they will have the opportunity to hear conversations and see art, artifacts, and documents to which they otherwise would not have access. Emphasize that in part because of this special access, the institution has high expectations for interns’ professionalism.

Explain clearly, in straightforward language rather than legalese, your department’s expectations of all staff.  These might include such policies as:

  • dress code (and then state clearly what this is: e.g. flat-soled, close-toed shoes in collections storage, business casual in the office)
  • policies for absences, expectations for punctuality, and adherence to project deadlines
  • collections rules (e.g. move objects with care and under supervision, always wear gloves, use only pencils)
  • demeanor while working on the exhibition floor or otherwise representing the museum
  • the extent to which what she sees and hears in the workplace is confidential or otherwise not for public disclosure

State the total number of hours the intern will work, as well as expected days and hours when the intern will be on site.

Explain the institution’s expectations of interns in particular. Do you expect each intern to keep a timesheet, log, or journal? Will you assign readings that you expect the intern to complete each week? Will he be fully responsible for one project, or for one part of a larger project? (Be specific, tailoring this section to each intern and listing the tasks you expect the intern to complete.) Will he need to create a portfolio or write a reflective essay at the end of the internship?

Explain what the intern can expect from her mentor and from the institution.  Will she receive near-constant supervision and highly structured assignments, or will she need to be self-directed? Will she receive special perks, such as invitations to events students would not normally get the attend? If so, is she expected to attend a certain number of these? Will she have opportunities to meet staff in other departments and learn about what they do? (Hint: she should.) Also state clearly what will happen to the work the intern completes. (For example, many an intern has been crushed to discover, after developing a small exhibit for a case, that the museum never bothered to put it up.)

Explain evaluation procedures. How, and how often, will the intern be formally and/or informally evaluated? Will she have an exit interview or another way of evaluating her internship experience?

Encourage the intern to raise any issues directly with her supervisor—but state to whom he should turn if she feels the supervisor is not upholding his responsibilities as a mentor. (So, for example, should the student approach the professor who may be responsible for awarding academic credit for the internship, and have that professor contact the museum? Or should the student go “up the ladder” to his mentor’s supervisor, or approach someone in another department?) Emphasize that the internship is an intellectual endeavor that will allow the intern to develop both new knowledge and skills, and that the intern should feel free to address any concerns with his supervisor if he feels he is being asked to do a lot of work better done by custodial staff or temporary labor (e.g. filing, cleaning, moving heavy objects).

What are your tips for making clear the rights and responsibilities of interns and institutions?

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