On museum internships

A few months back, in my role as an assistant professor of public history, I took over the coordination of the internship program for my academic department.  I’m learning very quickly why it merits a course release or two; the job calls on me to play matchmaker between internship supervisors and interns, check in with all parties occasionally, request reports from the students, and, in consultation with supervisors, assign grades at the end of the semester.

While I don’t think it’s particularly helpful in building my tenure case, it is worthwhile and important work, for three primary reasons: internships increase the skills and cultural savvy of emerging museum professionals, facilitate collaboration across institutions and organizations, and democratize knowledge.

Increasing the skills and cultural savvy of emerging professionals

Traditionally, both interns and mentors have recognized skills enhancement as the most obvious benefit of internships. Classroom learning only goes so far; to understand actual museum practice, one has to write an actual grant proposal, develop an exhibit under real resource constraints, coordinate the myriad details of family night programs, or stabilize crumbling ephemera.

Internships, however, offer additional benefits to the broader museum field.

Internships can dissuade as well as inspire. They can help to “weed out” students who might initially be enthusiastic about one aspect of museology (or the field more generally) but who really, for whatever reason, don’t have the interest in or aptitude for a particular kind of work. Both interns and mentors have frequently lauded this aspect of internships to me, as it can save both emerging professionals and institutions numerous headaches and heartaches.

When planned well by the hosting institutions, internships also can serve as an introduction to the culture of the field. The best interns remain aware of the conversations going on around them, and the most thoughtful institutions allow them to listen in on discussions that take place in conference rooms, hallways, and the exhibit floor. This entry into museum culture can be managed deliberately, but more likely it will be accomplished through osmosis, with the intern picking up on the major challenges facing the museum and the field, the relationship of visitor demographics to exhibition content and programming, the typical working environment of a museum, staff and administrative perspectives on donors and foundations, and the expectations the public has of nonprofit service.

Facilitating collaboration

Internships can allow busy staff to collaborate through a joint internship. The vast majority of interns require a good deal of instruction and supervision in the first weeks or months. Organizations can share this commitment of time and resources by co-mentoring an intern. So, for example, today I met with the director of a desperately understaffed historical museum complex, and I proposed working together on a grant-writing internship.  I’ve been wanting to dig into local museum collections, both for my own research and to put together an exhibit. A grant-writing intern could work with both me and the museum to research grant opportunities for local history research, exhibition development, and digital dissemination. Perhaps I’ll get some funding for a student assistant to help with a digital humanities project arising from the research, and the museum could get funds for artifact conservation. The grant-writing intern will hone her research skills, learn about humanities funding, and develop her writing in a new genre.

Think about all the variations in which one mentor could take the lead on content knowledge and the other on skill development! Here are some possibilities:

  • University, archives, and museum: Under partial supervision from a professor, a graduate student could undertake archival research on the Chinese experience in late nineteenth-century California, then learn about artifact conservation by working with a museum’s collection of Chinese domestic artifacts from that era and place.
  • Archives and museum: Two interns work on the same project, one at the archives and one at the museum, with the goal of producing a vitrine-sized exhibit showcasing some aspect of the Chinese experience in California.
  • Museum and graphic design agency: An intern receives supervision in part from the curator who has just finished writing the first draft of the labels for an exhibition of the Chinese experience in California. The curator pulls from the collection ephemera that exemplify the aesthetic of 1890s San Francisco. The intern works with the agency’s art director to capture this aesthetic while designing posters, a brochure, and a digital or print exhibition catalog.

Joint internships may allow for surprising discoveries. If not planned carefully, a joint internship could become contentious, with the intern confusing conflicting policies and practices between the two organizations. However, if the mentors articulate expectations at the outset, each organization could learn much from the other. If we approach the internship with the idea that museums can be think tanks, and we give an exceptional intern sufficient space for intellectual reflection and discussion with mentors and others in the organization, there are countless opportunities for new syntheses of philosophy and practice.

For example, imagine a collaboration between a history museum and a science center.  Many smaller history museums have not yet integrated hands-on or participatory activities into their exhibits, often because they cannot allow visitors to handle artifacts and their exhibition budgets can’t support the production of replicas. (And even then, replicas might not be particularly interactive.) At the same time, many visitors have come to expect interactive elements in museums, particularly if they have brought children to the museum. The intern might be asked to answer the question, “How can our history museum’s next exhibition integrate meaningful, interactive and participatory elements that conform to current best practices in informal learning?” Perhaps the city or a neighboring town has a science center or children’s museum that boasts an exhibit developer or education specialist who has become an expert at crafting ingenius interactives on a small budget. The science center could provide the intern with background on the pedagogy of third-generation science centers, which the intern could then use to inform an exhibit showcasing the museum’s collection of medical technologies and tools. The science center could later borrow some of the museum’s historic tools to provide some historical context to its own exhibit on the human body.

Democratizing knowledge through internships

I have written elsewhere how one of my core beliefs is that knowledge should be democratized—that is, it ought to be accessible to, and usable by, a broad public audience. Internships can play a major role in the democratization of knowledge by and through an institution. Let’s look at how this process works for both interns and institutions.

Internship programs can provide training that is unavailable in formal educational settings. This is particularly true if your interns live in a region, like mine, where there aren’t many museum studies programs. According to the Smithsonian’s Museum Studies Training Directory, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are completely devoid of such programs; Nevada offers one undergrad minor in museum studies; and Utah has one certificate in museum practice. My own institution offers a Master’s of Applied Historical Research, but it’s definitely more public history than museum studies. If a student geographically bound to Idaho by family or work is interested in curatorial practice, and especially artifact conservation, she’s going to have a difficult time finding hands-on training. The Bureau of Labor Statistics points out that

There are only a few graduate programs in museum conservation techniques in the United States. Competition for entry to these programs is keen; to qualify, a student must have a background in chemistry, archaeology or studio art, and art history, as well as work experience. For some programs, knowledge of a foreign language also is helpful.

As far as I know, there is only one curator in the largest metropolitan area in my state—and possibly in the entire state—with up-to-date skills in conserving historical artifacts; she learned on the job in part from someone who has now retired, and in part through reading widely and asking questions of far-flung colleagues. She bolstered her skills with an online certificate program from an East Coast university. Fortunately for me and our students, she is a generous soul. Her knowledge, and her willingness to mentor interns, makes it possible for interns moored to Idaho to learn crucial curatorial skills.

Internship programs can give museums even greater insight into their communities. Let’s face it: no matter how much a museum engages with its community, there’s always some demographic that has not yet reached audience saturation—or perhaps it lacks any representation within the museum’s exhibitions and programs at all.  Accordingly, when we’re talking about democratizing knowledge about museums, as well as about the knowledge contained within museums, intern diversity becomes particularly beneficial. In my own community of Boise, this might mean looking beyond the typical interns—largely white, middle- and upper-working-class class students—to, say, the community of refugees, as the city is a refugee resettlement site. Think:

  • How might starting a high school intern or Explainer-style program that enthusiastically encourages the participation of refugees from, say, Bhutan, Iraq, Burundi, and Somalia enrich the museum’s understanding of its constituent communities?
  • How might these young people benefit from connecting with a longstanding community institution that showcases local art, history, and culture?
  • How might these students be a bridge to communities that are otherwise difficult for museums to reach?
  • How might they facilitate the museum’s acquisition of artifacts and media that document the lifeways of Idaho’s newest residents?
  • How might they help the museum translate its exhibition content into additional languages?
  • How might their communities benefit from the intercultural civic discourse that museums have become so good at facilitating over the past decade?

Internship programs can push mentors to learn new skills alongside their interns. Encouraging an intern to read in depth about the latest developments in one aspect of the field, and then discussing the intern’s findings, can expand mentors’ own understanding. Interns can help mentors build not only their knowledge, but their skills. Assigning a largely self-directed intern to create an online exhibition using Omeka; to make an argument for and sketch of the organization of a new visitor-tracking database; or to program a browser-based mobile app can be an opportunity for supervisors to stretch their own technological comfort zone.

And you?

What innovative or interesting internships have you observed or participated in? What made them work well?

 

Want help with your intern program or professional development plans? I can help.

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