How to Create a Meaningful Internship Experience

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

October 11, 2023

Last week we reviewed the criteria for who can be an intern and the several reasons why a museum paid internship program is so important at the individual, museum, and field-levels. 

This week we are focusing on how to create a meaningful internship experience. Even if the internship program at your museum has been around for a while, the advice in this post can offer a helpful review of what’s in place. If your museum doesn’t have an internship program yet and you’re new to creating successful internship projects, this post can offer a helpful framework for you to construct intern-appropriate projects.

Disclaimer: I am not an HR, legal, nor tax specialist. Laws specific to your state as well as policies specific to your organization should be sought out and referenced when building your own paid internship program.

Creating a Meaningful Internship Experience

Interns are new professionals—many about to finish or just finish graduate school—with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to join our field; we should construct our internship projects accordingly. While internships are intended to help museums with some aspects of their operations, the experience is really intended for the intern. 

Engage in thoughtful internship design with the following prompts:

  • What can the intern work on that adds value to the collection while also providing valuable career experience?
  • What experiences can the organization provide the intern that will make them a more competitive future applicant?
  • What projects have supports in place where the intern can engage in active learning in a safe space?

Criteria for a Successful Internship

Now that you’ve started to brainstorm ideas from the prompts above, it’s time to add in some specifications for the framework of the internship. These specifications help to ensure a successful outcome for everyone involved.

Successful Internship Projects:

  • Are discrete, start to finish projects
  • Produce a product or deliverable
  • Grow the intern as a professional
  • Are projects that wouldn’t otherwise be completed by paid staff
  • Are projects that support learning and can absorb mistakes

A Meaningful Internship Includes These 4 Items

We have great project ideas and specifications for how to frame a successful internship; now it’s time to add in the final details that all internship experiences must have. These are relevant no matter which department the internship is in nor what type of project the intern will work on.

An Internship Must Have:

  • A dedicated supervisor
  • Training and easily accessible instructions
  • Regular check-ins to make sure the intern has what they need and that the project is progressing
  • A place to work with equipment and supplies

Criteria for What an Internship Should NOT Include

We now have all the elements we need to create a meaningful and successful internship experience. It’s now time to consider the few items of what not to include. To be clear, there may be some instances of the items below that show up in project work. However, these items should not comprise a significant portion of the intern’s work.

Internships should NOT include the following:

  • Staple pulling, rubber band removal, refiling, relabeling, endless scanning, etc.
  • Work that is clearly for a permanent, paid position.
  • Work that is beyond their current learning or abilities.
  • Making program decisions, fundraising, performing outreach to under-invited communities, and other items that are inappropriate for an intern to engage in due to their internship status.


Internships are experiences we construct for new professionals who need some real-world experience as they enter the profession as our colleagues. Purposefully constructing meaningful internship experiences helps ensure that our new colleagues have the experiences they need to successfully enter the field. Knowing the specifications for what makes for a successful internship experience helps both the intern and the museum with a focus on successful project (and internship) completion.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

To learn more, please join us for How to Build a Museum Paid Internship Program, presented by Rachael Woody on Wednesday, October 25, 2023 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we will send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now or call 604-278-6717. 

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