How to Ethically Build Museum Intern and Volunteer Opportunities

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

July 20, 2022

The museum field is steadily transitioning from exploitative labor practices to more ethical labor practices.

At the same time, both state and federal laws are beginning to strengthen by requiring more ethical labor approaches such as salary transparency for positions, protecting worker’s rights to discuss salary with each other, restricting companies to ask applicants for past job salary history, raising minimum wage, and decreasing the scenarios in which uncompensated labor are allowed. However, the nonprofit world relies very heavily on the notion of unpaid (and under paid) labor in the form of internships and volunteer programs. This post will explore how museums can ethically build intern and volunteer opportunities.


Interns are people who are new to the museum field and wish to spend a finite amount of time training at a museum. The intern usually comes with an educational background in an applicable subject matter and will receive a hands-on education while at the museum. Past arguments have been made that this is an exchange of unpaid labor in return for experience. However, that’s not entirely accurate. As the intern is a professional in the field and has an educational background, they do possess the appropriate credentials for employment at the museum. Additionally, the labor they provide supports the museum’s overall output—an output the museum benefits from. This avenue of unpaid labor is steadily moving toward extinction as museums realize the practice is both exploitive and hinders the inclusion of persons from under invited communities.

Building Intern Opportunities

  1. Internships should be paid. If the museum isn’t currently doing this then a good place to start is with updating (or creating) an internship policy for the museum.
  2. Determine what the living wage is in your locality. (You can check via the MIT Living Wage Calculator). The museum should pay interns who are in graduate school or are recent graduates at least $2-hour more than the stated living wage for the area. 
  3. Calculate how long the internship will be and how many hours the intern will work. Include time for training and add in specific milestones the intern can aim for and achieve.
  4. Do the math. Multiply the dollar rate from step 2 and the timeline for step 3 to arrive at a total calculated wage.

Internship Math Example:

  • Project based in: Gardiner, MT
  • Minimum wage: $9.20
  • Calculated living wage: $15.49
  • Completed master’s degree and 1 year of experience
  • Project requiring technical expertise and independent work
  • As the project is located in a federal location, the federal equivalent for this internship level is at GS-9 (per the Office of Personnel Management Salary Tables. 

Total hourly wage: $26.22

Hours: 25 hours a week for 9 weeks

Funding Total: $5899.50

  1. Work with the museum administration to determine what payment options are available for internships. For example, the internship can be a paid employee, but that has tax and benefit implications. The intern can be a contractor, but that may require business setup and taxes on their end. The third option is building the internship opportunity as an award (as classified by the IRS) which limits both employment and independent contractor challenges. This third option is how the Northwest Archivists’ Archivist-in-Residence program was established.


Volunteers are on the opposite end of the spectrum from interns as they’re typically retired from a full career and may even be experts from the museum field. Experience can vary, but overall volunteers will have a career’s worth of knowledge to draw upon. The exchange here is that the volunteer provides the museum with their labor in exchange for “good feelings”. There are some guidelines from professional organizations such as the Society for American Archivists stating that a volunteer shouldn’t be performing tasks or assuming duties that would otherwise be a paid position. But this is a less regulated aspect of nonprofits as a whole. It’s also worth noting that the inequity of opportunity here—much like with unpaid internships—is that it’s only available to those privileged enough to be able to retire and volunteer their labor in exchange for good feelings. In other words, for free. This is a notion covered in the American Alliance for Museums’ TrendsWatch: Livable Communities for Our Elders.

Building Volunteer Opportunities

  1. Build opportunities for volunteers that aren’t tasks or responsibilities that should otherwise be filled by a paid position.
  2. Consider compensation models or cost neutral models where the volunteer is either paid, or at least doesn’t incur costs while attempting to volunteer. For example, the museum can provide paid transportation vouchers or parking permit.
  3. Create opportunities that can be performed at any time either at the museum or remotely in order to support those who aren’t as able-bodied and/or who have to work.
  4. Offer opportunities that suit the skills and interests of the volunteer and create a culture where volunteers are treated with gratitude and respect.
  5. Work with the museum and local community partners to create a set of benefits that volunteers can receive as a token of your appreciation for their work.


When working with people it’s important we take a human-first approach. This is especially true when we’re creating opportunities for interns and volunteers that are rife with ethical issues and suffer from inequitable access. It’s time for us to get creative and to become a more vociferous advocate for these stakeholder groups—especially when we think about how much we depend on them to help get things done.


Additional Reading

How to Best Leverage Museum Volunteers

How to Evaluate Your Museum Work and Calculate Your Worth

Museum Labor Resources for Professional Advocacy

Webinar: How to Attract and Train the Best Volunteers

And, of course, don’t forget to check out Lucidea’s webinar suite for more on digital projects.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, register here for Rachael’s upcoming webinar, “Museum Digital Projects: Strategies for Working with Staff, Volunteers, or Interns” on July 27, 2022. Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to several titles published by Lucidea Press, she is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter. And remember to check out Lucidea’s Argus solution for powerful and innovative museum collections management.

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