Why Do Museum Internships Need to be Paid?

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

October 04, 2023

Interns are one of many resources museums leverage in order to tackle projects that would otherwise remain undone.

For as long as museum internships have existed, the vast majority of them have been unpaid. In fact, much of the arts and humanities sector has operated with unpaid internships as the only type of internship available. This is of course evidence of a much larger devaluation problem— but internships are one of the foundational issues. The next few posts in this series will outline how to build a meaningful internship experience, detail how to calculate a fair compensation model for an internship, review the financial formats available when building a paid internship program, and describe how to fundraise for it. To begin the series, this post will focus on why paid internships are so important.

Criteria for an Intern

First, let’s review the criteria for who can be considered an “intern”.

An Intern is…

  • Not always a young professional. As higher education and changing careers isn’t age restrictive, an internship isn’t age dependent. 
  • Someone in an undergraduate or graduate program, or recently (within 2-years of internship application) graduated.
  • Someone who is new to the field and is just starting to establish their career.
  • Someone who possesses knowledge and skills for the field and just lacks some real-world application of their knowledge and skills.
  • Someone who will likely have student loan debt, may still be attending classes, holds at least 1 job, and who likely has familial/care responsibilities.

If the potential intern is not new to their career in the field nor recently graduated then they are actually potential employees NOT interns. These distinctions are important as you construct a paid internship model or program. The criteria for what is considered an internship versus a job can have legal, financial, and ethical implications. It’s important to check-in with your Human Resources representative and legal counsel to ensure your program meets any location-specific rules.

Not All Interns Can Afford an Internship

Understanding the criteria for who qualifies as an intern helps to underscore why it’s so important that these internships are paid. The stereotypical person who can afford to participate in an unpaid internship represent just a small fraction of those who are seeking career-important internship experiences.

Why Paid Internships?

You may know that paid internships are important, but haven’t yet put all the pieces together as to why. This is an important part of the process because you will most likely have to lobby for a paid internship program at your museum. With the relatively recent field-wide adoption of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) practices, an extensive cache of research on the subject is available for our advocacy.

Paid Internships Support:

  • Museum DEI initiatives
  • Diversity within the museum field
  • Representation from previously excluded or marginalized cultural groups
  • A financially healthier museum field
  • An improved pipeline of talent to the museum and the broader fields
  • Higher wages for everyone who works at a museum
  • Learning experiences for new professionals 
  • Quality professionals who possess the appropriate knowledge, skills, and abilities for the job
  • A museum’s capacity to execute projects

To learn more, please check out the Resources section at the end of this post for more literature on “Why paid internships?”.


Potential interns are a resource for the museum, but they’re also our colleagues and the future of our field. How we treat them, how we value (aka compensate) them, is indicative of how we value the work performed. Our treatment of them sets the tone. This is partly why unpaid internships are considered one of the foundational issues that contributes to field-wide devaluation of all of our work. Now that we’re working with the same understanding of who an intern is and why it’s important to offer paid internships, we can review further details of how to create a meaningful internship experience.



  • Andrew M. Bennett, Unpaid Internships & The Department of Labor: The Impact of Underenforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act on Equal Opportunity, University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender & Class: http://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/rrgc/vol11/iss2/5
  • Andrew Crain, Understand the Impact of Unpaid Internships on College Student Career Development and Employment Outcomes, funded by NACE Foundation: https://sites.sju.edu/careers/files/the-impact-of-unpaid-internships-on-career-development.pdf
  • M. T. Hora, M. Wolfgram, & Z. Chen, Closing the doors of opportunity: How financial, sociocultural and institutional barriers intersect to inhibit participation in college internships, Wisconsin Center for Education Research: https://wcer.wisc.edu/docs/working-papers/WCER_Working_Paper_No_2019_8.pdf 
  • Kyra Kyles, Ending the pipeline of privilege: Why unpaid internships perpetuate inequities, Philanthropy News Digest: https://philanthropynewsdigest.org/features/commentary-and-opinion/ending-the-pipeline-of-privilege-why-unpaid-internships-perpetuate-inequities
  • Pavithra Mohanlong, How unpaid internships hurt all workers and worsen income inequality, Fast Company: fastcompany.com/90388911/how-the-unpaid-intern-economy-feeds-income-inequality
  • Karly Wildenhaus, Wages for Intern Work: Denormalizing Unpaid Positions in Archives and Libraries, Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies: https://journals.litwinbooks.com//index.php/jclis/article/view/88
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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