Excuse me while I take this week as an opportunity to go on a little bit of a rant. I’ve had this same conversation at least once a week for the past few weeks (with more infrequent instances throughout the past few months and years), and it never fails to divide any mix of company I’m in, from interns and other young people like myself, to friendly adults and professionals working in various fields. The ongoing argument (though maybe a more appropriate word could be “dialogue” or “debate”) is this: do interns deserve to be paid? Should they be? From older people and a select number of my peers, I’m met with a familiar answer: “Why would interns be paid, when they don’t do professional work?” “Why would interns be paid in money, when they’re getting paid in networking?” “Why would interns be paid, when the purpose of an internship is to gain experience?”
To those (unrelentingly unoriginal) proclamations I generally feel the need to mask or sugar coat my response. I freely acknowledge the validity of their arguments, though: It’s true we don’t do that same work that our more seasoned supervisors do, and it’s completely fair to say that the networking opportunities an internship provides, making way for possible future career paths, is an integral part in our education as burgeoning young professionals. And I don’t even think that every extracurricular endeavor has to in some way be monetized. But for the sake of keeping this blog post relatively short, I’ll spare the diatribe against outdated concepts of labor and its value – and our value as eager and willing amateurs – and the equally as antiquated idea that those on the bottom of the food chain, so to speak, have to put in a lot of work until they “deserve” the reward of compensation. I’ll instead cut straight to that part everybody loves to talk about, that thing adored by those in top-earning positions, but by myself is met with complicated feelings even when brought up in the most benign conversations: Diversity. Fundamental to the curation – literally – of a holistic and complete museum experience is the notion that those in the institution’s community can walk in and see themselves – as someone once told me, when people walk into their museum, they want to see their DNA. It’s a wonderful idea but certainly that starts with the back of the house, or at least it has to be a reflection of it. For our patrons to be diverse, our institution must be; and for the institution to be, those that are responsible for its operation, the staff, must also be. And for potential future directors and managers (I would defend this argument to anyone in the humanities or not), diversity is only really achieved when the ability of being able to work for free is recognized for what it is, a magical luxury and a major privilege. It’s not uncommon now to hear from my peers about the burden of juggling two or three jobs over the year in order to survive, myself included, and taking two or three months off just doesn’t make sense, and the resulting sacrifice of a invaluable career move makes the realization even harder. And while it would be ideal in my opinion to award every intern with a minimum wage, those asking for interns and those supplying them (e.g. our amazing university) should try a little harder to alleviate the needs of otherwise driven students who, through no fault of their own, necessarily don’t have the time to work for free.
Thank you to the 2017 LSA Internship Scholarship, for generously funding the experience responsible for this message. Here’t to hoping many more future interns get the same opportunity.