Should You Work Unpaid To Further Your Museum Career?

Taylor Gmahling


Marketing Representative

If you’ve ever considered a career in the museum world (and because you are reading this article, I’m going to assume you have) I’ll bet you’ve asked yourself this question at least once:

“Should I take an unpaid position at a museum in order to get my foot in the door (or level up my career)?”

The answer to this question — I’m afraid — is not a simple one.

Before we get in too deep, you should know — this article will NOT give you the right answer because, in my opinion, the right answer does not exist.

Why?

The answer differs from person to person and career to career.

What this article will do is…

  • define the different types of unpaid work (and unpaid workers), you’ll undoubtedly encounter on your journey to become a museum professional,
  • look at the pros and cons of taking that unpaid position at a cultural institution, and
  • ask you nine important questions to help you determine whether or not committing to an unpaid position at a museum is the right path for you.

If you stick with me to the end, I promise you’ll have the tools to tackle this question once and for all!

Define Your Motivation

Hint: She’s looking for more than, “Umm…I want to work in a museum.”

Before we bust out the good ole pros and cons list, we need to talk about your motivation.

Actually, let me clarify something real quick — I’m using the term “unpaid position” as opposed to “volunteer” intentionally.

Why?

Because, in my opinion, an unpaid position is one of two things: 1) an internship or 2) a volunteer-ship.

What’s the difference?   

An internship is for people looking to get relevant work experience and learn new skills to either break into a new field or change careers.

A volunteer-ship is for people with free time who want to donate their time to a cause they care about. The key difference is that volunteers are not necessarily looking to use this experience as a career builder.

Okay, let’s get back to defining your motivation.

People take on unpaid work in museums for many, many different reasons.

Here are a few examples we collected from @MuseumHour’s and @CrackleSays recent Twitter chat on this very topic (definitely go check it out for more insight from other museums professionals after reading this article:

  • Gain skills and experience
  • Professional development
  • Gaining industry experience in the right department
  • Sharing skills and growing a network
  • Getting involved in cool community-based projects
  • Discovering what aspect of museum work you are most interested in pursuing
  • Meeting like-minded people
  • Retired and passionate

Your “why” won’t only determine whether or not you should be an “intern” or a “volunteer” but also…

  • which department of the museum you should be looking in (e.g., marketing, education, events, curatorial, etc.),
  • which specific skills you want to learn, and
  • what type of time commitment you want to make.

Remember the nine important questions I mentioned in the intro?

We’ve just made it to number one!

Question #1: Take a few minutes to really think about and write down your motivation. WHY do you want to pursue unpaid work at a museum? Should you be looking for internships or volunteer opportunities?

Let’s Make A Pros And Cons List  

Now that you have defined your “why,” let’s keep this train going.

PSA: From this point on, we’ll be focused on those of you have identified yourself as potential “interns” – you’re looking to use this experience to further your museum career. Those of you who are volunteering just because you love it — you guys are ROCKSTARS and your museums are very lucky to have you, too!

Pro #1: Professional Development (AKA Learning New Skills & Getting Industry Experience)

Show of hands: who’s pursuing an unpaid role because even “entry-level” positions in your field require a ridiculous number of years of experience?

🤚 That’s why I decided to accept my first (of three) unpaid roles at my local museum.

Good news – unpaid work absolutely counts as experience in your field.

In order to keep this on the pros list, you need to be clear about the skills and experience you need in order to move forward. Only apply to unpaid roles that provide said skills and fit into your career goals.

Question #2: What skills and experience do you want (or need) to get out of an unpaid role? Be honest, clear, and specific with yourself and your potential employers!

Pro #2: Career Exploration & Changes

What do you want to do with your life?

Did any of you cringe when I mentioned only applying to positions that directly fit the job or career you hope to someday land?

Don’t worry!

For those of you who don’t know exactly what you want to do yet — maybe all you know right now is that you want to work in a museum — unpaid roles provide a fantastic opportunity to explore different career paths without being overly committed.

Unpaid roles are also great for folks already in the industry but looking to make a change.

For example, if you want to make the move from education to curation, taking on an unpaid role can offer valuable experience and insight into your potential new career.

Question #3: What do you want to do? Make a list of the things you think you want to do — all of the jobs, tasks, and skills that sound interesting.

Pro #3: Build A Network

You know what they say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

I hate to say it, but they aren’t wrong.

I’m not saying there is no way you can land your dream job (or any job) all on your own, but I am saying it never hurts to have a few friends on the inside.

The truth is museums are f***ing awesome and lots of people want the same jobs you do. Building a network of people in your field will only help your chances of getting to the next level (which hopefully includes a paying position).

Bonus: People who work in museums are really cool!

Question #4: Who do you know if the field you want to get into? Is it a short (or nonexistent) list?

Pro #4: You Can’t Seem To Get Any Paid Opportunities

You have applied and applied but nothing is coming of it.

First of all — that sucks and I’m really sorry you are struggling right now! I’ve been there and it’s not fun.

In addition to the aforementioned pros, committing to an unpaid role can set you apart from the other applicants in another big way.

It shows you seriously love what you do (or what you want to do)! It demonstrates you are both passionate and committed to your path.

Question #5: Do you have the time, energy and resources to commit to unpaid work while you are looking for a paid position?

Con #1: You Are NOT Being Paid

Don’t lie to yourself…

Let’s be honest: not getting cash money in return for your work is a pretty big freaking deal!

I’m gonna go ahead and make an assumption  – If you’ve made it this far into this article, you are seriously considering an unpaid internship at a cultural institution AND you are going to need to work a paying job in the meantime to, you know… pay the bills, eat, and stuff like that (I’ve been there, my friend).

Time to get honest with yourself again — your time is valuable and if you are lucky enough to be able to work without traditional compensation, make damn sure you are getting compensated in other ways (AKA getting the skills and experience you need to move to the next level).

Question #6: If you can commit to unpaid work, what new skills and work experience will this role provide you that will make it worth your time?

Con #2: The Time Commitment

We just talked about how valuable your time is. You only have a certain number of minutes, hours, days, weeks, years… you get the idea.

If you are working a full-time or part-time job during the week, do you want to spend your weekend working (unpaid) at the museum?

Question #7: How many hours and days per week can you realistically commit to?

Con #3: Tasks Don’t Fit Your Interests Or Career Path

Don’t take just any unpaid position.

If I may offer some advice from personal experience — don’t just apply for and take any unpaid position because it’s in the museum!

If you want to work in marketing, don’t take the internship in the education just because it is the only department currently accepting applicants.

Here’s the thing — there are fantastic unpaid positions out there. Ones where you’ll learn new skills, gain valuable experience, and connect with awesome mentors. BUT there are also not-so-fantastic ones where you’ll be doing busy work, barely see your supervisor and be stuck in a coat closet all day (yes, that happened to me too!)

Volunteering in the coat room because you love being in the museum is great but it’s probably not going to get you that entry-level paid job you desperately want.

Question #8: Does this role apply to your dream job? Ask a lot of questions in your interview, find out what a typical shift looks like, and make sure the skills align with your goals!

Con #4: There Are No Promises

…that this does NOT guarantee you will get a paying job!

SPOILER ALERT — doing an internship at a museum does NOT mean you will automatically be offered your dream job (or any job for that matter) at the end.

Does it happen?  Yes, of course it does, but it is not a guarantee.

This doesn’t mean the internship isn’t worth it — it just means you need to be smart about it.

Make sure you are learning the skills and getting the experience you need to get to the next step (even if it is at a different institution). Ask about the people who had the role before you. Where are they working now?

Question #9: If this doesn’t lead to a paying job, is it still worth it? Be clear with your self about what you want to gain from this experience and don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

To Sum It All Up

An unpaid position at a museum does without a doubt have the power to further your museum career, BUT (and its a big “but”) it is not a guarantee.

You have to do the work – and no, I’m not just talking about showing up and going through the motions expecting your dream job to come a knocking after a few months of interning.

You have to get as clear as you can with yourself about your motivation and your goals (the nine questions throughout this article are a great place to get started!).

I truly wish you the best on your journey to becoming a museum professional and would love to hear from you in the comments. Have you done any unpaid work? Did it help to further your career?

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    8 responses to “Should You Work Unpaid To Further Your Museum Career?

    1. We work for money to sustain ourselves. Museums pay out big $$ on all sorts of things, but have an idea that a person who is smart and hard-working, who has likely spent to a point of debt on education — isn’t really worth paying. Too often we kid ourselves that it’s worth it. It’s mostly women taking those unpaid internships that don’t guarantee employment. Maybe instead of enabling a system that is basically slavery, museums, libraries and archives need to start looking at transferable experience that qualified educated individuals bring from other employment. The subject background is distinct, but the rest of the job is work done in many fields. And only people with money (for the most part) can work for nothing, so it also encourages and elitist work environment that ultimately doesn’t help cultural institutions or the public they serve.

    2. Why is the woman in one of your photos holding an open soda can in the gallery? No one — no staff member, no volunteer, no unpaid intern — should be caught dead doing that! Key to getting a paid job? Not being photographed breaking basic gallery etiquette rules.

    3. There is so much to unpack in this article!
      1) Margaret (comment above) is right at a macro level. We in the museum profession need to be the people who change the system for those that follow. Saying that – a lot of small museums simply don’t have the budget for that to be feasible.
      2) The way to make it work is exactly as the article points out – the museum world needs to understand the motivation behind their volunteer corps and adapt accordingly. My institution asks volunteers when they inquire how they heard of us, what they are interested in, and when can they help. We offer a lot of options to fit the volunteer interest while also making sure each is important to daily operations. (Ex. we don’t have administrative volunteers because copying paperwork is boring and strangely, requires too much supervision to make it efficient for anyone.)
      3) I work at a museum that has done both unpaid and paid internships. I like to think that we spend time on making sure the internship is mutually beneficial and within their interests. As a result, several of our interns are now working in museums! Don’t create a volunteer or internship that is useless to the person doing it (and if you do, then by golly you as the institution better show a lot of respect for the people doing work you don’t want to do as a paid professional.)
      4) Many paid museum employees have to be a jack-of-all-trades and it’s hard to know what experience is going to land you the job. I couldn’t get a job in a museum out of college and I had five years of unpaid internships plus a master’s degree. I ended up using my skills in a different profession (to get paid and eat!) but that experience eventually landed me my museum job. My advice – go ahead and volunteer but make sure your non-museum paid job is also gaining you a useful skill set toward your future.

    4. I started at an all volunteer museum only open one day a week. After working my way up to Asst. Curator and learning the ins and outs of working in a museum, I moved to another city and volunteered at another museum. Knowing the things I needed to learn at the new museum made volunteering fun but already impressed the paid staff. The staff found a program that would get the state to pay me to work at the museum. Volunteering got me a paid job in a museum!

    5. I feel like this question is flawed. It shouldn’t ask “Should you work unpaid to further your museum career?” – it should be asking “Why are museums and other cultural institutions allowed to not pay competent employees as standard practice?”. Unpaid work is seen as a “rite of passage” for most museum employees – almost everyone in the field has worked unpaid at some point early in their career, to gain experience or get their foot in the door. And it gives those workers a message, even if unintentionally – your time is not valuable, and you should not expect to be paid fairly for your work. This leads to a dangerous precedent – people paying for work materials out of pocket, people working additional hours without tracking them, taking on projects they don’t have time for, and just generally not understanding the inherent value of their own time – and it eventually leads to early burnout in the field.
      This, along with the fact that only certain groups of people are able to afford working for free in the first place – it creates an incredibly flawed system.

    6. Nick’s Comment ” only certain groups of people are able to afford working for free in the first place ” is a big part of the problem for me. It has parallels to the often-unpaid undergraduate research at universities (and to an extent, underpay for work throughout formal and informal settings’ education, and for graduate and postdoc-level research).

      At the university, students can sometimes earn credits toward their degrees for internships, but some schools are either pay-by-the-credit-hour or some programs don’t count those internship credits as requirements for degrees, just random “extra” credits. Internship credits might solve part of the problem if they can be more than just random credits. Otherwise, it can end up that students are not only volunteering, but paying for, internship credit!

      Perhaps a starting alternative is a *small* amount of volunteering (like 2-3 hours per week at most) while other jobs pay the bills. Then you can start to clarify whether it’s truly what you want, you can take opportunities to meet other people in the job, and you haven’t committed to a whole long unpaid internship that might not be what you thought it was. Cultivate mentors who can speak to the skills you demonstrate and learn while volunteering and have them serve as recommenders for future applications for paid work. I think it’s sometimes an unrealistic expectation to love the first paying job you get rather than use it for a means to an end, paying the bills while you figure out something else you will enjoy more AND that will support you.

      Another option might be professional credentialing, wherein an internship (hopefully paid at a living wage) leads to certification of some sort to provide a bit of recognition as people move from place to place. Again, this probably costs money, and this is also tied up with larger problems of a lack of professionalization of museum personnel in general. Lots of issues to unpack, but the system of privilege it seems to further entrench is a big problem.

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