Volunteering is an amazing way of getting a taste for the world of museum work and developing your skills and experience. It can also be relatively easy to fit into your life as you can decide how regularly and for how long you want to work for. However, this can mean that the experience you can gain can be very patchy, and you don’t necessarily gain a holistic picture of the sector. As volunteers, there are also some tasks that you will never be made responsible for (as I found to my intense frustration when on the hunt for documentation experience).
This is where internships are extremely useful. If you have the time (and money) to dedicate entire weeks to working in unpaid positions, or manage to find one that actually pays you,* internships allow you to delve into the world of museum work at a much deeper level. You get to see how the museum works on a day to day basis, you are trusted with more responsibility, and you are much more likely to be invited to take part in additional projects. Critically, (although it sounds a little mercenary) they make your CV look really good, giving the appearance that you have at least some of the experience they are looking for, and showing your commitment to museum work. More than that, it will give you something to talk about during interviews, and give you an insight into issues and objectives of the museum sector in general.
So what kinds of activities and projects would you get to take part in in? Pretty much anything really. The key areas are:
- Visitor Experience
- Collections Care and Management
- Exhibitions and Interpretation
- Learning and Outreach
- PR and Press
Personally, I have completed two internships in both an outreach team, and a curatorial/exhibitions team, both of which offered a diverse range of opportunities. In the first, I researched local newspaper articles to provide inspiration for a theatrical tour, helped with educational workshops, wrote a storybook guide to the museum for small children, conducted visitor surveys, and drafted a guide to the museum for visitors with autism. In the second, I assisted the Exhibitions Officer and curators with a range of things, from planning the re-display of parts of the collection, writing text to interpret objects on display and in the museum guide, to helping with the de-installation of a permanent gallery. Importantly, each of these activities made me much more aware of the practical and ethical priorities that those particular museums needed to balance, whether making the museum more accessible to audiences who wouldn’t usually visit, or keeping track of the movements of different objects during a collections move. This insight is incredibly important when searching for or starting a new job, as it shows that you understand the sector, and you will have some idea of what to expect.
No Harm in Asking: Taking Advantage of New Opportunities
Well and truly, the experience that you gain from internships depends on the size and type of the museum (the general rule is: the smaller the museum, the broader you job description), the department, the length of the internship, your colleagues, and most of all…you. Opportunities come and go, and you need to make sure you are ready to find them, and be prepared to ask if you are not offered them initially. For example, the only reason I found my first internship was because I asked about volunteering opportunities during a holiday visit to the museum (the Manx Museum in the Isle of Man), and through a variety of different conversations with the Outreach Officer, we were able to create a six week position. During the second internship, I jumped at the chance to help with the de-install even though it took place after the internship had finished. I think this showed my enthusiasm, which is important in this sector, and, critically, this gave me a ton of extra skills.
However, during what seemed like an endless job hunt, I kicked myself for not asking for more opportunities during both internships, particularly when it came to gaining experience of cataloguing and documentation. No, we can’t do everything in such a small amount of time. No, we shouldn’t overstretch ourselves. And no, we can’t always foresee what we will need in future. But despite this we do need to take full advantage of as many of the opportunities that come our way as possible. Again, we need to think about what it is we see ourselves doing in a couple of years, and to not shy away from asking our colleagues, whether for advice about the direction we are taking, or for extra responsibilities. This way we can decide which opportunities are too good to miss, and which can be put to one side for now!
My second internship was with Birmingham Museums Trust. This was a great experience which I found through my MA in Museum Studies, which incorporates work placements as one of the core modules.
* Unpaid (or low paid) museum work is a big issue in the sector, making it difficult for people with less money to get the same experience as those with a lot of it. But never fear! There are paid internships and other schemes that keep you going while you get the practical skills needed in the sector (more on this later)!
* Featured Image: My handiwork during the de-install of a permanent gallery – this is one way of transporting what felt like a gazillion spears without skewering one of your colleagues.