When I first started thinking about working in the GLAMs sector I set up a coffee date with a friend’s aunty who was a curator. The piece of advice that stood out the most from our conversation: you need to volunteer. When I asked for feedback on a failed application for an internship I really wanted I was told the most practical thing I could do to boost my portfolio was to volunteer in a museum. Talking to a friend about choosing to do the Masters program she said the best part about it were the placements. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!
I am going to be honest with you: I struggled with writing this piece. I had the broad topic of “placements” in mind as I have been organising the two I will do this year as part of the Masters course. I intended to write about how to get the most out of placements, about attitude and making a good impression, speaking up when it’s not going well and taking any opportunity that might present itself. And then, I got sucked down a rabbit hole, an endless vortex of articles, blog posts and comments sections. Questions about ethics, economy, and value; about the definitions of “volunteer” versus “intern” and the messy, complicated legal implications that can have. Although New Zealand doesn’t quite have the culture of internship exploitation as seen overseas in the UK, Europe, and North America it is easy to see how damaging and unsustainable a culture that reinforces unpaid labour in exchange for experience and exposure can be.
Unfortunately, I have come to an unsatisfying and unresolved conclusion, I am still on the fence. While I have felt the frustration, stress and sometimes resentment of putting in hours of unpaid labour I have also gained practical, tangible skills, worked alongside some amazing people and enjoyed a number of other non-pecuniary benefits. Just as it is reasonable to want to be compensated for the work you do, I also understand it’s fair to expect that by the time it's worth paying for, you will have spent time gaining the necessary skills - for free. On the one hand, I know that a degree and a few internships does not equate “experience” in a real world sense, on the other, when entry-level means zero-salary it has got to have wider reaching implications for the rest of the sector. Do I just lack the confidence to expect, or demand, that I am paid? Should I just stop whining, suck it up and get on with it because “that’s just the way things are?” Should interns be compensated for the work they do in museums and galleries? Would that even work?
In the GLAM sector structured on-the-job training seems rare, with entry-level positions (and even some volunteer ones) asking for experience. It quickly becomes apparent when reaching for that first rung of the career ladder that there is a catch-22, a predicament that is not limited to the GLAMs sector but true for many arts- and humanities-majoring job seekers: no paid work without experience, no experience without unpaid work. I see a clear distinction between the traditional “leisure” volunteer and interning with the goal of eventual paid work in the sector. Interning is seen as a way to show your enthusiasm, get experience and gain practical skills. It is now a necessary part of building a career, a stepping stone towards all the glamour and riches of that elusive, secure, full-time, paid position (right?).
The use of volunteers in place of entry-level workers brings up a much bigger discussion about salaries and value in museums generally. If the starting salary of a sector is $0 then wages across the board will always be low. And while the motivation to pursue a career in the field is generally because we feel strongly about the cultural sector and not for monetary gains, this is still a bitter pill to swallow. Add to that the fact that looking at the job opportunities in the culture and heritage sector on CareersNZ is a masochistic task, but not for lack of work to be done. I know several collection stores that could use an assistant (or two), but there is simply not room enough in the budget. With funding short, museums become more and more reliant on volunteers and this fosters a culture of an unpaid labour force rather than productive internship opportunities.
What, then, is the answer? If a general lack of funding means museums cannot afford to offer minimum wage then surely unpaid internships are better than no internships? I know that most institutions hosting placements are not ignorant or indifferent to the problematic nature of asking people to work for free. There are a number of institutions that do offer paid internships and scholarship programs and in most of my placements I have seen people work hard to stretch project budgets to offer some kind of compensation: stipends, per diems, petrol vouchers, accommodation, training courses, coffee.
But, the most important issue I see arising from a culture of unpaid work as a rite of passage is also a key problem in the GLAMs sector generally and Tusk’s current theme: diversity. If internships and volunteering are mandatory for a career path in the sector we are effectively shutting out a number of people. You have to be able to work for little or no money in order to take on an internship. Time for volunteering is a luxury not everyone can afford and this has a knock-on effect: lack of diversity in volunteers leads to lack of diversity in staff which tends to mean a lack of diversity in visitors. As a white, middle-class, educated female I am the demographic for museum volunteering and still struggle with making internships sustainable. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like for someone with more barriers.
By the end of this year, I will have completed 700 hours of work on various placements as part of the Masters program. Already I have benefited greatly from the internships I have completed. In a broad sector like the GLAMs, it has been a way to figure out what I want to do, what career path to take and what type of institution I want to work in. I am gaining practical skills in object handling, report writing, data entry, Vernon, condition reporting, researching, and so much more. I am gaining confidence in my abilities and the value I bring. I am creating a strong network of people, some I will be able to call on for letters of recommendation and references.
Perhaps that is why I struggled to write this piece: I have gained so much from the experience of working unpaid internships. To be able to work in these cultural institutions really has been a privilege. But I have to be real about the kind of privilege it is.