Enter the Interns

Niobe and her children by Lemmonier

It happens every spring. The snow dissipates. Flowers come into bloom.  And, the gaggles of summer interns appear at museum doors throughout the country.  This is a little note for the interns and their supervisors.
Dear Supervisors, please remember

  • Slavery was not right then and isn’t now.  Internship is not slavery!
  • An intern is not a staff member that you don’t have to pay.  They are interning with you to learn how to become an employee of a museum.  Let them learn by watching you, experience with you and then doing without you.  In other words, they need more than just stuff to keep them busy.  Offer variety in work, in discussion, and in experiences.
  • Photocopying a whole book is not an educational activity, and frankly it might be easier to buy a copy online.
  • Intern mentoring takes work. Expect this. Relish this. Or else, consider not having an intern.
  • Applaud the successes of your interns.
  • Be honest about their short-comings and bring Kleenex.  While I can’t imagine a tough talk with a staff-member should end in tears, interns are often younger and brand spanking new to the office environment.  If you are the lucky deliverer of the first constructive criticism talk, be ready for a little water works.
  • Think of you interns as long term committment.  Ask them to email you what they have accomplished that term at the end of the summer.    I think of the recommendation as the only concrete thing I can offer.
  • Create community amongst other interns in your organization.  For some interns, stepping into the workplace can be a foreign exchange program—we mentors speak a different language, wear different clothes and act very differently.  It is hard for the mentor to even predict which things about the work culture would surprise a college student.  Set up ways for interns to network with each other (without you).
  • Have a little fun. It doesn’t always have to be a bore.  If your office does fun things, include the interns.  If not, figure out something fun for them.  And, at the end of the summer, take them out to lunch.  After all, everyone, just once, should get a free lunch.

Dear Interns, please remember:

  • Even if you are the smartest in your university, already well published, curated 4 exhibitions, and your parents are donors, you have come into this museum to learn something from your mentor.  Allow them to teach you something.
  • Sometimes you will be asked to photocopy a whole book.  Try your hardest not to roll your eyes, sigh, or yell ugh.  Plug in the earphones, and go.  While you are hanging in the copy room, figure out a tactful way to suggest to your mentor, 1. that google books is better b/c you can do a text search, 2. you would love to alternate this activity with a more challenging one.
  • Accept criticism.  For example, edits on writing. Sure you are a great writer.  I believe you.  But, everyone is a critic about writing.  Everyone thinks they have the right answer.  Listen to your mentors.  They might have something in mind, like end use, that affects their criticism.
  • Ask questions.  Some people are better leaders than others.  When you aren’t really getting what you need, figure out ways to get more from the mentor.  Talk to them about their work.  Why did they do X?  What do they think about Y?
  • Hook up with other interns.  I mean mentally!  Ask the other interns about their interests and experiences.  Learn from their experiences.  You will never be able to intern in every department, so understand all the facets of museum life vicariously.
  • Don’t offer excuses. While in college or grad school even you might be able to miss class or get an incomplete, the work place is not so forgiving. Mentors are generally taking interns because of their commitment to the propagation of the field.  They are busy professionals, and they are not too interested in excuses.
  • Have fun.  Museums are full of characters—from the guards to the café staff.  Listen to people, observe office life, and participate.  Join the staff for lunch sometimes.  Attend staff meetings.  Chat with people.
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