Before I begin, I want to make clear that I am not using these case studies as examples of worst practice (though they are not all examples of best practice), or even as examples of consciously exploitative practice. I know people who have worked at all three of these museums (and indeed at the cultural heritage organisations that will appear in a far less flattering light tomorrow), so this is not an attempt to condemn these institutions’ staff.
This is an attempt to draw out the differences between volunteering, voluntary work, work experience and internship in practice; and to highlight the ways that museums’ policies on and programmes of volunteering and voluntary work can reinforce or create disadvantage and exclusion. Hopefully, then, it will be easier to identify widespread and/or persistent exploitation, and structural threats to the cultural heritage profession and its work.
The Science Museum
Nothing can ever be perfect for everyone; some people might complain that the Science Museum’s policy on volunteering and voluntary work goes too far; but at least there is no room for doubt (or exploitation). The Science Museum ‘does not offer work experience or internship placements’; and to be a volunteer, ‘all you need is enthusiasm and a willingness to get stuck in’, a ‘science or museum background is by no means essential’.
The British Museum
The British Museum may use so many volunteers that it physically cannot use any more, but its internship programmes generally seem reassuringly professional and ethical. Its Department of Coins and Medals’ Economic History Society Internship and its Department of Prints and Drawings’ Michael Bromberg Fellowship are both three-month, paid positions.
The International Dunhuang Project Internship Programme offers five-month internships, but they appear to function as secondments for (employed, waged, institutionally-supported) ‘young professionals from institutions in China and India’; and its six-week-long World Collections Programme for South Asian museum professionals appears to do the same.
Its Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan does offer ‘a limited number’ of ‘unpaid internships’, but they appear to function as genuine work experience placements; they only last two-to-four weeks, both their length and their timing are flexible, and they are only available to ‘undergraduate or graduate students on courses with a direct relevance to Egyptian or Sudanese culture’. Hopefully, its other departments do the same.
More problematically, its Department of Conservation and Science offers ‘a limited number of [unpaid] internships’ (which may be about twelve each year), where the ‘minimum period for a placement is eight weeks, although a longer period is desirable‘. It may be trainee work, but it does appear to be trainee work, and trainees are entitled to wages.
The Natural History Museum
As the Natural History Museum explains, the ‘main difference between volunteering and an internship is the time and commitment‘: volunteers work 1 day a week (ideally) for at least four months; interns do ‘short-term volunteer project[s]’, for which they ‘usually volunteer work 3-5 days a week for 1-3 months’.
A local student might be able to squeeze in three days a week for one month (if they don’t have to work during term-time in order to support themselves), but the commitment sounds like a contractual obligation; and five days a week for three months sounds very much like a temporary job or short-term contract. Obviously, it completely excludes anyone outside London (unless they can afford to rent and live in London for the duration of the project without any income), and thus disadvantages huge swathes of the country.
Furthermore, I’m concerned that the Natural History Museum offers both too much (in terms of fringe benefits) and too little (in terms of expenses) to meet the law and guidelines on the use of voluntary workers.
Interns’ expenses and benefits
It’s a little complicated, because the Natural History Museum offer (many of) the same fringe benefits to their volunteers and interns as they do to their employees, but voluntary workers should not receive any benefits.
Their universal benefits include free entry to the NHM’s temporary exhibitions (and other cultural attractions), a number of free passes for friends and family, and discounts at the shops of the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum; those could be worth hundreds of pounds, and could therefore be considered benefits (which would show that the person was a “real” worker who was entitled to a wage).
At the same time, charitable organisations are allowed to completely cover the direct expenses of participation in voluntary work (in travel, food, etc.). Yet the Natural History Museum’s interns are (only) ‘entitled to travel expenses for zones 1-3 (depending on your address and where departmental funds are available) and £12 weekly reimbursement towards your lunch expenses’. Those who live in zones 4-6 or in the commuter belt must literally pay to be at the museum; and a department may refuse to cover any of its interns’ travel expenses from anywhere.
Again, the NHM ‘encourage a schedule of 3-5 days per week for 1-3 months‘. You can get between the commuter belt and central London as quickly as you can between some London boroughs and central London, so the travel expenses limit is not logical or irrelevant; it might be prohibitively expensive, though, for an intern to work full-time without pay and self-fund a three-month season ticket.
Also, ‘if you are carrying out an internship as part of a qualification or compulsory element or have already received funding for a course then you are only offered £12 weekly reimbursement towards your travel/lunch expenses’. If someone has received funding, that may be reasonable enough; but it seems (to say the least) odd to refuse to refund interns’ travel expenses, which are an unavoidable material cost of engaging in the internship, if and because they will receive the compensation of academic credit.
Volunteers’ expenses and benefits
For volunteers, who are absolutely limited to £12 weekly reimbursement towards their travel/lunch expenses regardless of the real cost, the NHM ‘encourage a schedule of 1 day per week (5-7 hours) for an extended period of time, ideally 4 months or more, where possible’.
Behind the Seen
The NHM’s Behind the Seen Programme (for volunteers and voluntary workers) ‘suits’ people who are ‘looking to work with collections, build essential skills in curation, and, occasionally, research projects’. For some volunteer positions, it is ‘essential’ that the volunteers ‘commit to at least four months but ideally until the completion of the project’.
The volunteers gain ‘essential skills’, form a ‘vital part of the team’ and are ‘credited for their work in the publication’, but are not recognised as workers and paid as such. And those who cannot afford to volunteer, those who cannot afford to pay for the opportunity to work, cannot gain skills that are ‘essential’ to their entry to the cultural heritage profession.
[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]