free archaeology: institutionalised exploitation in the museum sector

Posted: 17/05/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , ,

Following on from my post on the precarisation of cultural heritage work, I want to look in detail at what seems like institutionalised exploitation of unpaid interns at the Victoria and Albert Museum (and another unnamed museum); and to highlight resources, movements and opportunities for positive social change.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum appears to have at least 24 interns at a time: there are six in exhibitions and six in curation, all of whom work (28 hours over) 4 days a week, for at least six months; and there are perhaps twelve or more in conservation, though some conservators may “only” stay for three-to-six months.

However, there are eight other collection-based departments, which might similarly have six interns each, so there might be as many as 66 interns; and there are research, library, archive, press, marketing, membership and development services, plus officially unlisted personal assistantships and any other hidden workers, so there might be even more.

Again, all of the positions appear to be real jobs; they could honourably and accurately be described as apprenticeships. So even if there are “only” 48 interns over the course of a year, they still do the work of (and remove the need for) 24 permanent workers.

A few of their apprentices may become employees

Indeed, frustratingly for its interns, the V&A has apprentices as well (who are paid the minimum wage); and it hopes to have more apprentices, ‘as they are the future employees who will be working within the sector’… Still, reassuringly for the V&A’s interns, not many of its apprentices will become employees either; they are disappointed that the programme ‘does not lead to any opportunity of continuing employment in [their] current work place’.

The invaluable nature of unpaid labour

One cultural heritage jobseeker has noted the V&A’s ‘brazen acknowledgement of the current problems [that] graduates [are] finding when trying to secure jobs in the arts’:

Interns provide key support to the work of the department; this includes assisting with exhibition development and research, web-content and publications….

Unfortunately no financial assistance is available for interns. However, with jobs in the cultural sector at a premium, and many graduate students unable to secure job interviews without demonstrable work experience, the experience offered through this internship is invaluable, and past interns have gone on to secure a variety of posts in the cultural sector.

It isn’t only a brazen acknowledgement of the challenges that graduates face; it’s a brazen acknowledgement of the ‘key support’ that interns provide, which implies that the Victoria and Albert Museum is violating minimum wage law by not paying key workers.

Is this a threat? Is it goading? Are they saying that without this internship you won’t be able to get your dream job? Positions like these only perpetuate the problem!

The V&A does not charge its skilled workers for their tuition

Not only may you not be able to secure job interviews without demonstrable work experience, you may not be able to secure unpaid internships without demonstrable work experience. The Conservation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum explains:

Selection is from a competitive field, on the basis of written application, portfolio, and an interview, either by telephone or in person…. Internships are not funded by the Museum. While there are no charges for tuition or materials, successful applicants have to find money for their maintenance and travel….

[Interns’] work can consist of research, condition assessment, technical examination, treatment, preventive conservation, documentation and liaison with curatorial staff.

Qualified in furniture restoration, furniture finishing and restoration and conservation of decorative surfaces, experienced after an internship in antiquities preservation in the USA and another in cabinet restoration in Belgium, Jeanette Ida Moller became the V&A’s Furniture and Wood Conservation Intern. As such, for six months, she conducted unpaid research, scientific analysis, technical treatment and report-writing.

Qualified in art history and painting conservation, experienced after work placements and/or work in painting conservation in Italy, the UK and/or the US, Gabriella Macaro became the V&A’s Paintings Conservation Intern. Amongst other work in her unpaid (though, exceptionally, externally-subsidised) one-year internship, she undertook the ‘technical examination and conservation treatment‘ of Francesco Morandini’s sixteenth-century Portrait of a Lady.

The exploitation of a non-existent loophole

MB objected to the V&A’s ‘immoral’ non-payment of its workers (and to the ‘legal loophole’ that enabled it); but, as I explained the other day, the loophole only exists for voluntary workers who do not gain any benefit from their work, whereas internships provide benefits by definition, so interns at charities are still workers who are entitled to payment for their work.


KS had done the internship that was highlighted on Interns Anonymous.

There were seven interns in just this department alone. Not one of us, after six-month’s work (and the hours are a lie – you’re given tasks to do that cannot reasonably be done without overtime) has left with a job secured because of the internship.

Everyone in the department is wonderful, and they do try to help, but the department would crumble without its interns, who also make a significant contribution to the enterprise/business side of the museum.

Anon, too, had done that internship; indeed, Anon had done several unpaid internships over the course of years, of which the V&A’s was ‘by far the worst’, in which the interns were ‘exploited and mistreated‘. They explained their complaint point-by-point:

– They recruit new interns every 6 months and literally run the Department of Theatre and Performance with them. The interns are unpaid staff first and beneficiaries of training/experience second.

– We were all given far too much to do in the time allocated, meaning that some interns had to stay unreasonably late.

– One intern was given the task of being PA to the Head of Exhibitions in the Department of Theatre and Performance. She spent a good part of her time having to get her coffees, collect her shopping, book her holidays, reply to her children’s school letters and repeatedly refute parking charges, amongst many other inappropriate tasks. She was also regularly contacted to complete tasks in her personal time….

– Some of the interns were working as researchers for a major new project. Part way through this, a paid researcher was recruited to do exactly the same job as them….

– Significant pieces of work, such as newspaper articles, lectures, etc. were often written by the interns and never credited.

They did real and necessary work, but were neither paid at the time nor employed afterwards. They worked full-time (or more than full-time), so they did not volunteer their labour freely and flexibly. They did work that was administrative (or simply inappropriate), which could not be considered training or professional development.

A paid worker was hired to do the same work as them, simultaneously demonstrating that they were doing “real” workers’ work, that the V&A did have money for wages and that the V&A was exploiting their hope of and need for paid work to extract free labour without having any intention of employing them.

And the unpaid interns’ free labour wasn’t (always) even acknowledged.

Gallery Girl

Already-qualified and experienced (with a stint as a stand-in unpaid gallery manager for the existing unpaid intern gallery manager), Gallery Girl did not say for which ‘major national museum’ in London she worked, but some presumptuous people might make an educated guess…

She did a four-day-a-week, ‘six-month internship at a major national museum, working on exhibitions with six other interns’; she was the least educated (as she only had a BA) and the only one with (presumably) free accommodation (in her family home).

At the same time, she did a ‘rewarding’, local government gallery internship where she ‘co-curate[d] an exhibition’, and weekend waitressing to subsidise her internship (as the national museum did not reimburse any of her expenses). ‘Unfortunately’, her national museum internship was not rewarding.

My job role from the outset [was] Personal Assistant to the Head of Exhibitions in the department, which [was] different to the other interns who [were] each allocated to individual exhibitions….

My manager [saw] me as quite literally her Personal Assistant. My main jobs [were] checking her emails, scheduling appointments and completing her vast amount of petty cash claims (for which I [was] required to make up the circumstances as they [were] almost always for personal or internal meetings).

Other inane tasks… include[d] buying her opera & theatre tickets, booking her car valet service and completing her daughter’s visa waiver forms for a family holiday to the US.

In a similar vein, the interns were on one occasion required to work as waitresses for a department-organised event (which was particularly painful for me as this [was] what I [did] at weekends to earn money).

From the outset I… resented these tasks. I always felt that doing this internship was just about ‘getting a reference’, and that was it. I… never enjoyed it, and it is severely unlikely that I would accept a job offer in the department, let alone in the job I [did]. I… nonetheless worked hard and… had very few absences.

Five months into her six-month internship, Gallery Girl’s manager called her and delivered ‘a tirade of insults’, which included complaints that she was ‘uncommitted, [and] came and went as [she] pleased’, even though she was supposed to be a voluntary worker and only took time off to work on her exhibition at her other internship (which was the only place that offered her professional experience of cultural heritage work).

I believe the trigger for this outburst may have been when I reminded her I was taking one day off to do some paid waitressing unusually in midweek (she [was] also completely unsympathetic to any financial woes that this internship create[d]). She said she regretted offering me the internship and… couldn’t write me a reference.

Thus ‘utterly singled out’, with her manager ‘working completely against’ her, she ‘wish[ed] so much that [she] had walked away from the internship’ immediately. She was faced with the choice of leaving (having ‘wasted a great deal of time and money’ and forgone ‘any chance of getting a reference’) and staying (risking the same as her manager could ‘refuse to write [her] a reference anyway’).

And precisely because she was a vulnerable (technically non-)worker, there was no-one she could complain to; ‘any action’ would have resulted in her ‘losing [her] reference’. She must have felt truly isolated and unable to confide in those close to her because ‘it really [was] a relief just to write this down and tell someone’.

Resources, movements and opportunities

In Britain, the most relevant group is probably the Carrotworkers’ Collective of ‘current or ex interns, cultural workers and educators primarily from the creative and cultural sectors’ (and its offshoot Precarious Workers’ Brigade of cultural producers and educators); but the Ragpickers‘ collective platform for art students and gallery workers is close in many ways; and other groups include Exploited Interns, Graduate Fog, Intern Aware, Internocracy, Interns Anonymous and Unfair Internships (which has a large and international resources page). The Trades Union Congress (TUC), too, has a page on the rights of interns.

Obviously, those naive, exploited workers also lose – often unknowingly sacrifice – their (unemployment and other) benefits, because they cannot fulfil all of the requirements in their Jobseeker’s Agreement, which include spending ‘several hours each day’ looking for work, and being available for work at a week’s notice (when a month’s notice to quit is standard).

When I raised the issue of the lack of prosecutions of businesses for not paying interns, the DWP staff member conveyed the impression that Revenue and Customs (HMRC) were treating it ‘as if the interns made the decision to work without pay’ (to work as volunteers), and thus ignoring it.

That negligence is particularly offensive because the job centre has painstakingly explained:

Choosing not to be paid is not the same as volunteering. If you’re doing what someone would normally be paid for – for example, if you’re working in a business… where they would usually pay someone to do the work – we will class this as unpaid work, not volunteering.

And when they class it as unpaid work, you lose your benefits.

Thankfully (albeit contradictorily alongside increasing submission to unpaid internship), there is finally an intern backlash. And the state is acting too: Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) are helping exploited workers to recover unpaid wages (and fast-tracking investigations of their claims), launching a social media campaign to raise awareness of workers’ rights, encouraging naming-and-shaming of offenders.

Still, this Intern Spring is only in the commercial sector; if the political and business class do protect charities’ and voluntary organisations’ employment of unpaid workers (and preservation of the sector for ‘nice Oxbridge girl[s]’ rather than ‘people off the dole‘), then the situation for (would-be) cultural heritage professionals will get worse rather than better.

[Originally posted on conflict antiquities]

  1. […] cross-posted on (un)free archaeology.] The Victoria and Albert […]

  2. […] naming-and-shaming does have some value, at least in demonstrating the scale and depth of the problem and […]

  3. […] Museum, 21 redundancies at the Victoria and Albert Museum (though it has generously maintained its massive internship system) and at least 20 redundancies at the National […]

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