The Stories We Could Tell. . . If We Paid the Interns

Picture it: Spring 1998, my freshman year of college. My mom says to me “You really need to get a job this summer.” I had spent my high school years babysitting and working in a doctor’s office. I really didn’t want the “typical” summer college job of food service or retail. But mom had seen something in the paper about an internship program, sponsored by ExxonMobil for undergraduate students to work at Dallas nonprofits. And that’s how I wound up in the basement of the Hall of State, randomly running across letters signed by Sam Houston.

Here’s the simple truth: I wouldn’t be in the museum field if it wasn’t for a string of paid summer internships during my college years. But this origin story is rapidly becoming extinct.

I went to a private liberal arts college that was a bit of a stretch financially for my family. The money I earned during the summer went towards the next year’s tuition bills. ExxonMobil’s Community Summer Jobs Program gave grants to about 75 Dallas area non-profits of all types, including museums and cultural organizations. (The program still exists, but it’s much, much smaller now.) I applied to exactly one–the Dallas Historical Society–to write curriculum using primary sources. At the time, I thought my future career was as a high school English teacher. Though we spent part of just about every vacation at a historic house–and though I was the youngest docent at my local historic house museum by about 50 years–I had never considered working in a museum. Until I spent the summer going through the Dallas Historical Society’s vast collection, uncovering all sorts of treasures. I also helped create a “virtual tour” (remember, this is 1998, so very cutting edge!) of various Bonnie and Clyde sites. We had to hop a fence to get a picture of Clyde’s grave, and this seemed like the very height of danger and adventure. At least for a history museum.

When I got back to campus, I switched my major from English to history. And that summer established a pattern for the rest of my college summers. While some friends spent their summers in exotic places, I just went home. Luckily, my parents lived in a suburb, so I could get internships at major museums and not have to pay for lodging. I was jealous of them exploring new cities–they were jealous of me not having to find lodging!

In the summer of 1999, I worked at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. It was my most boring internship–cataloging books for their research library. But it was an interesting summer. That summer, they launched a live web feed of Dealey Plaza–and got in a bit of trouble. JFK Jr. died, and I worked late one night, searching for pictures of the memorials to his father that were left on the grassy knoll. The rights to the Zapruder film were determined. The museum was on the national news three times that summer, and I started learning about rapid response to current events.

That summer, I also did a bit of research on the history of a building at Fair Park that was the future home of the Women’s Museum. In the summer of 2000, I worked there, helping to process loans as they got ready to open in September. I held Edith Head’s Oscar and Eleanor Roosevelt’s knitting needles. I learned a lot about management styles and the politics around women’s history. I can tell many, many stories about that summer, and it wasn’t a huge surprise when the museum ultimately closed in 2011.

The Registrar, the other two interns, and me at the Women’s Museum.

Because of all this, I entered grad school with a wealth of practical experience. I started my first “real” job with tons of prior experience that helped me move up the ladder quickly. And though I’ve worked at the same institution for 16 years, these experiences still inform my work. However, there’s no way I could have accepted any of these extraordinary opportunities without a paycheck.

At Dallas Heritage Village, I’ve long taken the attitude that it’s better to not have an intern than to have an unpaid intern. The last time we had paid interns was the summer of 2008–right before the bottom dropped out. We had four that year, which was perhaps too many. But it was amazing! In the last decade, there hasn’t been room in budget, but we have had a few unpaid interns. But nothing about that is equitable for the field. They’re self-selected–we certainly don’t advertise for them–and we’ve worked out some sort of benefit to them (usually course credit). We write glowing recommendations. Sometimes we even manage to stay in touch as they enter the field. But I feel terrible every time we do it. Because this isn’t how we build a more diverse field. This isn’t how we make sure museum professionals make equitable wages at every stage of our careers. This isn’t how we remind the public and our boards that our work has value.

Earlier this summer, we accepted an unpaid collections intern, set to start in January. She needs it for course credit and, due to the pandemic, was having difficulty in finding any internships, period. And then, last month, we had a few unexpected staff departures which gave us a chance to re-examine the personnel budget.

The first thing I did was make that internship a paid internship. And telling her that it was now paid was the most fun I’ve had at work in a long time.

There is so much work ahead of us to make the museum field more equitable and diverse for both staff and our communities. In order for the external work to have any longevity, we have to get the internal work done first. Paid internships aren’t a quick fix for our field. It will not save us today, but it may save us tomorrow. We have to start building a new workforce today, and we must not assume that our future colleagues can afford to work just for the experience.

One of my dreams is to create a yearly post-grad curatorial fellowship at the Village. Trying to find funding for this has been on the backburner, but my hope is that next year’s internship might provide a great template for future funding. Finally, we’re starting to see some major gifts going to support paid internships–but only for art museums. Imagine the stories we could tell if similar gifts were made in the history museum field!

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Melissa

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. I've worked at Dallas Heritage Village since 2004, first as the educator, and became Executive Director in 2014.

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