How to Get a Museum Internship

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 6:15 pm
Gallery of the Louvre (1831-33) by Samuel B. Morse, Oil on canvas, 187.3 x 274.3 cm, Terra Foundation for American Art

Gallery of the Louvre (1831-33) by Samuel B. Morse, Oil on canvas, 187.3 x 274.3 cm, Terra Foundation for American Art

I have been lucky enough to be a volunteer, unpaid intern, paid intern, and full-fledged hired employee in a lot of different museums–from the very small and specific, to the medium-sized, to the encyclopedic and kinda famous. As I’ve now completely transitioned into supervising interns myself rather than being one, I thought it was high time I write a post about how to go about getting an internship in a museum.

Just So You Know…
I want to note that this is based on my personal experience only–and is really just a collection of tips, tricks, and things to know that I’ve accumulated along the way. Take it all with a grain of salt, and make your own journey!

Also, I’m a hands-on learner and deeply believe that while theory is important, there is truly no substitute for being in a museum office setting. Even if you’re only making copies, you’re still learning a ton more than if you were only hearing about it from a professor. I feel very strongly about hands-on learning, but if you are a more theoretical kind of learner, some of my advice might not be for you.

The Best Piece of Advice I Can Give You
For me, one of the most important things to remember during the whole entire process is to keep in tune with your passion and sincerity.  If you love what you’re doing, and are sincere and kind to everyone you work with, in my experience, things tend to work out really well — before, during, and after your internship.

Now let’s dive in to the specifics!

Fair Warning: You Will (Almost Definitely) Not Be Paid
It’s a downright shame, but it is also a truth: finding a museum internship is extremely difficult. It is definitely not impossible, but it is hard. Finding a paid internship is even more difficult. And when you get a museum job, you will not be making a million dollars. Those are much bigger issues in our field than this blog post can address, but I also don’t want to sugarcoat the issue. That said, the bottom line, pay or not, is that you will learn a lot in your internship if you put in time, effort, and care.  And as a currently employed museum person, I can tell you that most museum people would probably LOVE to pay you, but their budgets won’t let them do so.

Because of this, I would highly recommend interning in a museum as early as you can. I started interning in high school when I still lived under my parents’ roof and continued to intern in college, both at school and when I was home during the summers. If you are able, take advantage of times when you hopefully have some support paying the bills.

I also want to say that without interns and volunteers, museums could not function. I know it is small comfort when you are trying to pay the rent, but this is also a truth. Your supervisor hires interns for a reason: our workloads are quite big, and you are extremely helpful in helping us accomplish things. We also love mentoring young museum-loving people, just so you know. We need you, we love you, and if your supervisor is anything like me, we’ll buy you a latte whenever we can as a small but heartfelt token of thanks.

Finding an Internship
Let me preface this section by saying something that should probably go without saying: Work in advance! Many larger museums have internship deadlines six or more months out from the start date; smaller museums, who may not post deadlines, will appreciate your organization. Time management skills are essential for full-time museum jobs and the sooner you make them a habit the better.

If you’re in high school, museums in your area might offer paid internship programs or other special opportunities for teens. Be sure to check out museum websites’ sections for teens to take advantage of those kinds of programs, which are usually amazing chances for teens to cut their teeth on the museum world, get behind the scenes, and often make art as well.

Otherwise, if you are out of high school, there are a number of different resources on the web for finding museum internships. Here are the most helpful general resources for museum internships that I’ve found:

But hands-down, the best resources are likely the museum websites themselves. Internship opportunities are usually linked through their education department or sometimes the job opportunities page.  If you know what museum you want to work at (see below), then their website is the place to look.

If the museum doesn’t list internship opportunities on their website, that doesn’t mean they won’t take interns.  ”Cold apply” (see below) and impress them so much they make up an internship especially for you.

Choosing a Museum for Your Internship
You might thing it’s worth applying to every single museum internship you find a listing for. But more important is that you actually care about the museum you apply to. Museum people love their institutions. They will be impressed that you love the institution, too. And you will be happier giving your time to a place you actually like.

A good rule of thumb, especially if you’re starting out trying to get your first internship in a museum, is to answer this question: What was your favorite museum to visit as a child? Whatever your answer is, that’s where you should intern first. Now, ideally, that museum is in the city you currently live in. If it isn’t, think about a museum in the city you do live in that is most like your favorite childhood museum–and then apply there. When you have a personal connection to the collection or to their mission, or have actively experienced their programs, it’s a win-win: the museum can brag about its lasting influence on its community, and you will really want to do your best there.

Although you learn a lot from interning in a medium or massive institution, I would most highly recommend interning in a small museum, especially for your first internship. Some of my best internship experiences took place at small museums, and here’s why: you get to know most of the staff, even those beyond your department (read: you make professional connections with a lot of people, which will come in handy when you go job hunting later on); you see how many departments function and/or get an extremely thorough understanding of the one you’re in (because you’re probably the only intern there); and you have the opportunity to get your hands into lots of exciting projects.

Once you’ve cut your teeth on a small institution, I would then recommend looking at the huge places (happily, those are the ones that usually have paid programs) for your next internship. If you can, do so in New York or another large city, where there are lots of other museums around. Additionally, large institutions often have a single person dedicated to interns, so you get amazing training and have a point person to help you define your interests more deeply.

Using Connections
There is no getting around it: the museum world is a small one and thus a place where connections in the industry are extremely useful. If you know someone who you think would sincerely, truly like to see you succeed, and who has a connection to a museum, politely ask them if they could put you in touch with someone there. Follow up with a thank you note to your connector. (Always, always, always follow up with a thank you note!–see below.)

If you don’t have any connections, fear not. Cold call or begin with an informational interview (see below). And once you impress the staff with your professionalism, voila–you have a connection.

The Informational Interview
If you’re not quite ready for an interview, ask someone at the museum for an informational interview. See if you can take someone in the department you’re interested in to coffee in order to hear about their job and give you advice. People love to talk about themselves and their job, and it’s likely they would love to feel important enough to share their story and advice with you. You will learn a lot about the many paths people take to work in arts institutions, and you will almost definitely gain a connection. (And, although you should try to pay for the coffees, they will probably treat you, because they were once a broke college student too.)

One thing that is super important about the informational interview: DO NOT try to weasel a job out of it. Seriously. They know you’re looking to break into the museum world–everyone understands the underlying reason for informational interviews–you don’t need to put it out there. Be subtle by not mentioning it at all, graciously thank them for their time, and there’s a good chance they will say something along the lines of “feel free to contact me if you have any other questions, and I’d be happy to keep you in mind for any internships if they come to my attention.” If they don’t offer something like that, don’t bug them to do so–it puts them in an awkward position if they didn’t really connect with you.

Applying and Interviewing
College career offices can give you the basics on cover letters, resumes, and interviewing skills, which you should definitely explore and familiarize yourself with. All of those conventions apply for the museum world.  But since museums are not always a field that those offices are super well versed in, here are some specific tips.

The Application
Read it. Carefully. Then read it again. Then read it one more time with a fine tooth comb (I’m not sure if that metaphor works here, but you get what I’m saying). Make sure you include everything they ask for. Don’t have any typos. Don’t include anything extra unless they don’t ask for your resume–always include your resume, even if they don’t say they want it–or, maybe if it’s studio art related, your art portfolio if you have one. Otherwise: keep it simple, keep it passionate, and do it the way they want it done.

“Cold Applying”
If there are no posted internships at the museum you love with all your heart, then take a deep breath, prepare your most professional phone-calling demeanor, give the department you want to work in a cold call (don’t call the receptionist), and tell them you’d love to be an intern for them–very briefly say why you’re interested in that museum, and politely ask if you can send them your resume (definitely leave a voicemail if you don’t get a real person). You might think you can do this by email… BUT DON’T. There is a 99% chance your email will be lost in the abyss that is the generic museum email address, or if it’s lucky enough to make it to a person, they’re less likely to respond to email than they are to a phone call. I know cold calling is scary, but as long as you are sincere and not pesty (i.e.: I don’t recommend continuing to call them), I guarantee it will impress the person on the other end and will probably get you at the very least an informational interview.

The Interview
Study up on the museum and its programs and exhibitions. Make sure you have visited at least once (that goes without saying, right? Right). Dress as if you were calling upon your very traditional grandmother for teatime (whatever you do, do not wear jeans). Bring a few extra copies of your resume. Maybe bring your art portfolio, or other museum-related materials you’ve created at previous internships. Then take a deep breath, relax, and be yourself. Imagine that the person interviewing you is your favorite professor or advisor at college–someone you’re comfortable with and respect, but not too comfortable with that you start accidentally talking about what you did last Friday night.

And remember: you are interviewing them too. In addition to any questions you might have about the internship, you should absolutely ask them a few questions about their job, too–what’s a typical day like? What is their favorite and least favorite part of their position? And when you’re thinking about their answers, ask yourself: Can you see yourself giving your time to this museum? Do you respect the person who is interviewing you (i.e. your potential supervisor)? Are you interested in his/her job and learning more about it? Do you think you would get along well with him/her? The details of the internship don’t matter as much as the person you are talking to. If you do a good job at your internship with them, they will be your best resource: they will write you recommendations, help you make connections, support you and encourage you, and trust me, they will be so, so thrilled when you one day get your first museum job.

After the interview, write a thank you note (see below)!

The Handwritten Thank You
If there is only one thing you get out of this post, let it be this: ALWAYS WRITE THANK YOU NOTES. By which I mean, not type an email thanks-a-bunch, but handwrite your gratitude on good quality, professional-looking stationery. (I recommend splurging on this one, but if you’re on a budget, you can find nice ones at Target.) Whether it is thanking a connection for putting you in touch, or thanking someone for an interview, write… the… thank you. And do it the minute you get home from the interview before you even put your jeans back on and go right back out and pop it in the mail.

Here’s a good formula:

  • Dear Mr./Ms. So-and-so (even if they told you to call them by their first name–use the honorific),
  • Express gratitude for the interviewing opportunity (“Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me for the internship position in the education department today.”)
  • Refer to a specific part of the interview that meant a lot to you (“I really appreciated talking about the details of how you personally give a tour; since my interest is in education, it is great to gather all the information I can about teaching styles.”)
  • A tip: DON’T rewrite your resume and pop it in here–work your interests (not your experiences) subtly into the above reference to the interview
  • Thank them again and sign off (“Again, thank you for the opportunity. It was a pleasure meeting you. Sincerely, Such-and-such”)

I know we are in the 21st century and all, but shooting off an email is not the same as putting the effort into a well-written and personalized note. Trust me. It will be impressive, and you will stick in their minds.

Dealing with Rejections
It happens. It sucks. Set the email or letter aside (don’t delete it or toss it right away). Have a cry, have some ice cream, take a run, do whatever you have to do to get the disappointment mostly out of your system. Then take care of the immediate housekeeping. If you got a snail-mailed rejection letter, don’t reply to it. If you got a rejection email from a generic or HR address, don’t reply to it. If you got a rejection email from the person who interviewed you and/or who would have been your supervisor, take a moment to really read it closely. It may be generic, but the person may also have included something more specific or a polite, subtle tip for you. Take it to heart: they probably meant very well. And then shoot them a very, very brief email back thanking them for their time and the opportunity. This is the professional thing to do.

Also, you should know this: Internships often demand very, very specific skills and experiences. Rather than having tried to fudge your interests or experiences, take comfort in the fact that you were completely yourself during your interview. Keep being that way, and I am sure that you WILL find an internship that needs you and only you–this one just wasn’t it. And that’s okay.

Also, I want to say, having had to send out rejections myself: trust me when I tell you that it sucks just as much for the person on the other end (unless you were a jerk to the interviewer or obviously didn’t care at all). It just sucks all around. But you will find the right spot one day–just keep at it and do the best you can to learn from the experience. (And definitely take advantage of the opportunity to drown your disappointment in ice cream.)

Good Luck!
So, future museum people: best of luck to you! If you have any questions that weren’t answered here, post ‘em in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you out. And stay tuned, because I’m working on a post about my tips and tricks for making the most of a museum internship once you get one!