How to Get a Museum Internship

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!

39 thoughts on “How to Get a Museum Internship

  1. Great, thorough post. A few other tips, as someone who juggled 8 internships through college before becoming a museum staffer 15 years ago:

    – Even if you don’t see internships posted in the employment opps, it’s perfectly fine to approach a museum department about whether they’d consider an application. I’ve hired about 25 interns over the years and never posted a single position opening for any of them, and my colleagues do likewise. The bottom line is we’re busy and there’s enough interest out there that we don’t need to do it.

    – All museums are little kingdoms made up of many departments. Be open-minded about which area you could intern in, and approach the director of each department separately. Some points of entry are quite frankly much easier to get into than others. Everyone flocks to contemporary art and European painting, but you may actually learn a ton more about museum operations in Registration, Imaging, Development, or Education. That makes you incredibly valuable no matter where you navigate yourself to later.

    – The informational interview is a brilliant start because just by accepting one, a staff person signals their interest in helping a young professional get started. This is the type of person you want supervising you. Unfortunately, there are plenty of hiring managers who see interns as cheap labor to load up with low quality work, rather than taking a serious interest in developing their talents. Look for the ones who are asking you thoughtful questions about yourself as you interview them. This is the person who’s going to build a relationship with you, give you substantial work, and maybe even mentor you for a few years.

    – Be willing to commit to an internship that runs 4+ months. The typical 3-month gig is nothing in the regular working world. That’s barely enough time to get you a security badge and show you how the copier works. I consider those relatively meaningless when I see them on resumes.

  2. Thank you kindly for the words of advice! Any tips on how to wow the interviewer for an art history major who has little to no artistic abilities (thereby lacking a portfolio) but would die to intern at a museum? Also, I don’t have any internships under my belt – what types of internships should I consider applying for that would look good on my résumé? Lastly, what skills do you look for in particular? Thanks in advance :)

    1. Hi ArtAlex! I don’t think that it is at all a requirement to have a studio art background to work in a museum. It can often be useful, but it’s not a dealbreaker–a passion for art is what’s important. I would look for a first internship at a smaller museum where you can get your hands into a lot of different projects to discover what you like best. As far as particular skills, that’s a tough one–it depends on the staff member you’d be interning for, the museum’s collection, the projects that the internship is responsible for… For me I think I’m most impressed by an overall passion for art history, museums, and education, but that’s just me! Good luck in your internship search!

  3. This is the most helpful piece on art museum internships I’ve read by far. Thank you for the in depth post! I’m really looking forward to your tips and tricks for making the most of the experience.

    I was wondering, do you prefer to hire art history or studio art majors? And for studio art majors, how much importance do you place on their portfolio?

    1. Thanks Melissa! I can’t speak for all museum professionals by any means, but I would say as far as studio vs. art history, it completely depends on the kind of internship you are applying for (for example, someone who might be teaching studio programs or family programs would definitely be asked to see their portfolio or a portfolio of their students’ work). Certainly, though, art history is an essential part of art museum work. I personally feel that having a some studio experience helped me immensely in art history, since you understand just a bit of the amount of work that goes into creating art, and I imagine the reverse would be true also. I hope that helps. Anyone out there, feel free to chime in!

  4. This is all very true! I think it’s tough for people who might not know for sure if the museum is the career for them early on. If you even think you have an interest, high school is a great time to start. I didn’t find out in time, but the smithsonian has great internships specifically for highschoolers, that have STIPENDS!
    http://www.si.edu/Interns/ByAlphabeticalOrder

    They have some for undergrads and grads, but they are far more competitive. Thanks again for the advice :)

    xx
    daniellewu.com

  5. This is the most helpful piece on museum internship that I could find on the whole internet.
    Among all the other things, it surely gave me a much needed confidence boost.
    Thank you very much

    1. Hi Dan, great question! There are TONS of volunteer opportunities at Museums for folks who are retired. Check out the volunteer section on your local museums’ website. For most museums it can range from administrative work, greeting the public, or helping to wayfind. If you like to teach and are interested in art history, be a docent!! Docents are the volunteer tour-giving corps of a museum and they’re awesome. It’s a big commitment, but very rewarding. Hope that helps! Thanks for stopping by the blog!

  6. Thanks a ot for that usefull information! I am currently looking for a paid internship in a big museum. I live in Hungary and have about a year of intern experience here. Do you think I have a chance to get a graduate internship in a US museum?

    1. Hi Valeryla, it all depends on the museum, your educational background, and your interests! I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you, but I’d definitely recommend some informational interviews, even over the phone, to get to know the needs of the museums you are interested in. Good luck!

  7. Thanks a lot for this post which makes me know more about the internship.

    But do you think if you are without professional skills or related study background, will they consider you at all?

    I am an English major and planning to apply a postgraduate of art management (on curatorial.) I was volunteering in two art festival for gaining more experience in this field since volunteering will not consider your study background that much.

    But from my voluntary experience, they mostly will not let you do the mainly works you would like to know in the museum that bothers me a bit.
    Thanks in advance :-)

    1. Hi Regina, thanks for commenting! I would say it depends on the institution. You might find difficulty with a bigger institution in volunteering or interning, but a smaller museum might be able to take you in. You might also want to start with informational interviews to get to know the language of the field a little more! Good luck!

  8. Great advice! Thanks! One thing I have to say is that getting an internship/job is almost always easier when you can learn from other people’s experiences. This post for example is perfect. I have been interested in working in an art gallery. I stumbled across a great book, “The Art Dockuments” by Carlton Davis. The book helped me brush up on my art, art criticism, and art history- something that I feel will only help my chances in getting an internship. Crossing my fingers.

    http://artdock.net/

  9. Great post! I stumbled upon your blog and was thrilled to see you’re stationed in MKE! I went to UWM for a few years and am now following an Art History course in Malta, of all places. Also happy to see a mention about the smaller museums. I currently volunteer at a small, but lovely palazzo museum and it’s helped me appreciate a different side to the museum world. It might be a good choice for someone starting out, or looking for a niche collection/study. Thanks again and fantastic blog!

  10. Thank you for such a helpful article. One question–once I have determined the department I would like to request an informational interview, how do I seek the specific person to contact? If they are not listed on the website, is it okay to call the museum and ask for their contact information or is this considered rude?

    1. Thanks for the comment! I would Google as thoroughly as possible to find names, and call as a last resort. The Annual Report of the museum, usually on their website, usually lists staff names. Linked In, conference websites, or local newspapers are also good places to look out for in Google results. If all else fails, then I’d call the museum. Good luck!

  11. I am a graduate student in Museum Studies and received my Bachelor’s degree in Art History with a minor in Studio Art. I’ve held a few internships and a lot of camp counselor jobs teaching arts & crafts, which I thought would be helpful in finding a full-time summer internship at an art museum, however, I’m getting discouraged. After reading this I went back to the rejection emails to look for smalls tips and words of encouragement. I’ve received the nicest, most complimentary rejection emails and sometimes that is more frustrating because I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong. I’ll keep applying and trying to get my foot in the door. Excellent article. Glad I happened upon it today.

  12. I’m a 27-year-old with a BA in Art (studio), and I’ve worked in theatrical costuming since graduation. When I was in college, it didn’t occur to me that museum work might be something I’d like to do, so I never did any internships or took any courses in Museum Studies… and now I can’t help but feel that it’s too late for me! I feel like I’m in a catch-22 situation: museums want graduate students for internships, but I’m not sure I could get into a grad program without having done any internships or having any museum experience. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want to commit to grad school (and possibly go into debt) because I just have a feeling that I might like to work at a museum!

    And of course, as an adult, I need to work to support myself, so I don’t have time to do long-term internships as one commenter previously suggested. I happen to have a job where I have 2 months of the summer available for a potential internship, but even then I’ll be worried about money because I will still have bills and rent to pay!

    I would love any tips you might have for those of us who weren’t so lucky as to know in high school what they wanted to do with their lives… specifically regarding finding meaningful internships or volunteer opportunities as working adults. Thanks!

    1. This is a tough one, Erin! My initial thought is that I think you could certainly get into some graduate programs without prior internship experience (gaining experience is a major reason why folks often go into museum studies programs–they can set you up with internships, etc.). BUT I agree, graduate school is a huge investment if you haven’t tried out the field yet. If you’re able to volunteer at a museum while doing a part time or full time job in another field, I’d say absolutely do so. Or, I’d bet you have a enough studio art experience from your B.A. that could apply to part time jobs, say, in education departments, especially in the summer. No experience is wasted experience (I know a few museum educators who use their theater backgrounds amazingly in museum education, for example)! So I’d say if you can swing it, try volunteering or doing some part time jobs on the side/in summer–you might be busy, but at least you will be able to test out if the field is right for you!

      Do any other commenters have thoughts?

  13. Is it difficult for foreign students to also get internships? I really want to work in museums, but unfortunately never really got to go to any often as a child in my own country. They also don’t offer internships here. Is it possible for me to still try for an internship elsewhere like New York?

    1. Hi Michelle, I believe some major museums, like those in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles (the Getty) offer internships to international students. I would definitely check those out! Good luck!

  14. You write eloquently and you think brilliantly. Because of these you will probably enjoy reading my articles: http://www.subject-art.weebly.com. I am an artist that was born in Russia. With the museums, like Hermitage, or Pushkin museum of Moscow, I had intimate relationship, as well as with its possessions.
    In 2004 I was awarded Grand Gold Medal at M.C.A – international festival of visual Art, Cannes, France. I came to conclusion that Modern art and its institutes deny logic and common sense. In the absence of objective criteria there is a subjective anarchism. in 2004 I was myself awarded Grand Gold Medal at M.C.A – international festival of visual Art, Cannes, France. I came to conclusion that Modern art and its institutes deny logic and common sense. In the absence of objective criteria there is a subjective anarchism.
    Nice to meet you.

  15. Thank you so much for this article! I’m finishing up my junior year towards my BA in Art History/Visual Arts. I currently have an art internship with a public arts organization that I’ve been with since September and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m currently trying to think of the next step which would be graduate school. What schools are most respected among art scholars and more importantly which of those are the most economical?
    Also, are there any jobs out there for a bachelors in art history?

  16. Hi Ms. Chelsea!
    First of all I really appreciated this post! The time and thought you put into it shows your interest in helping us newbies get a foot in the door and really gives me hope of finding a start and succeeding in the career I dream of.
    I also had a few questions:
    -I’m going to be graduating with a BA in the Humanities, with a primary emphasis in Art History and a secondary in Spanish Language. In your experience, do you think I will be given less consideration for an internship since my major is not Art History specifically? In the humanities I take a more interdisciplinary approach to studying art and art history and believe it will significantly help me succeed working in the art world, but I’m afraid that the title with throw people off and I won’t get the opportunity to prove myself.
    -Also is it unrealistic to obtain a museum job with only a Bachelors? Should I consider going to grad school?
    -Is volunteer experience helpful in getting an interview/internship or is it often overlooked as meaningless/useless? Should I direct my efforts to finding more specific programs for museum beginners?
    -Do most internships require full time availability?

    Thank you SO much for your help!

    Miriah

    1. Hi Miriah, thanks for the kind words! Of course, circumstances vary from internship to internship and museum to museum, but here are my thoughts. For your major, I think it depends on the museum, but I would say it could be an advantage to have varied experiences. I would speak to your interdisciplinary strengths in your cover letter/application. (For example, if you’re looking for an education internship, Spanish would awesome because you can communicate with Spanish-speaking ESL students if you gave tours.) For jobs with just a B.A.: It’s not impossible… but it is hard to get a JOB with just a B.A. Internships with just a B.A., definitely easier. Sometimes on-the-job/internship experience + a B.A. can be enough to get you a job if you’re passionate and hard working, but not always. Again, cover letters are a great place to speak to your experiences even if they’d “prefer” a master’s. Next, volunteer experience is absolutely not meaningless!! In fact, it’s often the only way to get started in this field (which has its own issues, but regardless, it’s still a foot in the door). Last, internship hours vary greatly; often folks can work around your schedule especially if you’re a student–if it’s a formal program the hours are probably less flexible–be up front with your availability. Finally, one last piece of advice: Choose grad school carefully. A lot of museum studies graduate programs are a huge investment and not necessarily solid, great programs. Do your research and be sure it’s right for you–and be sure you like the field. That’s why internships are important, so you can kind of try it out. I hope this helps and good luck!

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