Emerging Professionals' Experiences

Myself and four other UI Museum Studies students combined various non-field-specific research on internships and our personal experiences with internships in the field to formulate best practices for museum internships. Our goal was offer improvements and ideas for both students and museum supervisors at institutions throughout the state of Iowa.


The aim of this research was to provide institutions in Iowa with best practices for museum internships, for both the student and the museum. We also wanted to do share about the nature of internships being collaborative and communicative efforts between the students, the museum supervisors, and the educational mentors.

On a personal level, I wanted to use this research to reflect on my previous internship experiences, considering what was beneficial, what was problematic, and how improvement could happen all around.


1. Academic Research: read generalized articles about internships to gain formal knowledge on the topic

In order for an internship to be high-impact, it should require dedication on behalf of the student. For me that means I want to show up to my internship because I feel like I'm contributing to the museum. This self-motivation comes as a result of the unique problem-solving, diverse thinking, and constructive responses that the author also discusses. Overall, I think defining an internship as high-impact is largely due to the amount of autonomy and responsibility the intern has. Allowing students to forge their own paths in internship projects inspires hard work and self-reflection which facilitates career-building and lifelong learning.

Internships are defined by the components including reflection, supervision, and application to career goals. The most important factor in an internship is an opportunity to work in the real world and break down the wall between the university and the work force. The overall goal of this interwoven experience is to learn about how coursework interacts with one's career. While internships are mutually beneficial for the museum and the student, I think internships boil down to benefit on behalf of student learning while employment is used to benefit the museum.

The article suggests that internships need tighter definitions and more straight-forward expectations for what students gain. While I understand the benefit of structure, I would offer the opposite. Loosen internship definitions. Allow students, mentors, and museums to work together to really personalize what each can gain from the collaboration. Let students drive the process and specify what they hope to learn. If students feel ownership over the process, they will feel ownership over the outcome, and they will be better able to verbalize and later apply what they got out of the experience.

I also disagree about the segregation of academic and career-related goals. Internships should help students learn about a career and learn for their careers. The experience should bridge the gap between academic knowledge and experiential application of the knowledge. Students should be learning specifically about the museum at which they are working and then bring that knowledge back to the classroom and to their future experiences.

Internships should give students a real glimpse of what it would be like to work for that museum (or others) as a full-time employee, not just the practical knowledge it takes to do so (that’s still partially up to coursework). The experience should get them thinking about the work environment, the schedule, the tasks… Would they like to be employed here? What would they want to do? Is this the kind of job they are looking for? Internships should be trial runs so students can better understand how they work and the type of work they are looking for.

A couple more recommendations I would add from my experience: 1) Supervisors and faculty mentors should give interns autonomy and assistance as the students request and see fit. 2) Museums should make interns feel like they are valued, welcome, and integrated into the museum system. Students should not feel like negatively-stereotyped “coffee runners” or “gophers”.

Overall, I agree that internships can be impactful tools for student learning and offer a great introduction into future career fields. Students' dedication towards their internships and their abilities to reflect upon their internships will partially dictate the quality of experiences they have. The museum and mentor's cooperation in facilitating that type of experience will also have a big impact.

If interns are unpaid, they must be compensated with new knowledge and learning experiences from their hours at the museum. Interns should use the time to supplement their education, while museums should use interns to supplement their regular staff and volunteers.

To make unpaid internships still worthwhile for students, supervisors should take time to guide projects, ensure learning, provide support, and show appreciation. Helping interns work toward paid positions at your museum or others would be a HUGE step forward for the field.

The museum internship environment is exclusive and especially discouraging of participation when most opportunities are unpaid. This set-up fuels a cycle which limits diversity in museum employment. Many students must take paid positions in other fields rather than gain experience in museums without pay; however, those unpaid internships are seen as vital prerequisites to gaining full-time employment down the road.

Unpaid internships create barriers for certain groups of people trying to enter the museum workforce. Thoughtful discussion from the field and vocalization from those affected are necessary to solve this problem.

2. Personal Reflection: considered how previous internships demonstrated best practices or exemplified room for improvement

3. Collaboration: worked with other students to describe how research and experiences translated into advice for the field


All five of us students, along with our mentor, Dr. Lung, presented as the keynote speakers of the emerging professionals session at the Iowa Museum Association Annual Conference in October 2019. Using what we had gathered from our research, we answered the following questions:

  • What is an internship? (also, what is NOT an internship?)

  • Why should my museum offer internships?

  • How do internships impact student learning?

  • How can both museums and students facilitate best internship experiences?