I know you meant well. It’s time to stop managing unpaid interns.

Unpaid internships often get talked about at the high level – what museums and boards and grant awarders and accreditation orgs and graduate programs and so on should do to put an end to them.

Of course I agree with these sentiments, but this time I want to call upon a different, equally powerful audience to act. If you’re an entry-to-mid level museum worker who trains or manages interns as part of your day-to-day work, this one’s for you.

Here’s what I ask of you:

By this Labor Day, tell your boss that you’re no longer OK with managing unpaid interns.

The time, energy, and resources you have put into developing your interns are real and probably have had real impact. With exposure to your training and network, your interns have honed their talents and perhaps even gone on to get great jobs.

But these individual successes come at indefensible cost to the museum field and every worker in it, including your interns and yourself. This cost can be summed up in two points:

  1. While aspiring workers who can afford to forgo paid jobs for months at a time get ahead in their careers, others–disproportionately people of color–get shut out.
  2. Interns bring knowledge and skills to your museum from their education and prior work experiences. Valuing their abilities at zero lowers the bar for salaries for all your museum’s staff.

Here are some better ways you can help aspiring museum workers start their careers:

  • Help them research paid positions where they can gain transferable skills for museum work, even if outside of museums.
  • When hiring for paid positions, evaluate applicants’ abilities based on transferable skills, even if gained outside of museums.
  • Coach them on improving cover letters, resumes, interviews, and salary negotiations.
  • Connect them to your professional network through email introductions, social media, and low cost community events such as happy hours.
  • Create volunteering opportunities at your museum that people can sustain alongside full time employment at other organizations–max 5 hours per week, flexible schedules.

Have courage and raise this conversation with your boss this summer.

Let me know how it goes.

When Free Admission Fails: Try “Social” Entry Fees?

A Brown Girls Museum Blog post by Amanda Figueroa recently inspired me. In it, Figueroa questions why she gets free museum access with her Harvard student ID. Admission costs are often the nth paper cut for people of color. Privileging visitors who have higher education and elite affiliations, Figueroa observes, raises additional barriers.

Data from museums that have waived their admission fees reveal even more complications. Opposite from their usual intention, free-admission days have been found to attract routine museum audiences instead of underserved ones.

It’s no surprise that eliminating entry fees failed to dismantle other barriers preventing inclusion. Yet I am curious about whether pricing models can be reimagined to engage target audiences better than free days.

Common pricing models promote attendance by favoring social relationships. Children get discounts so that families can afford to visit together. Many museums hope that students receiving discounts will generate buzz and bring their friends. The Art Institute of Chicago’s student membership, for example, includes admission for a guest.

This raises a few questions:

  1. Can cultural organizations make paying, or not paying, for admission a rewarding, social experience?
  2. Can organizations create groupings that target their audiences better than conventional groups (like students)?
  3. Can museums use discounts in a way that entertains individuals, gives them confidence that they and their social groups are wanted, and excites them to involve their groups?

Here are some ideas of what this could look like:

  • “Neighborhood days” with free/discounted admission for residents of certain areas.
  • Free/discounted admission for people with certain traits or stuff (e.g. anyone named “Michael,” anyone who shows a copy of an old family recipe, etc.) and their guests. The Charles M. Schulz Museum, for instance, offers free admission to redheads on Valentine’s Day.
  • Free admission for a raffle winner and half-price admission for up to five guests.
  • Tickets that teachers can award students, and a reward (such as a private tour) for the student’s family when they visit.

As the data about free admission days suggests, revising admission prices will have small, if any, impacts on inclusion. Adjusting such a specific area of institutional practice will not produce organization-wide changes. Where experiential entry fees may help, however, is in shifting mindsets around whom museums involve and how. Cultural organizations now know that extending a free invitation for whomever accepts doesn’t work. Maybe refocusing attention on the relationships underserved patrons have with each other can be a step toward shaping spaces that they can enjoy together.

I want to hear what you think. What do you see as limitations of rethinking admission prices? What can cultural organizations do to make the price of admission more equitable?