Unpaid, Unfed, and Unhoused

You’ll never make money working in a museum my father told me. “Dad, people who work for The Smithsonian Institution make six figures,” was my reply. I’m 23, have a Bachelor’s degree in Public Relations, am beginning my Masters of Museum Professions this fall and have been working in museums almost continually since I was fourteen. Everybody tells me I have an excellent resume, I won’t have any problems finding a job, I’ll do great things. I KNOW someday I will do great things because I want to, it’s the former part of that statement I’m worried about.

They tell me it’s an economic downturn. It’s not you, everybody is having a problem. I’ve spent numerous hours volunteering, I’ve completed unpaid internships, paid internships and minimally paid jobs without benefits because I LOVE WHAT I DO. Honestly I love it; I had a 14 hour a week paid internship that I spent 30+ hours a week working at because not only is museum work my job it is also my hobby. Last summer I finished a seasonal job working as a docent/preservationist/housekeeper/gardener/exhibit designer/gift shop clerk at a Frank Lloyd Wright designed residence, small museum workers understand how that goes. I turned down an internship at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. because it was unpaid for this MINIMALLY paid job in Iowa because I could not afford to pick up and move to D.C. without a paycheck. Spend some of my savings just to have the experience, network and put it on my resume you say? I’ve done that. I did an unpaid internship with The British Museum in London and spent my life savings just trying to eat while I was there.

I’m not complaining, all of the experiences I have had have been amazing (well mostly) and I am glad to have endured the hardships each individual position produced for me but it is beginning to get a little rough. During the middle of my seasonal position at the FLlW residence I began applying for jobs/internships in hopes of finding something by the end of my time at my current position. I’m afraid I can’t move to Montana for an unpaid internship. No, nope I can’t come to Vermont to work for your art gallery because I have no gas money to even drive there. Can I work for your museum in the middle-of-nowhere because it could potentially (but probably not) become a below the living wage paid position in 6 months? Sorry, no.

It just so happened that at this time it was convenient for me to move home and nanny my nephews and niece. I made the decision to apply for grad school for a couple of reasons;

1) I have worked for some amazingly educated and intelligent people whose footsteps I strive to follow in.

2) I have worked for some people in amazing museums/institution settings who are not qualified for their job, are not educated and do not care about the place they work for. I do not want to be like them. I want to be able to give the most to my institution and the publics I serve.

3) I would like to be better qualified. I have gained a variety of experience and knowledge but there is an inexhaustible amount more to learn.

I was accepted to Seton Hall University and decided to commit to being a Pirate. It is a small program with a specialization in exhibition development, not to mention its proximity to some of the world’s leading museums. In the meantime, at home I was watching the rugrats and began a part-time position with Maquoketa Art Experience, an embryo art community, as my nannying duties allowed.

Union Historical Society in Union, Maine
Having a part-time museumesque job and as I was planning to leave for school this fall I had mostly stopped looking at the job boards for a while. One late (and I mean late) night I decided just to see what was going on in the job world and randomly applied for an internship with the Union Historical Society in Union, Maine. A paid internship! What fun?! I heard back from the Board President the very next morning and from there we continued to converse throughout the application period. My persistence won out and I was granted the five-week internship for this summer. Union is a town of approximately 2,300 citizens just North of mid-coast Maine and the Historical Society is run entirely by a volunteer staff. This incredibly small, pretty much two room museum, has a wonderful collection of artifacts and archives pertaining to the town’s exceedingly interesting history. I received a $700 stipend and was housed with one of the board members of the museum. I’ll be honest, it cost almost my entire stipend just to travel back and forth from the internship but at least I broke even.

I’m willing to travel for work and I’m willing to work HARD because I love what I do but interns and entry-level staff need to eat too. I have been reading many articles lately about museo discontent with wages and benefits. One of my favorite reads is the Museo Unite blog: http://museosunite.blogspot.com/

I feel like every blog post is singing my song. Recently a post by the bloggers guided me to this article which I find frustrating:


The Director of the Museum of Modern Art lives in a $6 million condo tax-free AND makes $2 million in salary. What about having him live in a $3.5 million dollar condo (which still sounds like a fairly nice place to entertain museum guests) and using the other $1.5 million to fund the unpaid, unfed and unhoused interns and entry level staff who are trying to do what they love. Don’t get me wrong MoMA offers paid internships but over 700 people apply for one of those internships, I know because I just applied. Perhaps they could offer additional ones? Perhaps other museums with that kind of money to pay their directors could offer internships that are paid instead of unpaid with no compensation at all?

The President, Ken Berger, of a website called Charity Navigator made some excellent points:

“Many donors feel that paying the leader of a charity a six-figure salary is outrageous,” said Ken Berger, the group’s president.

Mr. Berger disagrees with the argument, popular among many nonprofits, that to attract top talent to manage complex organizations, they must compete with for-profit businesses.

“I’m not advocating poverty wages,” he said. “But arguing that those working for the benefit of the neediest people in our society should make millions and multimillions like corporate leaders defies common sense.”

Would we all like to be making $2 million? You bet your buttons we would, but, I bet many of us would settle for a fraction of that and would be willing to work just as hard. You’ll find some interesting math on possible salary redistribution done by one of the bloggers for Museos Unite in this post: http://museosunite.blogspot.com/2010/03/solutions-series-1-robin-hood-rule.html

Doesn’t it makes sense to have a better paid, better educated and happier staff across the board then to have one sumptuously paid employee? If the little Union Historical Society can afford $700 and kindly offer housing to an intern (not to mention other perks) why can’t museums like The United States Holocaust Museum at least assist interns with housing and food costs?

This is a long blog but I wanted to make some points for people working in the non-profit sector, not necessarily museums, to think about. Perhaps there will be more on this at a later date.


2 responses to “Unpaid, Unfed, and Unhoused

  • colleendilen

    Hi Pam, Great first post! I totally agree with you.I wrote a post on my blog earlier today (www.colleendilen.com) about nonprofit management ideologies and coming at nonprofit problems from either "liberal" or "conservative" perspectives. (They are in quotes because I don't mean to draw a direct connection to political right and left.) I think you're a nonprofit lefty here. (It's cool– I'm a lefty, too) :-)And I think that's awesome because it will take a lot of passionate people to change up the system and create large-scale change like higher wages and getting stakeholders to accept higher nonprofit admin costs– thus attracting more competitive talent and strengthening the sector. I'm excited to keep following this site and reading your musings! Thanks for a great post!

  • Pam Schwartz

    Thanks for your thoughts! I'm definitely a nonprofit lefty as you put it! I really do think some changes would attract more competitive talent. So many people who WANT to be in our sector leave to MAKE money elsewhere. Not that most of us are in it for the money, but we all like to eat too.

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