There was some debate about whether unpaid internships that could be considered ‘unpaid jobs’ should be posted on the MCG’s discussion list back in May 2017. As a result, we ran a poll from May 28 to mid-June. While the language of the poll was a bit more strict than we tend to be, asking whether ‘Advertising for unpaid internships on the MCG mailing list should be’ permitted or forbidden, the results were clear.

Nick Clarey, who helped with the behind the scenes work along with Jessica Suess and Danny Birchall, kindly summarised the results:

There were:

  • 115 responses
  • 80.9% voted not to allow advertising for unpaid internships
  • 15.7% voted to allow advertising for unpaid internships
  • 3.5% voted “no opinion”

Nick also summarised the 34 comments:

  • Members were concerned that there was uncertainty about how terms were defined – what is an internship, what is a volunteer and how would a policy distinguish between them?
  • Members are strongly against professional work masquerading as internships
  • Some members (especially from smaller museums) are opposed to language in a policy which might suggest that asking for volunteers is somehow unethical
  • Members appear broadly of the mind that short-term unpaid internships (of the sort a student might do over a summer for example) are acceptable under clear guidelines

Accordingly, we have changed our discussion list policy following the vote. As a result of your votes and comments, the relevant line has changed from:

‘Job, paid internship and volunteer post advertisements are permitted.’


‘Job, paid internship and volunteer post advertisements are permitted. We believe that internships and volunteer roles can benefit the sector and individuals, but in order to support valuable diversity in the museum sector, internships offered should meet the Museums Association guidelines for internships. You may also wish to check your position description against UCL’s Internships, Work Experience and Volunteering Policy.’

We have used the MA’s guidelines as they are widely accepted, provide the definitions requested in comments, and will already have been through many rounds of discussion. As with any posts to the discussion list, we don’t moderate or ask to approve them in advance, but people can email us if they’re not sure if a post meets the guidelines.

(While I was at it, I also added the following sentence to the item about non-MCG conferences and events: ‘If your conference title contains an acronym, please spell it out so that people new to it have a sense of the topic’.)

If you ever need a refresher, the entire policy is at Posts to the MCG’s discussion list reach 1700 subscribers, so it’s worth getting it right!

Mia Ridge, posting as Chair of the Museums Computer Group


Vote results: unpaid internships advertised on the MCG discussion list

The 34 anonymous comments made by voters were:

  • Unpaid internships favour those who can afford to take them. They are a detriment to the industry and MCG can help by not allowing their promotion over the service.
  • Not only should it be forbidden to advertise them, internships that are not about training people to understand what a job is about should be illegal. This post asked for someone to “lead” on building a digital archive. That is clearly not an internship position.
  • But only subject to stringent requirements, i.e. there’s a strong learning element to the post, it does not require prior knowledge or experience, and it’s comparatively short term; or it’s an offer to take placements which are part of formal courses. The NT post which provoked this discussion is beyond the pale as far as these criteria go; I’m absolutely behind the comments on the list about the ways internships limit access; but they can still be valuable opportunities if used positively and sensitively.
  • Unpaid “internships” (which are essentially unpaid jobs) undermine everyone working in the sector, and the principles of accessibility and diversity which museums and heritage organisations espouse.
  • Only allowed if part of a planned course (university or college) or scheme eg LUMEN scheme at Leicester University
  • Thoroughly against them in the space – appreciate that in some contexts it can be an affordability issue but I think they naturally favour those that can afford it, and therefore acts to reduce diversity.
  • I think this is a really difficult one, because I know the value of volunteers and of short internship roles when trying to enter the sector, but the post in question clearly required someone with expertise already and wasn’t suitable for a free volunteer category.
  • The single instance being discussed is clearly an extreme case, requiring a high degree of knowledge and imposing significant responsibilities. Not all internships will make such demands and offer so little in return. I am unhappy that a blanket ban should be imposed, based on this one case.
  • Absolutely, and I commend you for pursuing this. Other jiscmail groups banned them some time ago (e.g ARCHIVES_NRA)
  • As has been mentioned by others, the use of unpaid internships undermines wages and serves to exclude those who can’t afford to work for free.
  • Thanks for cracking down in this. Would love to see concerted efforts across cultural/arts sectors
  • Unpaid internships are exploitative and do not promote equal opportunities. They have no place in the cultural heritage sector / the world. Thanks for opening this up for discussion / a vote!
  • Having worked for free for almost two years I can confirm that it is a privilege to be able to afford to do so. However, without it I would not get the skills and experience I needed to get a paid role. But if people are allowed to do this then those doing this will willingly exploit this opportunity and claim that they are providing skills and experience while in fact they are also getting free labour when those who deserve the job are not getting it
  • While agreeing that the particular internship was phrased rather more as an employment opportunity than a volunteering one, unpaid internships are volunteering by another name. Are we saying MCG members may not be volunteers? MCG is about museums and computing. It is not a trade union or similar ‘representative’ body.
  • Providing they are genuine opportunities for people to develop skills and knowledge, with a view to employment later.
  • Voting yes/no on a blanket ban is a bit Brexit referendum, is it not? A six month, part-time, unpaid ‘opportunity’ is clearly ridiculous, but this sector would grind to a halt without the work of volunteers, so it seems to me that there’s a spectrum of acceptability. However, that’s all irrelevant in this case as I’d actually rather the MCG list didn’t become yet another sodding job board. So although I’m fine with the concept of some unpaid internships, I don’t want any job ads on the MCG list. Therefore, forbidden.
  • I don’t think we (as the MCG subscribers) should encourage the practice of requesting people to work for free. Particularly as the type of work that would be advertised on MCG would be of a technical / skilled nature. If the work is worth doing then it is worth paying for.
  • As no two cases are alike it’s hard to find that cut-off between acceptable and not. And after all, it’s up to those reading it to decide if it’s for them or not, not decide on behalf of others. Slippery slope.
  • I feel there could be some latitude for very small organisations. But not for bigger organisations like the NT.
  • The advert submitted today was a disgusting example of expecting free labour to do what someone should be paid for. Shame on the National Trust for abusing its position in this way, and taking advantage of people simply hoping for a chance to gain employment. Sickening behaviour.
  • I do not see any issues in advertising unpaid internships. In my opinion these are great opportunities for a range of people, such as retired folks, young people looking for experience, someone looking to change careers, etc… As long as the minimum requirements for entry level work STILL ask for some sort of experience – unpaid internships have a place in communities like this one.
  • Strongly think it creates a more divided society – a Conservative mp actually tried to ban it but was filibustered by the repellant Philip Davies. As a sector we should be doing much better than this.
  • It should be clearly stated that they are unpaid, and the reader can decide what to do. Whether organisations should be using unpaid positions is a completely separate question.
  • I’ve said forbidden but I think it depends really – if people are advertising <6 week placements I think that’s ok, but longer than that is less of a placement and more of a missed opportunity for someone else’s work.
  • Permitted where the internship adheres to pre-determined guidelines on what constitutes an ethical internship (eg length of time, expenses paid etc) and is not a direct replacement of a paid position
  • MCG should have clear statement on website, plus a practical guide to expected remuneration for roles requiring skill levels, i.e. banding.
  • How can you define the boundaries between work experience – internships – volunteering?
  • Unpaid internships are taking advantage of people who want to get experience to get paid formal work within the wider sector.
  • It should be advertised only and via social media *as well*.
  • Only unpaid internships that follow the MA guidelines should be permitted
  • Good lord, why is this an MCG matter? Just get rid of job-related messages all together. It’s bad enough that people can post paid positions here. I can learn something from even the most esoteric discussion, but any job posting must be of interest to such a tiny subset of the list that each one is surely a waste of all our time.
  • Although I agree that the ‘internship’ that prompted this discussion is inappropriate and definitely warranting of paid work, I do not feel that a blanket ban would be helpful. There are unpaid internships/ work experience that offer real benefits to the intern (usually of much shorter duration, and offering valuable training opportunities).
  • Only if max 1 or 2 months and for max 1 or 2 days a week