In homage to the recently-opened summer indie movie Horrible Bosses, I thought I’d dedicate this, my first column since the close of the spring semester, to that annual rite of passage: the summer internship. I’m currently undertaking the second internship placement of my academic career, this time in the Arms & Armor department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In direct contrast to the three protagonists of said movie, I have absolutely zero interest in felling my awesome boss Dirk Breiding (or any of my co-workers for that matter). In a department where there are more sharp objects within hand reach than you could shake a pole axe at, and given the fact that I’m helping my supervisor research crossbows (fascinating, and very deadly), it’s a very good thing for everyone’s lives and limbs that there is a great deal of congeniality amongst these colleagues.
My first and only other internship was summer ’05, which was also the first time I set foot in New York. I stayed at the YMCA on 92nd and Lexington (aka a prison dorm) and wore a suit in 100-degree weather to look smart on my first day (I’m British and didn’t understand ‘’heat index”). I had applied to fourteen internship programs in New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston and, unsurprisingly, my target institutions weren’t as enthusiastic as I was and only one responded: the Guggenheim. Thank you, Ryan Hill, for taking a chance on me when all I had to offer was a last-minute phone interview conducted on a windy hill in Scotland, and a lot of waitressing experience (“good people skills!”). I ended up being an intern in Adult Interpretive Programs that summer, falling in love with museum education, and then Ryan hired me, waiting nine months so I could get my visa sorted out. Ryan, you even introduced me to five or six of my best friends out here, and my boyfriend. I’m pretty sure I owe you my first born child, which will, of course, be called Ryan Hill. You taught me a lot about what it is to be a kind and patient boss – the opposite of horrible – and so when I went on to run the internship program as part of my job over the next three years at the Gugg, I tried to remember what it was like to be on both ends of the spectrum: desperately crossing fingers to work somewhere amazing for free; and being the finger who picks people to hemorrhage their hard-earned cash on supporting themselves in one of the world’s most expensive cities during unpaid summer work experience. (Hey, it’s summer. You can survive on ice pops).
I can honestly say that this summer I wake up on the days I intern with the same smile I had that summer, really excited to get to the museum. I’ve been doing my fair share of “intern tasks” (photocopying crossbow images, compiling bibliographies on crossbows, inter-library-loaning a lot of books on crossbows) but I have also been given guided support to work on interpretation and gallery labels, digital education initiatives, and writing projects. I’ve also been lucky enough to work alongside people who are truly passionate about what they do: Hermes Knauer, the Armorer, has been at the Met for almost four decades and is a walking encyclopedia of incredible information; the two senior curators basically wrote encyclopedias during their similarly-long tenure at the museum; the department guest last week was a genius from the Tower of London; and every staff member has set down their work to patiently answer even my most basic questions. In a culture that eats solitary lunches in front of computers, this department takes lunch together each day at noon, and stops for a short tea break at two thirty. Did I mention I’m British? This tradition makes my heart sing. While no workplace is without its grumbles, making time for communication between colleagues is a much underrated thing, and has really let me – the intern – understand how and why things work the way they do. This is exactly what I hoped to gain this summer, along with greater clarity on my PhD study area – how curatorial and education objectives interweave in the museum.
And that’s important because like most others interning at a non-profit, I’m unpaid and it doesn’t always work out so perfectly. Increasingly, interns, employers, broadsheets, and campus career centers have made much out of the perils of badly-managed internships. A good friend of mine dreads going to her summer internship at a major museum due to a supervisor who can’t seem to think of tasks that last more than thirty minutes and will assign obviously-pointless things for her to complete rather than take time to loop her into the larger goals of the department. My friend is stuck mindlessly waiting for 6pm to roll around while the people she’s working for are missing out on an extra pair of very capable hands. Though that’s bad, I think having to pay for the privilege of undertaking an unpaid internship trumps the horrible boss. Requiring students, not just encouraging them to undertake unpaid internships, only to charge them exorbitantly “for credit,” is a peculiarly cruel phenomenon rampant in American academic institutions.
So, Dirk, Hermes, Marilynn, Jonathan, Steve, Ted, George, Don, and Stuart – thank you so much for such a brilliant summer. And, dear reader, should you find yourself at the Met anytime soon to see the McQueen show, also take a turn in the Arms and Armor galleries – that’s where the real haute couture is to be found at the museum, and it’s all in gold-damascened metal.