Open Enrollment

Open Enrollment | Meet Me at the Met

Open Enrollment

Crossbow of Ulrich V, Count of Württemberg, 1460. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

On a Gugg outing to Dia: Beacon with the awesome Fall '06 interns. I'm front row, third from right.

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).

Armorer Hermes Knauer speaking as part of the Met's "Connections."

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.

Ryan Hill, now Director of Digital Learning Programs at the Hirschhorn Museum, back in 2005 when he pioneered the use of "gallery guides" at the Guggenheim.

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.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Arms and Armor Hall: my home this summer

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.

Contributor
Michelle Millar Fisher is a doctoral candidate in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research centers on social histories of architecture, contemporary art, museums, and the pedagogical turn. She is currently an adjunct lecturer at Parsons The New School for Design and Baruch College. She is the 2014 recipient of the Field Fellowship at the National Building Museum, Washington D.C.
  1. I’m glad that your internship experiences have turned out so well, having a supportive staff – and with teatime, of course. However, all of the work that you’re churning out is “real” work and of course, should be paid. It’s the equivalent of performing curatorial work. At least you’re in school so you can take advantage of working for free!

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  2. Michelle Jubin says:

    Dear Corinna,
    First, thanks for your response. Having coordinated and supervised internships as a job, I’m definitely interested in this debate as I feel personally responsible to a certain extent for perpetuating a cycle of unpaid work, which ultimately leads to lower entry level wages (if your previous wage has been ‘none,’ you don’t have much of a bargaining position when you’re eventually hired). Although I acknowledge some of the major pitfalls of unpaid work, my piece is definitely skewed because of my positive experiences. I also came at both my internship experiences after a few years of planning each time -mostly because it took a few yearsto save up to do both! :) I wanted to do them to experiment at two very key stages in my career. Therefore, I don’t see the work I’m doing as curatorial – yet – because i have zero previous curatorial experience. In exchange for my work, I am being very thoroughly and patiently introduced to this practice.I was very careful to choose places that make time for actual learning experiences for their interns – questions, explanations, supervision, demonstrations that don’t occur when you apply and are hired for a job, because by then you should know how do to the thing you’re hired for. So, in essence, this is cheaper for me than paying for a three credit course, and way more in depth and fun. I also don’t want to get hired just now – part of choosing to go back to school was the deliberate choice to have the space to experiment with working places in the short term – 3-6 months – to see whether they would be good career plans for future long term commitments. So the model works (for the most part) in my favour. Where it’s really broken is concerning the many, thousands of undergrads and grads who have the experience and degrees they need to work, and don’t need another five internships to enhance their resume. It’s ready! My reflections here are definitely part of a larger debate, but in my specific case, the internships haven’t been so much unpaid labor as much a humongous stroke of luck to find two situations that have dramatically and fundamentally changed my conception of career, location for living, academic practice and social relations. I readily admit, I’ve been really really lucky.
    Thanks again for responding & all best,
    Michelle

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  3. Mark Schlemmer says:

    Hi Michelle,

    So happy to read about your great experience at the Met. I started my career as a graduate intern at the Met before YOU selected me to interview for what turned into my influential internship at the Guggenheim! The Met is a wonderfully nurturing place for an eager intern, so no surprises really that you had a rewarding summer there.

    I too wish that *we* could come up with some solution for the unpaid internship situation. Both of us seem to have taken the same approach to internships and I must admit that I too was very lucky with the opportunities my internships offered me. Still, it was a financial risk at the time and Sallie Mae will be getting a chunk of my salary for many years to come. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

    Anyway, as I said before, I’m happy to read these reports of what you’ve been up to recently.

    Best of luck and onward, upward!

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  4. Michelle Jubin says:

    Mark,
    How lovely to hear from you! I remember well that your internship came during grad school after you has substantial professional experience in the business world and wanted to relocate your career (and life right, you were in Spain?). I think internships at important career junctures and done in the right institutions can be game changers in such a great way. I, too, wish we could think of a model that would support more paid placements for interns in museums. Perhaps an alumni fundraiser is in order – maybe we could all put our money where our mouths are and donate $10 annually to a fund for an internship placement or two, and partner with a non-profit like the 92nd St Y to provide subsidised accommodation. However, that only addresses one or two interns in a sea of very deserving, very underpaid, and very-much-in-need-of-real-jobs interns. We were definitely lucky…..
    Hope you’re very well!
    M

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