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The central atrium of the British Museum, London (photo by William Warby/Flickr)

The British Museum is a flagship cultural institution with 2013 expenditures of £115.4 million (~$186.2 million). It is also, according to a current online listing, seeking free help on its website and other “products” from experienced coders in the guise, naturally, of an unpaid internship or “student placement” with its “Digital Team.”

“This is an ideal opportunity for students or recent graduates in Computer Science, Information Technology and Web Development,” the listing writes, enumerating three of the most valuable skills in this benighted post-whatever economy. Not to worry! Trading on prestige should allow the British Museum to break down any barriers of remuneration that might normally exist between such valuable technical labor and its “key digital products and … new digital strategy.”

Bearing in mind that the digital department at the British Museum is not likely to be pedagogically valuable in the same way the institution’s curatorial or conservation departments might be, we turn our eye to the three responsibilities outlined in the ad:

  • “Assisting staff developers with updating the code on the museum’s website”
  • “Researching solutions for technical problems and new web and mobile products”
  • “Participating in brainstorming about new digital products”

The first two are rote tasks (updating and troubleshooting) that clearly replace paid functions within the museum’s staff (which is US labor law’s standard for internship legality, and maybe the UK’s too); the last is so nebulous as to be virtually meaningless.

This isn’t the first time British arts institutions have exhibited an unreasonable penchant for unpaid peons, with the Serpentine Gallery drawing protest from an activist group called Future Interns last December. The objection was successful, however, and the Serpentine instituted a paid program in response; the group also made similar headway with the London Symphony Orchestra.

And although one might argue that the British Museum listing is geared to the British “student placement” system, the ad clearly solicits applications from graduate students and recent graduates, as well as non-EU citizens (“Non-EU citizens must arrange their own visa to stay in the UK”). Anyway, no need to belabor the point: turn your attention to this great editorial illustration from Matt Bors on the whole internship morass.

Update, 9/9 5:52pm EDT: The listing we originally linked to, at Museums and the Web, seems to have been taken down, apparently prematurely — the posting cited an end date of September 10. Here’s a PDF of the British Museum listing as it originally appeared.

Update 2, 9/10 10:26am EDT: In a message from its official Twitter account earlier this morning, the British Museum stated that the listing has been retracted: “We can confirm that this posting has now been removed. The Museum does not support unpaid internships.” (The British Museum did not respond to a direct request for comment sent yesterday, when the listing was originally taken down.) Screenshot follows below.

Update 3, 9/11 11:01am EDT: The British Museum’s Hannah Boulton has responded to Hyperallergic’s September 9 query regarding the disappearance of the listing with the following:

You are correct that the posting has been removed. The Museum has a very firm policy in this area and does not support unpaid internships.

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

8 replies on “British Museum Wants Someone to Update Its Website for Free [UPDATED]”

  1. I can’t schedule a qualified web developer within a 3-month timeframe for any project at less than $65/hour. Good luck fixing this website by picking the brain of an intern.

  2. No sense singling this one out. Art museums (esp.) are filled w/ unpaid interns doing all sorts of things. Real employers want recommendations. There seems no other way to get “good ones” (beyond academic/teachers) but such activities. Thus, the mainly privileged (who can afford unpaid work “experiences”) end up in the field (more or less).

    1. If you’re not being sarcastic: you point out that there’s “no sense singling this out” while concluding that “the mainly privileged (who can afford unpaid work “experiences”) end up in the field.” (And ignore demonstrated evidence — from Future Interns — that public shaming works.)

  3. In Amsterdam, at the Rijksmuseum (in the top 20 of most visited museums in the world), a fulltime ‘volunteer’ position was offered recently. For a regular job at the Education Department. After much outrage the position was taken down but the museum is too arrogant to comment on it. It’s easy for them to get away with it. Instead of volunteer work, which is supposed to be charitable, this should be called zero-wage work.

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