Opinion

British Museum Wants Someone to Update Its Website for Free [UPDATED]

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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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