State museums criticised for unpaid interns

‘This feeds into a perception that arts and culture on this island are preserve of the elite’

Ireland's foremost cultural institutions, including the National Museum and the National Gallery, are among several State agencies coming under scrutiny for hiring unpaid interns.

The Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Arts Council and the Heritage Council have also been taking on unwaged workers over at least the last two years, Minster for Culture Josepha Madigan has confirmed.

Sean Sherlock, Labour’s justice spokesman who questioned Ms Madigan about the internships, said he feared young people in particular from poorer backgrounds were being “locked out” of Irish cultural bodies.

“The kids from the wrong side of the tracks can’t afford to take up unpaid internships, even though they are as culturally literate as anybody else in society,” he said.


“It would appear that unpaid internships favour those whose parents or relations can afford to sustain them while they are interns.

“This feeds into a perception that arts and culture on this island are the preserve of the elite.”


Ms Madigan said State agencies under the remit of her department are “occasionally approached by individuals seeking to gain work experience in a particular area on an unpaid basis”.

“I understand that five State agencies in 2017, and four in 2018, facilitated unpaid internships,” she said.

“The agencies in question work with these individuals to provide a high-value experience, often around a specific project, over a short period of time.”

Her department did not disclose the number of unpaid interns involved, the type of work they were doing or for how long. Requests on Friday for the same information from the institutions themselves were not immediately answered.

Mr Sherlock has called for “complete transparency” on the scale of unpaid internships within publicly funded institutions.

“We need to ascertain whether such internships could be turned into real jobs in the culture and heritage sector,” he said.

“I’m hopeful there is no exploitation going on here by government departments and their agencies and if possible I would love to see the case being made for reducing the number of internships and increasing the number of jobs.”


A spokesman for Ms Madigan said: “Generally, the department is unable to facilitate unpaid internships.

“The national cultural institutions, the Arts Council and the Heritage Council are independent bodies under the aegis of the department: it is a matter for these bodies if they are able to facilitate requests for short-term internships from students and others interested in developing a career in the sector.”

Last month, Oonagh Buckley, director general of the Workplace Relations Commission, flagged concerns over the legality of unpaid internships.

"As far as we are concerned if you are working in a workplace and what you are doing is work, then you are entitled to be paid for it under the legislation," she told The Irish Times.

“There is no exemption in Irish law for work experience or internships and therefore we take a very clear view that if any of these come to our attention due to a complaint being made or finding them in inspections we will address them.”

Ms Buckley said employers “need to learn the fact that unpaid internships are almost entirely against the law”.