Supervising Interns and Volunteers


Molly Gleeson describes her technique to Bruce Kato

Molly Gleeson describes her technique to Bruce Kato











Since 2001, I have supervised more than a dozen interns and even more volunteers.  I’ve come to a few conclusions.  One is that the balance of supervision invested versus useful work produced cannot be met without a significant time commitment from both parties.  For me, this has either been a minimum commitment of one day per week over a long period, or a concentrated chunk of time where the person comes in almost every day.  In order to utilize interns and volunteers well, the supervisor needs to have a certain level of organization already in place.  Otherwise, the time is simply spent facilitating work I could have done faster myself.   Most of my supervisory experience took place when I was a curator of collections and exhibits.  The interns were mainly grad students from the Texas Tech Museum Studies program.  The most difficult aspect of supervising them was striking the right balance of adequate instruction and appropriate correction.  I have no stomach for providing criticism.  Written manuals of museum procedures are most helpful, particularly for processing collections.   With the volunteers, who were mostly retired local folks, it was more delicate because few of them had computer skills, and volunteering is partly a social activity.  However, most of them had deep and valuable knowledge about community history.  It was most helpful for me to schedule them all on the same day of the week.  This way, I could spend some time the day before preparing everyone’s projects and lining up my own questions for them.  The volunteers mostly knew each other and enjoyed each other’s company. 

In 2007, I supervised my first conservation graduate students, Samantha Spring from the Delaware program and Molly Gleeson from the UCLA/Getty program.  An article about the experience can be found at (forgive me, I’m just learning links!):

This was a very rewarding experience for me, since we all came from similar educational backgrounds and could cover considerable ground quickly.  They had knowledge of AIC standards and guidelines for practice, basic ethics, and knew the components of a treatment report.  The exchange of knowledge and skills was a two-way street, with the students providing the latest information from their training and me providing the pragmatic “what they don’t tell you in school” and some meaty projects.  They presented a paper about their work at the ICOM-CC conference in New Delhi India in September 2008.

I’ve found it rather difficult to come up with a reliable barometer about how well an intern or volunteer will work out.  For a while, I thought that young people who were not yet in grad school didn’t take the experience seriously and were flaky.  But I was proven wrong on that a couple of times, thanks to Katie Mahoney and Dean Duryea, Jr.  And the best resume I’ve ever seen ended up being a poor fit.  And now that I am focused mainly on conservation, I thought perhaps I should stick only to conservation grad students.  But I’ve got a volunteer, Sadie Beck Ingalls, who is so sharp I could totally use her full-time, and I think her educational background is a recent Greek and Classical Studies degree. 

I would love to have an intern around most of the time…so I am entertaining the idea of a summer intern and perhaps a third-year conservation grad student.  The main difficulty is money.  There isn’t funding from my end, although conservation students often have some limited resources if the want this particular experience bad enough.  Juneau is an expensive place to live, and since it is a summer tourist destination, living accomodations are tricky.  On the upside, my boss, Bruce Kato, is very supportive of conservation and the projects we’re tackling.  And Juneau is a fantastic wonderland.  

I really believe in the intern/mentor relationship.  I love seeing things anew and critically through the eyes of a grad student.  I like being challenged and questioned so I don’t get complacent (there are only 4 conservators in all of Alaska and I am married to one of them.)  And I hope that these relationships are destined to turn into a colleague-colleague peer thing.  

Samantha Springer and Molly Gleeson work on projects as Ellen supervises and Bruce approaches

Samantha Springer and Molly Gleeson work on projects as Ellen supervises and Bruce approaches


4 Responses to Supervising Interns and Volunteers

  1. […] Supervising Interns and Volunteers « Ellen Carrlee Conservation […]

  2. Dave Harvey says:

    Ellen – I was glad I stopped by to read this!

    I have had similar experiences with interns as you have. I had several who were incredible who had only gotten BA’s and would never follow the path into conservation and then some who had their grad degrees who took more energy and time and who, in the end, were disappointments. I think that what is essential is some sort of personal conversation with them – be it in person on on the phone. And that they also have the patience and willingness to grind through a task or a treatment to its conclusion. I vastly prefer those with a positive low-stress attitude who make work a joy. I know that some in the profession will not take an intern on if they are not committed to conservation. Well, I have a larger perspective because I believe that you are the sum of all your experiences and whether you eventually choose one profession over another is not the point – but that you do you best and meet the challenges and work through them and ultimately do good at what you do.


  3. Nancie Ravenel says:

    Hi Ellen-
    Great topic. I too have had similar experiences with interns and volunteers. At the moment I’ve got 8 volunteers, most over the age of 60. Seven work mostly on mounting textiles for exhibitions and work together as a group. The eighth comes on a different day and does a variety of tasks, everything from assisting with treatment to database entry. None of them work with me for more than 4 hours per week. I do have concerns about aging issues with my ladies. I have had to ask volunteers to leave the department due to failing eyesight. It feels awful.

    My experience with pre-program volunteers has been a mixed bag. I agree with Dave – it works best if the volunteer is committed to seeing a treatment through to the end. Its also easier if they are already familiar with the AIC standards of practice and code of ethics, as you mentioned.

    As far as a reliable barometer for determining fit, I think I’m still working on that one too! With interns coming from the programs, I’ve started asking professors how we can complement what the student is working on in school. That’s yielded some very helpful information that enables me to work with the intern more effectively.

  4. ellencarrlee says:

    Seeing a treatment through is a really good point. I have a half-finished basket in the lab because I let interns get rolling on more than I knew they could get done, but I thought I would have the time to polish them off…now two years later I keep walking past that basket saying “I know, baby, I promise I’ll get to you soon!”

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