Do Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?


Last week the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) blog wrote about the museum workplace. Specifically their Tuesday post takes on the issue of   Volunteers and Museum Labor. The piece begins by referencing two earlier posts also about the museum workplace: What Is the Fair Market Value of a Museum Job? and the truly original Museum Sacrifice Measure. As a result, I re-read these two earlier posts.

I almost didn’t respond. We write about the museum workplace a lot here, and more specifically about museum workers, gender, and pay.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about these posts, particularly the one titled “What is the Fair Market Value of a Museum Job?” Here is what I struggled with: First, CFM asks “…why some people are happy with the sacrifice they made (lower pay) to work in a museum, while others aren’t, and in a bigger sense, what constitutes a fair wage for museum work?”

My question: How do you know who is happy? If you look at Joyful Museums, you discover that its creator actually tried to figure out whether museum folk are happy or not, and more importantly, why. Joyful Museums 2014 survey reveals that 88-percent of respondents defined work happiness as either engaging with projects and tasks or enjoying working with co-workers. Among the most happy were the Millennials and the Boomers. When respondents were asked how work culture (and remember this is museum work culture) could be improved, the list is long, but the majority believe they are not getting paid what they’re worth.

CFM writes, “I suspect many people in these roles went into museum work with a vision of the job based museum norms that were anointed as “norms” decades ago. Or they believed in a semi-mythical version of museum work that was compelling and attractive but never entirely true.” And yet according to Joyful Museums, it’s the Boomers who are by and large, happy. We suggest that it is the world that’s changed and museum workplaces have failed to keep up. It seems a dated notion on CFM’s part to think of museums solely as stewards of collections where people work and not workplaces where culture is cared for and interpreted.

CFM suggests fair market value is “is the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing and unpressured.” So if you’re job fails to offer either cash or intangibles it lacks fair market value? The museum world isn’t known as a high-paid paradise. A look at AAM’s salary survey confirms that. Does that mean if you’re poorly paid in comparison to the for profit world you make it up in intangibles? And what does that mean? We’re pretty sure it is not paid maternity/paternity leave,  excellent health care,  or on-site day care. CFM seems to believe that museum workers survive on psychological rewards–creativity, beauty, power, authority. Yet intangibles don’t pay off graduate school loans or write day care checks or car payments so that leaves us with a really dark view of museum workers. Seduced by beauty, history or scientific discovery, they took out loans, received the required degrees, and miracle of miracles found jobs where 88-percent of them say they’re happy.  And they’re living off fumes?

Here is what we think is missing with CFM’s argument: Museums are about meaning yet they remain traditional, hierarchical workplaces because we allow them to be that way. That isn’t the fault of the workers who have every right to enter the field with big dreams. But too often the beliefs we espouse in exhibition halls don’t extend to our offices. We collectively wring our hands about the lack of diversity in the field, but fail to examine long-standing hiring practices. Too many museum employees don’t make a living wage. And as the field reaches a tipping point between gender balanced and pink collar, we allow women to make significantly less than men. Our visiting public may dine on intangibles every day as it wanders galleries, zoos, and historic houses, but museum workers need an equitable, living wage coupled with adequate benefits. They’re smart enough to find the intangibles on their own.

Do you agree?

Joan Baldwin

AAM and You


Last week I spent two days in St. Louis. Culturally rich and bisected by parks full of fountains and families, it would have been enough on its own, but I actually joined 30 or so other museum folk from around the country for 48 hours as a member of AAM’s Annual Meeting program committee. Having said that, I should add that no one at AAM asked me (or anyone else) to blather on about the experience. This is my idea.

Perhaps you’ve been to an AAM meeting? Perhaps as you stood in line in some vast convention center, knowing just how much of your organizational travel budget went towards bringing you there, you were a teensy bit overwhelmed by how much there is to do? Because there are a lot of sessions on everything from collections to governance, from buildings to leadership, not to mention affinity cocktails, special tours, lectures, and, of course, the keynote.  Since AAM attracts a huge number of people, not only from the Americas, but increasingly from around the globe, it’s an event that warrants multiple everything. So next time you’re standing there, overwhelmed, overjoyed or over tired, know that actual humans, not an algorithm, went into planning the meeting.

We were, in fact, divided into teams, each tasked with a different group of topics. This year there were over 400 session proposals, a number we had to whittle away at, while keeping in mind museum size–meaning is a given program a one-size fits all or specifically geared to small, medium or vast institutions. We also had be conscious of tired ideas versus tried and true ideas; what was innovative as opposed to ill-defined; all  while keeping geography and the conference theme of diversity, equity and accessibility in mind. Needless to say it was a stimulating experience. When was the last time you sat in a room with your colleagues and just talked about issues, projects and possibilities in the field we know and love? So two final thoughts: If you ever have the chance to take part in program planning, say yes; and if you want programs on a particular subject–say, innovation in historic house museums or social justice programs at art museums, contact AAM. It’s too late for 2017, but not for 2018 in Phoenix. So take it from me, participate. It’s worth it.

Joan Baldwin

Why Museum Consultants Aren’t the Second Coming


There are a lot of consultants in the museum world. There are great ones, good ones, and ones who should hone their skills a bit more. Museums hire consultants to provide advice, spearhead special initiatives, and fill gaps in their staffs on a temporary basis. In July we published a guest post by Sarah Erdman on a consultant’s view from the outside. Today’s post looks at consultants from the other direction–the inside out if you will.

Hiring a consultant to fill a specific task-oriented skill should be an easy fit. If you need a designer, a writer, a conservator–even an architect is a consultant of sorts–you advertise, review resumes, and interview. The winning candidate will plug a hole in your collective staff skill set.  If, for example, you’re a small shop, it makes perfect sense to hire a consultant to walk through planning for new collections storage. You probably don’t have a conservator on staff, but neither do you have money to waste so good advice is important.

We’ve all seen talented staff become overworked and burned out when they take on too many tasks. Consultants allow museum and heritage organization leaders to put the breaks on ever-expanding job descriptions, at least temporarily. Yes, consultants cost money, but so does losing staff, either through attrition or illness. As a museum leader, it’s your job to integrate the consultant’s work into your organization. Hiring a consultant is not a judgement on anyone’s work ethic. Instead, it’s a chance to create an even better exhibit, program, or PR campaign.

But what if you need a consultant whose skills are broad based and theoretical? What if you want someone to help with mission, strategic planning or succession, topics that everyone has opinions about? What then? Here are some things to consider:

  1. A consultant’s work will only be as good as the information she gets. Make sure she receives the  necessary reading material before she arrives. Previous plans, mission statements, job descriptions, whatever provides a sense of the problem she is there to explore.
  2. Your consultant is not a soothsayer. Make sure you and everyone else knows why she’s been invited.
  3. Make sure she meets everyone, and that everyone has a copy of her charge. This is important because you, your board, and staff may all mean different things when, for example, you hear the words “strategic plan.”
  4. Be sure your staff understands that for a  consultant to work well, she needs to hear from everyone so encourage participation.
  5. Don’t hide the truth. Make sure your consultant has the whole story. Leave blame and baggage at the door.
  6. And last, don’t expect magic or miracles. Consultants whose specialty is strategic planning or governance can’t fix a broken organization; nor are they there to do your work for you. Be prepared to listen and roll up your sleeves when the final report arrives.

Joan Baldwin




Is Your Museum An Idea Factory?


Maybe it’s because of where I am in the circle, but lately I’ve spent more time counseling younger people on their career paths. Inevitably, this leads to job interview questions. In a field where there are increasingly more applicants than jobs–at least that’s the way it feels–we’re sometimes so relieved to have beaten our way through the maze of LinkedIn, emailed resumes, Skype, and social media, that actually being with real people makes us forget we’re there to interview the organization, not just answer questions.

But this really isn’t a post about job interviews. I mention them because one of the questions I urge job applicants or anyone new to an organization to ask is how does it solve problems? And equally important is who generates ideas, and how do ideas move from brain storm to concept to implementation? You don’t have to work at Google to realize that if someone can’t answer these questions, you should see little red flags. Why? Because nimble museums (and any organization) know how problems are solved. And staff who participate creatively are usually happy to talk about the process. That does not mean that if you describe a disaster scenario that a particular museum staff will give you the same cohesive answer, but it should mean that everyone appears to understand how the answer, whether temporary or permanent, emerged. Too often, the answer involves “them” as in “they decided” or “they felt,” the mythical group of organizational deciders who make museums change. My advice: beware of organizations where there’s too much “them.”

And what does this have to do with leadership? If you’re a leader, do you want to be part of “them” or “we”? If it’s the latter, then it’s important to consider creativity isn’t all about you, meaning you’re not the fount of the best ideas. Instead, you’re the person who brings your team together. You are the person who models the importance of learning, the generosity of sharing, rather than needing to be right. You welcome heated conversations about ideas because that’s when inspiration happens, and you applaud staff passionate enough to stand up for what they believe in.

Two weeks ago we referenced Christy Coleman’s wonderful post Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid? and we’d like to circle back to it here. Coleman upbraids museum leadership for always looking for the next best thing, the magic potion to cure museum ills, when it’s really right in front of their faces. The same is true of creativity in the workplace. Creative frameworks don’t change museums because process doesn’t change organizations. People do.

Create an atmosphere where all ideas are welcome. If you’re creating new exhibit space, make sure your volunteers, docents and guards are at the table. And by that I don’t mean gathering the frontline staff together for their opinion, I mean inviting them to the big-girl table.  After all, they watch and interact with visitors every day. Listen to them. What can they tell you about how visitors behave in your galleries or historic house? If you’re planning an addition, wouldn’t it be smart to have your grounds folks take part in the discussion? They are likely to point out that a tree’s root spread is far larger than what is on the architect’s plans, and that putting the addition in that spot will in fact damage a century-old tree. But the most important thing about listening from the bottom up is that it creates an atmosphere of equity in your organization. Everybody speaks and everybody listens. Disrupters are heard. Push back is important. You are the connector, you learn from your staff.

We all wish there were a next big thing that really worked, a magic formula to turn a sleepy organization into a place that’s sought after. There isn’t. But creating an atmosphere where ideas flourish and everyone’s knowledge is respected is a first step. Does your museum staff know how to work creatively? Here’s some additional reading:

Museums and Creative Practice

Opening the Museum: The Powerhouse Experience

Creativity and the Role of the Leader

Joan Baldwin

Museum Salary Equity: If You’re A Woman, What Does It Mean?

eeo_pay_equityWe have written a lot about gender issues in museums on this blog, but the most obvious and also the most difficult is salary equity. Just in case anyone believes that in a field well on its way to being majority women that women are paid on a par with men, think again. This is a case where becoming a majority does not help unless everyone does something about equitable pay. And don’t get us started about how gender, race and sexual orientation influence salary equity. The gap just grows.

Don’t talk about how important it is to “diversify” your staff if you don’t address the salary equity question first. Whose problem is this?  Everyone’s. Those of you receiving your graduate degrees this spring and looking for a first “real” job, and those of you who are board members, HR leaders, directors and staff members.

So what should you do? Well, not to sound too woo woo, but it depends where you are in the circle. If the ink is barely dry on your degree, make sure you have done your research as your job search narrows. Use AAM’s salary survey. If your grad program doesn’t own it and you’re not an AAM member, find someone who is. They can access the 2012 survey for you online or purchase the current survey (2014) for $60. Several of the regional museum service organizations have also issued salary surveys. Guidestar recently published its 2016 compensation report.  With a $374 price tag, it’s beyond the reach of most individuals, but know that many nonprofit associations publish statewide statistics for the nonprofit sector.  Use them. Find the job area you’re interested in and look at the salary range. Then use the MIT Living Wage Calculator to figure out how expensive it will be to live in a particular area. An acquaintance of mine is a finalist for an assistant director position at a big non-profit in Washington, D.C. It’s a chance to work with a mentor and she is one of three semi-finalists. She’s thrilled as she should be. Using the MIT Calculator, she will need to make $32,000 just to meet her expenses (fifty percent of which will go towards housing), and that list of expenses does not include school loans or lunches out or drinks after work or incidentally an apartment with a high charm quotient. If you are looking at jobs in less competitive markets, your living wage will be lower, but so will your expenses.

If you already have a job, but are looking for a new one, you will want all the same information; however, when you get to the interview stage, don’t provide your previous salary information. The relative wealth and culture of your previous employer and its failure to pay you adequately or not isn’t relevant when it comes to your job performance. (If you’re lucky enough to live or interview in Massachusetts, the new pay equity law which goes into effect in 2018 will prevent employers from asking about your previous salary.) And, if you are asked, all your research into cost of living will pay off when you turn the question around and tell the interviewer the salary range you are interested in. Whatever you do, don’t start to negotiate and than back down. There is only one sweet spot, and unless there are a dozen family and personal reasons to say yes, don’t. Your dream job won’t be your dream job if the only rent you can afford is a 40-minute commute away from work, so be prepared to say no thank you if you don’t get the offer you want.

What about women who suddenly discover they’re grossly underpaid? Say you run into the man who had your job before you and find out he was paid considerably more than you are. What do you do? Don’t rush into anyone’s office. Take a breath. Pull all your research together: for the working world, for the field, and for your organization. Ask for a meeting about your job performance. Presuming the results are positive, then reveal your discovery. If your board, CFO, director or HR person says no to a 20-percent raise in a year (assuming that’s the gap) see if you can get it guaranteed at 10-percent annually over two years. Remember, your base salary haunts you forever, prompting future raises, driving Social Security and retirement packages. If they say no absolutely, clearly it’s a red flag.

And what if you’re a board member, director, CFO or head of HR? We presume you believe in gender equity; and that you want to govern and or lead an equitable organization. What can you do? Figure out what the salary imbalance is across the staff, and how long it might take you to even things out. Create a values statement and a wage equity statement so gender equity becomes part of organizational policy. And let people know. Issue a press release, do a session at your regional service organization’s annual meeting. Taking a stand on these issues is rare. Heck, even acknowledging them is rare. How could it possibly hurt a museum, historic house or heritage organization if women knew it was committed to paying equitably? If the worst that might happen is that you are besieged with applications from bright, talented women (and men) who want to work for you, is that a problem? But we have huge capital problems and deferred maintenance you say? Maybe, but if your staff is unfocused and surreptitiously looking for work during the work day, they aren’t happy and you’re not getting your money’s worth. Get the best staff you can afford. What staff member does less for an organization after a salary bump, especially one tied to universal values?

Is your organization committed to a gender equitable pay scale? Write and tell us your story.

Joan Baldwin

Breaking Away from “Stupid”: Maybe It’s New Staff, Not New Data?


Last week our post on bullying brought comments about how bullies and staff in general are hired. Several of the commenters offered potential interview techniques to weed out the mean, the lazy, and the pompous. If you also read Christy Coleman’s blog post “Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid?” you can’t help but wonder if, as Coleman says, “too many [museums] are stuck in pedagogical or operating models that simply don’t work well anymore.” And, if you didn’t read it, you should.

Coleman chastises the field for wringing its collective hands as visitation declines; for meeting locally, regionally and nationally to hear about whatever the next big thing is when there is no one-size-fits-all cure; and for believing data is the magic elixir that will send visitation soaring. She concludes by offering an example of visitor engagement from The American Civil War Museum where she is the CEO. No surprise, its visitation has grown slowly and steadily over the last five years as Coleman and her staff engage their community in its own story. (We profile Coleman in our book, Leadership Matters, BTW.)

One of the smartest things Coleman says is “Museums want to be taken seriously, but often the biggest mistake is framing exhibits and programs for other colleagues.” In other words, don’t preach to the choir. What she doesn’t mention–at least overtly–is museums may be stuck on stupid (or mediocre) because their staff (and boards) need a shake up. We know there’s no shortage of eager, optimistic museum graduate students trying desperately to break into the field. Why then, especially in the world of history museums and heritage organizations, are so many museums trapped doing what they’ve always done: the roped off room; the docent-led tour; the exhibit of like objects with brief, yet grave, labels? What would happen if these same museums broke with tradition and hired an English major, an art major, or a psychology minor? Would our careful world implode if we looked at things differently? What if the English major’s charge was to figure out a house museum’s narrative and the places where it intersects with today’s world. Today the word revolutionary can have a slightly nasty tinge, but what about when it’s applied to 18th-century Boston? How are those revolutionaries different?

To ask these kind of questions you have to have a staff who is creative, non-judgmental, and whose primary concern is making their narrative resonate in their community. And to be clear, their community is the place where their historic house, heritage organization or museum is located. It’s not where the board lives or where the staff lives. If this is the staff you want, then your interview techniques not only have to suss out whether job applicants are vain and lazy, but whether they think in original ways, what books are on their bedside table, what was the last movie they saw, and when was the last time they took a risk, and whether it paid off. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that rule- or tradition-bound cultures drive creative people away. Here’s Lolly Daskel on why they leave: 10 Dumb Rules That Make Your Best People Want to Quit.

To break out you have to want to break out. I’m fond of quoting David Young, Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia (and another Leadership Matters interviewee), who said organizations have to “allow leadership.” I would alter that and say organizations have to want change, and that begins with who you hire.

How is your museum breaking out of the loop?

Joan Baldwin


The Leader’s Role in Facing Workplace Bullying


There are many reasons to become a museum leader. You have a platform for the ideas that percolate in your brain. You can take a stand when necessary rather than mutter behind your coffee cup. Salaries and perquisites are often better. Above all, you can make a difference. But if you’re going to be a leader, you also need to care about your staff. By caring, we don’t mean giving them bottles of wine on their birthdays, although that is nice too. We mean watching out for them. Keeping their best interests at heart, encouraging professional growth, and helping them be the best people they can be a work. And that means stepping up and dealing with workplace conflict when it happens.

This week we received a heartbreaking email from a curator, who works at a mid-sized museum with no HR department. The writer emailed to ask our advice about office bullying. Think about that. It’s 2016 and a museum curator goes to work everyday to face bullying. In case you think that’s something that only happens on elementary school playgrounds, think again. According to the 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute survey 27-percent of us experience bullying at work while 72-percent of employers discount, deny or defend it. Just to add to the mix, a recent Gallup survey says American companies choose unqualified managers 82-percent of the time. Is it any wonder then that employers fail to stop office bullying when so many of them shouldn’t be leaders in the first place? And do you really doubt that the museum world is immune to these issues?

I wish that the email we received was an anomaly, but we know from our research for Women|Museums: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge 2017) that bullying is alive and well. Just to be clear, here’s how bullying is defined by the Workplace Bullying Institute:  It is repeated, health-harming mistreatment of one or more persons (the targets) by one or more perpetrators. It is abusive conduct that is : threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, or involves work sabotage, preventing work from getting done, or verbal abuse. Our emailer is called names, is badmouthed to both the public and fellow employees on a regular basis, and has been isolated by the bullies (there are two) who withhold information necessary to move projects forward. And, like many museums, this one has no HR department so naturally the emailer approached the director who responded that he couldn’t take action because he hadn’t witnessed the bullying himself. And no, bullying is not against the law. Only when it becomes harassment, meaning an employee is targeted because of race, gender or sexual orientation is it actionable.

Before I respond to that, I should say that I too was bullied at work. However, I work for a large, fairly sophisticated organization with a multi-person HR department. I only approached them because I truly couldn’t stand it any more. I know now I had all the classic signs of a bullied person: I didn’t want to go to work even though I love what I do; I obsessed about work at home; I exhibited a boatload of stress-releated health issues; and worst of all I was ashamed I couldn’t manage this problem. Eventually my issue was resolved, at least to the point where the gossip, rumor and innuendo stopped. Only the bully’s resignation brought it to an end.

But back to our email. In a perfect world, what should a museum leader do when she discovers workplace bullying? First, listen to the alleged victim. Take notes. There are two sides to everything, and believing you know what’s going on isn’t helpful. The next step will be to hear the bullies’ story. If you feel ill-prepared for that conversation, reach out to folks who might help: a board personnel committee; a nearby non-profit that has an HR department; your local chamber of commerce or museum or other non-profit directors. (All of those sources might also help if you are the victim of bullying.) Further, if you are a museum director–even if your organization is too small for an HR department–do you have an employee handbook? Does it spell out how grievances should be handled? If not, put that on your to-do list going forward.

Last, don’t under any circumstances label this as workplace conflict and leave it to employees to “work it out.” Bullying isn’t a tiff over who failed to replace the milk at the coffee station. Bullying is verbal violence. Your employees need your care;  demonstrating that this is important and not the type of behavior your museum condones is important. Still not convinced? Think of it this way: You are paying one or more people who apparently have the time to belittle, mock,  and gossip about another employee. Can your organization waste that kind of time and money? Studies show that victims of bullying are often more talented, altruistic and empathetic than staff bullies. Forty-percent of the victims leave their jobs because leadership won’t deal with bullying. Can you afford to be left with the meanest staff members with the poorest work ethic?

As always, we’d love to hear from you. And if you’re experiencing bullying at work, here are some links that may help: Workplace BullyingIs Workplace Bullying IllegalGallup and Why Great Managers Are So Rare; and Washington State’s PDF on Bullying.

Joan Baldwin