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

3 Comments on “Do Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?”

  1. Bruce Moseley says:

    Very well put. After many years of “intangibles” I moved to work in higher ed with better pay, better retirement and much less stress. I miss the museum field but appreciate the improved financial well being. Unfortunately I did not learn how to negotiate soon enough.

  2. Jon says:

    When it comes to many of these issues, leadership is what dictates. You don’t find many board members or finance officers who made their fortune in museum education and now look to give back by serving on a board. These are people who for the most part are coming from a hyper-capitalist mind frame. Employees at a museum are not selling things that put a percent in their bosses pockets, so why reward them? As well, our field is not only very competitive and is filled with many people who can afford a great deal of schooling and can live comfortably no matter what. Ever think to yourself while working at a museum, “that person doesn’t really need to work”? There are many job-hobbyist’s out there in our field who don’t demand better pay or intangibles. In a comparable scenario, I’ve started to think why public school teachers are not paid well. I don’t think it’s because of disrespect, having summers off, or not understanding what they do, or even people’s taxes being linked to their salaries for public schools, its because they cannot do it themselves. Teaching is hard, its a talent, an art, a performance. This is a big psychological leap, but I think when people can’t do something they turn to exploiting the little power they have over that person out of fear. I am of the mind that museum’s should unionize. People hate teachers unions and tenure because it is the only way the teachers can empower their situation. Museums are tax-exempt organizations that provide a public good. Just as teachers will tell you, they don’t come to work because they love it, they come to get paid, and love what they do. I come to work to get paid as well. I sell my talent like everyone else. Anyone who thinks they get intangibles at a museum should see what people get in a for-profit environment.

  3. James says:

    The United States may be in a unique position in the widespread contempt shown for learning. Museums seem to compound this misery by being beautiful places filled with fascinating things. Schools and museums are not truly comparable with regard to workplace dynamics: schools are filled with students who are essentially held there against there will; museums fill up with people doing largely the opposite. The same things that draw the public to visit museums also seem to draw many of a certain kind of person to museum governance, or to the control of museums within non-museum parent organizations. Perhaps the resistance at the governing level to better wages for rank-and-file museum workers is a form of resentment; resentment of people providing the kind of service so effective with the public that it overcomes the widespread contempt for learning?

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