Museums = the Labor of Love? Not Quite

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Once again we find ourselves responding to an Alliance Labs post, this one titled The Labor of Love: Revaluing Museum Work, written by Emma Boast and Maddie Mott, and originally published on Medium, December 20, 2017 and republished by Alliance Labs this week. Here goes:

Dear Emma & Maddie:

Your article could be summed up in one sentence: Too often museums and heritage organizations put staff last, not first.  Leadership Matters is filled with pleas to boards and museum leaders to recognize the value of human capital. We’ve said it at least once a month for 36 months. It’s not buildings or collections that drive museums, it’s people.

A lot has happened since you originally wrote your piece. It’s odd to think that something written 15 months ago can already be,  if not out of date, then out of context. Today the world of work is beset with questions of #MeToo and sexual harassment, yet many things–particularly as they relate to women and work–are unchanged. If you need evidence for that, know that in 1974 a group of women known as the Women’s Caucus approached AAM with a list of grievances. With the exception of more women in museum leadership, most of the Caucus’s complaints are as true today as they were 44 years ago. And it is this Groundhog Day-quality of trying to make change at 35,000-plus organizations that is daunting. Museum employment is shackled by a legacy of gender inequity coupled with largely invisible race and class barriers.

But back to your piece. First, a caution about comparing museum work with academia. If by academia you mean a teaching position in a two or four-year institution, there are disgruntled overeducated employees in both sectors; however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tells us that, as of May 2016, there were 1.3 million postsecondary teachers at U.S. colleges/universities, professional schools, and junior/community colleges earning a median salary of $75,430.  Among curators in museums and other institutions where education requirements and job responsibilities are similar (if not often the same) to postsecondary teachers, the BLS 2016 employment number stood at 11,170, earning a median salary of $58,910. While it’s common knowledge, particularly at big universities, that adjuncts are the indentured servants of the academic world, contrasting museums and academia isn’t an apples to apples comparison. And don’t forget that many postsecondary teachers are unionized — that can make a big salary/benefits difference.

Second, your comments on advancement: If you yearn to be a curator, and in fact become one, what does advancement look like? Might it mean moving to a leadership position where ultimately you manage people rather than care for things? Or does it mean moving to a larger organization where you manage a more dynamic collection as well as staff?

One thing we’ve tried to point out on these pages is that in a small field where, to date, an advanced degree is the ticket for admission, moving up frequently means a leadership position which many museum professionals are ill-prepared for. But perhaps the point is advancement means different things in different parts of the museum job sector. If you want to be an ED, the path is pretty clear; you hop scotch your way from smaller to bigger. But if you’re a curator or an educator, there is likely to be a fork in the road, where you decide whether advancement is more important than what brought you to the field in the beginning. Finally, is zig-zagging up the ladder as much of a problem for museum professionals as organizations failing to provide even the most minimal professional development opportunities? We think the answer is no. All staff need professional development.

Third, we fundamentally disagree with the notion that change can’t happen piecemeal–that no single museum can make change alone. In fact, that IS how it’s happening. Individual museums with forward-thinking leaders and boards create workplaces where employees prosper. As a result, those institutions flourish. Museums that pay pitiful wages, offer no benefits, and make serving on a jury easier than going on maternity leave, don’t attract and retain creative, driven staff. They do the opposite.

We support the changes you call for: eliminating degree requirements, investing in existing workers, and helping with work/life balance, but it’s hard to believe that two 21st-century women left closing the gender pay gap out of the equation. It’s a pervasive and ongoing problem, affecting all women, but women of color, and queer and transgender women disproportionately. Until the museum field pays its staff equitable and living wages, this will always be a job sector known for its lack of diversity and its abundance of quit-lit. Last, we believe that AAM Accreditation and AASLH StEPs should require their member organizations demonstrate they not only have HR policies, but how complaints and harassment are handled.

Thank you and Alliance Labs for keeping this conversation going. It is an important one. For the second time in less than a month, we’ll close by asking: Isn’t it time for a wage summit that would bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the museum field to tackle this problem?

Joan Baldwin

 

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One Comment on “Museums = the Labor of Love? Not Quite”

  1. Re closing: May I simply suggest: move & second your bolded statement at the AAM AGM. Surely it is time.


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