Museum Staff Matter: Let Them Know It

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We can’t begin this week without mentioning museum staff who are among the many U.S. Government workers furloughed for a month. Words aren’t worth much, but we feel for you. We often whine on these pages about low pay, but you’re in the land of no pay, and we wish the shutdown would end. It’s likely cold comfort, but we’re proud AAMD offers a list of museums across the country offering government workers free admission. If you are among the federal workers currently out of work, check this out: a state by state list of free admission.

Based on last week’s post–a back-and-forth between Frank Vagnone and me –I thought maybe we should talk about governing boards. If you’re a leader they’re the people you probably see a lot of–some weeks maybe too much. They are the deciders. They may exercise that obligation too frequently or not often enough. They may fret about capital expenses, about decaying infrastructure, about risk, but–if you’re a leader, here’s a question for you–does your board worry about staff? Or is the staff your problem? You and your leadership team hire them, nurture them, and, if need be, fire them. What does your board know about them?

Here are some questions for you and your board:

For you, the museum leader:

  • Do you know what it costs to live in your county, city or town? Not what it costs you, what it costs your lowest paid full-time employee.
  • Do you know what the living wage is for your locale?
  • Do you know the ratio between your salary and your lowest paid FTE?
  • What benchmarks do you use to set salaries?
  • Do you know whether your organization’s salaries are equitable or not? Does your museum or heritage organization have a race/gender pay gap?
  • What is the racial and ethnic makeup of your board? Is it among the 46-percent of museum boards that are all white?

For your board members:

  • Do they know what it costs to live in your county, city or town?
  • Do they understand what a living wage is and why it matters?
  • Does your board understand there’s a national gender pay gap and how it affects your organization?
  • What is the racial and ethnic makeup of your board? How does it affect the board’s decision making? How does it affect the community’s view of your organization? Is that something your board has discussed?
  • Have the words “implicit bias” ever been mentioned at a board meeting? If so, what happened?

Have you and your board tried any of the following:

  • Have you talked about wage equity as a serious and ongoing problem in the museum world?
  • Have you addressed the costs of hiring, replacing and retraining staff?
  • Do you and your board know what it’s like to live in your community on the lowest hourly wage your organization offers?
  • Do you pay men more than women? Do you pay white staff more than staff of color? And that’s not a question about your personal beliefs, it’s about what  actually happens.
  • Has your board and your organization come to consensus on a values statement?

These are complex problems. Board and staff have to believe in change to make it happen.

  • Board and staff are co-dependent. Make sure you have the right people on the staff and on the board. Acknowledge the importance of each team, board and staff.
  • Make your meetings about doing rather than reviewing. Plan, reflect, strategize.
  • There are museums without walls, without collections, but there are almost none without staff. Paid or volunteer, staff carry out mission and reflect the museum’s values every day. Boards and leaders who don’t invest in staff and volunteers equitably, preside over a a work and volunteer force that’s disaffected, dissatisfied and discouraged.
  • Find hope and optimism. If staff feels victimized, the solution isn’t to hire new staff, it’s to find the source of their victimization, and correct it.
  • Don’t let yourself fall into the scarcity mindset: the pie is as big as you choose to make it.
  • Staff matter. Let them know it.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Field Museum staff at the Speak Up for Science March, 2017

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One Comment on “Museum Staff Matter: Let Them Know It”

  1. Thanks for this. I think one more question is in order regarding rates of pay:

    “Do you know how much unpaid overtime your hourly-rated employees contribute to your organisation?”

    This data reduces the employee’s actual pay per hour.


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