Museum Staff: An Investment Whose Protection is Overdue

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In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I hope you all read the letter from Esme Ward, director of the Manchester Museum (UK), published in Museum-ID Magazine. In it, Ward turns the fear-bound notion of returning objects brought or given to museums around the world from one of de-contextualization to one of connection. My favorite quote:

At their best, though perhaps all too rarely, museums can be spaces for identity-forming and truth-telling. They can ask “what is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves?” I believe that repatriation shifts the processes, language and thinking of the past towards a context of possibility and action for the future. Our museums can become places of genuine exchange and learning, reconciliation, social justice and community wellbeing. 

You may think, nice, but that’s not my organization, but first, be sure. If you curate the collection of a wealthy white male, did he or his family travel? What did they bring home? Or if you manage collections in a general museum–the kind that functioned as a visible National Geographic for a small community–are you comfortable with the collection’s origin stories? But even more important, how can you as director, curator, or collections manager, shift the process, creating collaboration rather than a one-sided scenario where your organization puts a community’s stuff under vitrines and then tells their stories.


As you know I am not a Twitter fan, but this week I read a string of tweets prompted by @JuliaKennedy who asked for people’s most controversial opinions on the museum world. Her followers didn’t hold back. Comments ranged from ways museums discriminate against the disabled, to keeping too much old stuff, to decolonization. No surprise, there were any number of increasingly angry words about museum pay or the lack thereof, including unpaid internships, and fees to participate in museum volunteer programs. If you couple that with recent articles on museums and unions it’s a forest fire of discontent. Beginning with the Marciano Art Foundation, which became the poster-child for bad HR when it fired dozens of its front-line staff after they announced they planned to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME), to The New Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, all now have staff who are union members.

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Called a “movement not a trend,” by Artnet, the wave of unionization acknowledges the field’s wealth gap, which is most acute in the country’s large urban museums where front-line staff work for minimum wage and few, if any, benefits, while their directors  may make 40 times that amount. Yes, the directors have huge, complex organizations to run. Yes, they do their jobs well. The judgement isn’t necessarily about them as humans. The judgement is about the gap, and the expectation that one person is compensated so well while everyone else should just be happy to be there, working an extra job or two to pay their student loans on the master’s degree the field requires as its entrance ticket.

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Faced with unionization, leaders across the board, responded that museum culture is “special” and something unions can’s possibly understand. Mmmm. Really? Or is it just easier to ignore front-line staff’s issues rather than have a union force museum leadership to the table? This should be a warning call for all museum leaders. Yes, unionization is to-date confined to major urban organizations on the two coasts. But the problem of low salaries is endemic. You need only look at the Salary Spreadsheet created last spring. It now lists 3,652 postings from administrative assistants to assistant directors and more, and few are salaries you can gloat about.

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As leaders isn’t it time you protect your investment in staff? They are, particularly if you also pay healthcare and some form of retirement, a huge portion of your annual budget. Assuming they’re good at what they do, don’t you want them to stay, to not spend idle hours at work trolling job sites, to be happy, to be creative? How can you not invest in them? Everybody wants a diverse workforce. It mirrors the communities we live in, and creates a better product, but a diverse workforce means museum staff is no longer the trust-fund generation or the my-partner-makes-six-figures-generation-so-I-can-afford-to-work-for $28,500-and-no-benefits.

Once again I call upon AAM to follow in the footsteps of the American Library Association whose professional companion organization, Allied Professional Association ALA-APA, adopted a minimum salary for professional librarians of $41,000 in 2007. (Side note: eight state library associations have their own minimums.) Why is this so hard?

Museum employees are the lifeblood of AAM, AASLH, and the state and regional museum service organizations. No one’s asking you to police salaries, only to stand with staff in acknowledging that the work we do, which is often awesomely wonderful, is worth more than we’re paid.

Joan Baldwin

Images: Screenshots of responses to @JuliaKennedy’s invitation to share “most controversial opinions on the museum world”

6 Comments on “Museum Staff: An Investment Whose Protection is Overdue”

  1. I am so pleased to read this week’s Leadership Matters. For years, I have felt that AAM and most of the museum members are not only non-unionized but anti-union. They do not understand the advantages that can come from the staff’s belonging to a 3rd party labor organization.

    I hope that more museums accept or even support unionization by multiple levels of staffs.

    • Kim says:

      That may be true, but you have to understand what you’re getting when you’re unionized. I was a unionized curator for over 10 years. It cost about $80/month in mandatory dues and our raises were comparable (and often negotiated later) to our non-unionized peers. We were also ineligible for bonuses, because it was considered inequitable if all union members didn’t receive one. There were benefits too, but potential members have to understand the trade-offs.

  2. Janice Klein says:

    I’d be happy – at least for a while – if AAM would commit to not posting job openings without salary ranges. It’s about time they stopped hiding behind not imposing requirements on museums (what do they think accreditation is?). It just looks like they are protecting the revenue stream from selling these ads.

  3. PeterTX52 says:

    “Once again I call upon AAM to follow in the footsteps of the American Library Association whose professional companion organization, Allied Professional Association ALA-APA, adopted a minimum salary for professional librarians of $41,000 in 2007”

    how was the minimum salary established. $41K in NYC is different from $41K in Butte MT

    • Peter–
      I don’t know, but I do know that subsequently 8 states have created their own minimums reflecting the disparity in cost of living you reference. I think the point is that a national organization stands behind its workers in saying that their graduate degree and their work matters.

  4. Cherie Cook says:

    Most people in the field probably don’t realize that for the past ten years AASLH’s StEPs program (for small- and mid-sized history organizations) has included the following self-assessment question and performance indicators related to the national museum standard “The governing authority, staff, and volunteers have a clear and shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities”:

    StEPs self-assessment question: If the institution has paid staff, are wages and benefits at levels comparable to other related professions in the community?

    Basic performance indicator
    Staff are paid on time and at the level promised.

    Good performance indicator
    The institution researches comparable positions, wages, and benefits, including health, retirement, and vacation, and offers accordingly.

    Better performance indicators
    The institution offers a competitive employee compensation package.
    The institution periodically reviews its compensation package.

    AASLH is in the process of updating the StEPs workbook so if anyone has recommended revisions for the above performance indicators, please send them my way at

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