Museum Staff: An Investment Whose Protection is OverduePosted: December 2, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
Images: Screenshots of responses to @JuliaKennedy’s invitation to share “most controversial opinions on the museum world”