On Labor Day: Taking the Museum World’s Work Temperature

.Franz van Duns – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90830646

In the United States, this weekend is three days long. For those not coping with displacement and disaster due to fire or flood, it’s Labor Day, and an extra day off from the weekly grind. So it seems like an appropriate moment to check in and take the temperature of work in Museumland, what’s good, not-so-good, and what’s truly awful.

You’ve heard me say this before, but when I began this blog in 2012 there weren’t a lot of people talking about working conditions in museums and heritage organizations. Every organization was its own entity, and its basic humanity and worker care came down to who ran the museum. There was, and still is, a sort of every person for themselves mentality. Sometimes staff ended up with a humane leader, sometimes not, and when the worst happened they were counseled to stay quiet because “It’s a small field,” and basically no one wants to be labeled as “difficult.”

There were few public conversations about leadership, and when they happened, the assumption was that yes, abysmal leadership happened in small, pitiful historical societies somewhere, but not in the large, well-funded urban museums with elegantly dressed directors. Well, we know that’s not true. In fact, over the last decade, and particularly over the last five years, the scales seem to have fallen from our collective eyes. Museumland isn’t the Nirvana we wanted it to be. There are examples of bad leadership everywhere from large urban art museums to small heritage organizations.

That said, it’s not all dreadful, and in some areas the needle’s actually moved in a good way. Some examples:

  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2020, there are more women in the field (63.6%) than ever before, and presumably many of those women are in leadership positions across the museum ecosystem. That’s definitely a change from a decade ago, and a good thing.
  • The BLS also predicts museums are a growth field. (I know, hilarious, right?) But the BLS isn’t a bunch of comedians and their data predicts we’re a growing industry–much faster than average–is the way they put it, and we should expect 11-percent growth over the next decade. Could that be the sound of retirement parties as Baby Boomers finally exit stage left?
  • Even though I mentioned it above, I think the fact that museum folk, led last week by AAM, are speaking about the issues of leadership, and by implication, HR, hiring, and bias, that’s a good thing, and something that couldn’t or didn’t happen five years ago.
  • Millennials seem savvier to me. Maybe it’s because I’m older (still), but they seem less willing to settle for a job in the museum sector simply because an organization wants to hire them.
  • And even mired in COVID, all the major service organizations have managed to address leadership, workplace gender harassment, and HR as part of their annual meeting schedules, a far cry from the days when we were told, “We don’t talk about those things,” even though staff were literally being belittled and harassed as service organizations put conference schedules together.
  • More staff at large museums are joining unions. Unions are not a panacea, but they give members a powerful voice and a way to negotiate with organizations who don’t want to negotiate. And a new Economic Policy Institute report on unions points out that unionized workers make on average 11.2-percent more than their non-unionized peers. In addition, Black and Hispanic workers get even more of a boost receiving 13.7-percent and 20.1-percent respectively as union memberships pushes past the racial stereotyping and class bias in non-union situations.

And how about the not so good?

  • The pay is still not good. According to the BLS the median pay for archivists, curators and museum workers is $52,140, which is up from two years ago, but still doesn’t match the median pay of librarians ($60,820) or teachers ($62,870). Not that either of those numbers is a benchmark especially when you consider Dan Price just raised his company’s minimum annual pay to $70K.
  • Too many museums and heritage organizations still don’t have HR policies, and utilize a seat-of-the-pants method where the director or the board makes decisions which inevitably result in inequities.
  • In a world that’s 63.6-percent women, questions around family care, parental leave, personal time off need to be decided for the organization not on a case-by-case basis.
  • If we believe the BLS, as of 2020, the museum world was 94.6-percent White, .6-percent Black, 7.6-percent Hispanic, and 4.4-percent Asian. (And yes, even I, a math cripple, can tell that all those added together is more than 100-percent.) So no matter how much change appears to be happening on social media, when the government crunches the numbers, it’s a field that’s NOT diverse.

And the truly awful:

  • Given the field’s entrance ticket is still a very expensive graduate degree, salaries are low. Unlike boards of education, museums don’t hire newly-minted undergraduates and then support them while they earn their graduate degree, forcing new museum staff to invest first, before they even know the field, and pay later.
  • There is a lot of hand-wringing when it comes to pay in the museum field, a lot of you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone talk, but until boards realize staff are an investment every bit as important as a new HVAC system or a new storage facility, nothing will change. Someday, maybe, AAM or AASLH will take a stand about salaries and publish a page like this one from the American Library Association.
  • DEI is not something that is spun. It’s not something you fabricate so your organization looks good in public and on social media; it’s a process, and it takes a lot of work to re-center institutional DNA, but ultimately creating diverse teams makes us all better collaborators.
  • There is STILL a gender pay gap, and as the field is increasingly populated by women, the issue of the pay gap becomes more acute. Sometimes I feel as though the pay gap takes short shrift in comparison to DEI issues, but the gender pay gap is the definition of the absence of DEI. It affects all women from transgender women to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women. The cascading hourly pay they receive is testament to one of the last big labor problems yet to be tackled. Among other things, the gender pay gap is metaphor for how those in authority view those without power. And anyone in museum leadership who says they are a feminist or supports women’s rights, but hasn’t done a gender pay audit isn’t being truthful.

Be well. Be kind. Do your best.

Joan Baldwin

5 Comments on “On Labor Day: Taking the Museum World’s Work Temperature”

  1. Thanks for thinking AND writing again about the temperature of museum work these days!

    If one attends to the growing number of reports about overwork in our field & googles the term “museum worker burnout,” there are many more hits than there used to be a few years ago. In my view however, despite the fact that “self-care” seems to be ‘all the rage’ these days, it can be argued that necessary “root cause analysis” scarcely ever is carried out.

    In the museum field, we certainly can continue to treat the symptoms of burnout, but this problem can never be solved unless & until our institutions begin to address its CAUSES. “Self-care” per se. does nothing to fix the main source of the problem.

    In 2020, a survey report by a major Canadian health care provider emphasised the critical nature of the associated need for risk management & strongly advises paying serious attention to managing this burnout risk: “We have to get at this now, or else mental health claims at staggering levels are going to be the new norm” (Sanofi Canada 2020: 8, 9, 35).

    In 2021, Gallup, Inc. has posted “How to Prevent Employee Burnout” & states: “Gallup’s breakthrough [sic] discovery in this research is that managers are largely responsible for the conditions most likely to cause or prevent burnout.”

    Therefore, shouldn’t we in the museum field FIX the real problem as a priority rather than ignoring causes & dealing only with symptoms? In my view, it is the only viable way forward.

  2. Michael Holland says:

    Thanks for checking the vital signs, Joan! I especially appreciated the comment noting that the gender pay gap is a prime example of the absence of DEI. You are absolutely right about that.
    Today as museums attempt to tackle DEI issues, the gender pay gap must be part of those efforts.

    As you know, I’ve been concerned about museum pay in general for many years. While some long-overdue acknowledgement and examination of the gender pay gap coming to the surface is relatively new, the pay problem writ large is not.

    It sometimes seems to me like sustainable/equitable pay and DEI are currently seen as different things, and it feels like there is concern that discussing the pay issue sucks the oxygen out of the space for DEI discussions. I’m really hoping to see an expanded awareness of the intersectionality of these two issues. They’re not one and the same, but they are intimately connected. I agree that DEI issues go broader and deeper than just our paychecks, but I’m of the opinion that we can’t do much about DEI in museums without addressing compensation.

    The barriers to entry of the museum field (K-12 education equity and who can get into college, and who can afford to pay for it or take on student debt) already have a huge impact on who can get into the museum field, but the pay structure impacts who can stay in it. It’s tough to stick around for very long on modest earnings without additional resources, which impacts many younger early career people, single people (no spousal income subsidy) or those who are parents (or would like to be). That reality is having a sorting/filtering effect on who works in museums, and I don’t imagine that it is any kinder to people of color (quite the opposite, I expect). It’s worth noting that the diversity of who the public sees working in museums influences their perception of who the museum is for, so the effects reach beyond our walls.

    Solving the museum pay issue won’t fix systemic and structural problems in education, housing, or the many other issues that inhibit our diversity on the front end, but it could make museum careers more sustainable for all of those who do manage to find a way in. If we want underrepresented people to join us, we need to make sure that they too can afford to stay. At minimum, we should stop financially pushing against the very diversity, equity, and inclusion that DEI initiatives aim to address.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Keep on keeping on,


  3. Reblogged this on Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers and commented:
    This post from Joan Baldwin on the Leadership Matters blog is an important topic that in recent months–after the all the attention devoted to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic closures of heritage and related institutions that exponentially increased the stresses on our workers–seems have dropped off the table in the event of enthusiasm for re-opening our facilities.
    Of course, given that stress & burnout are not identified as important issues except in my own comment on this post.
    Please refer to the six (6) previous posts on this blog.
    Thanks for thinking about this.
    Paul C. Thistle

  4. […] there’s nothing like an article on museum pay to get people’s hackles up. Last week, in listing the workplace issues the museum world contends with, I mentioned the gender pay gap, […]

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