Held Together by Humans: Museums and a Healthier Workplace

A confession: I adore English television mysteries. Not the kind with the dithering, elderly amateur, but the darker more urban variety. One of the tropes of these dramas is the main characters often suppress a ton of personal feelings to get their job done. They go to work–without guns–this is the UK after all, and deal with the sad, the lonely, and the psychologically messed up. Meanwhile, their marriages fall apart, their children are angry, and their lovers are sick of being neglected for the job. I thought about those characters when I listened to CBS’s recent report on mental health post-Covid. Families and individuals are dealing with unresolved grief, leading to deaths from overdose, resulting in four times the rate of anxiety and depression overall. It’s a full-blown mental health crisis. This week the Centers for Disease Control released a report saying that 4 in 10 adolescents feel persistently sad or hopeless. Arthur C. Evans Jr., head of the American Psychological Association says this will be with us for seven to 10 years, in other words a second pandemic. And I’m pretty sure this segment was taped before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the now ongoing devastation and threat of chemical or nuclear warfare.

What does this have to do with museums? Only this: Museums are held together by humans, who are likely suffering, while also serving communities who also suffer. We’ve been over the laundry list of what’s undone us many times: pandemic, racial injustice, gender inequity, epic inflation, wealth disparity, and now war and a mental health crisis. Is the answer that we’re too busy as Robert Weisberg posits in a recent post? Maybe. Honestly, I’m no longer sure about this or much else. I know many of us are overworked. I know staffs have contracted, and many people are doing two times the work of the pre-pandemic era, and because no one found them breathing into a paper bag in the supply closet, everything is supposedly okay. Being asked to do more for the same crap salary is debilitating. Pay isn’t everything, but salaries are still inequitable. In many institutions leadership makes a gazillion times what the front-of-the-house makes, and yet daily the front-of-the-house workers shoulder a good portion of the community’s anger, yet another facet of the country’s mental health crisis.

I respect Weisberg’s argument, and I love his “Time, Money, People, Resources,” but I don’t share his assurance that busyness is the culprit or at least the only culprit. For me there are too many intersecting circles, each part of an overlapping problem. It strikes me that when field-wide salaries are dismal, the museum workplace promotes to reward. That means you move up the food chain, receiving a bigger salary and a title change because you succeeded in your first position. The problem is that being able in one position doesn’t always translate into being an able at leading people. If the organization needs a leader at whatever level, it should hire a leader, not reward staff by throwing them into the deep end. How would the picture change if museums could acknowledge and reward good work, allowing individuals to stay in their lane, while making more money and perhaps receiving a title change. Logically, that should happen, but it rarely does. We have a culture that teaches us success comes with managing others. (Some state HR laws are written such that an employee’s desire to be salaried as opposed to hourly, hinges, in part, on whether they supervise staff.) In the museum world we don’t train for leadership. So when promotions work, we pat ourselves on the back. When they don’t, we scratch our heads. And sadly, it’s staff who suffer in these circumstances.

In all our moaning about what Covid did to us, and it did plenty, it also taught us that flexibility is a key workplace resource. Not everyone can work away from their museum or heritage organization, but many can. In the first month of Covid we learned how much we could get done from our home offices. But Covid taught us something else. It isn’t just a binary choice between remote vs.on-site employees. It’s an acknowledgement that, particularly for women, flexibility matters. Many have life situations which make flexible hours a necessity. We know the failure to flex meant many women who are also caregivers and parents left the workforce over the last two years. But we don’t need to be workplace thought leaders to imagine that when staff are happy and not worrying about child or elder care, their work is better. If you have an employee who needs to begin work later because of family responsibilities, would it kill you to make that happen? And most importantly, can flex time become not just an individual exception, smacking of favoritism, but an organization-wide trend?

I wonder too, whether in a field like museums where jobs are hard won, if we expect too much from them. They represent huge investments and when they don’t speak our love language daily, we’re convinced they’re not for us. I am the first to admit this field has its share of bad leaders and boards, but even the best job isn’t Nirvana every day, nor should it be. I’ve written about this before, but your job, however intellectually stimulating is not your family. It may include some in your friend group, but hopefully it isn’t substituting for your friends as well.

The Canadian writer/researcher Paul Thistle has done a ton of work on the museum workplace and self-care. In addition to the high expectations and ridiculous pace of many museums, something that comes through loud and clear in his writing is our responsibility to ourselves. Yes, I know it’s often impossible to seek mental health care when you have no insurance or when the one counselor who takes your insurance is miles away, but we need to try, and our organizations need to try too.

Decades ago I remember a conference conversation where having heard a living history site was thinking of interpreting an 18th century workhouse, the cynical and jaded in the group opined we could go there when we “retired” because by that time we’d be so burnt out, role playing someone who had had a breakdown wouldn’t be a stretch. Not funny, but also darkly funny, and an indication that the constant search for perfection, coupled with too little time and too few resources has been a theme in museum work life for decades.

I’ve made a tradition of adding to-do lists at the end of blog posts with ideas for individuals and organizations, but I think this isn’t a one size fits all scenario. So here are some links and resources:

  • If you’re not already reading Dr. Laurie Santos, start. A Yale psychology professor whose classes are consistently oversubscribed, Santos offers practical tips for leading a happier life in her podcast “The Happiness Lab.
  • Read Mike Murawski. Not everyone can let go of the security of full-time employment, but if you need a positive role model for making change, it’s Murawski.
  • If you supervise staff, you may want to read AAM’s 2022 Trendswatch, particularly the chapter on mental health. I am not a fan of putting leadership in the position of acting as a mental health counselor, but I do think it’s important for leaders to model wellness behaviors, and be transparent and open about their own challenges.
  • Remember to lobby for improved healthcare and childcare at the local, state, and national level. It may seem out of your lane, but knowing family is cared for at a price you can afford is a stress reducer.
  • If you’re a reader, try also On Being, NPR’s Lifekit, and The Marginalian, and Henna Inam. And keep in mind, if your stress was a disfiguring rash, you’d undoubtedly see a doctor. If you find yourself beset by stress and mental health issues, try to see a caregiver.
  • If you’re a leader, be careful not to talk about the importance of your front-line/hourly staff unless you are willing to regularly make them part of museum decisions. Their work experience is part of your organization’s DNA. Respect it.

Spring is coming. Take some time to be outside. Sit, walk, run, whatever works for you. Your work will be better for it.

Joan Baldwin


2 Comments on “Held Together by Humans: Museums and a Healthier Workplace”

  1. Conny Graft says:

    Thank you, Joan, for another excellent and honest posting.

    Having worked in the museum field for over 40 years, one ongoing issue continues to prevent museums and their employees from being the best versions of themselves.

    I have witnessed many museums that have had to delay starting a funded grant project. While money was not the issue, having staff who had time to do the project was the problem.

    In addition, I observed staff crying in the restroom about the pressure they are under and the hundreds of overtime hours they have to work to handle all the work and projects they have been assigned. I also experienced this at two different museums, and because I was young and eager to be promoted, I sacrificed time with my family and friends. After several years of burnout, I was fortunate that I could convince my boss I wanted to focus on 1/5 of my job for 3 days a week and for a much smaller salary. It was the best decision I ever made. But I was fortunate in that I could afford to do that. Most employees do not have that luxury.

    Museums have to stop taking on projects and initiatives that require more capacity than they have.

    One strategy I learned from another consultant was to take out my calendar and cross off dates during the year for the following activities:
    Vacation
    Sickness for me or my family
    Holidays
    Weekly and Monthly Meetings
    Conferences/training
    Dates for Invoices, Billing, etc
    Scheduling projects
    Communicating with staff or clients
    Budgeting
    Writing grants

    Then, add the hours you have left that are not crossed off. It will be a shock!

    Now, determine how many hours you have left to do the work you were hired to do.
    You will see an immediate gap between what you are being asked to do and the hours you have in an 8 hour day to complete your work.

    Share this with your supervisor. Ask which duties can be crossed off your list or moved to another year.

    If you are the CEO or President of a Museum, use this exercise to estimate how many hours are available for your staff to do their job. Then, look at the gaping hole and make the tough decisions about whether work/projects will be moved to another year or deleted. Even if you can think of a partner organization to help you implement a project, it will still consume staff hours to coordinate, communicate, implement, and evaluate with the partner.

    We know from research that employees who feel valued and supported are more creative. Guests, in turn, can sense their excitement which leads to positive word of mouth. And that positive word of mouth will lead to an increase in the number of guests, increased donations, and memberships.

    All that is required is leadership and an honest review of the museum’s capacity.


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