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


Putting the Dipstick Down on the Museum Workforce

Milchstraßenräuber – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57251229

It’s a month since my last post. In that time Covid and all its attendant problems took a back seat to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To quote Thomas Campbell, Director of the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco in a recent Instagram post, “Against the backdrop of the atrocious Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the appalling suffering it is causing, it seems almost disrespectful to speak of anything else.” A week ago, a quote from the Ukrainian Library Association made the rounds of social media. The Association posted to cancel its annual meeting writing, “We will reschedule as soon as we finish vanquishing our invaders.” How about the rest of us, would we be that brave?

It’s against that background–the idea that in an instant you can be forced to flee home, family, friends, and your known world–that it’s time to put the dipstick down on our own. So what’s the latest on the museum workplace? What I’m reading seems to offer some diametrically opposed messaging. Nationally inflation is at a 40-year high and as of December 2021, 61-percent of us were living pay-check-to-pay check. Among that group, those who are Gen Z’ers, have an average savings is $1,158. On the other hand, LinkedIn News reports that 38-percent of employees in the arts plan to leave their jobs in the next six months, along with 37-percent of those working in recreation and travel. I think it’s safe to assume some individuals in either group are museum folk.

These two data lines don’t necessarily seem to intersect unless we believe poor pay makes us more mobile, and maybe it does. Couple that with AAM’s survey of museums post-Covid where some 73-percent of respondents reported that thanks to PPP funding, their staffs were back at pre-March 2020 capacity, although hourly positions continue to be hard to fill. That group may overlap with the 38-percent of employees planning to switch jobs. They were the most discounted at the height of the pandemic, and, since they couldn’t work at home, the first to be let go, so it’s no surprise they aren’t rushing to return, and hopefully have found work elsewhere. Not to mention yesterday’s stabbing at MoMA. It redefined, in the most horrible way, the reason we call them front-line workers, and the risks they take in dealing with the public.

I want to pause here and say that when AAM released its Trendswatch report in the winter of 2021, I wrote a post expressing concern that it had missed the boat when it came to women. I felt women deserved more of a mention since they were disproportionately affected by Covid. Not that it’s all about me (it’s not), but it was such a relief (and a pleasure) to find AAM’s new Covid survey devotes time specifically to the pandemic’s effects on women and women of color.

So, so far, we know what we know: We’re struggling, everything costs more, 40-percent of us lost income during Covid from which we’ve likely not recovered. Women, who account for 51-percent of the museum workforce, bore a greater increase in responsibilities as staffs contracted. They also report they are less optimistic, more burned out, and, although the survey didn’t put it this bluntly, in many cases their poor compensation is overlaid by the gender pay gap. In addition, we’re still working through a lot of post-Covid fear and weirdness at returning to work or returning to work in person, and yet many museums are open or extending hours to something resembling life pre-pandemic times.

So clearly another shoe will drop. And apparently it’s the same old shoe: race, gender, and class aka income disparity, a subject highlighted in AAM’s post-Covid survey. In addition to its Covid data, AAM is also partnering with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and AAMD to try to understand how or whether the field has moved the needle on staff diversity. As Mellon puts it, “More than a marker of progress to date, this data serves as a tool for the future—whether quantifying the challenges we still face, establishing a baseline against which to measure impact, or equipping museums with the insight they need to structure and implement pipeline-building programs.” Mellon acknowledges that while there has been progress, it’s uneven. I would add that it’s uneven because too often museum boards, and in many cases their leaders, feel that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Many of them see their institutions as fine. Maybe not perfect–more money would be nice–but fine, and what’s fine to those at the top of the food chain, is often untenable to those further down.

So what’s to be done? Clearly the work begun on diversity and gender in the summer of 2020 remains unfinished. AAM, AAMD, the Mellon Foundation, the American Association for State & Local History (AASLH) and the National Council on Public History (NCPH) are all gathering data, but the randomness of equitable and humane work conditions remains a problem, a problem that is most acute for women and particularly women of color. I’ll close with the same suggestions I made a year ago:

  • Does your organization post its values statement so visitors, donors, tradespeople, trustees and staff know where it stands on issues of DEI and specifically gender equity?
  • Does your organization list salaries when posting positions? Within the institution, are your salary levels transparent?
  • Does your museum offer equitable professional opportunities and mentoring?
  • Does your museum have a policy on employee participation in public protest for gender equity and other forms of social justice?
  • Have you completed an equity audit of your institutional salaries?
  • Have you reviewed your human resource policies and procedures to reveal and address discriminating behavior?
  • Are you confident, that an employee with a problem or a grievance can navigate your organization, and be treated equitably and fairly?
  • Do you offer sexual harassment training along with DEI training in your workplace? And is your organization clear on its definition of sexual harassment, and how such cases are handled?
  • Got time for a podcast? Listen to HBR’s Women at Work.

See you next month. In the meantime, be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Can We Talk Together About Museum Work? Soon?

Beercp – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9537466

I took a week off to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, and I’m back to make my annual ask for a museum world work summit. I’ve asked before. In March 2021, I used this blog to write a letter to Laura Lott and John Dichtl, presidents of AAM and AASLH respectively, but to date, nothing. It’s no secret that the world of museum work is a mess, and it’s popular to blame it on COVID, but is that the whole answer?

This week I listened to economist Lane Windham on It’s Been a Minute. Windham teaches at Georgetown and is is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor . She argues that we’re living through a worker rights revival. Economists also call it the “great resignation,” where people left low-wage jobs with no benefits, and then because of COVID, chose not to return, in some cases waiting employers out. But, while COVID may have been the reason to quit low-wage, no-benefit jobs–after all if your crap pay won’t cover after-school care and there’s no school, why stay?– Windham suggests their anger dates back to 2018/19 with a wave of strikes when, for example, 500,000 teachers and other workers took to the picket lines. She also points out that many of today’s strikers are women, reflecting mass entry of women into the workforce in the 1980s and 90s–women of color at Amazon and nurses at Kaiser Permanente for example–as well as women’s interest and leadership in unions.

I acknowledge that I am part of a group of museum folk who use social media to otherwise moan about the world of museum work. I guess crying into the Internet void is soul-soothing in a way, but it doesn’t move the needle, which is something I’m increasingly focused on. (When you work with high school students you want to model ways to create change that go beyond emotions.) And there are a lot of us talking and Tweeting about museum work from many different sectors around the globe. What would happen if–for example– you put Maria Vlachou, Aletheia Whittman, Franklin Vagnone, Monica Montgomery, Porchia Moore, Lonnie Bunch, and Elizabeth Merritt together with Darren Walker (Ford Foundation), Lane Windham (Georgetown) and Amy Costello (NPQ)? What ideas about the future of museum work might come out of a summit like that? What changes might they propose about board training? About leadership training? About the gender wage gap? About DEI training?

The museum work world isn’t simply a corporate giant employing massive numbers of worker bees à la Amazon. It’s complex. And yes, museums are more like other non-profits than big business, but I would argue, museums are still unique. They mix often hyper-educated folk with wealthy trustees, charged with hiring a single individual to run the organization. Then the trustees step back, re-focusing at regularly scheduled intervals to oversee mission and money, and leaving the director/president to hire/fire and lead teams that may range from a paid staff who could all fit in an SUV, to organizations with workforces as large as small towns. And that’s before we incorporate volunteer groups many of whom play an important–although increasingly charged–role in today’s museums. If you consider this picture also includes a group of leaders –at the director level and below–who may have had little training, mentoring or experience in actually leading humans, much less in creating policies for a transparent, equitable, empathetic workplace, you have a recipe for disaster i.e. a simmering pot of worker unrest.

Recently some of social media’s museum thought leaders have suggested museum directors need to solve these problems. While there are many steps an individual can take to make themselves a better leader, starting with a huge dose of self-awareness to check their own hubris and bias, I think it’s probably not an individual director’s role to ride into a board meeting with a flaming sword. How many directors need to have their careers crushed on issue of principle? How many self-sacrificing fights between director and staff have to happen? It’s almost always the director who loses. How many open positions do there have to be before organizations realize museum directors aren’t the board’s handmaidens, and that the board/director relationship must be cooperative and collegial?

One last thought: Sometimes you can’t solve a problem until you pull it out and examine it. I’m currently using Aletheia Wittman’s work on Institutional Genealogy for a project I’m working on. Her work is a clear, critical framework for assessing organizational history, for trying to understand, how your museum or heritage organization got to where it is today. What would happen if you gave that framework to our mythical group above and asked them to look at museum work as a whole, to open all the closets, bring out the skeletons, lift up the rocks, and get out all the dirty laundry so we can understand where we’ve come, where we might have lost our way, and how to find a more equitable path? Just a thought.

Be well, be kind and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Being There: A Plug for Virtual Participation

SonoGrazy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108929406

There’s a lot about the last 20 months that’s lamentable–lost jobs, the bandaid pulled off workplace racism, the daycare crisis–but we learned a few things as well, and some of them are keepers. Certainly one of those is that we can meet and learn–albeit not quite the way we do in person–via Zoom. It’s fashionable to moan about Zooming and how exhausting it is, but in reality bad in-person meetings aren’t much better are they? But, I digress. All I really wanted to say was I had hoped to be in Little Rock, AR this past week at AASLH’s annual conference. Clearly, I’m here and not flying home today because in the end, for a host of personal reasons, and despite an amazing conference schedule, it just didn’t seem like the moment to go to a national meeting.

So…I was feeling kind of whiney and sorry for myself, when AASLH announced its online conference. No, it’s not the same. No, you don’t get to combine listening to panels with sightseeing, meals out, and drinks with your old friends, but you get to hear and participate in a pretty awesome three-day event that touches on many of the themes of the Little Rock Conference–Doing History/Doing Justice.

This week I also participated in a zippy little online event presented by George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum as part of their Museums Today series. It was titled “Why Monetizing University Museum Collections is A Bad Idea.” In the last year, tracking who is deaccessioning and why has almost become a sport. The lesson presented is you’re either for it or against it, with no middle ground, giving way to too many presentations and social media comments with an undercurrent of hysteria. This program, featuring GW Museum director John Wetenhall, along with Kristina Durocher, Director of the Museum of Art at the University of New Hampshire, provided a calm, measured explanation of why cashing in on collections shouldn’t be a thing. Yes, we all think we know this, but for collections owned by schools, colleges and universities deaccessioning is a particularly tricky area because academic boards of trustees, unlike museum board members, have fiduciary responsibilities beyond the art their organization owns.

For me, this program showed up the same week our new auditors asked for a current appraisal of our collection. In my experience, that hasn’t happened in 20 years, and it was like a door opening on a house of horror. So…to spend an hour in my own kitchen listening to a couple of thoughtful folks talk about my concerns was affirming, and wouldn’t have happened two years ago. COVID didn’t bless us with much, but online learning and discussion certainly changed.

I want to close with an invitation to listen to this Brief But Spectacular Moment from PBS’s News Hour where NYU professor Scott Galloway talks about going from crisis to opportunity in a post-Covid world. One of my favorite lines: “So the enduring feature of COVID-19, it will be seen as an accelerant more than a change agent.” He closes with three questions: Number one is whether this is an opportunity to become a caretaker for someone else, meaning not so much looking after your aging relatives as pledging to care for and about another human in person, and face-to-face? Two is whether we’ve made the investments in friendships to carry us forward, and number three is whether we have the grace and the courage to allow forgiveness to work its magic. A great listen. As Anthony Hamilton says, “Love is the new black.”

Leadership Matters will be on hiatus until the week of October 11.

Take care and be well.

Joan Baldwin


A Few More Thoughts: How the Pay Gap Fights DEI

Mike Alewitz – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80735564

Well, 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, writing, “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.”

One of that post’s comments came from Michael Holland. In addition to being a natural history exhibit person with a passion for all things dinosaur, Holland has been a longtime voice for equitable wages. Google him, and you’ll find this piece he wrote for AAM three years ago. He concluded his comment on my post with this: “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.” Too true. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s no point in museum workplace DEI initiatives if at their heart the institution supports and enables a system that perpetuates racism.

As I wrote in my original post, the gender pay gap has long been aligned with white women’s feminism, and is often seen as a white woman’s issue, but the data doesn’t bear this out. And like everything else about race/gender issues, both a White and a Black women can suffer from the gender pay gap, but the Black woman’s suffering is different and greater. In fact, in practical terms, it’s 17 cents on the dollar greater than a White woman, and for Indigenous women, it is greater still, not to mention Latinx women’s who make 25 cents less than the white man’s dollar. So the diversity of a museum’s staff is not the whole story. It is window dressing if the organization hasn’t done a pay equity audit to make sure its salaries are equitable; otherwise, it only perpetuates a broken and racist system.

Recently I had a conversation with a member of the leadership at my own institution. My employer sees itself as fairly enlightened. Its hiring practices have all been revamped in the last five years, but pay remains shrouded in mystery. When I raised the issue of a gender pay gap, I was told that our pay was carefully calculated against similar positions in similar institutions. When I suggested that other institutions, and in fact entire fields have gender wage suppression so comparisons are moot, the conversation kind of ended. But that’s the issue. It’s why certain groups like Museum Hue and GEMM fight for transparency about salaries in job advertisements and why women in particular shouldn’t be asked for their salary at a previous job.

So…bottom line? Maybe if we can see the gender wage gap, not as already privileged white women’s whining, but in fact the superstructure for wage inequity, we can make change. If–and I realize it’s a big if–

  • AAM and AASLH can talk about the gender wage gap and how it perpetuates racism.
  • If they can offer solutions and examples of how to do a pay equity audit…..
  • ….while also continuing to support and encourage organizations dealing with bias surrounding the hiring and onboarding process…
  • If they would be willing to support the kind of information available for librarians, women entering the museum field might have a better chance of lobbying for more equitable pay. Indeed, just acknowledging in every bit of information surrounding HR issues that the gender pay gap is a thing, would go a long way toward women of all races not feeling gaslit by the system.
  • How can we–as individuals and organizations– build on the growing labor consciousness in the museum workforce in ways that are helpful and regenerative? How can we build on labor’s use of Instagram as a venue to air out grievances and hurt?

As Michael Holland points out in his comment from last week, the road to successful museum employment is littered with a landmines. There is education–Do you have the right degrees?–Cost–If you get the degree, can you cope with the potential debt?–And daily life. Can you afford to live near and commute to your museum? All those questions have to be answered before starting a job. Staying in a position, and indeed in the field, depends on finding a humane workplace and equitable pay. And equitable pay ONLY works if the gender pay gap is addressed otherwise no matter what your museum says about how important workplace DEI issues are, it’s all a lie. Remember Nina Simon’s great Tweet: When you prioritize the safety and welcome of people who have lower access to power, you are working for equity and inclusion. When you prioritize the comfort and preferences of people with higher access to power, you are working against it. That doesn’t only apply to museum issues that are front facing, but most importantly to those that take place “backstage” and involve only a museum or heritage organization’s workforce.

Be kind, be truthfull, and be well.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. I also want to acknowledge Paul Thistle’s work and concern for the museum world’s wellness. (See the other comments and reposts from last week.) One of the many contributors to workplace stress is an inadequate paycheck. A stressed staff is an unhappy staff, and an unhappy staff is bad for community and collaboration.


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


The Graduate School Conundrum

Last week there was an interesting and lengthy exchange on Museum-L, the museum discussion list, prompted when someone asked whether their hopes of getting a museum position with only a bachelor’s degree were unrealistic, and then followed up by asking how important a graduate degree is in breaking into the profession.

The responses were all over the map, from suggestions that museums aren’t higher education, and hands-on experience is more important than degrees, to the idea that most of what museum studies degree programs teach is a mystery taught by people with little or no experience. There were also voices saying that what matters is soft skills, which can’t be taught, as opposed to basic museum tasks which can be learned. Coincidentally, no one in this email string mentioned the word bias although these questions speak directly to the accretion of barriers in museum land over the last 50 years that have kept and continue to keep deserving people out of the field. Since last summer and George Floyd’s murder there’s been a lot of woe-is-me about the whiteness of the job sector, but this question of whether you need a master’s or doctorate speaks directly to the barriers in museumland.

But back to the question of whether graduate school is necessary or not: In full transparency, I have co-taught for the last several years, although not this semester, in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program. Co-teaching one course in museum leadership doesn’t give me the right to comment on the program as a whole–although FYI to the Museum-L commenter JHU’s course descriptions are all available online so no mystery there–but I will say that by and large the students are impressive, smart, creative, and verbal. Almost all of them work full time with a portion of them working in museums across the country and around the world.

Coincidentally, my own program issued a job announcement this week, and went through a parallel discussion regarding graduate school requirements. Granted libraries are not the same as museums, although it is an allied field with many larger museums housing a library or an archives, while in my case, archives and special collections sit under the library umbrella. So, as you might imagine, there was some discussion about the question of whether our new job description would require an MLS. In the end, the answer was no. The position is front facing, and the overwhelming hope is that the person who fills it will be long on people skills. Everything else can be learned. Being kind, intuitive, empathetic and efficient on a campus of driven and often stressed adolescents, can’t be learned, and the damage done while an employee sorts out how to treat their co-workers and the audience can do a boatload of damage.

So, what’s the answer? In a perfect world I wish museums could get over themselves a bit and hire for the skills they really need, not for some artificial content-driven degree. Graduate school is huge investment. Johns Hopkins charges $4,554 per course, and 10 courses are necessary for the degree. And as an online program since way before COVID, JHU is cheaper than the more traditional in-person graduate programs requiring students to press pause on work while going to class each day. If you’re going to make such a huge investment of money and time wouldn’t it be great if you could spend time in the field first to see if it really moves you? Not to mention whether you can afford to stay in a field where according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there is a median salary of roughly $48,500.

If your passion is curatorial, you’re going to need content–potentially a lot of content and research–to make your mark in an art, history or science museum. You may do that by combining an art history masters with real world experience or perhaps your PhD in entomology will land you a position in a natural history museum. But for many other positions, the field demands a knowledge of the museum ecosystem, an understanding of the positions within the job sector, and a passion for collaborating with your audience, combined with an understanding that it’s not what you look at that matters, but rather what you see.

COVID has left museumland in tough shape. There are fewer entry level jobs thanks to the decimation of the ranks that took place when organizations had to close. Yes, more organizations are unionizing, but salaries remain crappy and benefits not great. If your organization is hiring in the next six months….

  • If you haven’t read AAM’s most recent blog post on equitable hiring, read it now.
  • Diversity isn’t just about who’s in the staff photo. Is your organization ready to do the work necessary to challenge itself, changing its workplace DNA, to make hiring changes?
  • A degree requirement is another way to favor a white-dominant culture. Is the position you need to fill one where a degree is necessary or are there complementary skills that might work just as well?
  • All new hires need support and mentoring, particularly during their first year. Is your organization ready to press pause long enough to get its HR house in order?

One of the lines I like best in AAM’s blog post is “Stop seeking “perfection” and recognize that all candidates will have both strengths and areas for improvement.” You could write a whole blog post on perfection and museum HR. Accept that none of us is perfect, but everyone does their best. That mindset supports the idea that there isn’t one way a job can be filled, but many.

Be well, hire well, and be kind.

Joan Baldwin


Aging and the Museum Workforce: Turning the Lens Inward

This week I received a copy of Museums and Creative Aging: A Healthful Partnership, 70 free, downloadable pages published by AAM. In a post-COVID world, you may have enough on your plate. After all, there’s reopening your site, decolonizing your collection, and the undoing decades of subtle and not so subtle systemic racism, not to mention summer’s frightening temperatures, drought and hurricanes, to remind us of climate change. Should you really have to worry about the over-55’s starting to populate your galleries and heritage sites once again? Well, no, you don’t have to, but you’ll miss out. For one thing Museums and Creative Aging is written by Marjorie Schwarzer. If you haven’t read her Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of the Museum in America, you should. She’s the real deal, a writer who can construct a great sentence, while also telling you what you need to know.

Schwarzer focuses on four areas, so if 14 months of lockdown has eroded your attention span, go directly to the Executive Summary where you’ll discover the report breaks down into four sections: Aging and Ageism in American Society; followed by chapters on Positive Aging, Case Studies, and Lessons Learned. It concludes with a call to action for the field. I read the first chapter on “Aging and Ageism” feeling a little aggrieved, convinced that Schwarzer wouldn’t mention the museum workplace or issues of gender. I was wrong. She gently, yet emphatically, makes the point that problems in society also show up in our boards of trustees, volunteer groups and offices. The chapter is peppered with unnerving data like the fact that by 2035 there will be more adults over 65 in the United States than children, not to mention that even though overall life expectancy for today’s children is still below 80, most, according to Brookings, will exceed that, many living into the next century. Schwarzer touches, however, briefly, on the fact that aging and gender are inextricably intwined–women generally live longer than men–that society’s focus on youthfulness pressures women in the workplace in ways men don’t experience, forcing women to conform to youthful stereotypes. And although she doesn’t directly reference it, the ongoing gender pay gap keeps women in the workforce longer than necessary were salaries more equitable.

While I understand and applaud the importance of this report, both in terms of what museums do and who they serve, I would love to see Schwarzer turn her lens toward the museum workplace. Yes, the museum world’s struggles represent many of the same struggles found in the American workplace writ large, but they are confounded by organizations and leadership who fail to put staff first, who fail to offer basic personnel policies, whose board members use their perceived personal power to take advantage of staff, and on and on. And, like other work sectors, many of our workplace problems–and leadership problems–aren’t one thing. They are, in fact, intersectional. For example, Schwarzer makes the point that many of today’s LGBTQ+ elders face additional struggles because they came of age when support systems were flimsy and role models non-existent. So if you’re a person of color, over 60, LGBTQ+, and identify as female, how many different pathways for hatred, fear or simple dismissal can you experience? And how does that affect your ability to come to work each day and be your best most productive self, wherever you work in a museum or heritage organization? And as a leader, how do you make sure a person whose identity is varied and intersectional–an individual many say they want on their teams–is safe, seen and supported?

Maybe it’s just me, but almost daily I experience a schism in the museum world. On the one hand there are angry, hurt, demeaned museum workers, whose stories appear on @changethemuseum and in commentary from Museum Workers Speak, the Equity Coalition, Museum Hue, and GEMM. Those support/special interest groups, and there are more, all formed in the last decade in an effort to address particular issues within the 135,000 museum workforce. (Just an FYI, that figure is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2021. It represents an increase over January 2021, but still lags significantly behind December of 2019 when the number was 177,200.) Yet when many of those same folks come together tomorrow for AAM’s annual meeting, will there be a focus on workplace issues? There are a million problems (not to mention successes) affecting museums and heritage organizations from the outside, all in need of understanding, but wouldn’t it be helpful to turn the lens on staff once in a while? To draw on the expertise of all the people working to support museum workers wherever and whoever they are? Just a thought.

Suddenly it’s summer. Stay well, stay cool, and be kind.

Joan Baldwin


Is Lack of Self-Care Another Form of Scarcity Mindset?

Sks811, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22767515

How many of us know a museum where the mantra–even in this post-COVID reawakening–is one of can’t, meaning an absence of resources prevents the organization from changing? It’s a mindset that’s riddled museums and heritage organizations for decades, often those founded in a great rush of concern around preserving a particular building, event or individual collection. What begins as promise, excitement, and hope devolves into a culture of “Well we can’t (you fill in the verb here) because this is the way we’ve always done it.” The result is museums turned inward rather than out, clinging to the familiar rather than walking a path toward change. In this kind of culture, struggle and sacrifice become virtues. Doing without, frenetically working to maintain a mediocrity no one cares about becomes the norm, inverting healthy museum behavior. Instead, work becomes a virtue, and in the worst cases, a loyalty test. It’s brutal, and it’s unhealthy both organizationally and individually.

Don’t get me wrong. Even paranoids have enemies. As the country emerges from the pandemic and the concurrent economic downturn, many museums and heritage organizations, opening their doors for the first time, have more than enough PTSD to go around. And, if we’re to believe AAM’s studies, one in three of them will find themselves working through the myriad state regulations in order to close rather than grow. But one of COVID’s counter-intuitive blessings is that it’s given all of us a hinge moment, a fork in the road, an opportunity to ditch what didn’t work and start again differently.

Do you work in an organization where scarcity is the love language? How has it affected you? And by that I don’t mean are you underpaid or under-benefited? That’s another blog post. What I mean is has that culture started to affect you as a person? Have you developed a kind of “Don’t worry about me, if I fall, I fall” philosophy? How’s that working for you? When you read yet another piece about self care, do you secretly think, “Well, that’s not for us. We simply have too much on our plate?”

And yet who among us doesn’t benefit from a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition, close friends, great music, laughter, you name it, all the things that refresh, recharge and sustain us. And sustaining us–leaders and their museum, archive and heritage teams–is key to building organizations better able to respond, rebuild, and change now we’ve arrived at the post-COVID fork in the road. So if you’re a leader of a museum or leading a museum team or program, consider the following:

  • Do away with running on empty and acknowledge the importance of time spent on self: Spend five minutes in a staff meeting and ask everyone to report one thing they’ve done that counts as self-care.
  • Are you and your team drinking enough? No, not the after work kind, the hydration kind. Sounds dumb, but adults often don’t drink enough. Hydration affects mood, memory and attention. Many sites have closed water fountains because of COVID. Sitting down for a meeting? Provide water.
  • Vacation: Make it happen. No need to reiterate that it’s been a difficult and challenging year. For many Summer 2020 was either spent worrying in Zoom meetings or trying (and failing) to open or reopen. Americans are among the most overworked people in the world. If your organization offers paid vacation, make sure you (and your team)take what’s coming to them.
  • Don’t forget to mentor or just engage with colleagues. Research shows that helping others, being empathetic, engaging in active listening as opposed to quick fixes, helps you as well.
  • Take a moment: It’s almost summer. Go outside. As masks come off, plenty of folks are still experiencing COVID anxiety. Having a walking meeting or meeting outside may do your team a world of good.
  • Don’t forget about you. It’s easy for leaders to model behavior they don’t actually follow themselves–to ask after their team’s well being, to empathize, to advocate for personal time, to make sure they leave in time for the final soccer game, kindergarten graduation, whatever, but harder to advocate for themselves. Try not to leave yourself out. There’s no virtue in a leader who’s chronically tired and emotionally drained.

Staying at work for 12-hour days is not a guarantee of productivity. Sometimes we just need to press pause. We all contribute–to our relationships, workplaces, and families–and to be good contributors we need to care for ourselves. That means making time to stop. A colleague, who’s a busy parent to three small humans, told me one of her new practices is rather than saying “Oh crap, I need to clean the bathroom,” she now sets her timer for 15 minutes, and does as much cleaning as she can before the timer goes off. That can work for self care too. Take 15 minutes and do what you need to do even if it’s nothing. You’ll be better for it, and maybe you’ll start to break the facade of self-sacrifice at your organization.

Be well, stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


The Leadership Agenda: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Photokid261, http://www.sunkiddance.de – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37691522

It is more than a decade since Anne Ackerson and I started working on Leadership Matters (2012), and so much is very, very different. We have long since ceased being the only voices calling for leadership reform in museums and heritage organizations. There are innumerable virtual and actual groups, supporting museum workers, and calling for change. The eight organizations operating under the Collective Liberation mantle are awesome examples of new groups doing great work. And that’s wonderful. One thing that remains the same, however, is leadership itself, how it’s taught and how it’s learned personally, organizationally, and through service organizations and in graduate programs.

Years ago I served on AAM’s annual meeting program committee. The year I participated, Anne and I also had a session proposal before the committee. That meant I had to leave the room during its discussion. Our session squeaked through, but not without comments on whether talking about museum work was really what AAM’s annual meeting was about. I am eternally grateful to the voices in the room who pushed our session through. Not because we needed to speak, but because the field needs to examine the way it works, and museum and heritage organization workers need AAM’s support–if only tacitly–in knowing talking about work is important. Change can’t happen until we acknowledge the problem. And talking about workplace issues is an acknowledgement that all is not Nirvana in museumland.

As I’ve mentioned many times here, Anne and I teach a course on museum leadership in Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies program. Hopkins is one of many museum studies master’s programs, but I’ll wager it is among a much smaller group offering leadership courses as part of museum studies. And there is an even tinier group that actually makes leadership a lynch pin of their programs. Why? I do not know. There are decades of examples of both great museum leadership and the truly horrific kind to remind us it isn’t just the collections or the historic buildings that make a great museum. It’s leadership.

Perhaps it’s not true any more, but for decades people were drawn to museum work because of the stuff: the art, the historic buildings, the textiles, the science, sculpture, jewelry, technology and pottery. What other career gives you the privilege of immersing yourself in creativity, invention, and discovery, in other places and times, as teacher, scholar or interpreter? And yet, if you’re successful, you quickly find yourself distanced from the very objects that attracted you in the first place. Instead, you manage people, people with needs, workplace quirks, illness, small children, elderly relations, and strident beliefs. It’s a different ballgame, and it’s leadership warts and all.

Leadership is about human relationships. You may find yourself as a leader at work, but a follower in the organization where you volunteer. Or the reverse may be true. No matter which side of the equation you sit on, leader or follower, it’s a truth you experience. Because of that, fixing what’s wrong belongs to all of us. It’s not the sole job of unions or boards of trustees, AAM, AASLH or AAMD. Each of us has a role, and a contribution to make, and unless and until there is a moment when museum governance as we currently know it ends, to be replaced by something completely different, then no single entity can wave a wand and end decades of genteel racism, gender stereotyping, patriarchal behavior and on and on. That’s why both volumes of Leadership Matters end with a Leadership Agenda, a list of directives for individuals, institutions, professional organizations, graduate programs and funders. Here is a sampling from each category:

  • For Individuals: Seek opportunities to take new leadership responsibility in order to grow and expand skills. Practice new learning whenever you can. Prepare for serendipity.
  • For Institutions: Realize that it is not your job to maintain the status quo. The job of institutions and their leaders is to make a difference.
  • For Professional Associations: Insist on competitive, equitable pay and benefits to attract and retain great staff, institutional support of the emerging leader and the lone professional, and diversification of governing boards.
  • For Graduate Programs: Create programs specifically for leadership development.
  • For Funders: Promote hiring practices that eradicate exclusion, champion equity in hiring, promotion, access to leadership opportunities through collaboration with graduate programs and allied associations.

If solving the museum world’s leadership problems is something you care about, there are many more, and they are worth taking a look at. You can find the entire Leadership Revolution Agenda above. Which brings me to this: In December I plan to end this blog. I started it to promote our first edition of Leadership Matters in 2013, and it has challenged me, stretched me, helped me think things through, and, I hope, helped some of you as you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the museum workplace. In the next six months, if there are topics you wish I’d write about, let me know. And if there is an blog post in your brain bursting to get out, let me know as well. Leadership Matters has a tradition of hosting guest bloggers so send a writing sample and your ideas.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, be kind.

Joan Baldwin