AASLH 2022: After the Words, Action?

Andre Carrotflower, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks ago I went to AASLH’s annual conference in Buffalo, NY. I’ve gone to AASLH meetings for years, but this one was different. Maybe because for many of us it was our first public meeting since the Pandemic, and, after navigating a sea of Zooms, masks, vaccinations, uncertainty, and illness, suddenly we were loose on the world again, able to talk to one another face-to-face. But I think there was something else. Maybe I’m imagining it, but did politics and culture ripple through the conference in a way it never has before, a feeling of I’m not backing down?

My own meeting started with a panel discussion on the “Museum Worker Crisis.” My role was to provide some historical context, unraveling the past to help participants understand how the world of museum work got to where it is. It’s something I’ve done more than a few times on these pages, and I touched on issues of pay, the gender pay gap, overwork and the Red Queen effect, gender and sexual harassment, bullying, and the high cost of entering the field. I also brought up Quiet Quitting, which seems to be the Great Resignation for people who can’t resign.

My introduction laid a foundation for Dina Bailey, Michelle Moon, Sarah Jencks, and Kate Hayley Goldman to use systems thinking to untangle the problem of why museum workers are in such a pit of despair, and most importantly, what to do about it. Each table worked to define the problem, while keeping their Guiding star (a desired future state) in mind. In systems thinking the Guiding Stars are the leverage points where it’s possible to intervene in a system. For example, participants asked whether public consciousness regarding work in history and heritage sites could be changed so it’s seen as a profession with high value? If that happened, would salaries change?

As they worked, networks of Post-It notes grew across their tables. Ultimately, those were lifted and applied to the walls as each group reported out, raising still more questions like how individuals enter the field, whether an apprenticeship is more appropriate than requiring a master’s degree, and how to change a culture that tends to look backward toward a system that’s no longer viable. There were also some whopper questions like this one: Is it unethical to hire in such a poorly paid field.

Two other highlights for me at least were Rick Hill’s keynote address. Former Assistant Director of the National Museum of the American Indian, writer, father, and member of the Beaver Clan of the Tuscarora Nation of the Haudenosaunee tribe, Hill’s gentle tone belied a career that took him far from home and then back again. He struck an opening note while reminding us that place matters: That we are all born into a place, and it’s ours to use, but most of all to care for, and we must “be careful where we plant our feet.” Forty minutes later, he reminded his audience that the best land acknowledgement is to ask local indigenous people to do acknowledge place in their own language. Failing that, acknowledging a place was important to a people might be better than getting into ownership which flies in the face of the Indigenous idea that we are steward’s for the next generation, not owners.

Day one ended with the General Session titled Historical Thinking Under Fire. And holy smokes, if you needed any evidence that we’ve emerged from the Pandemic to a world that’s ever more Orwellian, this was it. In a panel discussion led by Sarah Jencks, here are some quotes I took down: Critical Race Theory is not a theory, it’s history supported by primary sources; Discomfort doesn’t mean students are scared, it means they are processing; Don’t cede the ground of patriotism, patriotism involves a good honest look at the past; and last, “Nobody cared that I lived with the trauma of enslavement as a school child.”

Unlike other conferences the comments at the panel’s close weren’t a graduate school class in one-upmanship, but a rallying cry. Individuals got up to testify about keeping books on shelves, about standing up to local government, about making John Lewis’ “good trouble.” It was awesome. Can we–and by we I mean history and heritage museums and sites–turn those individual actions and feelings into something collective? Can AASLH help us? (Actually, I think AASLH already has. See its statement on what’s happening in Memphis, not to mention its ongoing work on gender harassment with NCPH.)

As we move forward in a world decimated by climate change, beset with right-wing ideologies and wracked with political divisiveness, my hope is that history museums and heritage sites become a force. As individuals we can’t afford to enable racist, rude, misogynistic behavior. We can’t be silent. As organizations, we need to do the same thing, supporting our fellow non-profits when they are on strike or under attack. And as leaders, we must become employers where staff is safe, seen and supported, and where pay is fair and equitable. So collectively we become places where old patriarchal narratives are pushed aside, and history is told as the complex story it is, not for political gain, but because that’s how we learn—and we’re all learning, if not, pack it in NOW. That we move into the future, listening, empathizing, understanding, and working for change. That’s a history field we can be proud of.

Be well, fight the good fight, and I’ll see you in a few weeks.

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


Museum Leadership and DEI: A Process or an End Game?

Mark Strozier from Macon, GA, USA – WeekEnd, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98548400

Last week’s post generated some buzz. It also prompted me to continue thinking about race and workplace equity, so here goes:

My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th-century. A generation later she might have been a professor or a politician, but as a young woman who finished college before WWI, her rebelliousness ended when she married. When I was little, she frequently spoke in quotes, most of which sailed past me. A frequent flyer was “Do as you would be done by, ” a sentence that seemed so riddled with verbs and prepositions that it was unintelligible. But decades later, it has more resonance.

Many of our organizations either have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices or aspire to have them. They are there to help us right centuries of wrong doing, to re-center our overwhelming White world views, and to provide staff safety and security in knowing everyone, not just the powerful and well compensated, is treated equitably. In retrospect, what strikes me about the Chicago Art Institute’s decision to dissolve its docent program in favor of paid, BIPOC, front-facing staff, is not the decision itself, but about the museum world’s reaction to it. Equity isn’t equity unless it applies to everyone, even the people whose political views, values, and personal choices you don’t share. In other words, to quote my grandmother, “Do as you would be done by.”

It strikes me that this is likely one of the most challenging parts of 21st-century leadership. As a leader, you need to be fair or equitable, always. Not just because it makes your organizational optics better, not just because you’re trying to appease a particular group or board member, and not just because in your heart you’re more allied with one point of view than another. To be truly equitable, your bag of biases must be kept off-stage otherwise you’re liable to privilege one individual or group over another. Why? Because they appear to share your values? Maybe outside of work they’re your friends? Maybe they remind you of a family member? Who knows? But when push comes to shove, they stir your sympathies, and cause you to lean in ways others do not, and unless you acknowledge that behavior and interrogate it, your decision making will be flawed, and you will likely make inequitable decisions.

One of the symptoms of post-Trump, post-COVID America is people seem free to speak their minds whether one-on-one, on social media or through protest. That can be healthy–like when staff collaborates for better salaries and benefits perhaps through union membership–or unhealthy–when a museum visitor berates a staff member. It also means when decisions are made, it’s likely there will be a reaction, which is all the more reason today’s museum leaders need to understand their own value systems, to align them with those of their organization, and to make sure the two mirror one another.

Last week some readers pointed out that we don’t really know how the Art Institute communicated with its docents, whether it chose to speak with them face-to-face or ended the volunteer program via email. Fair enough. But it’s easy to applaud the dissolution of one program without knowing anything about what will replace it. Would it help if we knew the Art Institute had also revamped its hiring practices so candidates are assessed with a minimum of bias? Would it help is we knew the Art Institute had prioritized BIPOC hiring, onboarding and mentoring?

Workplace equity is critical for everyone. And at the same time, we don’t leave our values, our beliefs, our friendships and our families behind when we enter the workplace each morning. That means museum leaders, whether at the top of the organizational food chain or department heads, need to be endlessly empathetic, and constantly engage in self-reflection, working to ensure individual success along with the collective whole. They need to make challenging the status quo the the beginning, not the end game. In short, systemic change means there are no quick solutions. And they need to understand White people’s antiracist work can leave Black colleagues exhausted. Why? Because somehow it becomes a White thing, necessitating congratulations, acknowledgement, and once again making White staff the focus of the narrative.

Change begins when an all-White volunteer program becomes BIPOC and paid, but it can’t end there. Is it enough that a predominantly White museum feels less bad because it changes the color of its front-facing staff without knowing whether they are safe, seen, and supported? Does a different staff who still bears the burden of a racist museum culture make for a different museum? In a perfect world, antiracist work is a process that hopefully deconstructs the ways White ideologies are prioritized in a museum, linking staff changes to larger internal organizational changes designed to create safe, equitable museum workplaces.

Be well and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


How Much Lipstick Can the Museum Pig Wear?

Ixocactus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36094925

If you saw any social media last week, you’re aware that recently more than a few museum directors left their positions. It’s a disturbing trend, and while tempting to blame on COVID, as if life minus the pandemic was ducky, we know that’s not true. COVID threw open a Pandora’s box of problems, but the seeds were sown a decade or more ago. With that in mind, how long can the field move forward, without acknowledging what’s going on backstage in museum offices? How much lipstick can the museum pig wear?

Change threatens the weakest points, and sadly, museum leadership and governance has been wobbly for a while. Why? There are a number of reasons, but before going there, let’s acknowledge how COVID makes each of us vulnerable individually and personally, leading to a nationwide level of workplace stress. Nothing is as we knew it. Many jobs were lost. Many were sick, and more than 600,000 lost their lives, meaning at least twice that number come to work grief-stricken. Childcare was affected, and now with the Delta Variant, parents need to calibrate risk on a daily basis, balancing children’s need for school, over the risk of exposure. My point is only as the museum workplace reaches a boiling point, we would do well to remember that for the last 20 months nobody’s had their eye on the proverbial ball.

But back to the other epidemic: the one where museum directors walk out the door. Let’s start at the top. Not for the first time in these pages I’m going to suggest that along with COVID there is an epic level of poor governance at the board level. Don’t believe me? Spend an hour on Instagram reading @changetheboard or on Facebook looking at Your Thriving Nonprofit, and you’ll see what I mean. Differing state regulations governing nonprofits, a general lack of understanding regarding what nonprofits do, combined with an epic level of misunderstanding about a board’s role, as well as poor board onboarding, leaving us with board members who see their roles, not as something for the collective and organizational good, but as an opportunity to behave tyrannically. So instead of partnering with their board in running an organization, museum leaders with wayward boards spend too much time in training and education. Who looses? Museum staff and their communities.

Next up poor training and preparation for leaders. Again, if this is something you don’t believe, take a gander at @changethemuseum or @changeberkshireculture or read Dana Kopel’s excellent Unionizing the New Museum a sick-making tour through the New Museum’s reluctant journey to unionization. This blog is dedicated to the idea that leadership is a thing unto itself, not a reward for dedicated service; nor is it the payoff for doing well in your original museum job. Leadership doesn’t depend on content knowledge and scholarship the way a curator’s role may, but instead flourishes with “soft skills,” that are now the hard skills, meaning museum leaders must be good communicators, people who are empathetic, courageous, and visionary.

Then there’s the money challenge. I work on the outskirts of the museum field, but my organization’s strong endowment means I don’t worry about our big dreams. But I’m not the point. Too many in museum and heritage organization staff work hard just to keep organizations afloat, much less to implement their wishlists. It’s why museum leaders need courage, vision, and the communication skills to persuade community leaders whether they are fancy one-percenters or small city business people that what they do is for everyone, and most importantly why it’s for everyone.

Last, and by no means least, is the museum world’s long history of systemic gender, class, and race issues. We have a lousy pay structure built around issues of race and gender, forcing too many women and women of color to tread water professionally. Beyond the HR issues, our institutions are riddled with systemic racism in ways the overwhelmingly white staffs aren’t doing the work to acknowledge. You can’t become the activist museum Mike Murawski talks about unless staff and community collaborate so the barriers come down. Diversifying staff is not the whole answer. There is parallel work to do on the part of the we’ve–always–done–it–that–way staff and leadership.

So what’s the answer? Some thoughts….

  • Making sure leadership training is something all museum leaders have access to either as part of graduate school, later or both.
  • Making sure board members understand their roles. As lame as some of the sexual harassment online training is, it does spell out the legal landscape. Maybe board members need a 20-minute online class they must pass before signing on?
  • By building museums that are value driven.
  • By believing that museums are really for people. And what do people need? Love, caring, kindness, museums that are humane, human-centered, and empathetic.
  • Working toward museums and heritage organizations that don’t exploit the dedication many emerging professionals give to the field.
  • Recognizing wellness as a thing, and burnout not as a term, but a condition. Non-profit does not mean museum employees should toil in some 21st-century imitation of a 19th-century mill.
  • Last, if you want something hopeful to read, take a look at this, first Tweeted by the inimitable Linda Norris. Working for Trevor White sounds like it might be a little bit of alright.

Be well and be kind.

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


Collective Wisdom: 13 Pieces of Advice I Wish I’d Had

Tommy Wong – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gracewong/295382746/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85227644

Last Friday I spent some time with three awesome museum women. We were tasked with speaking to a group of college-age interns, who might or might not enter the museum field. Our first question was what advice would we give our 21-year old selves, if the clock turned backward? For me, it prompted a lot of self-reflection. In college, I didn’t always listen to my mentors. I was polite, but I didn’t always internalize and reflect on the advice offered.

So here, for anyone who’s listening, a baker’s dozen of things I wish I’d understood at the tender age of 21.

  1. That self-advocacy is a practice, and it’s different from making it all about you. Self care brings out your best; selfishness, your worst.
  2. That a woman’s workplace is different from a man’s. That a woman of color’s workplace is different than a white woman’s.
  3. Empathy has a key function in the museum workplace, and empathy doesn’t mean playing Ms. Fix It.
  4. That it’s important to understand your field of practice, whether it’s museums, archives, galleries or libraries. That studying your field as if it were a country you might visit is important. Learn the culture. Teach yourself who is powerful and why, and who is not powerful and why.
  5. That suffering and scarcity are not traditions that should be passed from one generation of museum workers to the next. Ridiculous schedules, pitiful salaries and job descriptions that read like indentured servitude are a form of hazing. Don’t take a job that requires another job to make you whole. See #4.
  6. That engaging with people in your workplace–regardless of age, race, position or gender– is important. It’s not a favor you do, it’s a learning experience. Sharing stories builds trust. See #s 4 and 12.
  7. That not all problems deserve the drama they receive. Stay in the present. Blame can wait. Solve the problem and move forward.
  8. A career needs to feed your soul, but it may not do that every day. Watch for side roads. They are slower, but the experience is entirely different. Be open to taking them.
  9. Stand up for your colleagues. Not standing up for them is selfish. See #1. You may be sure you’re not racist, classist, sexist, fattist, but remember the writer’s maxim: Show don’t tell. It’s not about your beliefs as much as your actions.
  10. Who told you you have to do everything perfectly, by yourself, the first time? Ask if you don’t understand or if you need help. Collaborating doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad colleague. It generates good ideas.
  11. One of the great joys of the museum workplace–indeed of any workplace– is learning. You aren’t an expert. You may know a lot, but there’s always someone who knows something more. #neverstoplearning.
  12. Don’t depend on fate or love or a mentor to orchestrate your career. It’s your career. Strategize for yourself the same way you would for an organization.
  13. Be kind.

Be well and stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


The Salary Debate: Money, Meaning and Politics

401(K) 2012https://www.flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/68751915@N05/6848823919/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87316604

It’s been awhile, but I think it’s time to talk about salaries again. This morning I spent some time searching this blog for articles I’ve written about museum pay, from the gender pay gap, to the leadership pay gap, to questions about museum jobs and a living wage. What’s horrifying isn’t that I wrote so many, (I did) it’s that in 2016 the issues I outlined were more or less the same as today–inadequate salaries, gender pay gap, huge gaps between director’s pay and lowest paid FT staff, and lousy benefits–minus of course the pandemic, and the fact that AAM’s recent survey tells us COVID will devastate the field a second time, as it predicts 20-percent of us will leave the field entirely by 2024.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which released its findings this month, sounds less dire than AAM. For one thing, the BLS looks backward to project forward so we will need to wait ’til next April to fully understand the depth and breadth of COVID’s damage. In addition, the BLS only looks at numbers. It doesn’t ask the museum world how it feels about work, only who is employed, and if yes, doing what? According to the BLS “Overall employment of archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators is projected to grow 11 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.” It projects 4,500 openings annually over the next decade, adding cryptically “Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire. Candidates seeking archivist, curator, museum technician, or conservator jobs should expect competition because of the high number of qualified applicants per job opening. Jobseekers with highly specialized training, a master’s degree, and internship or volunteer experience should have the best job prospects.” And all this for a median salary of $52,140, and the knowledge that if you are working full time and making less than $30,460, you are in the lowest 10-percent, and if you’re making more than $91,800, you are in the top 10-percent.

One of the lessons I’ve tried to internalize since George Floyd’s murder is that we white people of privilege are good at blathering, meaning we can latch onto an idea, sound like we understand, but don’t actually do anything. One of my own promises has been to say less and do more, to–in fact–do the work. (I do acknowledge the irony of any blogger saying they are going to say less, but I have a life outside these pages.) So I understand if you’re a museum leader whose heritage site or museum has recently opened. After months of lockdowns and false starts, it probably sets your hair on fire to think about salary equity when you’re up nights worrying about whether your organization will stay solvent through the summer. Everyone can grumble about directors’ salaries at the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art or the Museum of Natural History, but unless you work at MoMA, Glenn Lowry’s $4,130,549 salary, isn’t your worry. Your worry is your own director’s salary, those of your leadership, and most importantly those of your staff because until salaries and salary equity are a regular and necessary topic of conversation, there won’t be change.

Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who deaccessioning purists pilloried for his efforts to raise BMA staff wages by raising money through deaccessioning has in fact, managed to raise his lowest staff wages to $15/hour four years ahead of Maryland’s minimum wage change over. BMA has also announced that Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the former president of Spelman College who joined the museum as pro bono special counsel last spring, will establish an in-house task force on equity. Not everyone has the resources to take such bold action, but anyone who is a museum leader can start the discussion at the board and leadership level. Some things to consider:

  • Give your board some context: Are they aware what your state’s living wage is? Where are your museum’s lowest FT wages in comparison? Where are your hourly earners’ wages?
  • And where are your museum or heritage organization’s salaries in terms of the museum field? Does your board see and regularly discuss AAM’s salary survey? Do they understand that while they are responsible for hiring the museum leader, money allotted for salaries for the rest of the staff has a direct affect on an organization’s DNA?
  • COVID isn’t just an epidemic: Has your board read and discussed AAM’s COVID survey results?
  • Salaries have meaning: Has your board talked–really talked about the meaning of salaries–how if you are a Black woman and making 63-cents on the White man’s dollar, that not only do you take home less, your organization is complicit in saying you are worth less?
  • Staff matters, people matter. Do you talk about your staff with your board? Do you talk about them as contributors and what that looks like? Does your board have opportunities to meet staff and hear from them first hand?
  • Does your board see itself as part of a larger firmament, a museum-world currently threatened by a significant brain drain if one-fifth of the workforce walks away?

I am not saying any of this is easy. I once had a board member pivot in his chair so I spent the rest of a meeting about staff salaries staring at his back after I suggested our organization’s location was a theme park for the wealthy and thus challenging for staff making less than $15/hour to find housing. Regrettably, change takes time. Salaries render in cold hard cash what we think of the work we do, the people who do it, and they way we place people in racial and gender hierarchies. I want to acknowledge the many individuals and groups–not least of which is Museum Workers Speak— who continue to make museum wages an ongoing topic of discussion. AAM has done such good work helping us understand the workplace post-COVID, but one of the actions it could take would be to follow the American Library Association in endorsing a living wage for all museum workers.

When I first tackled this subject more than five years ago, I felt like I was ranting alone. But while it’s important to draw attention to the museum field’s systemic issues, it’s also important for museum leaders to look to putting their own houses in order. Until we put wages on the table and start educating our public, our boards, and ourselves that salaries are a political, cultural and social choice this will remain a difficult issue for the field.

Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


At the Intersection of Gender and Power

Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond, Installation View, Krannert Museum, 2014

Last week I spoke with a young woman. She contacted me because she was dealing with a situation of sexual harassment at work, and she didn’t know what to do. What she recounted was an all-too familiar scenario of a female museum employee being harassed by an older, wealthy, white man. This man does not work for her museum, but his wealth makes him important. He has donated before, and her museum anticipates he may again, so her organization wants him treated with kid gloves. Her team leaders, her director, and even HR, asked her to look the other way, to essentially take one for the team. In the meantime, she is supposed to come to work, do her job, do it well, all while waiting for this individual to appear on Zoom as part of a public program, to send her notes at work, and otherwise insert himself in her life in a predatory, sleazy and unwelcome way.

I have no doubt that at some point this young woman will leave her job because her museum has made it clear this individual’s money and his giving potential are worth more than her well being. I hope she doesn’t leave the field, but I wouldn’t blame her if she did. Would you stay if your museum tacitly asked you to prostitute yourself in exchange for a gift? And not even an actual gift, for the potential of a gift. And most damning of all? The director of her museum, and her direct reports are women. There is a sense that the power of the sisterhood should prevail, but perhaps access to money and power trumps empathy and understanding. And please don’t say it’s not like that. It IS like that, and most importantly, that’s what it feels like to be her right now, and no employee in a museum or anywhere else should feel they need to compromise their values and their selfhood to do their job.

I wish this were the first time I had heard this story, but it’s not. When Anne Ackerson and I completed the manuscript for Women in the Museum, we began speaking about women’s issues in the museum workplace at national and regional meetings. In fairness, #MeToo and Ronan Farrow were still a year away. At the time, though, we heard stories of the proverbial board member who sat next to the young, female director at meetings so he could touch her, and none of his fellow board members interfered. We heard about a wealthy male donor who coupled his predatory attitude with racist remarks to a young BIPOC employee. When she looked to her direct reports for support, it was the same story. He was too important to chastise. And we heard about a young woman working in advancement who was told explicitly by her bosses to dress a certain way when she visited older, male donors. We heard about BIPOC staff asked to trade sex for a better position, and about a newly-professional employee cyber-stalked by trustees.

Many of you reading this are horrified, and rightly so. Some of you may say, well, that’s not my institution. Maybe, but do your employees know where to go and how to navigate claims of sexual harassment? Some of you may feel we’re past all that, suggesting the issues we are dealing with today are issues of systemic racism. True, but it’s systemic racism mixed with power and hierarchy, and the thing about many of these incidents is they aren’t about attraction between equals. They depend on one party using power and fear to coerce and intimidate the other. Two things to remember: gender harassment isn’t like a childhood disease society had once and got over. It’s always there. And second, for women of color, it’s another layer of insult. So where are you in all of this? What would you do if your museum had to decline a substantial gift because accepting it meant putting staff at risk?

Many of the museums that end up in the news because of racist or sexist behavior get there because at the center, at their very core, there’s no sense of what they believe in. I’m not talking about mission. If you’re going to ask for money, either public or private, you better be able to express what it is you do for the public and why, but funders don’t ask about organizational values. They don’t ask what happens if a young BIPOC staff on the front lines of a heritage organization is berated by a visitor. They don’t ask what happens if a young shop assistant is on the receiving end of inappropriate comments or if a curator is asked about her social life by a much older donor. They don’t ask about the behavior your museum won’t tolerate on its campus, and how you handle visitor, donor or staff behavior that collides with your organizational conscience. In short, they don’t ask about the way your museum moves in the world. Because twinned with your core mission is a sense of values–for some museums it’s written, for a few it’s made public–that makes it clear that on your site, within your buildings, your staff is safe, seen, and supported.

If you Google “museum values statement” mostly what you get is a few blogs–not this one, although I’ve written about this before–and examples of how museums are valuable to their communities. That’s fine, but museums and heritage organizations are communities of people working for the same goals. Shouldn’t they stand behind the same core of beliefs for 40+ hours a week? Will that stop a 60-something man who feels it’s his prerogative to sexually harass young staff members? No,but organizationally, will it give you something to stand behind when you tell them to stop.

For all museum employees who suffer because coming to work places you in the harassment crosshairs, take care of yourself first. Make sure you have support, from family, friends and a counselor to unpack what’s happening. Once again, if you are the victim of workplace sexual harassment, know the law:

If sexual harassment is an ongoing problem at your museum or heritage organization, join Gender Equity in Museums Movement and the 620 folks who’ve signed the pledge. Think how differently the story that begins this post might be if the young woman’s colleagues had signed the pledge. Sexual harassment is intersectional. Working to eliminate it from your museum or heritage organization stops power from being used as a weapon or to quote LaTanya Autry “Normal is broken; normal is oppressive; normal hurts.”

Stay well and stay safe,

Joan Baldwin