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


The Volunteer Conundrum: Necessary, Infuriating or Both? And Why?

Look back at museum history and you will uncover a wealth of volunteer labor. From Mount Vernon to MOMA, local historical societies to heritage sites, many of the organizations we think of today as staid and patriarchal, owe their lifeblood to a group of volunteers whose persistence created an organization. That moment of transition, when a group of like-minded individuals with a museum goal in mind becomes a non-profit organization governed by a board of trustees is a delicate one. Like it or not, it can stamp organizational culture into the future because it hallmarks who volunteers are, and most importantly, who they’re not.

Recently Michelle Moon tweeted that museum volunteer programs are a “third rail,” meaning they’re too volatile to discuss. Moon’s tweet was in response to an Instagram post on ChangetheMuseum praising Veronica Stein at Chicago’s Art Institute for her efforts in disrupting its all-powerful Docent Council. I don’t want to litigate the Art Institute’s case, but even today almost a year after it fired its docents, the topic still lingers. Why? Well, it incapsulates a gazillion touch stones, many dating to pre-Covid museum history and some to today. There’s gender–the vast majority of museum volunteers are women. There’s ageism. Many museum volunteers are older. There’s class–many volunteers, often called docents from the Latin docere, to teach–are wealthy or at least privileged enough not to work 40/hrs a week. There’s race: the vast majority of docents are White. They are frequently powerful. Collectively they form or join docent organizations, and, because they offer a much-needed service–their organization grows powerful. Even at a county historical society, a strong docent organization has the capacity to cripple an education program by simply failing to show up. And, at another level, docent programs’ origins are often built around women without careers who volunteered while their husbands took positions on the board.

Blech. I can hear you eye rolling. Like we need to feel sorry for a bunch of rich, older, White women, who create organizations within organizations and then refuse to take instructions from anyone. Right? But there are so many ways this narrative speaks to the museum field’s failures and problems. First, how did volunteer organizations become a third rail? Well, to quote Deep Throat, follow the money. When you put a group of well-heeled women together, who by the way, are often married to well-heeled men, who museum leaders want to court for one reason or another, they are teflonned. Any hint of distress might mean less giving. Is it possible less-than distinguished volunteer teaching is an acceptable trade off for a more robust annual fund? Second, museum education is the pinkest place, in a pink collar field. I’ve written about this a bit, which you can find here, and here, but if you want a concise break down look at Margaret Middleton’s Twitter thread on the subject. Her point, that if a field (museum education) is devalued from the start, volunteers are often a necessity not a choice. But once again, dismantling a volunteer program, may mean biting the hand that feeds you.

I understand it’s easy to sit at your laptop and act as though fixing the museum world’s problems is a snap. It’s not. Negotiating with humans is frequently challenging, and who has time to unravel organizational culture when there are so many more pressing problems? That said, here are a few thoughts for anyone considering dismantling or changing a volunteer program.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics devotes considerable time to the act of volunteering. In fact, it defines volunteers as workers albeit unpaid ones.
  • If volunteers are staff, just unpaid staff, then their work expectations, as opposed to their time, shouldn’t be less than staff. In other words, both types of worker, paid and unpaid, serve the museum. Anything less seems like it leads to anarchy. For example, what if the volunteer EMTs formed their own organization and refused to be trained by their parent organizations? No one in a museum will die if their teacher is a volunteer as opposed to staff. So…. is the question whether volunteers are old, rich, and White or whether they are serving themselves and not the institution?
  • Interestingly, the BLS notes that volunteers can’t displace paid staff.
  • I once heard Darren Walker talk about diversifying the Ford Foundation’s board. Perhaps because there is such is level of trust between Walker and his board, the board confessed it couldn’t diversify on its own. Board members didn’t know how, and more importantly they didn’t know who. Is it possible that if charged with diversifying their ranks, some docent organizations would need help? Might they also need help getting to the point of asking for help?
  • Like staff, volunteers, even the most magical ones, take a lot of work. (For example, the Met’s volunteers train weekly for six months before being let loose in the galleries.) Too often volunteers train volunteers, creating an elaborate game of telephone, and distancing volunteers from staff. Does your organization have resources to educate and incorporate volunteers into its wider staff?
  • Has your museum leadership talked about how to transparently deal with questions from paid staff about their worth, and what they’ve invested in the field, which is not nothing, versus a volunteer who swans in once a week for a tour?
  • Has your museum talked about the language it uses when defining groups, either within or without the museum? As part of DEI education, many organizations offer help regarding appropriate group descriptors. As a museum leader, have you needed to model similar behavior when it comes to volunteers?
  • At the end of the day, does your museum need volunteers? If so, which is more important: having a diverse body of volunteers or having volunteers who serve the museum? Or both?

Be well. Stay cool.

See you in September.

Joan Baldwin


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


An Announcement Plus Women and Burnout

CIPHR Connect – https://www.flickr.com/photos/193749286@N04/51391533873/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=110070972, https://www.ciphr.com/

First, the announcement: In December this blog will be a decade old. As I’ve said more than a few times, it was started to support and augment the original publication of Leadership Matters. Later, when I worked for an epically bad leader, it helped me unpack workplace problems, and later still when I became an interim leader, it served as another type of sounding board. When I started this blog, I was literally alone. Yes, there were leadership blogs written for the business community, but there were few, if any, about the museum workplace. In fact, a decade or more ago, I would argue the field was actively engaged in NOT talking about working conditions.

Thankfully, that has changed. Today it’s a relief to share space with writers like Mike Murawski (Agents of Change,) Robert Weisberg (Museum Human,)and Paul Thistle from the country that’s friendly, foreign, familiar and near, and many more, including all those who confine their opinions to the Twitterverse, as well as organizations like Museum Hue, National Emerging Museum Professionals, and @changethemuseum. Together, I believe we all help change the culture of silence in the museum workplace. So with this good company, I’ve decided to take a tiny step back. Beginning February 14, Leadership Matters, will appear monthly on the second Monday of each month.

In keeping with my own pursuit of change–accepting, learning, growing–I realize there are other things I’d like to do on a weekend besides worrying my thoughts about museum leadership into a six-hundred word piece. So I’ll be here this week, next week, and then, going forward, monthly.

*******

And now to some thoughts on work. Long ago, in another lifetime, I was a ballet dancer. Like many girls I took daily classes while trying to decide whether I had the courage and talent to move from avid student to something more. Clearly I didn’t, but that’s not the point. Ballet dancers–at least female ones–are used to pushing themselves beyond what’s normal. They are the people choreographers make pieces “on” as opposed to “for.” Their teachers and choreographers push and push, and feet bleeding, muscles aching, they take it.

I thought about that this week when I realized I’d reached the proverbial wall. Shouldn’t I know better? Yes, but since the beginning of January I had said yes repeatedly, often to things outside my workplace lane, and the result? It was too much and my work was suffering. And let’s not even talk about work/life balance.

There is some kind of masochistic pride in overwork, and like many workplace behaviors, I believe it’s gendered. Women are used to “doing it all.” They are the finders, the doers, the schedulers, the nurse, and while I’m sure there are households where work is equitably shared, they are often cook, maid, and primary child, pet, and elder minder as well. Those same skills show up in the workplace, where no matter their job description, women fulfill roles as schedulers, planners, cleaner-uppers, and counselors, all while trying to preserve enough brain space for a few big thoughts.

Let me pause here to acknowledge my own position of privilege. I’m White, reasonably well-paid, my children are launched, and I have a solid benefit package. So my hitting the wall is a hang nail compared to what some women cope with. McKinsey’s January report on Burnout for Women in the Workplace reports that the rate of burnout between women and men has almost doubled since last year. The Report also says that despite their own increasing weariness, women take action more consistently than men to fight it, all while–at the corporate level, at least–delivering results, but at a great personal toll. It would be nice to know how these trends and behaviors play out in the museum world, but even with a workforce that’s 50.1-percent women, the field seems disinterested in spending money on knowing what its workforce thinks.

If you’re a woman and a woman leader, what can you do?

  • Keep talking. Speak with your colleagues–particularly women– your direct reports and those up the workplace food chain– about what you’re experiencing.
  • If you’re a leader, acknowledge women who do extra work, whether it’s workplace housekeeping, mentoring and counseling or logistics and planning.
  • Look at your HR policy. Policies aren’t one and done, they need to grow along with your team and your organization. If it’s been awhile, work on your HR policy.
  • Acknowledge how the current health crisis may propel your organization into a talent crisis, and what the costs might be.
  • Many museums want to diversify their workforces, but be alert to how being the only BIPOC woman can put a new hire in a space of otherness that as White on-boarders you never even thought about. Learn–which is a process, not something you get from reading an article–how to be an ally. Be a mentor, open doors, and explain the Byzantine rituals and culture of your organization.
  • When you lobby this month for your institution and museums in general, remember to mention how important societal supports are for working women, like maternity/paternity leave, childcare, and oh, how about the gender wage gap?

1.8 million women have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic. As far as I know, until the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes out with its 2021 numbers this spring, we won’t know how the museum world has been affected. But you might. You might be a woman or know a woman, who’s feeling like this world she struggled to enter has let her down, and she doesn’t have the best-job-ever any more. What can we do to change that?

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


An Anniversary, But Also a Question: Can Each of Us Do Something to Make the Workplace Better?

Juliescribbles – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108765177 taken from https://www.scribbler.com/

This coming week Leadership Matters celebrates its ninth birthday. That’s roughly 450 posts written since December 13, 2012. Phew. I started this blog to promote the first version of Leadership Matters, a book Anne Ackerson and I wrote in 2012, and then revised in 2019 as Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. In addition to the blog’s birthday, it’s also the time of year when we look back at the year past. 2021 remains a strange and confounding time. In December last year, those of us who hadn’t been relieved of our positions, found ourselves working largely from home, visiting our collections and sites when allowed.

Without a vaccine, it was a lonely, isolating time. And yet, as I’ve written so many times on these pages, the pandemic lifted the rock off a lot of problems. It didn’t fix anything, but for the museum world, it spotlighted a host of workplace issues around race, gender, pay, leadership and on and on. And now, a year later those issues are still here, made more acute by a new forthrightness. Some–myself included– think we need a do-over or at the very least, a series of conversations about where the world of museum work took a wrong turn, leaving so many underpaid, under-appreciated and angry.

I suggested such a conversation last week, posing a mythical group of people I’d like to see around the table. Whether that can or will actually happen is another story, but in the meantime, I want to underscore that change isn’t something that can be solved only from the top down. “They,” whoever “they” are in your world, aren’t going to sweep in and make things magically better. If you make this a board problem or a director’s problem, you shift responsibility from “ours” to “theirs,” as if this were only an issue of leadership. It is a leadership problem, but it’s also a systemic problem, meaning we all own a piece of it. If you’re enraged even reading that sentence, you, who feels powerless in your hourly job where you’re over-educated, under-compensated, and have far more responsibility than authority, remember how systemic issues concern the whole rather than its parts, meaning you play a part as well. What can you do? Perhaps only small things, but small things are still important. Be the kind colleague. Stand up for your fellow workers. Join the union if your museum has one. Attend staff meetings. Know what your personnel policy says. Don’t have one? Lobby for one. Lobby with your fellow workers. Ask them to lobby for you. Don’t be neutral. Speak up. Remember that even at the most enlightened organizations, women, and especially women of color, are paid less so when you hear complaints about pay, don’t discredit them. There is a pay gap. And it is meaningful. In a very bad way.

This week Fast Company surveyed 6,000 employees about the future of work. Fast Company is devoted to the business world, but it’s likely what their employees say they want has some crossover with the museum world. And what do they want? Flexibility. They’re happy working from home, and they don’t necessarily want to change. Apparently 78-percent of their respondents named flexibility as a top priority. Second on the list? Almost half (49%) want to share values with company leadership. I’ve written a lot about workplace values on these pages. Museum jobs are hard to come by, and precisely because the process is so fraught, I’m not sure applicants ask about organizational values, when they should. Fast Company also commented on how for some companies who hired during the pandemic, many employees have never worked on site, never had a hallway conversation, never been to a face-to-face meeting, and no surprise, it’s hard to hold a team together without human interaction. With many museums open again, staffers are back in the building, but the article underscores once again, the need for imaginative, humane onboarding.

******

This is also the time of year when I look back at the top posts for 2021. If popularity indicates readership, the most-read posts confirm the dark place we’re stuck in. For the third year running, Leadership and Workplace Bullying tops the most-read list, a sad testament to the climate and concerns in museum and heritage organization offices. In the second spot is last week’s post Can We Talk Together About Museum Work? Soon? followed by, Is the Chicago Firing So Different from the COVID Firings? and On Labor Day, Taking the Museum World’s Work Temperature.

Leadership Matters last post for 2021 will appear next week. Then I will be on hiatus until the week of January 10.

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

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


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