This Wednesday I will attend the New England Museum Association’s 100th Annual Meeting in Stamford, CT. Along with panel moderator Scott Wands (CT Humanities) and co-presenters Grace Astrove (Jewish Museum), Kelsey Brow (King Manor Museum), Ilene Frank (Connecticut Historical Society), and Diane Jellerette (Norwalk Historical Society), I will help lead a session titled “Low Pay, No Pay, and Poor Pay: Say No Way!”
Despite the alliterative and slightly confrontational title, our goal is to bring people together to talk honestly about one of the most difficult aspects of museum work: salary. We will lead table discussions on the following topics: emerging professionals and pay; unpaid internships; salary and benefits negotiation; race and pay; and gender and pay inequity.
Our goal is to give participants the opportunity to move from table to table potentially participating in multiple discussions before reporting out to the whole group. In part, that’s because there is no one size fits all compensation story. Pay is personal and pay is organizational. Pay relates to your personal narrative, your personality, and hugely to bias.
For many board members, staff represent a yawning cavern of expense and escalating benefits. And while boards may adjust an executive director’s salary and benefits package to attract and keep the multi-talented person they believe their museum deserves, beyond the aggregate numbers, they rarely dip into compensation for staff further down the food chain. Thus, for the most part, pay is an executive director versus current or potential staff question, meaning when an offer is made both individuals need to be at the top of their game. The executive director needs to fully understand her budget, know whether she can negotiate and how far she’s willing to go. The individual needs to have some sense of salary range–which is why posting salaries and ranges is so important–and how much it costs to live in the area in question and meet expenses. She also needs to know what she thinks she’s worth, and whether she’s willing to walk away if an offer is too low.
Negotiations like these are made more complicated by gender and race. Job applicants have to find ways to ask whether the museum has completed a pay equity survey and adjusted salaries accordingly. Presumably any organization that’s already had a Marc Benioff-like moment would be overjoyed to talk about it, but you can’t be sure. And in some organizations, too many questions — from women and particularly from women of color — translate into a stridency organizations want to steer clear of.
Then there is the whole issue of new professionals negotiating for the first time, or those still in graduate school who want or need internships. We would like to announce that unpaid internships were as antiquated as the rotary phone, but sadly they’re not. NEMA has been stalwart in its support for mutually beneficial internships, but the museum world is still riddled with epically bad The Devil Wears Prada experiences. And being treated like crap when you’re being paid is one thing, but being treated like crap for donating your time seems like the definition of insanity.
One of the blue-sky hopes for this session is to actually come up with a series of proposals that will help move the salary debate forward. Since not all of you will be in Stamford this week, if there are changes you’d like to see — organizationally, regionally, and nationally — let us know. Let’s make some noise and make some change.
If museum salaries are not what they should be–and in far too many cases they’re not–then the dark underbelly of museum and heritage organization employment must be internships. Rarely defined, at least in any universal sense, they are sometimes discussed as if they were the pupa stage of a museum career–somewhere between a national history project prize and a first job.
Long ago in museum history, trustees used to look happily around the board table and say some variation of “We can get a grant for that.” That was code for we know there is public money available, we just need to find it. Those sentiments were frequently followed by “Maybe we can get an intern!” or another more recent variation, “Maybe we can get a high school student.” The latter is often in reference to projects involving IT, video creation, social media or coding, the assumption being that students facile with their cell phones might become students who create beautiful web pages for free or at least for less than full price. Sadly, at some institutions interns are the go-to for thankless, repetitive work, marketed to make it look resume-building. In fact to paraphrase the inimitable Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a museum in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an intern.”
Let’s be blunt: Here at Leadership Matters, we’re not fans of indentured servitude of students. They need to be paid. And they need the same respect you offer any employee. Being young or inexperienced doesn’t mean you don’t have good ideas. It just means that the context for those ideas may be a little ill-defined.
An internship is a complicated proposition. First, an excellent internship is some brilliant combination of teaching, mentoring, and learning by doing. It weaves together equal amounts of respect, experimentation, failure and independence. And in the end it’s a gift to museums as a whole. Why? Because you and your organization, serve as that person’s introductory chapter to museum work. If you are dithering, disorganized, unimaginative or demanding in the tradition of Cruella de Vil, your intern may u-turn right into another field.
Second, if you are going to manage an internship, you need to be a good teacher. And you need the time to teach otherwise your failure to explain clearly will mean extra work for all involved. When you write your internship job description, create a week-to-week syllabus to help you and your potential intern see what they will learn and how. If you need help writing internship announcements, we recommend the New England Museum Association which offers sample templates and job descriptions.
Last, pay your intern. Internships usually take place over a finite period of time–a semester, a summer, a winter term. If your organization can’t afford $200-$250 a week which is not even close to minimum wage in many states, or housing (which is often necessary for out-of-town/state interns, perhaps you should reconsider. Is it possible that in your organizational heart-of-hearts, you want cheap labor more than you want the responsibility of an internship?
The museum field is increasingly hard to break into. It doesn’t necessarily pay well, but it requires a graduate degree as an entrance ticket. The other entrance requirement is a string of seemingly endless internships and volunteer projects. Don’t be the organization that offers mindless work capped with a hollow recommendation letter. Be the place where work is interesting and really matters. Be the place that teaches. An internship is a choice, for both individual and organization. Choose wisely.
*Organizational DNA is a metaphor for the underlying factors that together define an organization’s“personality” and help explain its performance.
In a few weeks Anne and I fly to St. Louis, MO, for the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting. We arrive early, however, because the day before the meeting we are teaching in AAM’s Getty Leadership and Career Management Program. Anne will speak about career strategies, and I’ll speak about self-awareness. In both cases, we’re talking about museum leaders as individuals, but these ideas also apply to organizations.
You’ve all read about or participated in strategic planning, but how about self-awareness? And more particularly, how does self-awareness apply to your organization? Does your organization know who it is? Really? Or does it only know who it isn’t? Are you not the flashier art museum across the park or not the sophisticated science museum down the street? Does knowing you are not an outdoor site really tell you anything? Maybe what you need to know is your organizational DNA? Because just as it helps to understand yourself in the museum workplace, it also helps when an organization knows itself in the museum marketplace.
Last week we saw a job advertisement that made us–as proponents of organizational self-awareness– leap for joy. It was listed on on Idealist.com. It’s for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization that celebrates those who fought in the Revolutionary War. To join, you must be a male descendent of a commissioned officer of the Continental Army or Navy; however the Society is more than a membership organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it also maintains a library and a house museum, both open to the public.
To be honest, based just on its name, the Society of the Cincinnati might not be our choice for the most open, transparent, authentic museum organization, but that is biased thinking, and this is a pretty extraordinary job advertisement. Clearly, this organization is comfortable in its own skin. It knows exactly who it is. And it wants you to know too, and it is respectful enough of you, as a possible applicant, that it doesn’t want you to apply if it isn’t the place for you. Read the announcement. Even if you’re not a Revolutionary War scholar, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that writes, “We aren’t looking for clerical support or a general office assistant. We aren’t looking for someone who simply likes history or enjoys writing. We aren’t looking for someone who just graduated from college with a history degree and knows a lot about some other historical time and place…….This isn’t an internship. It’s a serious professional opportunity for someone with the right historical knowledge, writing and editing skills, creativity, and problem solving ability.”
Like a self-aware person, the Society of the Cincinnati knows itself. That knowledge allows it to be open and authentic about what it needs. What if more organizations wrote job advertisements like this one? What if, instead of the opening paragraph describing the museum, followed by a paragraph saying they need an individual with a graduate degree, at least five years of experience, who is creative, a team player, and who can walk on water while multi-tasking, and oh, is also a social media whiz, organizations described who they really are and what they really needed?
An authentic ad doesn’t have to be unprofessional or sassy. It just needs to be clear and truthful. And to do that, you need to really know your organization. That doesn’t mean that if you’ve worked there since 1980 you automatically know it. It means you have to pay attention to the way it behaves, the decisions it makes, and the people it hires.
Don’t know your organizational DNA? Here are some things to think about and do:
- Ask questions and listen. We know a new museum leader who’s spent his first hundred days working and learning in every department on his site.
- Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
- Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
- Try to identify your organization’s intangibles: How do staff behave at work? What is considered the “right” way to behave at work? Does your organization have an ’embrace-all’ attitude for the public, but a staff that is bastioned and siloed?
- Write down the organizational truths you encounter. Discuss them. Test your theories with board members and colleagues.
It may take a while to come to consensus, but once you do, you can put all your organization’s writing to the test, and make sure it really speaks to who you are. Then maybe you can advertise for the individual you really need as opposed to the one-size-fits-all version.
Here at Leadership Matters we believe in mentoring. It’s generous, it builds connections across the museum field, it makes us stronger. So, putting my money where my mouth is, I recently advised a young colleague to look for museum internships. And she found some. One is paid and required a formal application process, while several are unpaid. Some of the unpaid ones could be accessed through my connections and required an interview. A few weeks later, we spoke at NEMA (you can read about that here: Five Gender Myths and What Happened at NEMA) where more than a few attendees deplored the fact the museum field, while scratching its collective head about why the field isn’t more diverse, sets up a host of barriers to emerging professionals, not least of which is an expensive graduate degree followed by an internship(s) which is likely unpaid. Participants in our NEMA session suggested there should be a field-wide moratorium on unpaid internships. So what to do? Folks new to the field need experience. Internships seem like they answer that problem, but are they a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
In my case, my mentee isn’t committed to the museum field. She’s not even committed to graduate school. She’s a recent college graduate with a degree in art history. Museum and archives work have been her go-to job choice since middle school. But teaching also calls to her. While chatting with her I pointed out that a brief internship with a defined scope might help sort out what, if anything, about the museum world appeals to her. And if it does seem appealing, does it matter enough to check the big box of graduate degree? And yes, she would be the first to tell you she is lucky and privileged. She is able to live at home or with extended family and participate in the internships available to her.
So if or until the field grapples with this problem at some 30,000-foot level, what should graduate students or new museum professionals do? In no particular order, here are Leadership Matters’ ideas for individuals, organizations, and graduate programs.
- As with any job search, be strategic. Know what you want out of your experience. Random experience brought to you by an internship is not an answer. Strategize about what you need. What builds and connects with what’s already on your resume?
- If you’re looking at something unpaid, make sure the organization defines your role. What will you do and for whom? What are your takeaways? Is there academic credit? Does that matter to you if your degree requirements are complete?
- And even if you’re not being paid or getting credit, ask what else the organization offers interns: paid attendance at workshops or a regional meeting, free admission to events that support your areas of interest; parking or travel supplements; opportunities to speak or publish. Don’t be bashful. You’re offering time and skills. This is not indentured servitude. Get something back.
- Can you manage financially and balance an internship while paying your bills, eating, and having any kind of life?
- If not, consider volunteering. I know it sounds a lot less fancy, and in many cases it is, but as a volunteer you donate your time, which puts you more or less in the driver’s seat. Nonetheless, everything from bullet point one still applies only more so.
- If your area of specialty is development, communications, leadership, or anything found throughout the non-profit world, don’t confine yourself to museums. Look everywhere.
- Internships are not scut work. Good internships can launch careers. Be honest: If you don’t have the time or temperament to supervise internships, for goodness sakes, don’t do it. The museum field doesn’t need Cruella De Vil.
- If you have a donor or donors interested in education, consider helping them create a named (paid) internship. Your organization benefits as well as the field. Conversely, if they would rather endow a position, ask the board if it would consider shifting funds from the endowed position to create fellowships or internships in other departments.
- If you can’t fund a position, can your organization ally with a local college or university and offer an internship for credit? And while you’re at it, gather some of the students together and ask them to help structure the program. What works best for them?
- Be realistic with your students. Understand the job market.
- Create alliances (and internships for money or credit) with museums nearby. If you’re a virtual program, consider leveraging your brand in an internship partnership.
- Build opportunities for students to meet and work with museum staff into your program. Require them to have mentors, not just advisors. Mentors aren’t advisors.
- Too often getting a job feels like another job. Teach students how to strategize about what it is they want as they build careers.
If this week is a holiday for you, best wishes for a happy time with family and friends. And when you have a moment, share your thoughts about the internship conundrum here.
P.S. And for more detailed information on classifying someone as an intern, you may want to read this: Four Takeaways—and Good News—for Nonprofit Employers with Internship Programs