A million years ago when I was a young, museum director, I worked a lot. It was hard not to. I lived on site, and work–to bastardize William Wordsworth–was with me late and soon. Even having friends over meant discussing work because conversations began with questions like what’s it like to live next door to the period rooms? What’s it like, besides mortifying, when the dog barks at the sound of 4th graders on the other side of the velvet ropes?
While I was grateful for housing as part of compensation, it definitely affected my ability to separate work from life. It was all too easy to settle down after dinner for a cosy hour writing a grant application as opposed to reading or a walk. My circadian rhythms for what is known in HR as work/life balance were messed up. But that was then. Now you can work 8 hours a day, add on a two hour-plus commute, during which you scan and return emails or phone calls, and you never leave work. It’s there on the device of your choosing, and depending on the culture of your organization, you may be criticized or applauded for checking email, texts, and voicemail when you’re not officially on the clock.
Americans as a group work hard. According to a Gallup 2014 poll, Americans work 47 hours a week, one of the highest numbers in the world, and significantly higher than folks in, say, the EU countries. Most Americans get at least two weeks off each year, in addition to federally mandated holidays, but for financial reasons many end up not taking the full two weeks. The museum workforce is no exception to the hard work/too much work conundrum. Elizabeth Merritt, director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, wrote about a facet of this in 2016, terming it “the sacrifice measure.” In Merritt’s scenario, the young and presumably privileged, are willing to accept ridiculously low salaries simply to gain a toehold in the museum community. Although it’s unspoken in Merritt’s piece, we have to assume that along with the tiny salary comes a huge expectation in terms of workload. The combination of low wages and a ridiculous amount of work is not dissimilar to the Grimm’s fairy story where the aspiring princess is told to empty a pond with a spoon full of holes. And as soon as a few agree to that scenario, it becomes increasingly difficult for others to say whoa, no way, I’d have more time off waiting tables and presumably no one would text me that the salt and pepper shakers needed refilling.
What kind of culture does your museum or heritage organization have around work? Is there a sense that you’re doing something noble? Is there life and death drama to every project? Is time managed sensibly? Or conversely, do you work in a place where deadlines are mutable, where few are held to account? Are you compensated adequately? Do you and your colleagues complain, but still work an extra day’s worth each week?
Social media sites are used by one third of the world’s population. It’s likely since you’re reading this blog, that you scamper around the Internet with the best of them. If that’s true and you aren’t thinking about how Silicon Valley and social media changes your brain — not to mention your workday — then you have some more reading to do. You might want to start by listening to this.
In the meantime, if you are a museum leader do you model good work practice? Apart from dire events, do you unplug at home and on vacation? Do you talk about your workplace culture with your staff? Do you counsel staff who seem to spend countless hours working and question those who seem to need to work all the time?
As museum leaders you don’t need one more thing on your to-do lists, but workplace culture matters. If the work week extends from 40 hours to 60 because you can always get something done at midnight or 5:30 am are you really managing time well? Some advice:
- Tackle your own addictions first. Barring fire or flood, unplug at home and on the weekends.
- Try not being a museum leader part of every weekend. Be a partner, a parent, an athlete, a friend instead.
- Talk about your work culture in a generative way at work. Acknowledge the weak spots. Encourage behavioral change.
- Discuss how texts from home, Facebook and Twitter intrude on work as well.
- Talk about not taking work home. And if there’s a reason for that—like too many interruptions at work–how can that be fixed?
- Support breaks, walks, the occasional yoga class.
We all want happier, more productive workplaces. And working more isn’t always the answer.
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.
Full disclosure: We’re white. In addition, we’re straight, and we’ve been in this field a long time. That means for some of you, we’re old enough to be your grandmas. We’re putting that out there because a) knowledge is power and b) in the age of Facebook, you may want to measure your response to issues of gender (and race) based on who’s doing the talking. So here are a few thoughts about women and the museum world in response to recent happenings.
- First, kudos to AASLH for insisting that museums and heritage organizations advertising on its Career Center page must now post salary ranges. Leadership Matters has long lobbied for wage increases in museum salaries, but understanding salary is tricky when organizations aren’t transparent about what they pay. And what does this have to do with women? A lot. Women are not paid equitably in this field or any other. Before you eye roll, and say that’s not true, it is. If you don’t believe us, Google it. Everyone from Pew Charitable Trusts to The New York Times has written about it many times over. And it’s important here because that $1/85-cent gap isn’t only about white women versus white men, it’s about white men and Latina women, for example, where Latina women make 53.8-cents for every white man’s dollar.
By posting salary ranges AASLH provides a framework and a mutual understanding about what’s on the table ahead of the hiring process. That helps applicants, but particularly women, negotiate. The Wage Gap didn’t happen overnight, and according to some agencies, it will take centuries to fix. While we wait, a big thank you to AASLH.
- Our friend and colleague Bob Beatty put our recent post on social media. Having Bob post something is meaningful because he reaches a lot of people. Not surprisingly, one of his readers responded. He asked whether graduate programs in museum studies were as overwhelmingly female as they appear, and whether AASLH or anyone had figures to prove that? He also said that his own museum is 77-percent female. He thinks someday soon his institution (and many others) might be majority female, thus (he said) ending the gender equity problem. He remarked that “demographics is destiny,” meaning that a lot of women or maybe just a homogeneous workplace equals an equitable one. Last, he suggested that for Leadership Matters to imply that there are still boatloads of bias in the museum field was hyperbole.
Here’s our answer:
- An all-female field is not something anyone should wish for. It’s professional suicide. Traditionally female fields like nursing and libraries are known as pink collar fields. These jobs are traditionally devalued in the economy. (I know–eye roll here–who doesn’t value a nurse, but it’s true.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the museum field is 46.7-percent female, meaning it’s at a tipping point, but not entirely pink yet.
- Statistics from graduate schools are hard to come by. We don’t know any service organization who’s tried to count the number of students in the pipeline much less their gender. Given that more women than men go to college and graduate school, it wouldn’t surprise us if museum studies programs are disproportionately female, but, again, that’s not healthy. Healthy and creative fields are equitably balanced for gender, race, and age.
- Don’t conflate demographics with equity. We could have a 77-percent female field and men would still be paid more, and hold the highest paying positions. See our comment above on the gender wage gap. Nor does a majority female field eliminate bias.
- Channel your empathy. “A boatload of bias” may seem harsh from where a (white?) male writer sits. And he may be kind, empathetic, and humble, but until he (or anyone of privilege) tries to understand the way the museum field’s unconscious bias ambushes people of color, and LGBTQIA+ employees, the boatload of bias will remain an impenetrable mystery to him. Although getting woke can be uncomfortable, we recommend “I Am the Person Sitting Next to You,” from the blog Incluseum as a place to start.
Last, a month or so, we posted the infographic above. We also sent it to service organizations and numerous media outlets because we’d just finished a survey of more than 700-plus museum workers. The results were disturbing. Yet, it prompted no response from AAM, AASLH or AAMD. What does that say about the field? Does the fact that 62-percent of our respondents have experienced or witnessed gender discrimination not matter? And if 62-percent of museum workers experience gender discrimination, how are those problems compounded for persons of color, native/indigenous women, LGBTQIA+, and non-binary, non-conforming persons? How should we interpret that silence?
How many of us have found ourselves the new person on a museum staff? We join a program or department in a historic site, museum, garden or zoo. We’re new. Everyone else isn’t. In contrast to our Skype conversation and our subsequent day-long, in-person interview our colleagues seem a tad cranky. We chalk it up to stress, and move forward, but we begin to hear chatter about the boss. The very boss who offered us a job. We’re uncomfortable. It took a long time to find what seems to be the perfect position. We’re doing what we love, the salary is good, and weirdly, the benefits are great. We want this to be our happy place, but it’s not because two people, in particular, are very, very angry. At the boss. The seemingly calm, equitable leader who just offered us this brilliant opportunity.
What do you do? Well, you can always chalk it up to the cranky quotient, the equation that says a certain percentage of all colleagues will be out of sorts at any given time. You can smile and leave the pair alone. Should you be a witness to their ranting while waiting for the coffee machine, you can definitely not participate. Or you can always confront them and tell them why they’re wrong.
But before you do that, here’s something to contemplate: Your experience is not theirs. You don’t have to change your mind (or theirs), but you need to respect their experience. That is what museums ask of you, over and over, when dealing with the public and collections. You’re asked to understand the frustrated mother who yells at the admission staff because she’s shepherding four kids under 10. You’re asked to empathize with the middle schoolers who can’t connect to the current exhibit. You’re asked to court the elderly donor whose political views you don’t share and who’s a teensy bit patronizing. Or you’re asked to find ways to make your largely white, old-school, site appealing to a community that is no longer white and definitely not old-school. All these instances demand empathy rather than judgment.
Is it possible that the person who hired you, who has been nothing but kind and encouraging, is not always that way? Yes. Is it possible she may have treated your colleagues shabbily? Yes. It’s also possible you will learn something about dealing with her by setting your own bias aside and talking with your colleagues. (Of course, you may learn you were right all along and that your colleagues are whiney, judgmental individuals who love seeing themselves as victims.) But you may also discover your director was less than understanding when your colleague’s child was in ICU or perhaps your angry colleague was harassed by another staff member and feels the incident wasn’t taken seriously? You may learn your colleague is the primary support for her family and can’t quit her job even if she wanted to.
Sometimes being part of a staff is like those moments where you sit with family and remember a childhood incident. Half your cousins and siblings recall a side-splittingly funny moment. The other half? Shock and embarrassment. It’s as if you witnessed two different events, and in a way you did. Everybody’s experience is real to them. If the colleagues in question are people you deal with daily, you may want to hear their stories. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t patronize or gaslight them. About all you can say truthfully is that your experience isn’t theirs. But what you learn may help you understand them, your dream boss, and others. If it were an equation, it would look like this:
Listen + no judgment = knowledge
Knowledge (applied) = experience = #beabetterhuman
Tell us how you get along with the folks in your workplace.
What do Helen Mirren, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Maddow, Michelle Obama, parents, partners, and a former boss or two have in common? Oh, and we can’t forget some of the museum field’s leading lights like Kathy McLean, Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Arnold Lehman.
What, or more precisely, who, is their common thread?
They are just some of the people our Leadership Matters interviewees spoke about when Joan and I asked them to talk about their positive role models. The role model question is a key one, we think, because the answer often provides surprising insight into a person’s values and aspirations.
Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes in her 2013 article, “We All Need Role Models to Motivate and Inspire Us,”
As adults, we tend to give little thought to the idea of having a “role model,” as we regard this to be a quality that children seek from the adults in their lives. However, if you stop and consider who most influences you now, and why, you’ll no doubt agree that the people you admire now are giving you your most important life lessons.
Role models can be positive or negative. They all teach us, good or bad, and the positive ones inspire us. They’re mirrors by which we can examine our own strengths and weaknesses, measure our abilities and desires, and clarify our choices. Role models can change our outlook and encourage us to reach our own potential.
Why did some of our interviewees choose the role models they did?
For Ilene Frank, Chief Curator and COO at the Connecticut Historical Society, Joan of Arc lived a life by values and a belief system, “plus she’s a woman in armor and a sword.” Helen Mirren’s work ethic, authenticity, and flexible talent are key elements for Janet Carding, Director at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Michigan Science Center CEO and President Tonya M. Matthews cites Martin Luther King’s ability to deliver a message in context and Michelle Obama as a role model for African American female leadership. Parents, siblings, and partners provided life lessons, stability, encouragement, and a work ethic for many of our interviewees, including Jennifer Kilmer, Director of the Washington State Historical Society and Bob Burns, Director of the Mattatuck Museum. For Van Romans, President of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Abraham Lincoln’s ability to diffuse tense situations with stories and humor are leadership competencies worth emulating.
Who are your role models and what do they say about you?
Anne W. Ackerson
Once in a while Leadership Matters gets a question about what to ask in an interview. You know, the fear you’ll draw a blank when the dreaded “What questions do you have for us?” makes its appearance. By that point you’ve already been asked what type of animal you would be if you could choose. You talked through lunch, but never with your mouth full. And, you’ve beaten back imposter syndrome and demonstrated you do in fact know something about being (pick one) a director, curator, educator, development assistant.
So there you are in interview mode. You love this museum. You’ve always loved it. But in your current job you feel like a cog in a wheel. Innovation is not in your job description. You need to figure out whether this museum, which seems to want you, encourages original thinking or not. So ask how an idea works its way from thought bubble to experimentation, and on to review and implementation.
For some museums and heritage organizations the answer is still the traditional top down response: Ideas come from the director, and her leadership group. Unless you’re applying for the director’s position, that may stop you in your tracks. You may also hear the word teamwork, but pay attention, teamwork is tricky, and what you really need to know is can the new kid on the block make change?
Teamwork should be an opportunity for diverse thinking and cross pollenization, but like your middle school history project, it can quickly devolve into disaster, crankiness and unproductivity. It is not a magic bullet. Creating teams isn’t an end, it’s a means, and like so much about leadership, teamwork depends on vision and a clear, concise articulation of goals. A signal that the museum interviewing you uses teams well will be hearing that someone far down the food chain is an active team participant. Another is watching your interview group for signs of sarcasm and eye rolling. But hopefully, you’re watching for that sort of behavior anyway.
Say they describe a year-long planning process that included participants from across the museum. Can you tell if the team worked independently before reporting back?Teams depend on trust and independence as much as leadership. They shouldn’t require the director or department head’s presence to function. They need a clear mandate and the independence to experiment and make decisions, and leaders, without even meaning to, can dominate conversation and squelch the back and forth where real creativity prospers.
You may not feel bold enough, but it’s fair to ask whether this is a staff (or team) that tolerates dissent. Healthy staffs know conflict about the work itself is okay. In fact, research shows the ability to argue about ideas (as opposed to personalities) generates more creativity. Needless to say, you don’t want to be part of an organization where conflict is personal or where the staff long ago gave up original thought because if the director doesn’t think something, it’s not going to happen.
- In any interview situation, the organization appears to have all the cookies, but you’re interviewing them too. Do not compound your current misery by taking a job where the staff is demonstrably unhappy.
- Look for signs that staff likes being together. Do they laugh?
- The interview is the sweet spot. Watch and listen. Are your interviewers listening to you? If you get evasive or rote answers in the interview, it’s unlikely things will improve.
- If you don’t get an answer to how innovation happens, that’s a red flag in itself.