What Does PMA’s Victory Means for the Rest of Us?

Joe Piette – https://www.flickr.com/photos/1097

Unless you buried your phone, you’re likely aware that for 19 days this fall staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were on strike. Two years ago PMA workers unionized. What followed wasn’t workplace Nirvana, but rather protracted negotiations between their union and PMA leadership. Around the beginning of October when negotiations stalled, museum workers walked out.

From the sidewalks the striking workers watched, wondered and worried as PMA hung its Matisse show, while waiting for Sasha Suda, PMA’s new director, to acknowledge what was going on. Other museums and museum staff used social media to advocate for a sector-wide shunning of the Museum until the strike was settled, which it eventually was. Here are some of the Union’s contractual victories: cheaper healthcare; a month of paid parental leave (Previously, it was nothing); additional bereavement leave; a pay equity committee; limits on the Museum’s use of temporary staff and subcontractors.

It’s a David and Goliath story, and even without knowing much about museumland politics, it’s hard not to root for the underdog. But what about everyone else? What does PMA’s Union victory mean for the other 34,999 museums and heritage sites in the country, not to mention their 160,700 employees? In the long run, does a union victory in Philadelphia matter to the rest of us? Well, it should. The optimistic part of me hopes that slowly, very slowly, museum organizations, museum boards and leadership are waking up to the resource their staffs represent. While cynical board members may not care their organization’s staff are smart and dedicated, they surely understand that constant staff churn represents a ginormous investment as remaining staff cover positions while the organization advertises, interviews, hires and onboards, again.

And while this might be too Pollyanna of me, does the PMA settlement demonstrate museum staff have a voice, that their absence from work is meaningful, and negotiation is possible? Hopefully, yes. Here are seven other reasons why PMA’s union victory might be meaningful for museums and their leaders everywhere.

  • If you didn’t know already, staff matter. I say that here often because it’s true. Our sites, whether they are about creative expression, heritage and culture or exploration and discovery are NOTHING without their staffs. Staff care, and museum leadership needs to care back. Whether it’s helping visitors find their way around a complex site, collaborating with communities to deepen understanding, hanging pieces correctly or making sure visitors and objects are safe, museum staff make it happen. Imagine Wilkening Consulting’s “Museum-Goers When Asked to Imagine No Museums” if instead it read, “Museum Boards When Asked to Imagine No Museum Staff….”
  • Museums are workplaces not just community containers of beauty, history or science. Over the last quarter century, museums have neglected their workplaces, acting as though talking about staff, leadership and money was somehow in bad taste. From a failure to value leadership, failures to talk about leadership and the workplace, museums and museum organizations have acted as if their loftier goals meant museum magic had to happen regardless of poor pay, a gender pay gap, racial and class bias, workplace bullying, the ongoing imprint of patrimony, and on and on. Why do museum board members accept bad behavior on the part of leadership that they wouldn’t tolerate in the for-profit world?
  • Scarcity: Striking is a huge risk. People don’t do it for fun. “We can’t” and “we don’t” are not phrases that move conversation between workers and museum leadership forward. They aren’t “Yes, and.“Whether your endowment is in the millions or barely anything at all, staff need leadership to be transparent. What would have happened if PMA’s leadership had acknowledged its HR issues from the get-go, beginning conversations with “There’s a problem, let’s fix it, acknowledging the need for dependable healthcare, the loss of loved ones, or the addition of a new human being in a family are moments PMA should provide for and support? Compromise is best begun from a positive place. If you, your board and leadership believe staff matters you will find a way to shake off scarcity’s shackles. Everyone wants a happy, engaged staff, but if the barista across the street from the museum makes more per hour than your front-line staff, can you blame them if they don’t want to stay?
  • Staff–all staff–need to feel safe, seen and supported which is why your HR Policy matters: Do you differentiate between your staff–the full time, degreed folks–and the “workers”–the part-time, hourly folks? When was the last time you looked at your HR policy? When was it written? Is it time for an update? Is it easily accessible? Does everyone, from your housekeepers to leadership, know how to find it?
  • Equity matters: What if the salary genie descended tomorrow and enabled you to raise everyone’s pay? Would you do it? Would you have equitable salaries? Maybe, but maybe not. You might be perpetuating a system that for generations paid women and people of color less. Don’t take blame, take action: do an equity audit so you know for sure.
  • Grow up: There’s a lot about adulting that’s ridiculously annoying: taxes, bills, being responsible, but like individuals, organizations need to grow up as well. PMA staff couldn’t grieve, and apparently, unless they had outside income, weren’t supposed to have children. Hiding behind the but-we’re-a-non-profit myth or that’s-the-way-it’s-always-been, doesn’t help anyone, least of all staff. Surviving in the museum world shouldn’t be a form of hazing–I suffered, therefore the next generation should suffer. Adult organizations recognize they’re hiring people, people with lives, loved ones and families. Their boards need to do the work so that staff can be their best selves.
  • Directors aren’t just leadership’s boss: Museum directors or presidents are responsible for the entire staff, not just the leadership team. Your leadership team may be the folks you see frequently, but if harassment happens, if 40-percent of your front-line staff has to get second jobs to make ends meet, you should know. And hopefully work to make change. What would have happened if Sasha Suda had started her first week by greeting the strikers? What would that have looked like?

I’ve been writing this blog for a decade, and railing, whining, and preaching for Museumland to take staff as seriously as it takes its audience. And yet, here we are 10 years later, and the needle hasn’t moved much. Workplace Bullying is still one of my most popular posts. What does that tell you besides the field is littered with leaders who equate power with being mean? And yet, our field is full of talented, smart people. How hard is it to treasure them? What is the living wage in your region, town, city? Does your board know what percentage of your organization’s positions fall below the living wage? In September I participated in an AASLH panel titled Approaching the Museum Worker Crisis through Systems Thinking. We used the hashtag #workingonmuseumwork. Forget the hash tag. Twitter may be on the respirator by then, but what if we–and by we I mean museum service organizations, museum leaders and museum staff–dedicate 2023 to museum workers? What could the museum world look like then?

Be well. Be kind. See you in December.

Joan Baldwin


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


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


Taking Murawski’s Lead: 22 Ideas for Change

Jean-Jacques MILAN – Created by Jean-Jacques MILAN, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12728

Wednesday I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room scrolling through email when an announcement for George Washington University’s Museums Today popped up. The title was 1,000 Ways to Reshape the Future of Museums with Mike Murawski, author of Museums as Agents of Change. I registered on the spot, which seemed appropriate since one of the things Murawski has encouraged his readers to do is reflect on their own relationship with change. Change is not something I adore, but encouraged by Mike’s writings and others, I am trying to live more in the present and not always anticipate the future as its own special brand of disaster.

Promptly at 6 p.m. Murawski appeared on screens around the globe. He opened by asking us to breathe while reflecting on an ancestor, mentor or guide who’d been important to us in our journey. He followed up by reminding us that for him (and for me too) museums are human-centered. I am old enough to remember when that would have been considered a completely wackadoodle thought. The immediate response would have been about the primacy of collections, their importance, and their meaning. A decade or more ago, museum humans’ only role was to be the air beneath the wings of the collections they served. A noble cause, but ultimately futile because it is humans–as care givers, people who see, people who love, people who bring their own stories, people who transform things–are the ones who make collections do their work.

As the talk continued Murawski reminded us to be disrupters, to celebrate the questioners among us, and to–where we can– break down hierarchies within our own institutions. So in that spirit, here are 22 ideas for creating change in 2022. What would you add? What would you delete? Share them here or with Mike.

  • Consider cross-training both as a way to augment staffs decimated by COVID and by plummeting budgets, and as a way to increase understanding and empathy across your staff.
  • Prioritize your HR policy: Does it reflect your organization’s values? If not, why not? Does it reflect life in 2022?
  • Put your organizational values front and center. Are they something the staff knows about, talks about, lives and breathes? If not, why not?
  • If you’re among the many museum folk preparing to advocate for the field in front of state or federal legislators, consider letting them know how important the American Families Plan will be to your organization in terms of parents, families and caregivers who make up your staff.
  • If you’ve never done a gender equity audit, consider doing one now. Women make up slightly more than half of museum staff nation wide, and the gender pay gap remains a critical and unsolved problem.
  • Model praise for questioners and creative thinkers.
  • Always say thank you.
  • Support your colleagues. Build empathy.
  • Support going outside. It’s 4 degrees where I am, but when it’s appropriate, take your meetings on a walk or out-of-doors.
  • Take a page from Murawski’s book and begin a meeting with a breath. Or more than one.
  • Nurture creativity by looking at time. Are you and your colleagues always rushed? Are you ever encouraged to sit and think? If not, can that change?
  • Make sure planning meetings include your colleagues across the spectrum so doers, not just deciders, are in the room.
  • Work to make discussion equitable.
  • Stand up and advocate when a colleague is bullied or harassed.
  • Consider how your organizational values connect with your larger community? Does your museum help with issues around citizenship, food insecurity, childcare, or the environment? What would that look like?
  • What work have you done recognizing historical and implicit biases ingrained in your catalog, in the narratives dominating your collections, and in the presumption of privilege permeating your organization?
  • How does your museum or heritage site work against neutrality? When was the last time you took a stand?
  • How is your museum or heritage site working to recenter its whiteness? See also La Tanya Autry’s recent article for more questions.
  • How do new ideas germinate at your museum or heritage site? Is it an easy path or a risky one? Does everyone from security and housekeeping to curators understand how to broach an idea?
  • Is your staff is safe, and do they know what to do if they’re not.
  • Are your colleagues are seen?
  • Are they are supported?

Be well. Be kind. Do good work, and do good at work.

Joan Baldwin


Why a Hiring Freeze Isn’t Always the Answer

Barfooz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22120

There is a saying that we’re all dying, just maybe not today. Something similar might be said about the nonprofit/museum workplace, that we’re all looking for a new job, just maybe not today. Unless you see retirement’s taillights gleaming in the distance, I would hazard a guess that everyone else has their periscope up more than they’d like to admit. It’s a way of day dreaming, of trying on new professional identities. Is that museum really as pleasant as it looks in the photos? Is living there a lot more expensive? Could I do the job? Could I move? What about my partner, children, parents? Is it reasonable to think about a new job in the middle of a COVID spike?

But the fact that a lot of us look casually or seriously isn’t the point. It’s what drives the looking: curiosity, better pay, new goals, a change in a partner’s position are likely a few of the positives. People also seek new jobs because they’re miserable. Maybe they are harassed or bullied at work; maybe their work is monumentally boring or maybe they work for a control freak where their only creative choice is choosing lunch. In fact, if we believe Resume Builders recent report, 23-percent of currently employed individuals plan to find a new job in 2022. Another 9-percent already have new jobs, while an additional nine-percent will retire. That’s 41-percent of sturm und drang, which is a lot of workplace churn.

And then there is this: In addition to all the other ways it’s complicated the museum workplace, COVID has tightened budgets to the point where many people do their original job, plus bits and pieces from staff who resigned or retired, leaving current staff with a constant feeling of whiplash. There is a direct connection between the speed with which those additional tasks become permanent and a staff member’s ability to perform them well. Succeed and they are yours forever. Fail, and you’ll get additional tasks as leaders spitball work at the overtasked. Funny thing though, these random tasks are most often assigned to the so-called rising stars, the driven, the scarily competent.

Then why do the leadership–otherwise known as your organization’s deciders–always seem surprised when those same scarily competent people look elsewhere and leave? Do they really think having a job that’s like a daily game of Jenga is the way to entice talented employees to lean in? Have the deciders forgotten that overloading current staff–even if it’s only until COVID is over–means they may loose staff in whom they have an investment? How does it make sense to have a multitude of tasks that need filling, but say you’re in a hiring freeze, and yet it’s the addition of those same tasks that cause current staff to look for work elsewhere, putting the entire HR picture into a kind of death spiral? Where’s the logic in not being able to hire for work that needs to be done, but allowing that to put you in a position where you loose staff with training, institutional history, and talent precisely because you’ve overloaded them? And it’s not like hiring doesn’t cost. At a minimum, it’s a time suck. Even doing 75-percent of a search on Zoom, you still need to bring finalists to your heritage organization or museum, and that costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. And then there is the time current staff invest in searches, in mentoring, in training, and onboarding. Time taken away from their already overloaded to-do lists.

So what do I think the deciders should do? Well, in a perfect world, communicate up so trustees understand the organizational employment picture. Make sure they’re clear about the costs associated not just with hiring, but in keeping talented, engaged, creative, competent staff. Make sure they understand that not hiring brings its own costs, and further, that an individual who is depressed and dissatisfied because their job mutated because of a staff freeze isn’t a bad person. Wanting to do what you were hired to do isn’t a character flaw. I’m not saying one conversation or even a series of conversations is a panacea, but at least when you have those conversations you’ll have something to report when you communicate down or across to your colleagues and leadership team. And that’s key. You’re asking for sacrifice in a situation that’s gone on for two years and shows no sign of let up. Your colleagues need to understand that a) the shared sacrifice applies equitably (even to the leadership), and b)what the organization’s plans are for moving forward.

  • If you have an HR person, consider involving them in discussions regarding future planning. Ditto your CFO. There is more to both of those jobs than the bottom line and benefits.
  • Make sure your board and your CFO understands a hiring freeze can lead to loosing staff, and what a talent drain means in terms of both overall expenses and your brand. If you emerge from the COVID years, a pale imitation of your former self, unable to hire the talent you once had, will the hiring freeze be worth it?
  • Emphasize or re-emphasize your organization’s core values. Does the combination of freezing some positions while overloading others fit your organizational value statement? If not, this might be the moment to talk about it openly and transparently.
  • Is your hiring freeze global or does it apply only to new positions? Whatever decision you make, be transparent about it, and stand by it. If you suggest it only applies to new positions, and then refuse to back-fill an existing position, your ability to maintain trust can be sorely damaged. Why should staff believe you moving forward?
  • Your staff and your colleagues aren’t stupid. Explain the why. If you’re an organization whose endowment grew during COVID, and yet you’re still tightening your belt, explain why. Again, trust your staff to listen and ask questions.
  • Be authentic, truthful and honest. Offer a future check-in. If the bulk of your money comes in between May-September, set a meeting now for early October to update colleagues on staffing.

COVID continues to damage the workplace as it damages families and individuals. If there is any lesson to come out of this period, it’s that we need to be truthful with ourselves, those close to us, and our workplace colleagues about our capabilities both individual and organizational.

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Is the Chicago Volunteer “Firing”So Different from the COVID Firings? Maybe Not.

Gualdim G – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97709683

In case you missed it, last week the Art Institute of Chicago “fired” its docents, effectively ending its 60-year old volunteer program. Its intent was to swap its public-facing volunteer staff, replacing them with paid and volunteer BIPOC museum educators. Not surprisingly, the folks with time to volunteer tend to be white women of a certain class. Thus, the 82 remaining volunteers received a letter saying a new model was in the offing where paid educators and volunteers would work together “in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility to participate.” The result was a kerfuffle at numerous levels. Museum thought leaders spoke out. There were Facebook posts, and a days-long discussion on AAM’s Museum Junction. And that was before conservative media–including The Federalist–got wind of what was going on, turning an internal communication from the Institute to its volunteers, into a firestorm of reverse racism. The NY Times quoted Institute Director James Rondeau saying, “Clearly we were not prepared for this to become a discussion of identity politics,” he said. “We are only focused on our mission.”

The Art Institute isn’t the first museum, nor will it be the last, to diversify its volunteers and front-line staff to better reflect its community, and that’s a good thing. Privileged White people talking about art, inventions or living spaces created, made and owned by other privileged White people may be less than meaningful if you’re not White and privileged yourself, and even that’s not insurance against boredom. Instead, it’s not the decision itself that troubles me, but rather the way the Art Institute handled its staff.

What do I mean? Maybe it’s instructive to think about Spring 2020. Remember when the world shut down? We were barely going out or rather we were going out, but only to be outside, breathing air without COVID droplets away from other humans. The rest of the time we worked from home or we didn’t work at all because many, many front-facing museum folk were let go. Boards, museum presidents and directors will tell you staff were dismissed because with no visitation, they couldn’t be kept on the payroll. Remember how many of us deplored the way staff were treated? As if they didn’t matter, as if they hadn’t given a great deal to whichever museum or heritage organization was summarily letting them go. As if at the very moment the world was in crisis, it seemed like a great idea to fire folks via email.

Now forget which side of the Chicago Art Institute debate you’re on–forget for just a moment how important it is to have community based education staffs teaching in their own communities–and ask yourself whether a museum should fire anyone by letter or email much less 82 longtime volunteers? Is that a museum you want to work for? What does transparency mean if it doesn’t mean having the courage to talk to staff face-to-face? When your fellow front line staffers and educators were let go ostensibly because of COVID, the pandemic was an excuse for not talking to staff in person. Can the Art Institute not do a socially distanced meeting? We all say we want organizations that are humane and transparent? Shouldn’t that extend to volunteers?

What would have happened if the Art Institute had brought its volunteers together for a meeting and discussed the changes they want to make? What if they’d offered them the opportunity to partner with BIPOC staff and new volunteers? Would that have been challenging? Yes. Would some volunteers still felt unwanted? Probably. But if those alliances worked, imagine how dynamic they might be. Imagine a White volunteer of a certain age and a Black community teacher speaking to middle schoolers about a painting. Imagine them each engaging students, and treating each other with kindness and respect. In its best iteration, it might be like the verbal version of Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman vs. The Blue Boy After all, isn’t really seeing and talking with someone you don’t know the first step toward empathy and caring? Isn’t that what 21st-century museums need? Isn’t that how systemic change begins or is that just too naive and Pollyanna-ish?

Change is really, really hard, but it needs to be equitable. And, at an organizational level, museums need to stand behind the change they make by being willing to talk things through with staff, whether volunteer or paid. We all want museums to evolve, but successful DEI work isn’t just replacing white volunteers with BIPOC staff. An organization needs to understand its own DNA, acknowledge its faults, and move forward through collaboration. In this case, part of its self-reflection might be helping its longstanding volunteers understand how they–perhaps unwittingly–helped put it in a place that needs changing.

I want to be very clear here: I’m not objecting to the Chicago Art Institute seeking a new model. Docent tours hark back to an age of sage-on-a-stage, of museums that are all-wise, all knowing, and too frequently imperious. This particular docent program is sixty years old and undoubtedly needs disrupting. What I’m objecting to is the way it was done because it echoed the way big museums treat their front line workers. Museums need change. They need staff who reflect their communities in imaginative, smart ways. But they also need staff who feel safe, seen and supported. An organization that can “fire” 82 volunteers by letter can also fire 82 staffers. Systemic change might mean museums working toward changing organizational culture, creating models where staff –volunteer or paid–work together with empathy and respect.

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.


How Being a Lone Ranger Demands a Different Set of Skills

Have you ever traveled, returned to where you started, only to find it looks completely different from the place it was when you left? After being away from my job as curator of special collections for a year, I came back last month. I had stepped away to be an interim leader for a year while our team chose a new, permanent director. Despite COVID, it was by and large a great experience, challenging, yet full of learning moments, and an opportunity to do good. But my return to my old position as curator of special collections has made me think about what being a sole practitioner means.

Yes, I work in a large organization, but I’m the only person charged with caring for a campus collection of art, sculpture and art photographs displayed over half a dozen buildings, and stored in sometimes challenging conditions. So as I returned to my curatorial work, I began to think about what it means to work alone, what skills are necessary, and perhaps most importantly how sole practitioners are selected.

As we all learned from COVID, working alone puts you in the driver’s seat. You set the pace, the agenda, and you prioritize. The flip side is that in setting the pace, the agenda and the priorities, when things go south, it’s all on you, and that is stressful. Too many times to count, these pages have been filled with the importance of collaboration, of the creativity that results when people, even people who don’t like each other much, team up and work together. Sparks fly, and that’s good. Lone rangers don’t necessarily have that interaction or support. Sometimes it can come from a task-oriented board or from volunteers, but in my observation that’s rare.

As with anything–cooking, crossword puzzles, tennis–we get better with practice. Decades ago, one of the leading female leaders in the museum world mentored me. One of the things she tried to help me understand was that leadership demanded a different skillset than a number of other positions, and my life might be less of a muddle if I committed to one as opposed to many. At the time I was a lone ranger and a first director for a historic house museum. With decades of hindsight and a level of self-reflection my 20-something-year-old self didn’t possess, I suspect she was also telling me that one of the huge challenges of being a sole-practitioner is that you need to be both a master of change AND a master of complexity. As a leader and a sole practitioner you’re the star in a one- person show. You are development, external relations, education, exhibitions, finance, and curatorial all rolled together. That’s not easy.

Lone rangers need to be generalists, good at many things, no in-depth knowledge necessary, but clearly we all have strengths. I play a lot of positions in my current job, as I did in previous sole-practitioner positions. There are definitely areas I’m better at than others. So if you’re a sole practitioner or want to be one….

  • Know your strengths. Really know them. Have a plan B if you need quick help in a major topic area.
  • Do a gut-check. Are your values in line with folks who are interviewing you?
  • Be transparent about where you think your weaknesses are during the hiring process. Boards will advertise for a generalist, and smile about exhibits and school programs, but if what they really want is an advancement person, something you know little about, your relationship is doomed, and you will constantly feel as though you’re being asked to bring someone a rock and their response is “No, not that rock.”
  • If there are gaps in your content base, work to fill them in. Take the bookkeeping class for small business at the local community college; take an online class in exhibit design for small organizations through a regional service organization; meet monthly with other educators or teachers from neighboring institutions.
  • Create your own colleague group. Ask three or more folks you know or who you wish you knew better, how they’d feel about being sounding boards when things at work seem wonky. Will they read an email and respond or answer advice in person, on the phone or Zoom?

If you’re hiring a sole practitioner….

  • Talk long and hard about what you and your board, feel your museum needs. There’s nothing worse than hiring your one and only staff person whose strengths are internal-facing, when what you really want is an externally facing extrovert.
  • Acknowledge that if you’re a sole-practitioner kind of place, it’s likely the salary you’re offering is low, and your applicants will be young, emerging professionals or else folks in their last chapter, who want an easy slide into retirement. Talk about how both demographics might affect organizational growth.
  • Few individuals possesses all the skills museum-land demands in one personality. Discuss how and whether your organization will invest in either professional development for your sole practitioner or growing the organization’s staff or both.
  • Don’t saddle a lone ranger with money problems you as a board are too lazy to fix. Have the finance discussion, and come up with a plan, and potentially a plan B, to sustain the organization before entering the the hiring process. If you can’t sustain your collection, buildings, whatever, without an employee, it’s not going to be any easier with one.

For better or worse, we’ve lived through the hottest July ever. Now museums are trying to stay open, and run programs while dodging the Delta variant. It’s stressful. Be kind. Assume we’re all doing our best, especially our sole practitioners.

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


Performance and Productivity: Is Your Process Outdated?

Lewis G P – http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib//39/media-39385/large.jpgThis is photograph Q 28232 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24196900

It’s not a secret that I’m pretty Type A. I’m a list maker. My lists sprout sublists like weeds. I like to do things in order. The strikeout feature makes my heart go pitter pat. I’m a planner, and I always have a Plan B, and sometimes a C or D. But, surprise, surprise, that’s not the way everyone works.

These days– in my world at least– it is performance review season, the time of year when leaders try to knit together organizational mission with a job’s essential functions and, most importantly, with the actual human assigned to make them a reality. That is, of course, where the rubber meets the road. Job descriptions are written for unicorns, folks who don’t have bad days, baggage, health issues or workplace conflicts. Yet somehow, as leaders, when doing performance reviews, we need to figure out how all these paths intersect, while also bearing in mind that for the last 12 months or longer many staff have worked at home in their fuzzy slippers, interacting with colleagues infrequently except on a screen. It’s a tall order.

Like many things in the museum workplace, performance reviews are a vestige from another time and another place. They percolated into the museum and nonprofit world from business. There, they were–and in many places still are– boss-driven, and often used to negotiate raises or promotions, making it less about job performance per se then a given staff member’s negotiating skills. Given our post-pandemic world, the idea of museum staff meeting with their director or team leader annually to negotiate a raise as if that were normal is a little laughable . But are leaders still evaluating performance every 12 months? Maybe it’s time to re-think that model?

A number of big companies have moved away from annual one-on-one meetings with “the boss” in favor of team feedback from a selected group of colleagues. A team member identifies their group of feedback providers. They are approved by their leader, and over the course of a year, they offer feedback often as part of project postmortems. Comments are candid, face-to-face, and yet highly structured. Oh, and one more thing: all feedback is equally weighted. Yup, your leader, your co-worker, and your partner from another department all offer equal comments. So that’s life in a gazillion dollar company like Google or Netflix. What about where you work?

The first question: Do you do performance evaluations or not? If not, why not? Not enough time? Or does it seem like you’re in touch with your team so frequently you don’t feel the need? If you do, is it a once-a-year meeting? And what’s the goal? Is there a complicated alchemy that involves braiding museum mission, essential job functions and individual performance together? Or is it–God forbid–a brief session that opens with praise and ends with scolding? And how do you evaluate those with repetitive tasks? Unlike, say, Google–or at least the way I imagine work at Google–there’s a lot about library, archives, and museum work that has a Cinderella-like quality. It’s never done. You gather community advisors, and create a program. You implement, evaluate and then do it again. Ditto for collections where stuff arrives, it’s processed, catalogued, conserved, stored, before the process repeats. The way people do these tasks is entirely individual, and yet the goals are collective.

If you’re doing performance evaluations now or plan to do them in the future, here are some things to consider:

  • This remains a challenging time. Consider using the performance review process to touch base with the fundamentals like your organizational mission statement, your value statement, your departmental goals. Hopefully your discussion will help staff see themselves as an integral part of a larger whole, not someone about to be “gotcha-ed” after a year of fast pivoting.
  • Talk about individual goals. The last 12 months have tried us all. Work was disrupted. What new muscles has your team developed? Patience? Compassion? Empathy? Collaboration?
  • Talk about DEI. Was your organization part of the wave of museums, archives and galleries who wrote anti-racist statements post George Floyd? How did that play out in real life? Individually and museum-wide? Did it affect your staff or not? Why?
  • Recognize and grapple with your own biases–not just about race, and gender, although those are huge, but also about work style. If you are a list-maker like me, evaluating the performance of a last-minute, by-the-seat-of-the-pants high performer, can you set your own work style aside? It’s not the model with everything else as “other.” It’s simply the easiest way for you to work, but clearly it’s not the preferred style for everyone on your team.
  • Ask what are the top three things your team member would like to change in the coming year?
  • Say thank you.
  • If the entire job performance review process seems hinky and unwieldy, consider a re-evaluation for next year.

One last thought. No one likes the uncomfortable conversations around poor performance, but it is unfair and inequitable to fail to be transparent when work consistently goes wrong. Your staff feel as though they never get things right, which is punishing. People want to come to work, do a good job, and be recognized for doing a good job. It’s hard to do that if the guard rails for “good” performance are mushy or keep changing. However you choose to do performance evaluations–as a team, as an individual–make sure the expectations are clear. Your staff will thank you.

Be well. Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin