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


The Salary Debate: Money, Meaning and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


A Twofer: AAM’s COVID Data and Job Descriptions As Road Maps

Archives New Zealand – https://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=IE25775092, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93276703

Two weeks ago I gave a shout out to AAM for its data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, but I encourage everyone to download the whole report. It’s free, and your staff, your board, your team, and your volunteers should see it. In a crisis–at least on the back side of a crisis–it’s important to understand what happened, and how your experience, organizationally and personally, fits into the larger picture. So maybe arrange some COVID chats to discuss the similarities and differences in your own situation to the larger picture. From students, to museum employees of color, to women, to consultants, there is little the report leaves out.

One nugget? Forty-eight percent of the respondents reported they had increased workload, while nine-percent saw their salaries decrease. And, no surprise, women are far more burned out and disillusioned than their male colleagues. Is it any wonder the museum field is in a bad place right now? One bright spot: it’s comforting to know that among the 2,666 respondents, their greatest concern was for their colleagues, this from a group with increased anxiety and depression. So, once again, kudos to AAM. Illness, fear, and the economics of COVID were and are isolating. In helping the museum community understand what COVID has done, a report like this brings the museum community closer by anchoring individual experiences in lived data.

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Each time Anne Ackerson and I teach Museum Leadership in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program we’ve had students wonder why we’re seemingly obsessed with good, clear writing. They’ve told us other faculty don’t criticize their writing, suggesting that as soon-to-be museum folk they don’t plan on writing for a living. True to a point, but they want, after all, to be museum staff, and potentially museum leaders. Our response is that words matter. Not only in the way that phrase is currently used, meaning words can be weapons, but as tools to provide clarity and context. Think how many times museum leaders grow and nurture ideas, and how many words–both spoken and written–see ideas from conception to implementation?

One place it strikes me where words matter a whole heck of a lot, especially in the COVID-age of shifting and increased responsibilities, is job descriptions. Done well job descriptions can be wonderfully crafted road maps, the architecture where museum work rests. Done badly they are truly a waste of time, leading to confusion, meandering nowhere, mired in road blocks of self-doubt and gas lighting. Too frequently there’s more energy put into a job announcement than the subsequent job description. Often anemic in comparison to their sister job announcements, job descriptions are burdened by to-do lists ending with “and all other duties as required,” meaning the morning you shoveled snow, cleaned a sticky craft table or spent time at the reception desk. But in their lack of clarity, they aren’t helpful.

We’ve all heard how strategic plans are “living documents.” Well, so are job descriptions. A good one isn’t one and done, it’s something for leaders and staff members to return to particularly as they prepare for performance reviews, understand an increase–or a decrease–in responsibilities. It’s hard to imagine a museum workplace without job descriptions except to imagine a kind of anarchy. On any given day the educator could put her shoes on the desk and announce she needed to spend some time with advancement, while the communications person could say they were bored with Instagram and wanted to design an exhibit. Hyperbole, yes, but perhaps you’ve been in museum workplaces where job descriptions were mushy around the edges? Over time staff staff choose tasks they like rather than doing the job assigned. When that happens, things fall unacknowledged by the wayside, and ultimately, an organizational belief develops around a given job that may not have been true at conception.

So how do you get this right? First, don’t do it quickly, and don’t do it alone. Job descriptions, like strategic plans, are best written collaboratively. If you are revising an existing job description–perhaps because of COVID–speak with person who currently does the job, their direct report(s), and potentially their colleagues. If this is an existing job that has mutated because of COVID, you’ll want to find out what the position looked like before it absorbed tasks from other positions. If it’s now two positions now co-joined, it’s a good idea to be transparent if for no other reason than in stressful times employees performing two roles as one, need to know which takes precedent over the course of a week, and which role trumps the other in terms of responsibility. For example, pre-COVID you had both a collections manager and a curator. Now you have only a curator, someone whose heart doesn’t race at the thought of a perfectly catalogued collection, but rather at the creation of imaginative and thoughtful exhibits. An honest and transparent discussion will help your colleague identify how their job description and thus their performance goals fit into the organizational scope and sequence.

Once you’ve done your analysis, and potentially amended the title, come up with a pithy job summary. Here is where you want to summon your inner Hemingway, and write a clear, concise, yet intriguing description of what this person will do, not in the worst of times, but in the best of times. Next, draft their responsibilities. They should be broad enough so they’re not a to-do list, but specific enough to prevent anarchy. Last, add the job’s requirements. You don’t want someone applying for a job that requires daily lifting of 25 pounds and up, if there are health reasons that prevent them from lifting. If you have an HR department, they will work from your draft, making sure that the appropriate legal language is included–particularly as it involves HDA compliance — and that you have neither overstepped nor undersold what you expect this person to do.

If you do have an HR department at your museum or heritage organization, they may not look fondly on your revising job descriptions annually. In theory, when that happens HR scopes out how the position has changed state or region-wide in terms of salary and benefits. But jobs within a organization are like an extended game of telephone. They mutate and change to fit the individuals performing them. As leaders, whether it’s a team, a program, department or organization, our job is to watch out for performance drift. Like mission drift, it’s when an individual, perhaps because they are over-burdened, disaffected or simply selfish, begins to work outside the scope of their job description. It’s much easier to do this in organizations where once you’re hired no one ever refers to your job description again. If you don’t already, you may want to consider meeting with your direct reports quarterly to look at how their jobs have changed, and aligning them with your organization’s goals and objectives. Job descriptions connect to people, so it helps to really know your staff. Some may welcome more structure while others more autonomy. Hopefully, you will create the best job description not only for the organization, but also the individual.

Be well. Stay safe. Write clearly.

Joan Baldwin