Low Salaries? The Museum Field? Really?


Maybe it’s just Leadership Matters, but it seems as though the museum field might be pulling its head out of the sand about its salary problem–like it’s been sleeping but now it’s woke? The last few weeks we’ve seen blogs, online discussions, and press releases, all discussing the low salaries in the field.

The prompt may have been the press surrounding American Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD’s) 2017 salary survey released in June. Although it’s collected data for a century, this was the first time it made the results public. And yes, it’s a small survey–219 North American art museums–and, as the name implies, we’re talking art, not history. But the good news is it’s free. Of course there’s always AAM’s salary survey, which is a massive collaboration between 10 regional museum associations, and the most comprehensive of any museum salary survey. Of AAM’s 1,000 respondents many come from history museums, however, it also includes staff from zoos, botanical gardens, and science museums. There’s only one problem, and it’s not with the survey itself, but if Facebook posts from emerging professionals are any indication, its cost sometimes makes access prohibitive.

Just for fun we Googled “salaries museum jobs.” We got 548,000 hits and a surprising amount of information from outside the field, information that ought to put the fear of god in many graduate student hearts. Payscale.com which claims its data was updated in June 2017 offers not only salary information, but hourly pay, and pay by institution. Admittedly it’s a tiny group, and many of them are large urban or suburban organizations, but information is information. Clearly it’s better to work for the Smithsonian at $26/hour then just about anybody else on Payscale’s list. Not to mention, that despite the current administration’s best efforts, the Smithsonian is here to stay. And yes, there are more than a few organizations on Payscale’s list where choosing a career at Panera Bread or Target might offer a better starting salary, more predictable raises, and where there’s no need for a graduate degree.

So what should you do if you’re new in the field and clobbered by the fact that maybe your grandma was right and you should have learned a trade like plumbing or gone to medical school? Well, pulling the covers over your head is an option, but here are some other thoughts.

  • We do believe change starts from the bottom up so even though it’s a small thing, start talking about the salary issue. Talk with your colleagues. Talk with your boss. Practice ways to say what needs to be said that aren’t confrontational, but still get the point across. Your museum’s leadership won’t listen if they think they’re liable to see you with a picket sign on the front steps.
  • We are fierce advocates for higher wages, but it’s important to love what you do. It sounds dopey, but honestly, no matter what you do–in or out of the museum field–if you don’t love it, you’re going to feel like your soul’s being sucked out of your body a bit at a time. Change doesn’t happen overnight except in fairy tales, so if a big salary means more to you than a life in museums, you’ll never be happy. Try investment banking. Then you can be a museum board member. Just be honest with yourself.
  • If you’re in museum leadership, you need to be a fierce advocate for your staff. Your organization–and the field as a whole–is only as good as its staff. You want the best you can afford, and you want them to be happy, not covertly job hunting at their desks. Lobby your board for equitable salary and benefits. Take a page from academe and endow some of your key positions. If you lead a small organization, are there creative ways you can band together with local arts organizations and hire one person to do the same task at several places? Collaboration brings its own rewards, but that’s another post.
  • If you teach in a graduate program, we hope you make AAM’s salary survey available to your students.
  • Last, if you’re new to the field, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Yes, big city salaries are often higher, but are they higher for entry level employees? And will your expenses be higher too? Do you want to work two jobs and share an apartment? The bottom line: know where you will get the best deal for you. And negotiate your offer. Again, know what you need: Is it more personal time off? Health benefits? Opportunities to travel? Or just cold hard cash? Whatever you choose, it’s not a life sentence. Get as much experience as you can and move on.

This is an issue that shouldn’t go away. Let’s all do what we can to make museum salaries equitable and livable.

Joan Baldwin

Museum Leadership is Complex and That’s OK

Elaine Gurian MuseumNext

There are people thinking deep thoughts in almost every field around the globe. Some share with their colleagues. Others write books, give TED Talks or get interviewed by National Public Radio. The museum field is lucky to have its own thought leaders. Perhaps you read or follow Nina Simon, Frank Vagnone, the Incluseum or Maria Viachou. Principle among the museum field’s thought leaders is Elaine Heumann Gurian. If you don’t know Elaine, you have some reading ahead of you, but don’t worry. It’s good stuff.

Heumann Gurian is now retired. That just means she’s not collecting a regular pay check any more. She was, in fact, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Museums at the Smithsonian, Deputy Director for Public Program Planning at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Deputy Director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now she thinks for a living. If her recent talk “The Importance of And,” delivered at MuseumNext’s conference in Australia is any indication, she remains committed to change. And so should you.

And don’t say I don’t read stuff like that. It’s like food you think you don’t like. Try it. And here’s why: Heumann Gurian asks us to think not so much about what we do, but why and how. She doesn’t care whether your visitors get tickets, stickers or buttons. She’s not necessarily interested in your board development policies, your admission pricing structure, your digitization program or your collections management software. In “The Importance of And,” she talks about applying complexity theory to museums to break the cycle of one object/one label/one point of view that dominates so many museum exhibits, leaving vast swaths of the public underwhelmed, bored or sometimes angry by narratives that are relentlessly mediocre and opaque. She wants exhibit narratives that leave visitors arguing, questioning, writing their own questions on sticky notes. She wants visitors to find the universal stories and add their own. She wants museums to be places where people understand that every story has multiple points of view: the artist, the creator/maker, the curator, the object’s cultural context, the viewer and his or her cultural context. She wants us to internalize that wherever we stand, our view is different.

And Leadership Matters would like you to try one more thing: After reading “The Importance of And,” think about applying complexity theory not just to exhibit and program development, but to what happens in the offices at your museum as well. The world we live in is endlessly complex. So is 21st-century leadership. Complexity theory as applied to leadership asks us to think about leadership as leadership of the many by the many, rather than of the many by the few. And by few, we mean you. Being the sage on the stage 24/7 is wearying. But what if you think of leadership as a team or an orchestra, where you are the quarterback, the conductor or maybe the first violin, whatever metaphor works for you? The point is if you can accept complexity, you widen your leadership circle, more voices are heard, and the result is a more nuanced response to just about everything.

Confused? Think of it this way: Say your institution is faced with a big question–to build, to renovate or leave your building as is. Traditional leadership would say that you, the director, possibly with your assistant directors, gather and hash out responses to each possibility. You take them to the board. It hashes them out and decides which way to go. Leadership that’s more complex might put together focus groups that involve everyone from your institution’s guards and grounds folks to its shop assistants, volunteers, education staff and community, mixing the groups so museum leadership and trustees hear from a variety of voices and experiences. Yes, both paths may lead to the same conclusion, but the information gathered, and the trust and buy-in generated in the complexity approach yields its own rewards: a staff who knows it’s respected; new ideas from individuals who museum leadership might never come in contact with; new pathways of communication that lead to change.

And change is what you’re after. Who wants an organization that stays the same year after year, decade after decade? Tell us how you tackle big decisions and whether your process is messy and iterative or hierarchical and direct. And tell us why.

It’s March, 52 days into the new administration: Lead well. It matters.

Joan Baldwin


What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Women

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Or What We Did at the American Alliance of Museums Meeting May 28.

We promised a recap of our AAM adventure and here it is. For those of you who were there, it was an awesome event. Over 100 engaged, committed women, all interested in how to make the world of museum work a more equitable place, participated. Along with Anne and myself, our co-presenters were Marieke Van Damme, the Director of the Cambridge (MA) Historical Society, and Jessica Ferey, Communications Manager, AEA Consulting; Deputy Director, Global Cultural Districts Network. Our format? After a brief outline of the morning’s schedule, we presented our audience with six myths about gender and the museum world.Following that brief presentation, we turned the program over to participants, asking each table to discuss the following questions:  If you could send a message to your colleagues, to institutions, to professional associations and grad programs about gender in the museum workplace and what they could do to level the playing field, what would that be and what is the one thing you are willing to do to make positive change toward gender equity?

image (3)Thirty minutes later, each table reported out to the full group, but not before AAM’s new President Laura Lott (pictured right) dropped by to share some thoughts on being the organization’s first female leader. The workshop closed as participants completed postcards with their wishes for a woman in the museum world of the future.

What follows are comments and memories from us four presenters.

As I said to my three colleagues, rarely do things in life turn out the way you imagine they will especially when four busy women from four different states don’t have an opportunity to meet as a group before the actual event. But it worked. I hope we laid to rest some of the myths people struggle with, while providing ammunition for women battling bias, sexist language and inequitable treatment in their workplaces. Our goal now is to create a framework that will carry this work forward. I know Anne, Jessica and Marieke join me in promising that we don’t want to be in the same place next year. In the coming months, we plan to re-vision the short-lived, early 1970s Women’s Caucus  with a more inclusive equity mission, and we’re hoping that you will support our efforts. Beyond that, we need to know what will help you as working museum women. Please take a moment, and send us your top three choices for making change for women in the museum world. You can use the comment feature on this blog or email us at leadershipmatters1213@gmail.com.   Finally, we’ll continue to need your great ideas and talents to keep this effort going.  Let us know how you can help.

Joan Baldwin

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Now feels like the right time, doesn’t it? Our AAM 2016 conference session, “What We Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Women in Museums,” definitely captured the essence of the conference attendees. Addressing directly the conference theme of “Power and Responsibility” we talked openly about several myths surrounding women in the museum workplace, from what it means to be a feminist to the passive approach our field takes to creating pay equity.

And it felt good! It felt good to talk about these myths, and it felt really good to debunk them. This was the first time I’ve talked about these issues in a cavernous, poorly-lit convention center conference room. What was once a head-shaking, “can you believe it?” conversation between colleagues, work buddies, or spouses is now out in the open! It definitely felt like the right first step in a very right direction.

Here’s what I’ve been talking with colleagues about since I got back home:

It was a young, female crowd. As I looked out into the sea of faces, the group looked female and under age 45. Why did this group self-select to talk about this issue? As a mid-career professional, I crave the knowledge and wisdom of the museum workers who have gone before me. Why didn’t our more experienced colleagues join us?

Our colleagues have families, and they bring them to conferences! Laura Lott, President and CEO of AAM, told a story about bringing her (well-behaved!) daughter to a work event. It was met by many nodding heads in the audience. The morning after our session, I noticed several families –with mom wearing an AAM lanyard–in line to get pancakes in the hotel’s breakfast line. And a bunch of little ones on hips at the closing party. Should there be a distinct work/life break at the conference or can it blend like our work/life balance does back home? Maybe there should be a daycare center in the Expo. I for one would love some kid-therapy in the middle of a day of sessions. We could even put them to work…testing exhibit prototypes, telling museum knock knock jokes, sharpening colored pencils for our adult coloring books…the possibilities are endless! All joking aside, is there a way to better acknowledge, accommodate, and leverage the family power coming to our conferences?

We *can* talk about women in museums. Our session title was tongue in cheek, but it felt really good to know this is a situation we are all in together, and that we can talk about it. Maybe it was a result of the crowd skewing younger, but it felt like the group really wanted to talk about these issues openly, on social media. And not in a closed Facebook group, the museum workers who came want to talk about these issues on Twitter, a very public, global channel. It’s great and scary at the same time. How do we transform a once-hidden problem into a movement for change with our colleagues from across the world watching?

I know I speak for my fellow presenters when I say we don’t want this session, these raw emotions, this push for change to languish until we see you all again in St. Louis next year. We’re working on it, and we know you are, too. Thank you for coming to the session and voicing your thoughts; your presence did not go unnoticed. Remember: together we can make museum work better!

Marieke Van Damme

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I had the privilege of standing alongside Joan Baldwin and Anne Ackerson of Leadership Matters and Marieke Van Damme of Joyful Museums to discuss gender equity in museums at the American Alliance of Museums conference in DC this past weekend.

At first, we were a bit worried about the fact that our session was slated for 8:45am…on a Saturday. During Memorial Day Weekend. But our worry subsided when over 100 people showed up (mostly women, but also some allies in the room) and everyone was ready to share their stories and discuss issues of gender equity in museums. There was a LOT to talk about, as you can imagine.

We had several goals when walking into our session:

  • To empower attendees (and those Tweeting in or those who will listen to the recording later) with stories and information;
  • To help make a change in our careers and institutions;
  • And to spark a movement towards gender equity in museums…with everyone in the room, not just the women.

I believe we’re really on to something with that last one. The energy in the room was one of hope and confidence in the ability to move this agenda forward. There was a sense of camaraderie, an acknowledgement among many of these women that, “Hey, we’re not alone.”
This all feels like a reboot of something that should have been rebooted long ago: In the early 1970s, the Women’s Caucus was created within AAM. Yet, within a few years, the caucus was dissolved because the women leading the charge thought the goals of the caucus had been accomplished.

Here we are, some 40 years later, and the reasons for creating the caucus are still prevalent today. And after AAM 2016, I think we’ve found some great inspiration to start something up again. We just need to make sure we keep up the momentum!

With that in mind, we’d like to ask you, the AAM attendee, the blog reader, the museum worker: how do we move forward? What does change look like?

In the Twitter world, quite a few people have expressed interest in a monthly Tweet Chat around this topic.

In the real world, many have expressed interest in starting up another caucus or coalition. Or of putting together some “best practices” or a manifesto about making museums more equitable.

We’d love to hear more from you about what we can do next. Please take a minute to send us your ideas!

For more notes about our session, check out Museum Hack’s live notes.

You can also see what people were talking about on Twitter in our Storify, here.

Jessica Ferey

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Making the Most of a Meeting

Washington, DC

This week Anne and I take off for AAM’s Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. where we will join Marieke Van Damme and Jessica Ferey in presenting a workshop called “What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Women.” That takes place Saturday morning at 8:45-10 a.m in room 152 of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. If you’re attending AAM, please join us for what promises to be a lively discussion about gender equity and the museum field.

In the meantime, we’ve written a lot here recently about career strategies, about mentors, posses and advisors. For those of you going to AAM, particularly if it’s your first time or you haven’t been in a while, it is a perfect opportunity to think about you, not just your organization or area of special interest. These meetings provide a window into the field. They act as giant reunions, gathering folks who went to graduate school together or had first jobs together. But don’t just stick to who you know. Nina Simon has written memorably about this here: Want to Meet People for Real Conversations and here: Hack Your Hellos: The Unofficial Way to Meet. And if you aren’t going to be in Washington, it’s still meeting season, and you will likely attend a local, state or regional meeting between now and the fall, so make the most of your time.

To add to Nina’s posts, here are Leadership Matters five top things to do at a meeting:

  • Download the program and plan your route through the meeting events. Identify speakers, writers or workshop leaders you want to meet. Plan to arrive early or stay a little late so you can talk to them. If you’ve already identified a possible mentor, ask if they are also attending, and whether you can meet.
  • Bring business cards, use your phone, whatever method works to contact people you’d like to speak to later.
  • Get out of the hotel/conference center. Visit museums. It’s what we do.
  • Don’t be shy, and be sure and do one thing that pushes you out of your comfort zone.

Bonus: On the way home, identify one way, big or small, you will make change when you return to work.

See you in the Nation’s Capital tomorrow!

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson

More Than a Mentor: Thinking Strategically About a Museum Career

Before we begin, some good news: Anne and I are doing a workshop with our friends Jessica Ferey and Marieke Van Damme at AAM. It’s called What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Women. Now the bad news: It’s at 8:45 a.m., Saturday, May 28. If you’re going to be at AAM, and up at 7:30 AM, (and we hope to see you) are there tunes that pump you up like a great cup of coffee because we’d like to play them before our session?  Email or tweet (#museumwomen) your suggestions for our playlist, then plan to join us on May 28th for a great conversation!


This week we’d like to build on our last post by saying that while mentors–being one, having one–are an important part of museum career planning, they aren’t the whole rodeo. Or to mix metaphors completely, they’re the flour not the entire cake. Besides having a mentor or mentors, you need to be strategic about your career.

Let’s acknowledge from the outset that careers are part of a life, not the whole thing. The rest–partners, husbands, wives, children, parents, friends, lovers, pets–all take energy, devotion and compromise. But within your particular narrative, you still need to be strategic. In addition, let’s acknowledge that museum salaries, particularly for women, women of color, and transgender folk are often ridiculously low. We’ve written about that elsewhere on this blog which you can find here: Museums and the Salary Conundrum or The Salary Agenda. But having acknowledged the demands of family, friends, and the financial strain of salaries that stink, what else should you do?

First, check in, meaning ask yourself if you like going to work. Are you happy? And don’t do it once, make it a habit. Keep a journal, write down your successes and put them in a jar, walk, think, mull things over. Ask yourself how you are. And if you want a fabulous example of personal reflection, read Nina Simon’s current blog: Year Five as a Museum Director. Her things I’m proud of, mistakes I made, and questions on my mind is an excellent template.

Staying in a soul-sucking job just because you earned that master’s degree in museum studies might not be worth it if your commute is punctuated by tears. Do we need to point out that daily crying is not a good thing? But you’re the trailing spouse or partner. Your parents are elderly and you can’t move right now. It took you months to get your apartment, and you can’t, repeat can’t move again. So don’t. Here is where your posse comes in. A posse is a circle of colleagues, folks you like, folks you can go out and have a drink with, but who aren’t necessarily friends. Why? Because they have to be able to tell it to you straight. They will be the people who remind you that you’ve showed up at your favorite watering hole one too many times in a sad mess. They will tell you that you need to turn around and apologize NOW. They will also tell you that you’ve been treated abysmally and that you’re good at what you do.

And, your posse should be able to help you tease apart your skill set. Do you work in a museum department that also exists in other non-profits? Development or communications for example. Is it worth looking elsewhere and building your resume without leaving your parents, partner or really great apartment? Can you reduce your hours, do some consulting and make the same money but have more autonomy? The point is these people will give you advice. You may already have a group like this. If not, invite some colleagues you like and admire, and arrange to meet after work. Last, don’t forget about your boss, department head, team leader. Hopefully she is a person you can talk to. Don’t abuse the privilege, but don’t be shy either.

If you think about everything you’ve read here, it’s clear we are suggesting that you have one or more people who mentor you. They are likely outside your current work environment, and they deal with the big picture–the museum field and your career trajectory. Inside your organization, you should have another individual who knows you and the cast of characters you work with. That person will help with organizational issues and your blind spots. Last, comes your posse. Yes, some of them will become friends, but remember, they have to be able to tell you the truth. And they will offer a network of connections, projects, and ideas. And you’ll do the same back. So be strategic. And if you want to read how business does it, check out these articles: How Leaders Create and Use Networks or Misconceptions About Networking.

Let us know how you network.

Joan Baldwin

Museum Leadership and the Power of Words

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The place I work has several hundred employees on a 500-acre campus. The majority of us work and teach in several core buildings, but in the years since the tech revolution email is our primary mode of communication. It has its pluses. As the sender you have a record of when you communicated and what you said. You can think about what you want to say. You can attach images or links. On the minus list? Email allows a “gotcha” office culture to zing people with “I already told you that…” Other minuses include the fact that a lot of people don’t read. At least they don’t read carefully. (For more on that, see below.) Then you have to email a second time calling out the things they missed or those you glossed over.

I raise these issues because this week I’ve been a participant in too many long email strings where the overwhelming theme is confusion. I ended one yesterday by picking up the phone. Yes, you say, I do that all the time. If that’s true, kudos to you. But for those of you who work in organizations that are highly email-dependent, try talking. It’s quicker. There’s less typing and hopefully less confusion, and you can always follow up with an email as confirmation.

This question of email versus speech struck me in the wake of a Ted talk I heard and a book I am reading. The Ted talk was by Nicholas Christakis, Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale,  and is about social networks. You can find Christakis’s talk here: Nicholas Christakis Ted Talk. The book is David Denby’s Lit Up. You can find The New York Times‘ review here: Lit Up Review. It is an exploration of how 10th-grade English is taught. Both speak–I think– to the larger issues of communication faced by 21st century museum leaders.

Christakis talks about how ideas spread, creating social networks that have memory and persist over time, meaning, for example, that my workplace’s network is one where email is the norm rather than conversation. While Christakis and his team examine everything from obesity to smoking, drinking and altruism, he ends his talk by addressing the question of emotional contagion, describing the way emotions spread as a primitive form of communication. How can we as museum leaders not think about this? Who hasn’t noticed how a room changes with the inclusion or exclusion of certain people? There are those whose addition to the network brings an outward-facing view, with each member linked to one another, while those whose friends and colleagues are isolated from each other sometimes bring a darker view akin to Harry Potter’s dementors. Then there is Christakis’s conception of how ideas spread. As educators, programs or communicators it’s important to understand what we mean when someone says an idea is “in the wind.” That’s what Christakis does. He studies the wind.

Denby wondered whether the current generation of high school students actually still reads for pleasure or only because it’s a course requirement. Why should that matter to us in the museum business? They are our community. And if they aren’t our community now, they will be soon. If, as Denby tells us, they are not born readers, what does that mean for those of us who craft exhibit text, web text or who someday will be their bosses and expect them to write some version of felicitous language? The students Denby meets at three different schools spend more than 100 hours each week on media. At one point, one of the teachers he profiles asks the class how they have time to talk to their friends. The answer is they don’t. They spend their time with their friends listening to music, watching movies or doing homework, but they aren’t talking. Again, how do we program for people who happily multi-task, but whose neurons and synapses are used to the skimming, hopping reading style of the Internet?

I realize these are cultural issues and problems that go way beyond the world of museum work, but they speak to how important it is for museum people to be interested in our communities not just the stuff we care for. The world–writ large and small–is our community. My advice: study how ideas and emotions spread in your workplace; talk, read deeply and encourage your friends to do the same. For me, words still matter.

Joan H. Baldwin


Museum HR: Size Small

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Ages ago, as a young director of a New York history museum, I remember sitting in the audience at a workshop at the Metropolitan Museum. While I enjoyed myself–it was a day out in a great city and a magical museum–there was the lingering sense that the Met’s huge endowment just made everything so easy. Of course its storage areas were beautiful, its education programs imaginative, and its board of trustees? Don’t even get me started. I was reminded of that experience when I read Anne’s answer to a question on this blog about how an all-volunteer museum might aspire to endowed staff positions or, for that matter, any staff position, and I wondered if we shouldn’t stop to think out loud about how leadership and HR work at smaller institutions.

This is important because while working at small institutions has its own rewards–although sometimes not in the form of a paycheck–size sometimes becomes an excuse for inaction. It could be not having a strategic plan; it could be not having an HR office or its equivalent; it could be a board that resists change. That type of behavior from museum leadership, whether boards or directors, contributes to stasis not growth. As Anne is fond of saying, “Do people get up in the morning and say ‘I’m going to make this organization mediocre’?” Not every museum needs to be the Metropolitan, but every organization needs to aspire, to have a vision that moves things forward. We believe firmly that creative, happy, invested staff–whether it’s one person or 10–make museums change. So if you’re a museum leader at an organization with an annual budget of less than $200,000, here are some things you may want to consider on the staff side of things to make the proverbial needle move.

Does your board have:

  • a philosophy that staff are an investment rather than a cost?
  • a commitment to investing in staff?
  • knowledge about comparable nonprofit salaries, wages and benefits in its community or region?
  • a willingness to apply that knowledge to the museum’s staff?
  • a network of philanthropic and corporate donors who could assist in strengthening the museum’s human capital?

Does your museum have:

  • contextual data that can help board and staff leaders make decisions about staffing levels, salaries, wages, benefits, professional development needs?
  • a staffing plan that specifies what positions, jobs and/or roles will be needed by the organization, usually over the next 12-36 months?
  • attendant financial strategies and plans to support a staffing plan?
  • a commitment to engaging staff about their professional development needs?
  • HR policies and procedures that meet legal standards and best practices?

Joan Baldwin