This week we read two great posts, one in Alliance Labs titled “Leaving the Museum Field,” and one on Know Your Own Bone titled “Does Being a Nonprofit Impact Perceptions of Cultural Organizations?” If you missed them, read them. Soon. There is so much good writing out there, but these two pieces, which strangely echo one another, deserve your attention. Why? Because the museum field has a problem. And it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Both posts examine issues affecting the museum workplace. The Alliance Lab’s article, written by four mid-career professionals, looks at attrition in the field. It’s based on a survey, with over 1,000 responses, conducted by the authors. The top three reasons their respondents gave for leaving the field include low pay, “other,” which included racism, poor or no benefits, and the inability to get or keep a job, and poor work/life balance. According to their survey the tipping point for leaving seems to occur sometime in a museum worker’s first decade or 16-25 years into a career. Among the former, the issue driving folks away seems to be pay, among the latter, it’s work/life balance. Apparently an investment of more than 25 years in the museum field means you’re here to stay.
Know Your Own Bone’s Colleen Dilenschneider asks us to think about how museums hide behind their non-profit status. She points out that visitors often don’t know or really care whether an organization has its 501C3 designation. People, she says, are sector agnostic. The museum world, however, is not. Here’s Dilenschneider making the point that museum missions get lost in proclamations of non-profitness:
Here’s how Disney does messaging: We are Walt Disney World. We create magical, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Buy a ticket.
Here’s how some museums do messaging: “We are a museum! We are a nonprofit organization. Buy a ticket.
We would add that all too often the myriad workplace issues described in the Alliance Labs article are the result of museums and heritage organizations who believe being a non-profit gives them a pass on paying equitable wages, having a personnel policy or dealing with staff who are victims of sexual harassment or racism. In short, while museums may use their non-profit status as a mask, offering up mushy or mediocre mission statements, we would also argue that it allows too many boards to behave toward museum workplaces in ways that are not tolerated on the for-profit side of things.
As you might imagine, Leadership Matters isn’t convinced that workplace attrition by the field’s best and brightest is its only problem. Here are our top four threats to the museum workplace:
- The field is over-credentialed. Surely you don’t need an advanced degree to become a museum intern or an assistant to an assistant? Does a bachelor’s degree teach you nothing? How hard can it be for the museum job sector to get off the graduate degree merry-go-round?
- Pay is too low and demands are high. We’ve probably written about this more than anyone else. We are adamant that museum boards and leadership need to invest in their staffs–in their salaries, benefits and professional development. Is it possible that by investing in the best staff it could, a museum might find capital expenses would come easier? And is it possible that there’s a high degree of workplace burnout because in too many workplaces staff aren’t led, they’re managed (and managed badly).
- Leadership is frequently mediocre. There’s been a lot of work on leadership lately across the field, but more is needed. While more and more new museum professionals seem to understand that leadership is an ingredient of a strong career whether you end up in the corner office or not, there are still too many boards whose understanding of the museums they lead is poor, resulting in weak decision making. And we’re not convinced that boards aren’t still trying to shift their fiduciary responsibilities to a museum’s top spot, making the ED the chief fundraiser not the leader.
- Conditions for women and minorities are not great. This is a bad one, and a thorn in the field’s side. It’s an impediment to diversity, and–when you combine racism, sexism, lack of paid family leave, poor benefits and long hours– a leading cause of people leaving the field.
If the last decade was a time of big building, maybe the museum world’s next decade could be the time to invest in building leadership capacity at all levels. What will the field look like in 2027 if internships and lower level positions are populated by smart, interested humans fresh from college? What will it look like if many museums have endowed positions, shifting cash to other places on the spread sheet? What will it feel like to be the only part of the non-profit world where women’s wages–all women’s wages–are equitable? And what would it be like if all museum leaders weren’t afraid to demand staffs treat each other with tolerance. Nirvana, right? But it’s something to work for.
We want to end this week’s post with hearty congratulations to our friends Bob Beatty and Steven Miller who both had books come out in September. They are: An American Association for State & Local History Guide to Making Public History (Bob) and The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text (Steven). Bravo to two humans who’ve done a lot to prevent museum mediocrity!
This week there were a few articles and comments about the young and talented leaving the museum field. Principle among them was a post by Claire Milldrum on Paul Orselli’s blog. Pictured with her Corgi, she is apparently much happier in her post-museum life and for that Leadership Matters is glad.
We have written probably more than anyone else about work in the museum world. We have ranted about salaries, about living wages, and about the ridiculous cost of graduate school which, as Ms. Milldrum points out, seems to be the entry ticket for even the lowliest, most pathetic position at the biggest, fanciest museums. So don’t get us wrong when you read what comes next.
First and foremost one blog post is not data so everyone who commented as if this were a daily occurrence, where’s the data? Do we actually know how many young professionals leave the museum field before they actually start, scared off by the thought of low salaries (where there’s plenty of data) and high graduate school debt (where at least we have raw costs if not the number of students taking loans)?
Second, Milldrum conflates several things: galleries, libraries and museums, and work and internships, in all three sectors. While at the entry/internship level they may appear alike, in reality there are differences among the three fields. She also reports that she’s sad she’s not starting graduate school this month, but says she got into one of “the top grad schools in Library Science, and at one of them, a guaranteed student work job in my subfield.” Again, confusing because a masters in library science is not a degree in Museum Studies, art history or public history, it’s an MLS which provides entry to a field where the median salary is $57, 680, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and where the American Library Association lobbies hard for entry level salaries. Last, in my experience–and admittedly it’s only my experience–libraries do hire humans possessing only a bachelor’s degree for jobs not internships. They are not librarian jobs, but they are not internships, and allow a young professional a necessary window into the sector before they make a commitment to graduate school.
So while Milldrum’s career path was confusing, her charges about the museum world weren’t. It has a long and sorrowful history of maid-of-all-work internships that prepare participants for nothing except debt. And those type of internships are a not-so-subtle race and class barrier. (See The Diversity vs. Salary Question). Clearly, once she decided to forego graduate school and the museum world, Milldrum had the skill set to walk into a well-paying job in non-profit finance. And why couldn’t she have gotten a similar job in the museum world that would have allowed her a normal work week and a chance to go to the dentist? She’s clearly smart. She’s a good writer, and based her description of working both one job for pay, and another as a volunteer to build her resume, she’s a hard worker. Is the museum world really so rarified that it couldn’t stand an infusion of some folks with newly-minted bachelor’s degrees? I mean we love what we do, but this isn’t oncology after all.
Milldrum’s post isn’t data, but perhaps it’s a bellwether, and we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that and compile the data. In the meantime, if you’re in museum HR or director of a small museum, would it hurt if you lobbied for an entry level position or two without a graduate degree? Is a master’s degree necessary for every job in your institution? If not, be the person who breaks the mold. Hire someone with smarts and passion and see what happens. The field will likely be better for it.
We begin this week’s post with a note of hope and encouragement for our friends and colleagues at museums and heritage organizations in and around Houston, Texas. Museum leadership can be challenging in the best of times, but this disaster surely tested all of you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, your families, and the organizations and collections you serve and protect. And for our readers, know that both AAM and AASLH have disaster advice on their web pages. In addition, AASLH is actively collecting for storm relief online and at its annual meeting that begins Wednesday. Last, if you haven’t reviewed your site disaster plan recently, now might be a good time. If there ever were a metaphor for what leaders do, it’s a disaster plan. Leaders always need to be prepared for whatever comes next.
This week my organization spent time discussing issues of gender in order to prepare the community to support transgender and gender non-conforming students. We were lucky enough to have Mb Duckett Ireland, Choate School’s Diversity Education Chair speak to us. Late in the talk Mb dropped a line about intention versus impact. It stuck with me, and I thought about it the rest of the week.
There are so many moments when leaders intend one thing, and the result is the opposite. If you asked me to sum up everything I’ve read about intention vs. impact since Mb’s talk, it would be: It’s not about you; it’s about the person you’re talking to.
Too often we assume that positions of leadership automatically confer brains, kindness and respect. Sadly, as all of us who’ve worked for lousy leaders know, there’s nothing automatic about it. But back to intent vs. impact. Imagine, you are a museum leader, and you make a comment to a staff member. You mean it in a jovial, friendly way, but as soon as the words are out of your mouth, you realize something’s happening. And it’s not good. What do you do? Well, too often we retreat, we try to pretend whatever happened didn’t happen and move through the rest of the day. And if we’re confronted with what happened, we rarely sit right down in the space that makes us uncomfortable and say, holy smokes I was rude. We don’t engage because it’s uncomfortable to say “I messed up,” and because we’re afraid of making a bad situation worse.
One of the things the privileged (and all of us who are leaders, and therefore deciders occupy a place of privilege to a greater or lesser degree) don’t seem to realize is that tiny comments, assumptions, jokes and judgments aggregate. And it really doesn’t matter if you were “just trying to be funny” if on the receiving end it’s not funny but hurtful. Your intentions may be good, but your impact biased. And it’s your impact that packs a punch especially when later instead of apologizing you try to explain you’re not a misogynist or a racist or both.
As leaders we not only provide the vision and roadmap for our organizations, we model a way of being. Acknowledging that staff members have different identities, and working to create equitable workspaces is something all museum leaders need to do. We all mess up occasionally. When that happens do what needs to be done: Admit your mistake; connect with the person you’ve hurt or offended; reach out. You’ll find you build a team not a hierarchy.
We’ve waited two and a half years and the moment’s finally here: Our new book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace has arrived.
While it is still listed as a pre-order on Amazon, Routledge assures us it really is available. So first some thank you’s: To all of you who answered our short and long surveys, who participated in our focus groups, who took time out of your busy lives to share data and thoughts, and those who were interviewed, A VERY BIG THANK YOU. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Although there are days when writing a book seems like an out-of-body experience, we’re proud to have taken a long overdue step in the gender and museum discussion. We hope it serves as a catalyst for ongoing conversation about these issues.
You may think this is not a subject that has much to do with you. Our response? If you’re working in the field you need to know who you’re working with. If you’re female, and you’re part of the 47.6 percent of museum workers identifying as female, you may have already discovered that as a woman you lead differently, make decisions differently, and often have family and sexual harassment issues that are different from your male counterparts. If you identify as male, you may want to explore how the other half of your workforce thinks, decides and works, and more particularly, how the long history of women in the museum field has influenced the way it conducts business.
You may think there are already too many women in the museum field. That’s almost true. And this book discusses the dangers of a pink collar workplace. Perhaps you have an understanding of women’s contributions to the museum field. While that was not our only goal in writing Women in the Museum, we tried to give a sense of the almost century and a half of women’s contributions as volunteers, collectors, philanthropists, founders, directors and staff. We believe it’s important to know on whose shoulders we stand.
You may believe the salary disparity between genders doesn’t exist in the museum world or that it did, but it’s over. It isn’t. The data is real, and the problems of low pay affect everyone — museum workers, their families, and ultimately, their desire to remain in the museum field. Salary disparity is especially acute for women of color. If you are a trustee, a director or department head, and you are struggling to make your workforce more diverse, you may want to read the chapters on stereotyping and on women at work in museums today.
Last, you may think this is too much feminism or too much white privilege. We hope you’ll read the book and then decide. As women, we need to support, guide, mentor, hire, and help one another. We need to solve our own salary issues first by making sure that all the women in our organizations are equitably paid. Once that goal is accomplished, we can tackle the gender divide. We want to make sure that everyone is at the table, and that once there, they are treated fairly. How can your institution preach organizational open-mindedness if the staff break room tolerates cruel remarks or the HR policy is rife with inequity?
If you care about these issues, we’ll be at AASLH Thursday, September 7 at 1:45 pm with four of our interviewees for Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity. In addition, you can join the Gender Equity in Museums Movement, a group we started in 2016 to encourage dialog on these issues: https://www.genderequitymuseums.com/.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
In the wake of our return from AAM’s annual meeting in St. Louis, we’ve thought a lot about the lily whiteness of the museum field. It’s a monumental problem, and to be fair, it’s a problem the field is working hard to solve. But salaries are also an issue, and here the field is far less aggressive, indeed it’s sometimes silent. And yet until we acknowledge how questions of diversity and salary are linked, neither will be solved, and we will live on as the profession best practiced by white young men and women with trust funds.
Leadership Matters is not the first to talk about the diversity/salary link. Many voices over the last five years have raised this question, not the least of which was Museum Workers Speak in its rogue meeting two years ago at AAM in Atlanta. But what floats to the surface from these speeches, panel discussions, tweets and blog posts is overwhelmingly about race, not salary.
Many museums’ origin stories belong to the oligarchs, whether male or female, who, often with the noblest of intentions, created collections for the rest of us. They are traditional, hierarchical organizations, and until about 25 years ago, led predominantly by traditional, white men burdened with more scholarly degrees than leadership experience. (If you need a 21st-century version of this story, look no further than the great, grand Metropolitan Museum. Inside a Met Director’s Shocking Exit.)
The worst cases of diversity-fixing have involved keeping everything the same, but strategically replacing a member of a museum’s leadership team with a person or persons of color. No one can object. The optics are right, and in many cases those hires actually made and continue to make change. And one assumes they were hired at better than average salaries, although we know, that if the person of color in question is a woman, her salary is likely to be almost 30-percent less than her white male colleagues. The Pollyanna in us can say something is better than nothing. At least she’s there. Small steps, blah, blah. Yes, but…..
At the staff level, where men and women with newly-minted graduate degrees compete for a ridiculously small number of jobs, many with poor to pathetic salaries, things don’t change. (Panera Bread pays its shift supervisors $11.48/hour and we’re pretty sure they don’t require an advanced degree.) And it’s here that race and class come face to face with a job sector that expects a master’s degree, maybe an internship or two, before offering a life-time of earning less than $50,000 annually. Why should a young woman of color invest in graduate school to then have to pay student loans while earning less than $15/hour with no benefits? Why should young women who want to combine parenthood with career, work for museums whose response to child bearing is “Use FMLA, and we’ll hold your job for you” or worse, “Our staff is under 50 people, so we don’t have to offer FMLA”?
Yes, we’ve been a too-white, sometimes biased field for too long. But built into too many museum’s workplace DNA is the idea that you are lucky to be there at all. This is the evil stepsister of Elizabeth Merritt’s Sacrifice Measure. There, she defined a culture where predominantly white, well-educated wanna-be museum staff were willing to live with too many roommates, and skimp on their daily lattes in order to work in the rarified atmosphere of museums and cultural organizations. But how about the museums that exploit that desire? Who in action and deed tell emerging professionals you only need to sacrifice for a decade or more and then your median salary will be $48,000. Really?
If you taught public school, worked in a public library, which also require a master’s degree, your salary would be transparent and your national organization–the American Library Association or your teachers union might take a stand about what salary was appropriate for a masters degree holding person with some experience. We could be wrong, but we have trouble imagining a municipal library saying “We’re non-profit, so we can’t pay that much.” You could envision the ladder you might climb, and it wouldn’t involve hopping from part-time work, to a grant-funded position before finally reaching a full-time position. Don’t get us wrong. We’re not suggesting that other fields are nirvana, but until the museum field–from the top–AAM, AASLH, museum thought leaders and board members– tackles this problem we will be a field easiest occupied by those with high-earning partners or trust funds. That does not make for a diverse workforce.
Joan H. Baldwin