If museum salaries are not what they should be–and in far too many cases they’re not–then the dark underbelly of museum and heritage organization employment must be internships. Rarely defined, at least in any universal sense, they are sometimes discussed as if they were the pupa stage of a museum career–somewhere between a national history project prize and a first job.
Long ago in museum history, trustees used to look happily around the board table and say some variation of “We can get a grant for that.” That was code for we know there is public money available, we just need to find it. Those sentiments were frequently followed by “Maybe we can get an intern!” or another more recent variation, “Maybe we can get a high school student.” The latter is often in reference to projects involving IT, video creation, social media or coding, the assumption being that students facile with their cell phones might become students who create beautiful web pages for free or at least for less than full price. Sadly, at some institutions interns are the go-to for thankless, repetitive work, marketed to make it look resume-building. In fact to paraphrase the inimitable Jane Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a museum in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an intern.”
Let’s be blunt: Here at Leadership Matters, we’re not fans of indentured servitude of students. They need to be paid. And they need the same respect you offer any employee. Being young or inexperienced doesn’t mean you don’t have good ideas. It just means that the context for those ideas may be a little ill-defined.
An internship is a complicated proposition. First, an excellent internship is some brilliant combination of teaching, mentoring, and learning by doing. It weaves together equal amounts of respect, experimentation, failure and independence. And in the end it’s a gift to museums as a whole. Why? Because you and your organization, serve as that person’s introductory chapter to museum work. If you are dithering, disorganized, unimaginative or demanding in the tradition of Cruella de Vil, your intern may u-turn right into another field.
Second, if you are going to manage an internship, you need to be a good teacher. And you need the time to teach otherwise your failure to explain clearly will mean extra work for all involved. When you write your internship job description, create a week-to-week syllabus to help you and your potential intern see what they will learn and how. If you need help writing internship announcements, we recommend the New England Museum Association which offers sample templates and job descriptions.
Last, pay your intern. Internships usually take place over a finite period of time–a semester, a summer, a winter term. If your organization can’t afford $200-$250 a week which is not even close to minimum wage in many states, or housing (which is often necessary for out-of-town/state interns, perhaps you should reconsider. Is it possible that in your organizational heart-of-hearts, you want cheap labor more than you want the responsibility of an internship?
The museum field is increasingly hard to break into. It doesn’t necessarily pay well, but it requires a graduate degree as an entrance ticket. The other entrance requirement is a string of seemingly endless internships and volunteer projects. Don’t be the organization that offers mindless work capped with a hollow recommendation letter. Be the place where work is interesting and really matters. Be the place that teaches. An internship is a choice, for both individual and organization. Choose wisely.
Full disclosure: We’re white. In addition, we’re straight, and we’ve been in this field a long time. That means for some of you, we’re old enough to be your grandmas. We’re putting that out there because a) knowledge is power and b) in the age of Facebook, you may want to measure your response to issues of gender (and race) based on who’s doing the talking. So here are a few thoughts about women and the museum world in response to recent happenings.
- First, kudos to AASLH for insisting that museums and heritage organizations advertising on its Career Center page must now post salary ranges. Leadership Matters has long lobbied for wage increases in museum salaries, but understanding salary is tricky when organizations aren’t transparent about what they pay. And what does this have to do with women? A lot. Women are not paid equitably in this field or any other. Before you eye roll, and say that’s not true, it is. If you don’t believe us, Google it. Everyone from Pew Charitable Trusts to The New York Times has written about it many times over. And it’s important here because that $1/85-cent gap isn’t only about white women versus white men, it’s about white men and Latina women, for example, where Latina women make 53.8-cents for every white man’s dollar.
By posting salary ranges AASLH provides a framework and a mutual understanding about what’s on the table ahead of the hiring process. That helps applicants, but particularly women, negotiate. The Wage Gap didn’t happen overnight, and according to some agencies, it will take centuries to fix. While we wait, a big thank you to AASLH.
- Our friend and colleague Bob Beatty put our recent post on social media. Having Bob post something is meaningful because he reaches a lot of people. Not surprisingly, one of his readers responded. He asked whether graduate programs in museum studies were as overwhelmingly female as they appear, and whether AASLH or anyone had figures to prove that? He also said that his own museum is 77-percent female. He thinks someday soon his institution (and many others) might be majority female, thus (he said) ending the gender equity problem. He remarked that “demographics is destiny,” meaning that a lot of women or maybe just a homogeneous workplace equals an equitable one. Last, he suggested that for Leadership Matters to imply that there are still boatloads of bias in the museum field was hyperbole.
Here’s our answer:
- An all-female field is not something anyone should wish for. It’s professional suicide. Traditionally female fields like nursing and libraries are known as pink collar fields. These jobs are traditionally devalued in the economy. (I know–eye roll here–who doesn’t value a nurse, but it’s true.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the museum field is 46.7-percent female, meaning it’s at a tipping point, but not entirely pink yet.
- Statistics from graduate schools are hard to come by. We don’t know any service organization who’s tried to count the number of students in the pipeline much less their gender. Given that more women than men go to college and graduate school, it wouldn’t surprise us if museum studies programs are disproportionately female, but, again, that’s not healthy. Healthy and creative fields are equitably balanced for gender, race, and age.
- Don’t conflate demographics with equity. We could have a 77-percent female field and men would still be paid more, and hold the highest paying positions. See our comment above on the gender wage gap. Nor does a majority female field eliminate bias.
- Channel your empathy. “A boatload of bias” may seem harsh from where a (white?) male writer sits. And he may be kind, empathetic, and humble, but until he (or anyone of privilege) tries to understand the way the museum field’s unconscious bias ambushes people of color, and LGBTQIA+ employees, the boatload of bias will remain an impenetrable mystery to him. Although getting woke can be uncomfortable, we recommend “I Am the Person Sitting Next to You,” from the blog Incluseum as a place to start.
Last, a month or so, we posted the infographic above. We also sent it to service organizations and numerous media outlets because we’d just finished a survey of more than 700-plus museum workers. The results were disturbing. Yet, it prompted no response from AAM, AASLH or AAMD. What does that say about the field? Does the fact that 62-percent of our respondents have experienced or witnessed gender discrimination not matter? And if 62-percent of museum workers experience gender discrimination, how are those problems compounded for persons of color, native/indigenous women, LGBTQIA+, and non-binary, non-conforming persons? How should we interpret that silence?
How many of us have found ourselves the new person on a museum staff? We join a program or department in a historic site, museum, garden or zoo. We’re new. Everyone else isn’t. In contrast to our Skype conversation and our subsequent day-long, in-person interview our colleagues seem a tad cranky. We chalk it up to stress, and move forward, but we begin to hear chatter about the boss. The very boss who offered us a job. We’re uncomfortable. It took a long time to find what seems to be the perfect position. We’re doing what we love, the salary is good, and weirdly, the benefits are great. We want this to be our happy place, but it’s not because two people, in particular, are very, very angry. At the boss. The seemingly calm, equitable leader who just offered us this brilliant opportunity.
What do you do? Well, you can always chalk it up to the cranky quotient, the equation that says a certain percentage of all colleagues will be out of sorts at any given time. You can smile and leave the pair alone. Should you be a witness to their ranting while waiting for the coffee machine, you can definitely not participate. Or you can always confront them and tell them why they’re wrong.
But before you do that, here’s something to contemplate: Your experience is not theirs. You don’t have to change your mind (or theirs), but you need to respect their experience. That is what museums ask of you, over and over, when dealing with the public and collections. You’re asked to understand the frustrated mother who yells at the admission staff because she’s shepherding four kids under 10. You’re asked to empathize with the middle schoolers who can’t connect to the current exhibit. You’re asked to court the elderly donor whose political views you don’t share and who’s a teensy bit patronizing. Or you’re asked to find ways to make your largely white, old-school, site appealing to a community that is no longer white and definitely not old-school. All these instances demand empathy rather than judgment.
Is it possible that the person who hired you, who has been nothing but kind and encouraging, is not always that way? Yes. Is it possible she may have treated your colleagues shabbily? Yes. It’s also possible you will learn something about dealing with her by setting your own bias aside and talking with your colleagues. (Of course, you may learn you were right all along and that your colleagues are whiney, judgmental individuals who love seeing themselves as victims.) But you may also discover your director was less than understanding when your colleague’s child was in ICU or perhaps your angry colleague was harassed by another staff member and feels the incident wasn’t taken seriously? You may learn your colleague is the primary support for her family and can’t quit her job even if she wanted to.
Sometimes being part of a staff is like those moments where you sit with family and remember a childhood incident. Half your cousins and siblings recall a side-splittingly funny moment. The other half? Shock and embarrassment. It’s as if you witnessed two different events, and in a way you did. Everybody’s experience is real to them. If the colleagues in question are people you deal with daily, you may want to hear their stories. Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t patronize or gaslight them. About all you can say truthfully is that your experience isn’t theirs. But what you learn may help you understand them, your dream boss, and others. If it were an equation, it would look like this:
Listen + no judgment = knowledge
Knowledge (applied) = experience = #beabetterhuman
Tell us how you get along with the folks in your workplace.
Recently a friend and sometime mentee asked me to lunch. The subject? Career advice. After chatting about weather, children and politics, we got down to brass tacks. What does she want to do with her life? Two years out of college and she feels pressure–albeit self-imposed–from her peer group, from the ether, from the Internet, about not having reached some magical line ahead of (or with) her peers. The point of this story is not my friend’s career path, but the ability to offer advice, and more importantly to offer advice that’s actually heard.
Folks in leadership positions are frequently asked for advice, and yet advice giving, like mentoring, is one of those soft skills frequently bypassed on the trip up the museum ladder. That means some people arrive in the corner office with less than adequate listening skills. Yep, it’s that old saw again. How many times have we listed listening as a primary trait of leadership? A lot. In fact, advice-giving is almost a metaphor for the act of leadership. To be a good advice giver one needs to be self-aware, patient, empathetic, and yet willing to cut to the heart of a problem. And to ask for advice one has to be open, vulnerable, a good listener, with biases and opinions left at the door.
Even with a modicum of these characteristics in hand, the advisor/advisee relationship is tricky. Here are some considerations for both sides:
- Be humble enough to know whether you’re the right person. Understand the limitations of your knowledge and don’t overstep.
- While many leaders are story tellers, giving advice isn’t an opportunity to talk about you. You are not the subject. Your focus is your advisee’s question.
- Make sure you understand the nature of the question. Is the advice seeker testing an idea, seeking help with process or trying to make a decision?
- Summarize at the end of the discussion so your colleague has a sense of closure and direction.
- Be prepared to be available for a follow-up discussion.
For Advice Seekers:
- Make sure your leader has time to answer your question.
- Make sure she is the right person to talk to about this particular issue.
- Make sure you know what you’re asking and why. Sometimes advice seeking is a procrastination technique. Don’t waste your boss’s time if you don’t have a real question.
- Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared to look at your question in a different way.
- Say thank you and follow up. Let your advisor know how you fared and what happened.
The advisor/advisee relationship is the microcosm of the leader/staff relationship. If it’s working well, it’s not one sided; everybody benefits. If you have a leader whose door is open, who listens, who helps frame questions individually, you probably have a leader who does that collectively. And you’re lucky. It’s not just the museum staff who benefits, but the organization as well.
And by the way, after listening carefully, our lunchtime conversation seemed to be mostly about process, how to synch the various tasks necessary in a job search. Ideas were offered, summarized, and suggestions followed up. Now we wait to see what worked.
Once in a while Leadership Matters gets a question about what to ask in an interview. You know, the fear you’ll draw a blank when the dreaded “What questions do you have for us?” makes its appearance. By that point you’ve already been asked what type of animal you would be if you could choose. You talked through lunch, but never with your mouth full. And, you’ve beaten back imposter syndrome and demonstrated you do in fact know something about being (pick one) a director, curator, educator, development assistant.
So there you are in interview mode. You love this museum. You’ve always loved it. But in your current job you feel like a cog in a wheel. Innovation is not in your job description. You need to figure out whether this museum, which seems to want you, encourages original thinking or not. So ask how an idea works its way from thought bubble to experimentation, and on to review and implementation.
For some museums and heritage organizations the answer is still the traditional top down response: Ideas come from the director, and her leadership group. Unless you’re applying for the director’s position, that may stop you in your tracks. You may also hear the word teamwork, but pay attention, teamwork is tricky, and what you really need to know is can the new kid on the block make change?
Teamwork should be an opportunity for diverse thinking and cross pollenization, but like your middle school history project, it can quickly devolve into disaster, crankiness and unproductivity. It is not a magic bullet. Creating teams isn’t an end, it’s a means, and like so much about leadership, teamwork depends on vision and a clear, concise articulation of goals. A signal that the museum interviewing you uses teams well will be hearing that someone far down the food chain is an active team participant. Another is watching your interview group for signs of sarcasm and eye rolling. But hopefully, you’re watching for that sort of behavior anyway.
Say they describe a year-long planning process that included participants from across the museum. Can you tell if the team worked independently before reporting back?Teams depend on trust and independence as much as leadership. They shouldn’t require the director or department head’s presence to function. They need a clear mandate and the independence to experiment and make decisions, and leaders, without even meaning to, can dominate conversation and squelch the back and forth where real creativity prospers.
You may not feel bold enough, but it’s fair to ask whether this is a staff (or team) that tolerates dissent. Healthy staffs know conflict about the work itself is okay. In fact, research shows the ability to argue about ideas (as opposed to personalities) generates more creativity. Needless to say, you don’t want to be part of an organization where conflict is personal or where the staff long ago gave up original thought because if the director doesn’t think something, it’s not going to happen.
- In any interview situation, the organization appears to have all the cookies, but you’re interviewing them too. Do not compound your current misery by taking a job where the staff is demonstrably unhappy.
- Look for signs that staff likes being together. Do they laugh?
- The interview is the sweet spot. Watch and listen. Are your interviewers listening to you? If you get evasive or rote answers in the interview, it’s unlikely things will improve.
- If you don’t get an answer to how innovation happens, that’s a red flag in itself.
There’s something we’re puzzled about. There are now a lot of graduate programs in museum studies. There are even more if you include the ones in nonprofit management. But here’s our question–what if you’re mid-career, whether it’s your second job or your fourth and suddenly you find yourself managing people more than things. Huge junks of your time are spent on personnel, and short and long term planning, rather than what lured you to the museum field in the beginning. And whatever you learned about leadership, assuming it was part of your graduate school curriculum, has long since left your brain. Where should you turn?
Just for fun, we looked at AAM’s and AASLH’s websites. At AASLH we found “Leadership” and “Professional Development” both listed as topics under Resources, and some leadership and management topics specifically listed in “Continuing Education.” So far so good. AASLH also has some of its sessions–some very interesting–from its 2017 annual meeting available for purchase, but few about museum leadership. (And just to be clear, for us leadership isn’t always a corner office, a sophisticated board, and a multi-million dollar budget. Sometimes it’s a team of three, and a budget of $1,500.) However, the options for a person who wants to be a better leader can be few and far between.
AAM has a tab called “Manage Your Career,” where one can find the Salary Survey, links to various affinity groups and professional networks, and connection through Museum Junction. AAM also has a wealth of information on career transition, but weirdly many of its career tab links are from other job sectors and no longer connect directly. What’s even stranger is there’s almost nothing–with the exception of posting your problems on Museum Junction — that addresses leadership, management, and career problems or the “being” part of working in the field.
There are also the regional and state professional organizations. We looked at New England (NEMA), the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), the California Association of Museums (CAM) and the Museum Association of New York (MANY). Of this limited search, SEMC offers a long-standing program for leaders/managers and CAM is gathering trend data and case studies that touch on several aspects of leadership. Like AAM, NEMA separates career support from museum resources, making the former about getting a job and the latter about advocacy, funding and policies. MANY, too, spends web space on jobs and advocacy. Don’t get us wrong. There is nothing wrong with any of these web page topics. They are necessary and important, but it’s curious how the field, whether its service organizations or graduate programs, puts greater emphasis on doing–what job do you want, how to advocate for your organization, how to advocate for your field–than on how to “be” in the museum workplace. And by “be” we mean how to be a good curator, not as someone who knows content, but someone who knows her staff or someone who leads with self-awareness, courage and vision.
Museums are tricky, complicated places. They require a wealth of knowledge on the content side coupled with massive leadership skills. Why does the field continue to ignore one for the other and what should a museum leader in the midst of an existential crisis do? How do you know if what you’re experiencing relates to your inexperience, some anomaly related to your site or to the field as a whole? Who should you turn to? Obviously, the type of advice and support you seek depends on the nature of the problem, but leadership is leadership, whether it’s an organization with a staff of 2.5 people or 250 people. You can be a bad or successful leader in both instances.
It’s a Leadership Matters tradition to offer advice for different strata within the field, so here goes:
If you have no money and want to stay local:
- If you don’t already have a peer network, kitchen cabinet or advisory group, now’s the time. These should be people who know your work, but who aren’t your friends. They should be people you’re comfortable baring your professional soul with, but not your grandma. Presumably she likes everything you do. Invite them for drinks or coffee and pose your question(s). And before you meet with these folks, listen to this: to the Ted Radio Hour on how to break out of your comfort zone.
- Contact your local Chamber of Commerce. See what it has in the way of resource groups and continuing leadership education. Ditto for your local community college or university.
- Link to Harvard Business Review. Not everything will help, but much will.
- Read regularly about leadership. If you haven’t read Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Judith Glaser’s Conversational Intelligence and Sheryl Standberg’s Lean In, get them. At the risk of causing monumental eye rolling in your workplace, you may want to assign one to your team.
**If you have money and board support:
- Consider applying for a spot at the Getty Leadership Institute.
- Explore AASLH’s Leadership Institute or look at Jekyll Island Management Institute
- If you are an art museum person, don’t forget the Center for Curatorial Leadership’s low residency NYC program.
- If your museum is one of 20 art institutions chosen for a combined initiative in diversifying museum leadership you may be eligible to participate in one of the programs supported by the Ford and Walton Family foundations.
- Think about a graduate or certificate program, either locally or online in leadership or business which these days often encompasses leadership.
**This is by no means a complete listing and we welcome other suggestions for mid-career leadership training for museum professionals.
Last, but not least:
- If you feel your state, regional or national service organization isn’t offering what you need, say something. Say it the moment the 2018 meeting is over. Be specific. If friends or colleagues feel the same way, get them to join in your ask. These are membership organizations that exist to support the field and the field is you.