Thursday, August 27, 2009

Comments from Jenna

Our good friend Jenna, a staffer at the NHM in London, tried to comment to yesterday's post but couldn't get the site to work properly. I'm just passing along her two cents (pence?) on the civil service situation in the UK:

"In response to the article about federal workers, I thought it might be
interesting to note that the opposite is true in the UK - civil service jobs
often pay less than the private sector, and raises have not been in line with
inflation and cost of living increases. Here's a link from the civil service
union: "

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Morning Link Roundup : 26 August 2009

We haven't had one of these recently (we haven't had much of anything, really) but the rest of the museum community hasn't been quite as lax in their blogging.

It's Not About Adaptation, It's About Revolution - MJ Writes tackles a lot of the same things Kat did in an earlier post, but MJ did it first. I'm sure most people following these conversations have already read MJ's post, but if not, here it is. She has some great ideas.

55 Low-Resource Ways for Museums to Connect with the Community - Coleen Dilenschneider's follow up to the post above. Even more great ideas! In an ideal world museums would function a lot more like libraries, providing community resources and serving as meeting places.

The Future of Museums and Libraries: A Discussion Guide - The IMLS provides a fairly thorough breakdown of the elements that are pertinent to the future of museums (and libraries!) in the United States and beyond. I'll let Kat explain the details when she gets a chance, but we're going to try and have these conversations. Kind of like a book club!

Why Do Federal Workers Make So Much Money? - Income in the private sector hasn't increased with the cost of living. Income for government workers has. Not the best analysis ever, but interesting.

And lastly, a link that made me laugh out loud: The Grand and Secret Order of Museum People -The Attic proposes a museos oath. I love it, partially because I went to an undergraduate institution where we took our traditions and secret ceremonies very seriously, and partially just because the idea of museums--which are continuously striving to be more egalitarian--having a secret handshake makes me giggle.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Museum Job: $204,000 a year. No lie.

I am sure that many of you have seen this posting for a Project Director/Museum Developer in Abu Dhabi. Salary is quoted at $204,000

Now, I know that there are many reasons that Abu Dhabi features HIGH salaries for jobs. I do not want to discuss those elements of the equation today.

Instead, I ask: Which of you would sign up for 3 years in a foreign country--one VERY different than the one you are used to--in order to make that much money? I am sure it would be a very interesting position. In three years, you could make more money working in museums than you could hope to make in 10-15 years here.

And if many people are willing to leave the US in order to make more money working in museums, isn't the USA shooting itself in the foot here? Bring on the continued brain drain.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Morning Links: 18 August 2009

Short one this morning, folks.

The Museum Bubble - Via Kat, via Julianne Snider. Good article from Artnet about the art museum bubble and what happened when it popped. Much of what Ben Davis writes about art museums is applicable to other types of museums too, particularly his commentary on how the souring economy has affected large institutions vs. small ones.

On Those "Entitled" Twenty Somethings - A reaction to the dismissal of the employment concerns of twenty somethings as the whinging of the entitled perpetual adolescent.

I will leave you with this, in lieu of a plea for links: Kat and I were discussing the fragmentary nature of web dialogue, particularly pertaining to museums. It's difficult to come to any firm conclusions or make meaningful changes in the status quo if everyone's portion of the same conversation is scattered on their various websites and blogs. While web dialogue is great it definitely limits those who can participate in it because it does require a large, real-time investment of effort. It also excludes less web-savvy members of the old guard from the conversation. As Museos Unite we'd naturally like to get everyone together, but this presents its own logistical difficulties. We're kicking some ideas around, the most sensible of which looks to be a mixture of web and in-person dialogue. Do you have any other solutions to suggest?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Morning Links : 17 August 2009

I guess it's because of the recession, but more articles about nonprofit employment seem to be focusing on the non-monetary rewards people are seeking in their occupations. One of these rewards is flexibility, which is definitely something I value highly. Do you find your museum job flexible in terms of hours and days? What other rewards do you seek in lieu of financial compensation? Do you reap these rewards sufficiently to make low museum salaries "worth it" to you? I ask because a) I mostly think people are kidding themselves and being a bit high and mighty when they claim this and b) because I'm genuinely curious what the breakdown of opinions is. I find that when I talk to people in person the opinions are more colorful than they've been on the internet. I don't know if this is a demographics question, or if people are just more reluctant to sound negative in a traceable medium. What say you, Museos?

A Job Suffused With Meaning? Bring It On! - A comparison of the values of Gen Y and the Baby Boomers.

Low Salaries Hold Charities Back, Author Argues - This article is hilarious for the way it pities the poor sod making a mere $86K because he chose to work for a nonprofit, but the rest of it is right on target.

AAM 2009 Emerging Museum Professionals Survey Results - A good demographic breakdown of the field as it will exist for a couple of decades, barring a brain-drain. Look at all these bright young things looking for entry-level employment! Please pay them a living wage.

This is your one-note broken record signing off. Let me know anything I've missed.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Love What You Do AND Get Paid!

I don’t like when “but if you love what you’re doing, isn’t it all worth it?” is used as a defense of (or at least a dismissal of) low wages. You’re not saying it in so many words, but what you’re implying is “You don’t love museums enough. You don’t love them as much as I do.” As far as I’m concerned no one’s enthusiasm for their chosen career is in question here. You can be an extremely passionate, talented artist, but that doesn’t mean your art is going to pay the bills. Fortunately for these “starving artist” types art can be done at any hour of the day, and they can still get 9-5 jobs to pay the bills. Museos do not have this option. Museum work has to be done during the normal 9-5 work day. Sometimes (often) it goes longer than that, but that doesn’t make the hours flexible. It doesn’t mean you can do museum work fueled entirely by passion and talent. That 9-5 job (museums) has to pay the bills. It has to. There isn’t another option.

Museum workers are people, not just cogs in the museum machine. Passion is important. No one has claimed it isn’t, but passion doesn’t put food on the table or pay the rent. Arguing for more passion amongst museum workers is, from what I’ve seen, like saying we need more love of food amongst chefs, or that librarians should be a bit more enthusiastic about books. People are passionate. That isn’t what the problem is. Stop dismissing the problem on those terms.

One solution (or at least stop-gap) for the salary problem is that organizations that post job listings can take a stand and refuse to list jobs below a certain salary threshold. I believe the University of Leicester Jobs Desk did this several years ago when the national museums in the UK were offering very low starting wages. If jobs clearinghouses worked this into their stated policies perhaps there would be less of an inclination to stiff employees. Or perhaps more employers would try to get around it by not listing a salary. What do you think?

Museos Defined

Just to clear up any and all confusion:

Museo (n., english) - any person who is working in, volunteering in, or seeking to work in a museum. Person interested in collaborating to make a change in how museums are run for the betterment of the museos' situation in regards to pay, benefits, and professional development.

Museos Unite (n., english) - blog dedicated to mental collaboration among museos, aiming to improve the situation for any and all museos in regards to pay, benefits, and professional development.

Less Money, More Problems

It is very reassuring to see that the thought-path that my brain is following along is simultaneously being followed by lots of other museum freethinkers. Excellent! That must mean that we are all on the right track. (This post by New Curator and the excellent comments are heading towards the same topic...)

As I continued thinking about the major problems museums are facing, I realized that we are looking at the problem from the wrong end. We, as the unemployed or underemployed, are wondering why we aren't being offered more money.

And we know the answer: there's no money in museums.

So if only we could get museums to have more money, then all of these problems would go away. (easier said...) But, of course, first we have to figure out a way to translate the resources that museums have into cold hard cash. If we can solve this dilemma, then we will be sorted!

(NB: in this post, I am purposefully going to propose some pretty "out there" ideas. Please feel free to get all up-in-arms or up in my grill. Or just all up in the comments section.)


First, a list of current problems (by no means exhaustive. Also obvious to all of us):
1. People are going through lots of school (time and money) to get a master's degree. They come out with a degree and cannot find a job that pays enough to offset cost of time/money investment, or a job at all.
2. Not enough jobs (the BIG problem).
3. Heavy reliance on volunteers.
4. People with jobs are expected to work many hours and play many roles.
5. Lots of red tape prevents employees from making changes
6. Museums have terrible opening hours if they intend to attract a wide audience. Most people are in work during those hours.
7. Museums are really competing with each other for resources (both money and visitors), regardless of how much they claim to be collaborating.
...please add to list in comments...

Looking at these issues, we can see that it all comes back to not having enough money. While museums may not be rich in an economic sense, they have endless wealth in other areas. Museums must turn these unique resources into money, and must RETHINK how they have been doing this for centuries.

The person who can come up with how to do this will change the entire meaning of the word "museum." Perhaps together we can figure out a way to solve this problem.

Museum resources (forgive the simplicity in my wording):
1. Objects. Museums have really neat, old stuff that has been well taken care of. People never get to see this stuff in person. If it had not been kept safe by museums, it would either be gone or in bad condition.
2. Records and "intangibles" (knowledge and oral history, etc). Museums have endless knowledge in records and memory, much of which is not widely dispersed.
3. Space. Many museums have awesome buildings and interior spaces, also with accompanying green space that can be unique in urban areas.
4. Experts (research end). Museums have brilliant people who are experts in specific fields.
5. Experts (museo
end). Museums bring together experts from various specialities (educators, designers, programming coordinators, writers, etc) all working towards a common goal.
...please add to list in comments...

Translate resources to money:
This is where I start going a bit "out there" by listing every possible method. I know some of these are unethical or impractical as we understand them now, but perhaps if we can think outside the box, there are ways to make them work ethically and practically.

Resource 1: Objects
-Sell some objects.
----to other museums?
----to individuals?
----to countries what want them back (repatriation for pay, if country can afford it)?
-Loan objects at a price.
----to individual collectors for short times?
-Copy and sell copies of objects
----this is already done to an extent, but generally the copies either look fake and are affordable, or look really good and are way too expensive. People want to take the experience home! Why don't we let them?
-Charge to experience objects
----this is already done too. Unfortunately, this seems to be the way museums are alienating potential visitors the MOST. Who wants to pay $15-25 to go to a museum these days?
----could museums join together (GASP! collaboration) to make group tickets? Many cities have a city pass. Could there be a "museum pass" by state? Could AAM or another group (museum start-up, Pete?) facilitate this? Would it even benefit museums financially?
-Use objects in other media: movies, TV, books, etc. Must be MAINSTREAM if they hope to make any money at all. Must "sell out" so to speak and tap into mainstream audience. Perhaps loan objects (or rights and licensing to object image) as props or stories for movies, books, TV?

Resource 2: Records and "intangibles"
-not really sure what to do with these, other than "movies, TV, books" comment above. Suggestions welcome

Resource 3: Space
-This is already done to an extent, too (however, from many comments I have heard personally, exorbitant cost and special requirements like limited choices once the space is in use might turn people off from using space)
-Museum bars?
-Museum night clubs?
-Are there other things other than parties, weddings, etc that a museum can host? Something that is both cool and educational and would attract a large audience willing to pay a lot? To get really controversial, let's suggest: POLITICAL RALLIES. Discuss.

Recource 4 and 5: Experts, both on research end and museo end
-Some museums sell design skills and exhibits. Can we sell more of these skills? Museums should be seen as the best place to go for any of these things. While I understand that a person who is employed by the museum has their first priority to do inside work, could there be a separate division? (Some large institutions do this already.)

And now for the most controversial statement yet. Please kick up a fuss, or I will be disspointed:

There are a finite number of resources (both money and audience) for museums as they are now. Unless museums make a huge change, then I argue that small museums should have to join with a larger "parent" museum to share resources. Enter: the meglomuseum of the future! (NB: I would rather museums could solve this problem and keep individual autonomy, but I still don't think it is sustainable as people become increasingly reliant on technology. More on this later.)

Morning Link Roundup : 14 August 2009

Internet Museum Scholars, I am terribly impressed with the quality of your posts and the tenor of the dialogue.

Talkin' Museum Studies Blues - Another opinion on the status of the museum studies debate. Some good points, many that I agree with and some (surprise!) that I don't. It is always nice to read museum studies success stories, though.

Where are Museum Studies Graduate Programs Going Wrong? - Colleen Dilen talks about the pervasiveness of low salaries in the nonprofit sector, museum studies programs' confusion over their status as an academic or a professional degree (and the ensuing confusion for their students), and Gen Y's general valuation of a life/work balance over money.

Notes on the Museum Studies Discussion - A great summary of arguments by New Curator. I especially like the way he explains the routes into museum work.

Museunions - New Curator post on some of the pros and cons of a museum workers union, making some productive points.

How J. Peterman Treated Me After 8 Years of Service - A reminder that employment issues like the ones we're dealing with are not unique to the nonprofit sector, and in fact are probably more common in the for-profit world.

I'm feeling a little burned out so I'm taking the rest of the day off blogging. I won't be poking around the internet looking for links for the weekend, so if there's anything you want to draw my attention to you'll really have to leave a comment.

Coming up: an entry from Kat about the root of THE problem.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Food for Thought - Unionization and the Technology Sector

Found via some keyword searching after reading one of this morning's links. Many of the challenges of unionizing museum workers are the same as the challenges of unionizing tech workers.:

"Forty years ago, nearly one private-sector worker in three belonged to a
union. Today, that number has dwindled to around 10 percent and there's little
to suggest that a revival is nigh. Although unions remain fairly strong in the
blue-collar world, that world is shrinking. (Can you say "technology"?)
Consequently, labor unions don't wield the political clout they used to.

It's sad to see the anemic state of organized labor in this country today. Worse, it
kills me to admit that, to a large degree, the erosion of the labor movement is
the fault of the unions themselves. Their refusal or inability to change with
the times, to keep the movement relevant in the face of globalization and the
digital conversion -- the so-called new economy -- has been disastrous.

Disastrous, I might add, for union members and nonunion workers
alike. Just as the Democratic Party has largely ceded the battlefield to
Republican stridency in recent years, so, too, has organized labor wilted before
an economy where the unrestrained market rules all. The result is unsurprising:
The rich get richer, the shareholder is valued more than the employee, jobs are
eliminated in the name of bottom-line efficiency (remember when they called
firing people "right-sizing"?) and the gulf between the rich and the working
class grows wider every year.

You see this libertarian ethos everywhere, but nowhere more clearly
than in the technology sector, where the number of union jobs can be counted on
one hand. Tech is the Wild West as far as the job market goes and the robber
barons on top of the pile aim to keep it that way. They'll offshore your job to
save a few bucks or lay you off at the first sign of a slump, but they're the
first to scream, "You're stifling innovation!" at any attempt to control the
industry or provide job security for the people who do the actual work."
- Wired

Morning Link Roundup: 13 August 2009

We've got an interesting smattering of links this morning, tying the idea of unionization a bit closer to the ongoing debate about Museum Studies graduate programs.

Questioning Assumptions: The Future of Education - A new post from the CFM. It's mostly about the integration of digital technologies into educational practice (not just museum education or museum studies education, but across the board), but there's a brief mention of unionization at the beginning, and whether or not the AAM would be the ideal organization to head these efforts. Kat and I discussed this briefly and can see some of the pros and cons (future post!), but for now will just say welcome to the discussion AAM.

More Thoughtful Learning: How Professional Development Through Social Media Can Strengthen Cultural Institutions - This is not really about graduate programs specifically, but more about useful, accessible (via social media) forms of professional development. Food for thought re: the future of museum professionalization. Recommended by James.

Can software developers form an 'open source' union? - This is from 2003 and it has nothing to do with museums, but 'open source' is one of the main models of unionization I think might have a chance at working for museos, and this is one of the only summaries of this type of union I could locate. I know the Freelancer's Union is also considered open source, but theirs is a union based primarily on group insurance rates rather than any sort of bargaining or standards setting. Once again, more union information and discussion will be forthcoming in future posts.

Amy commented over at New Curator that many of the salary and market saturation issues we're upset about seem to be more of a problem Stateside than they currently are in the UK, thanks to some regulations put in place by the Museums Association, so we're also looking into the state of things (typical degree costs, starting salaries, unionization options etc) in the US vs. the UK. Perhaps we will make an exciting graph! People love graphs, right?

As usual, if you know of anything else we should be reading please give us a shout.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Food for Thought - A Typical Museum Studies Graduate

"Food for Thought" entries will be brief quotes, snippets of larger conversations, facts and figures, etc.

The issues being discussed on this blog obviously affect more people than just graduates of Museum Studies programs, but because the Museum Studies vs. other graduate degrees vs. no graduate degree debate is so closely tied to the issues of salaries and expectations, this is relevant to the overall decision to unionize or not unionize.

"Here is my description of the stereotypical graduate of a museum studies
program in the western part of the country: A smart young woman, armed with lots
of generalized knowledge about museums and how they should be, taught by
university professors, some of whom have never worked in a museum in the real
world. As a member of the emerging generation, she wants to be in charge right
away, figuring that her studies were enough dues to pay and that traditional
starting roles would be both boring and low paying. She is fortunate enough,
through connections, to find a job as director of the local historical society
in East Jesus, Texas. She has a 1,000 sf museum complete with a two-headed calf
and the baptismal clothing of the first white child born there. She has a
volunteer secretary and no other help, while the board of 25 people is made up
of 70+ year olds, all of them very conservative. Besides the challenges of
improving the museum, she finds that there are very few people of either sex her
age with whom to be friends or even acquaintances. She starts looking at the AAM
job site after her first month on the job, hoping to spin herself up to the next
higher circle of hell in a larger city. She might also consider going back for
another advanced degree in social sciences."


Morning Link Roundup: 12 August 2009

As several people have noted, the conversation about museum salaries, museum sustainability, and the value of an advanced degree for museum employment is an ongoing one. Here are several things we're reading today, or that we've read recently:

Where the Boys Aren't - The AAM Center for the Future of Museums ponders whether or not low museum salaries are tied to an overwhelmingly female workforce.

More on the Future of Museum Studies - A conversation on improving museum studies graduate programs, also from the CFM.

Design in Museum Studies - A blog featuring "Comments from June 22nd's discussion on the future of museums and what a Museum Studies Program at Parsons/Cooper-Hewitt can do to benefit future museum professionals."

We're also dabbling in a bit of research about open source unions and how other countries (namely the UK) have dealt with the problems posed by low wages.

Anything else that we should be reading? Leave a comment!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Are Museums Sustainable?

Forgive us if we don't have a cohesive strategy or even a unified blogging "voice" just yet. Right now this blog is a mix of people with a mix of ideas, trying to milk even more ideas and voices from the ether of the Internet. Please make yourself heard in the comments, because so far I've seen interesting points raised here and elsewhere.

The biggest bogeyman facing museums is, as always, a lack of funding. There might be plenty of functions that a museum needs performed, but there is insufficient money to pay the ideal number of people to do it. This leaves museums with three options:
  1. Add additional functions to the job descriptions of current employees.
    • Plus: Free
    • Minus: Overworked employees.
  2. Have interns or volunteers perform job functions
    • Plus: Free
    • Minus: Often a lack of consistency due to high turnover
    • Minus: Destructive effect on overall museum economy, from a worker's perspective.
    • Minus: Is it sustainable? See below.
  3. Hire someone for the new position, but with a very low starting salary.
    • Plus: Inexpensive.
    • Plus: Qualified individual who can devote full 40 hours a week to the task.:
    • Minus: Destructive effect on overall museum economy, from a worker's perspective.
    • Minus: Hinders, rather than helps, diversity in the museum field. See below.
My opinion on this might differ from Kat's, (or Maya's, or Jenna's, or yours) but I think part of the reason to organize is to discourage people from taking the poorly paid posts, because this hurts everyone in the long run. The acceptable "entry level" salary for a major US metropolitan area used to be between $32-36K. Recently there have been a spate of museums that seem to think $20K is now an acceptable entry level salary. And if they are able to find qualified, competent people to work for that rate then they are 100% right.

There are a finite amount of jobs and no, as far as I can see organizing won't fix that. It's not a magical elixir. In fact I don't really see how a museum union could coerce museums to offer decent wages, insurance, etc. As KLandon mentioned in her comment on the last post, forcing museums to pay a certain minimum wage could potentially make the number of employment opportunities shrink, particularly in small museums. I'm not sure we're looking at a typical bargaining organization here, especially with such a wide variety of museum types and sizes and differing regional needs.

What a union (and perhaps I am using the term loosely) can do is raise awareness of various issues that affect museum workers: an advocacy organization. If we value ourselves and our time insufficiently, we can't expect our employers to pay well for our services.

Which brings me to the title of this post: are museums sustainable? I don't mean can the conditions in your object store be maintained for hundreds of years, or whether or not anyone will care about your collection of rubber ducks twenty years from now. I mean the most important resource museums have, their people. Is the way museums handle staffing sustainable in the long-term? If it isn't, museums themselves can't be sustainable institutions.

Pete of New Curator calls the extreme reliance on volunteers in museums "not healthy" and "not sustainable," noting that "Any other model relying this heavily on unpaid labour is normally illegal or doomed to failure. Can you imagine a magazine not paying its writers? Or a television program not paying it’s production team? What kind of quality are we to expect?"

The same can be said for heaping extra responsibilities on extant employees. While I'm sure some bear up admirably under the pressure, burnout is inevitable, especially when extra responsibility isn't compensated.

As for lower salaries, most discussions I've heard seem to come back to the idea that there's no reason to hire people with advanced degrees if they're going to demand these fancy "living wage" salaries. (A reason for unionization if there ever was one.) We can train local people from community colleges instead! Involving people from the community is a good and noble idea. They should be involved in the day to day life of the museum. But what happens when you're offering a $20K/year salary? Who do you think is taking those jobs? Who do you think is doing several years of unpaid volunteer work just to possibly one day get those jobs? It's not the psych major from the local community college, it's a rich kid living on mommy and daddy's dime. This does not contribute to diversity in the museum field.

Sigh. Oh well. Unless the money situation at museums changes, it looks like museums are not sustainable. Damn and blast...

I don't believe this for one second.
What's unsustainable are museum employment practices. The question remains: what should we do about it?

I'm sure I've jumped all over the place and left out about a dozen salient points, so please chime in and make those points yourselves!

The start of the employment conversation

In response to this post by New Curator, Pete, I wrote a pair of proposals.

I would now like to address Pete's response to my comment.

Proposal 1: Standardizing Museum Studies (aka, standard test or application for all incoming workers)

Pete responds to this proposal with, "Something I’m entertaining in my mind is for Museum Studies programs to act as the interview and recruitment departments for museums."

In the case of my Museum Studies program, this actually happened already. We were filtered directly into museums for our internships. Unfortunately, most of the students who had those 2 month internships were not then offered jobs at these institutions. So the museums saw applications from us, and in some cases interviewed us as well, while we were still in the program. The reality was that there were not any jobs when we finished in Sept 2008.

Our proposition is to create a better way for museums to filter applications. Granted, if there are no jobs to be had, having the best filtering process in the world does not help.

Proposal 2: Unionizing Museum Workers

Pete responds to this proposal with, "I don’t know. I like the idea of a group to institute change but I’m not keen on power politics. As I notice with most museum membership organisations, they tend to benefit the few or are under constant threat of becoming irrelevant. I suppose it would be how such a union would be set up. Again, I don’t know if it would provide more positives."

Of course, we would not want the union to create any more political issues. Museums are already chock-full of bureaucracy. We don't need any more. What we do need is to give enough money to the museum's workers to make it worth ~6 years of higher education (in the USA) to get to work in a museum. Somehow, that debt has to be paid off. And living paycheck to paycheck is not that way.

I'd like to thank Pete for his initial post, as well as his follow up to my comments. Please continue the conversation in the comments here.

Museos Unite!

This blog is hereby dedicated to ending the tyranny of low (or nonexistant) wages for the highly skilled graduates of museum studies programs.

Viva la revolucion!