Trivia fact: I usually delete the AAM-EMP list-serv emails without reading them. Between that, MUSEUM-L, my feed reader, and Twitter I sometimes go into Museum Discussion Overload. They’re overwhelming, and frankly not always that useful. Want to know the best way to conserve 19th century baby shoes? There’s someone out there who will helpfully inform you to Google “conserving 19th century baby shoes.”
But on Wednesday there was a thread title that caught my attention: Tipping Museum Tour Guides. The original poster (who we will call Bob. If you subscribe to the list-serv over at Google Groups you can read the entire conversation, but we aren’t going to replicate it here. Far too long!) laid out the situation as such: He just started working as a museum tour guide. While his manager has not said anything to him and there is nothing written in the employee handbook, Bob has heard through the grapevine that if he receives a tip at the end of the tour he must give it to the museum. This didn’t make sense to him, since he is the one providing the tour. In the immortal words of Newsies: “Headlines don’t sell papes, newsies sell papes!” (I apologize; I couldn’t resist.) The visitors who are doing the tipping intend for the tip to go to the guide, not the museum.
There was a lot of back and forth on the issue. Some quick excerpts:
- “In the museum field we are usually subject to intellectual property rules and that the information you impart on your tour is owned by the museum you work for and therefore tips on such should also go to them. Unfortunately one of the downsides of museum work is that we do it for the love of history (or art) and not for the financial gain.”
- “I have spoken to both museum professionals and non-professional museum goers in the past few hours (in completely casual, non-scientific manner), and the museum professionals are saying it is up to the individual museum (some have a don't ask/don't tell policy), meaning there is no hard-and-fast rule, but donation of tips is a generally- accepted practice. However, all the museum goers I spoke to vehemently felt that any tip handed to a guide is specifically intended to go to the guide.”
- “It is reasonable to assume that if a visitor wants to donate to the museum, they will do so (and may have already done so, and in turn will receive the tax deduction they would expect as a donor), and if they want to show appreciation to the guide, they will do that. It is also reasonable to assume the visitor would rather have the control over where the tip goes, and may feel resentment towards a museum that takes tips away from its employees (if they were privy to that knowledge). So, if a museum values a donor's intent, they would either let the guide keep the tips, or verbalize the tip-donation practice into the tour at some point. To do otherwise would be dishonest, so my museum-going sources say.”
- “You are either getting paid to do your tour or you are a volunteer and get personal satisfaction for doing the tour. You should do a good job because you have pride in yourself and your museum. Expecting a tip is like "paying for a smile" as one blogger put it.”
- “It seems rather unethical for a museum to let you accept tips, but then turn around and require you to "donate" the money back to them. I would check into the legality of your museum's practice in this matter. And, tipping is not a matter of who "owns" the information intellectually, but instead is given for the quality of the delivery of the tour--it doesn't matter if you had a script, you still have to be personable, accurate, engaging, etc. (this is a personal decision, in the same way you would tip a waiter that you thought had a welcoming personality and whose service you liked).”
- “Generally, the guide is provided the tools (i.e. training) to make the museum "come alive" by the museum educators. Also, if monetary gain is a large incentive for someone, that person may wish to re-evaluate their choice to pursue a career in the museum profession.”
- Again, for more details subscribe to the EMP list-serv.
I admit, for someone who thinks about museum compensation pretty regularly I never spared much thought for tipping. I’ve always put any tips I receive while leading public programs right back into the museum’s cashbox. I wrote a no tipping clause into the docent handbook. However silly or poorly thought out, this is the standard.
But should it be? Like so many things in museums, the status quo hasn’t been carefully evaluated, but it’s still venerated. “This is the way it is and if you disagree or want more then maybe you should reconsider your profession.” As if museums are above contempt; as if museums are on such a pedestal that merely working there should be compensation enough.
It turns out that Bob is working part-time in a house museum for about $8/hour. He mentioned that a dollar or two would really help him out and put him closer to a living wage, although it wouldn’t make as much difference to the museum. But there are people who asserted that Bob should still donate the money to the museum. Because it is the done thing. And because maybe, just maybe, that will help the museum make enough money to increase his wages!
The nerve. That is an insult to anyone with a) a sense of what it means to work in a museum without a financial safety net b) a sense of how museum economics actually work. Trickle down much? Keeping my replies diplomatic has been a huge struggle. I don’t know if I can sustain it throughout the next entry, which is part of the reason I’m splitting this into two. (The other part is because sheesh, this is long!) In the interim, why don’t you let us know your feelings in the comments section?
Stay tuned for The Tipping Point: Part 2 – The Rebuttal