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!


  1. In my opinion - low level museum jobs should be socialized.. like jury duty - the 'people' would be called on once every few years for a week at a time - or however you want to do it... but in return for this valuable service, museum boards should be more accountable and not waste or siphon money as is so common. Also avoid payolas that challenge integrity like murakami last year at the MOCA in LA.

    The biggest problem I think - is the administrative overculture - which is very much at odds with the needs of the public and the museum serfs. We need a THOROUGH re-examination of the system.. perhaps UNESCO would like to pony up some dough for that...! Could be we're stuck with an antiquated model. (likely in my opinion!)

    JW Dewdney, Los Angeles

  2. Interesting proposal, Jonathan. Unfortunately a jury-duty style of hiring lower level museum professionals would lead to a lack of consistency and a lack of stability, much as an over-reliance on volunteers and interns does, which in turn would fuel stagnation. It also doesn't solve the problem of low wages for entry level jobs. Eliminating entry level work isn't the same as making the museum field an accessible option for employment. Should museums be more accountable to the public than they are now? Almost definitely, but that's another conversation all together.

    I don't know that an administrative overculture is the main problem, per se. I think there's a great deal of understanding, even from lower level museos, about the realities of museum funding and the difficult choices those in higher level positions have to make. For all that they resent their low wages, they have trouble embracing the idea that change is needed because they don't see how those who administer the funds could do so any differently. I'm not positing that empathy is a negative attribute, but it is definitely at play in setting the tone of this conversation.

  3. Having worked as a volunteer/intern/student assistant in various paid and unpaid situations in both the USA and UK, I can say that the experience is widely varied. In a few cases, I was welcomed into the team, my opinions were highly valued, and I felt like I was actually contributing and participating. The sense of pride I felt about my position and my contributions made it almost okay that I was being paid little.

    On the other hand, I had an experience where I was basically meant to sit alone in an office, complete projects, and was not even invited to have lunch with the rest of the department when they sat together. I felt like I was being used and not included. Along with not being paid, a majority of the people in the department had not even introduced themselves to me after I had been there for 6 weeks!
    (Don't argue that this is "only one experience." If I had this experience, I am sure others have had it throughout the world.)

    My point is this: If museums are going to INSIST on using volunteers and interns, museums should have a set of standards for how they treat these people. I still think it is impossibly unfair to expect someone with a master's degree to work for free, but if you are, then you should treat them with respect. There is this sense of entitlement among museums, that these highly educated people are lucky to be "given the opportunity" to offer unpaid services.

    It's unacceptable. And people are going to stop participating if it continues. This system does not make me PROUD of the museum field. It makes me ashamed.

  4. I'm beginning to see the outline of things that we need to discuss, and over-reliance on volunteers seems to be at the forefront. Though my current title is "Museum Educator" I am also my museum's volunteer coordinator (many hats...something most museos can relate to!) so I understand how much value volunteers can add to a museum. However most of my volunteers are retirees or students, not people with advanced degrees stuck in a cycle of serfdom.

    I agree with you Kat about the standards for the use/treatment of volunteers. The time and talents of all volunteers should be respected. No one should ever be made to feel that they are fortunate to be permitted to volunteer at a museum. It is MUSEUMS who are fortunate to have their volunteers. Mine are wonderful.

    Additionally, volunteers who are seeking paid employment should not have false carrots dangled in front of them. If there's no chance the museum is going to be offering a paid position any time soon then these highly skilled people should be given all the facts. They should be able to take their skills elswhere.

    My concern is somewhat different from yours in that I worry people WON'T stop participating in this broken system, thus perpetuating it, but I recognize that a brain drain is another real possibility.

  5. While I'm as against the $20K/year jobs as anyone else, I'd like to play devil's advocate for a moment:
    The system has worked like this for many years (i.e., that with many volunteers and unpaid/low-paid interns). Heck, it's how many museums (and nonprofits in general even) started. The fact that it continues seems to indicate that it is sustainable, whereas paying a living wage (since most museums are currently laying-off workers, or folding altogether), is apparently the unsustainable practice.

    But the same thing is happening in many other fields of employment, particularly academia. Again, there are ethical debates suggesting that departments should be limiting their intake of PhD students to numbers consistent with the jobs that will be available in the 4-12 years (in the US) it will take them to finish. The likelihood that someone who starts a PhD in the humanities will finish and ultimately secure a tenure-track job is abysmally low. At least in academia, however, this is a rather contained cycle - they are both the source of the jobs and the oversupply.

    If anything, my honest suggestion would be to start those with a BA/BS into entry-level museum jobs, then, after 3-5 years work, they would complete (while working), a part time MA in Museum Studies, that would give them further/more advanced training in the field. This would eliminate the ethical considerations of museum studies masters programs, while also reducing the indebtedness of new museum workers. (Please note that in the US, IBR is a program to help forgive student loans for those in the public sector.) This is something that we cannot mandate, however, particularly as many universities look to masters degree programs as cash cows.

  6. I think where we differ is a definition of sustainability. I’m defining sustainable as a system in which museums do not suffer from a brain drain and attract the best and the brightest. I’m not equating sustainable merely with “avoidance of a total destruction of the system.” Slavery survived for thousands of years, and still survives in many places around the world. Sure it’s “sustainable” in that sense, but that doesn’t make it the best system. (To avoid confusion, that was me bringing up another, highly unsavory example of sustainability, not drawing a direct parallel between museum work and slavery.)
    Museums and non-profits started as all-volunteer organizations because they were leisure pursuits for the idle rich, or people’s part-time efforts to preserve their town’s history. They were hobbies, not full-time jobs. I would love to be independently wealthy and volunteer my time to a worthy cause, but I’m not. I work for a living and this isn’t a “real world” option for museums and museum workers anymore. In a way I guess you could say that’s a victory for museums becoming more reflective of their communities and their users over time (albeit slowly.)
    I think an MA earned while working is ultimately more useful than a full-time MA, but there are two main problems with your proposal. 1) One reason there are currently so many MA students is because there aren’t any entry level jobs to start in. People see the MA as a route to employment and a way to delay entering the job market. 2) If we’re starting people with BA’s in the entry level jobs (which mostly don’t exist) we still haven’t solved the problem of what to do with the glut of MA grads. I know we’re speaking of ideal worlds here so some inconsistency is understandable.