Tuesday, August 11, 2009

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.


  1. This brings up a comment I've seen floating around a lot today in reference to Pete's post: improving the lot of Museum Studies grads (or others with advanced degrees) does nothing to increase the number of jobs available. With the economy belly up this isn't going to improve without more funding for more positions. I can't give a definitive answer to that problem, but I can say for sure that the answer IS NOT to a) hire anyway, without sufficient funds for the position, meaning you have to offer a salary that is barely living wage b) split the duties amongst a variety of interns or volunteers or c) heap the duties on an already overworked museum employee.

    I'm interested in hearing some suggested solutions to this conundrum. I think it would be short-sighted for us to throw up our hands and say that we shouldn't solve the problem of low salaries because we can't also solve the problem of too few jobs.

    I think it's really important to have this dialogue about what a museum union and/or hiring standards organization should or should not be. This is the time when we should be having these conversations. Bureaucracy is no one's friend, but I'm curious what sort of leg reform could stand on if not an organizational one?

  2. Well, a union might ultimately be a good thing, but then again, maybe not.

    As for a museum studies programs screening applicants - that is a horrible idea. While a graduate degree in museum studies is a fine qualification for museum work, it is not the only, or necessarily the best. An MA in a subject area (or Education, or an MLIS, depending on the job), coupled with a quality internship, can be just as valuable.

    Right now the problem is not that museums need help screening applications (because they're perfectly capable of doing that themselves). Rather, the problem is that there are too few jobs. Pushing museum studies programs is only going to make that worse (there are already conversations about the ethics of museum studies grad programs).

    If museum workers were to unionize, presumably for higher wages and decent benefits, where would that money come from? Realistically, it would mean even fewer jobs - instead of hiring a curator and a collections manager, a small museum would just hire one person and force them to handle both jobs (which is what is happen with the recession right now). We're not fighting against a large corporation giving millions in profits to shareholders each year. There is a finite amount of money.

  3. KLandon, hopefully I'll be able to address some of what you're talking about in the next post. I think the reason that Kat has put "museum studies" in the blurb specifically is partially because of the initial New Curator post and partially because those ongoing conversations that you mentioned about museum studies programs tend to be particularly harsh on museum studies graduates. We tell ourselves often enough that "we should have known better about what we were getting into." Hearing it again and again doesn't actually solve any problems. We already have the degree and the debt. So there is perhaps a bit of a shoulder-chip involved. I can only speak for myself, but I'll endeavor to use more inclusive language in the future.

  4. Actually, now that I'm writing my entry it looks like I'll be addressing standards some other day :P Soon, though!

  5. I will get a proper response going soon.

    This is my new favourite blog.