Monday, October 12, 2009

Proving the Value of Museums

Today let’s tackle another of the age-old questions: how do museums prove their value to society? We’ve been looking at things from an institutional perspective (i.e. how to get museums to offer better salaries, how to improve museum studies programs), but public perception is very much an element in the struggle for decent wages. If your work is viewed as menial or easy, employers can get away with paying you accordingly.

One day a man walked into my office (without knocking, just walked right in. This happens at least once a day) and demanded to know what I do. I’m a museum educator, so I explained about how I create and deliver school programs, how I visit local schools, how I develop educational materials that are sent to classes before their visits, how I recruit and train volunteers and coordinate their shifts, how because it’s a small museum I also research and plan exhibits and update our collections management software and assist with event coordination…

“So you’re basically a tour guide,” he scoffed, then turned and left my office, judging me obviously unfit to answer his important query, which was probably about where the bathrooms were located.

Reader, I saw red. Is this how my job is perceived? I wonder what this man would think curators do, or registrars, or conservators, or development specialists? I shudder to think. “They spend all day wasting my tax dollars reading, or they paste broken things together, which my 3 year old could do. “ Ugh. Fortunately this man isn’t the person approving our grant applications, but he is the “man on the street” to whom we must prove our value.

Museums aren’t the only institutions struggling with this. The Oak Brook Public Library is currently dealing with one of the most ignorant and hateful men on the street of all, a man who once “campaigned, successfully, against a plan to bring subsidized housing for seniors into town by declaring, ‘I don't want to live next to poor people. I don't want poor people in my town.’” He is absolutely gleeful at the prospect of the library shutting down. He doesn’t see its value, and doesn’t see why tax dollars should pay the salary of someone who spends their days “wiping tables and putting the books back on the shelves.” His charming words.

Teachers are also constantly proving their value. I used to work for the New York City Department of Education (and my father still works for them) and it’s always a struggle for city teachers to get compensation approaching that of other city workers, such as cops or firemen, despite the fact that the majority of them have more education than most cops or firemen. The usual explanation for this is that cops and firemen have more hazardous jobs than teachers, but my dad has had broken bones. I’ve been bitten. I know people who’ve been injured more seriously than either of us. Granted, these incidents didn’t occur with a general education population, but I will laugh in your face if you tell me that teachers don’t deserve to be paid for the hazards they face.

Erin Milbeck Wilcox recently pointed us towards the Teacher Salary Project, which points out that if teachers aren’t paid well they will take their talents elsewhere, and that’s not good for the future of America’s children. She suggests that perhaps museos can prove the importance of their societal contributions. After all, we educate the public too.

Teachers and librarians face similar struggles proving their value [1] but at least they have ubiquity on their sides. Schools are or have been a part of everyone’s life, and though not everyone uses libraries they are used more heavily and regularly than museums. Even I, a fairly regular museum patron, would put my library to museum usage ratio at around 5:1. Teachers have an additional leg to stand on, since there is always a shortage of qualified teachers somewhere. There is no shortage of museos, so the threat that we might walk out on the profession isn’t one that holds a lot of water. Besides, people who don’t see the value of museums aren’t going to care if a bunch of tour guides and glorified carpenters stop offering education programs or conserving paintings.

Museum outreach is focused more on getting people through the door: on showing them that there are interesting programs or exhibits at the museum that they might want to come see. But that doesn’t really change their perceptions about us. They might appreciate the programs or the exhibits, but that doesn’t mean they understand or appreciate the work or the expertise that go into them. That doesn’t mean they think our work is worthy of compensation. Remember, the man who deemed me a mere tour guide was a visitor. We understand that we educate the public and that we provide valuable services, but we’re not the ones that need convincing.

Do you work for a museum that tries to change people’s perceptions about the value of museums and of museos' contributions? Do you have any ideas for exhibits or programs or campaigns that would help the world to realize we’re not menial laborers? (Or worse, out of touch denizens of the ivory tower?)

[1] I am having trouble not turning this into a feminist rant about how the jobs that were typically the ones the little women were allowed to do are still viewed as less challenging. I think I deserve some kudos for staying mostly on track!

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