Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What is the job of a public historian worth?

Emily Hummel tipped us off to a recent discussion on H-Public about the worth of the job of a public historian. Continuing our nascent tradition of expanding on list-serv discussions, we’ve decided to pose the question to you here, with a twist: what is the job of a museo worth?

The replies to the original query focused on one of 2 things:

  1. The average government/National Park Service salaries paid for a public historian. (This is hardly indicative of the field at large, which is why working for the Smithsonian is seen as a dream job for many museos.)
  2. Various salary surveys that might be relevant to the job of a public historian. Someone linked to this survey of fees charged by Independent Museum Professionals in New England. It’s a useful (and free!) resource that I hadn’t encountered before.

These responses beg the question: is the average salary for your job really what your job is worth? In a purely economic sense, yes it is. [1] Your job is only worth what the market will bear. If you’re willing to work for $25,000/year then your job is worth $25,000/year; actually slightly more with payroll taxes and benefits taken into account.

But worth also has another definition that has nothing to do with dollars or pounds or Euros, although we can certainly try and put a number on it. When we romanticize our jobs and talk about the value museums provide in our communities and to society at large, this is the type of worth we’re talking about.

So the question is, does that worth have any correlation with monetary worth? Do we think that putting a price on what we do and the value we provide would sully our white-gloved hands? Are we frightened to place a number on that value because it would illustrate how dire the salary situation is, because we’re worth so much more than we’re getting? Is there a way to place a consistent value on the work we do and the services we provide? If the value provided isn’t strictly monetary, should it not be compensated? [2]

Again: what is the job of a museo worth? What are you worth?

[1] I know there are various strains of economic thought and all of them define value in slightly different ways. [1a] I took one microeconomics class in my freshman year of college and have been blissfully unaware of the names of these theories etc ever since. In fact, I’m pretty sure this would fall under macroeconomics not microeconomics, which means I’ve probably never heard about it at all. If you can supply a more precise definition for what I’m rambling about, you’re most welcome.

[1a] Note to self: learn about economics.

[2] Someone is going to comment—and I can almost predict who—to say that intangible values are compensated…intangibly. With the pride we feel in our work! And how much we love museums! Do me a favor, Unnamed Commenter. Spare me. This line of reasoning is BS. Come back and tell me this when you’ve figured out how to eat love, or pay the rent with love, or retire on love.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Solutions Series 2: The Offsite Museum Bar

This idea began when I tried to attend  one of the very cool Science on Tap events at National Mechanics in Philadelphia.  Each month, the science museums in the city take turns hosting a lecture at this bar, which sort of looks like it was decorated by a mad steampunk scientist/collector on the inside.  Anyway, back in January they hosted a lecture called “The Origin and Evolution of Beer” on one of the coldest nights of the winter.  When my friend and I arrived at the bar, we could not even get in the doors because people were poured out onto the front stairs. That’s how popular the event was—people were turned away.

So I got to thinking… these events are free.  What if they had charged for the lecture, even $3 per person?  What if the bar gave the museums a percentage of the bar take for the night (they might already do this, I have no idea actually)?  I know other topics have perhaps not been as popular, but even if they still had 30 people show up, it would be a money maker.

From there I thought – what if museums owned offsite bars?  I say offsite because I have been to events at museums where people are drinking.  I have seen a woman so drunk she actually reached out and TOUCHED A PICASSO.  Seriously.  Not good, my friends.  Also, the overhead costs of keeping a museum open (electricity, security, heating, whatever) are astronomical.  Not to mention the insurance risk!

Non profit organizations (like museums) can own for-profit businesses.  This bar would just be another source of revenue in the museum’s portfolio.  Many museums have offsite shops in retail centers either year-round or at the holidays.  These shops raise brand awareness and also bring in some cash.

Nina Simon wrote about why museums should have bars back in 2007.  Her take on them is that they both build audience awareness, and that they are excellent sites for high participation and fun.  I am unsure if she is promoting onsite or offsite bars, or both, but either way, it’s still a great idea.  Cotton on, museums!  There is money to be made here.

Now, imagine taking objects from the museum’s storage and moving them offsite to a secure bar location.  You can have one or two security guards on duty.  You can have secure, temp/humidity controlled cases.  You can pick lower risk but still interesting objects to display.  People will be able to get an eyeful as they sip great microbrews.

Then imagine the programming!  You could have neat lectures on the history of beer (obviously popular) or historical scandals, scientific breakthroughs or climate change.  Whatever. You could host independent musical acts. You could have authors do book signings.  Museum object trivia.  A historically accurate dinner menu from Victorian times [offsite at a tavern!] – maybe bar patrons would wear costumes!  The opportunities are endless.  And you can charge a fee for all of these events.  Obviously you will have to pay the people who are presenting these programs, but you can still make money.  (And maybe, museum members get in free/at a reduced rate/get a discount on beer.  Or even have “museum bar” memberships!)

Basically, you would have a cultural experience—outside the museum—that provided education, fun, and a chance to be close to museum collections.  Museos from all around the city would find it an interesting place to hang out, swap museum stories, and network.  Tourists could go there for a unique night out. Locals could count on it to be interesting, educational, and fun.

And the best part – all the profits go into a fund that goes to pay museo salaries. 

And maybe Museos would want to take part time extra jobs helping out there?  Museos could try jobs out that they don’t get to do at the institution proper, with the assistance of their colleagues at the home institution. A curator at the museum could function as a programmer for the bar (as it is a different business, they would be paid a separate amount by the bar).  A museum educator could design the exhibits.  A cataloguer could present a lecturer.  Museos could broaden their skill sets and have a chance to learn from their colleagues.  Alternately, the museos could keep their same assignments at the bar.  It would be up to the organization.  Regardless, it would let museos share what they do with a much broader audience – perhaps their friends who don’t necessarily frequent museums would be open to visiting a bar.  That may, in turn, inspire those friends to check out the remainder of the collection at the museum proper.

So this idea combines museum collections, alcohol, fun activities, and potentially large profits in a secure location that would be (hopefully) cheaper to have open than the museum itself.  Yes, there are costs involved in opening a bar (renting a location, staffing, insurance, liquor licenses) but hopefully this bar could make a profit in the end.

Thoughts?  Also, does any museum want me to consult on the bar they are now planning on opening?  I am definitely available…

Friday, March 26, 2010

Call for guest posts - Solutions Series

Hi Museos!

You have seen our first post in the "Solutions Series" about the Robin Hood Rule. This series of posts is designed to answer the question "How can museums make more money so that they have more money to give to low-paid Museos?" We have another post coming up soon. But two crazy money making schemes are not going to save Museo salaries.

Nay! We need many more than two ideas! At least three or four!

And we are turning to you lovely folks out there in the interwebs to contribute. No idea is too crazy (you know this, you read our blog)! No length requirements. Or, if you have an idea and don't feel like writing the whole thing, just tell us and we can expand on it and give you credit.

Does this sound like something fun? You know it does. Email us your ideas/articles/whatever -- museosuniteblog at gmail dot com.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lunchtime Video – Museums and Salaries

The trouble with the online museum community is that it’s so fractious. The people who use the many industry list-servs don’t necessarily use Twitter or blogs, and vice versa. A productive conversation using one of these mediums might not reach the users of the other mediums. Museos might also focus their reading on a particular topic, such as historic preservation, interactive design, or education. This is understandable. The internet is a huge place and our free time is limited. But what happens when we look in unexpected places?

We find new people voicing similar sentiments in a variety of mediums.

Today, because it’s lunchtime, here is a video on the subject of museums and salaries. (Don’t lie to me museos. I know you take a working lunch!) It was put out by the Museums Association. Their YouTube account seems largely dormant, which is a shame considering this video, “Is your salary commensurate with your experience?”:

What about you, Museos? How do you think your salary stacks up in terms of your education and experience? It isn’t a question we asked directly on the salary survey, but it would be interesting to know how you feel.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Museums Advocacy Day

Today is Museums Advocacy Day in DC. 

You can follow along with the conversation on Twitter.

One of the recent AAM tweets caught my eye:

AAMers: Don't think you have to work for a museum in order to advocate for them. Your opinion might matter even more. #MuseumsAdvocacyDay

I would like to pose a question to the AAM in response to that statement.  If you acknowledge the important voice of people who don’t work for museums, then why do you not have a membership category for them?  People who have volunteered for or studied museums in the past (but do not currently have an affiliation with a museum) may still want to join the AAM, but there is no category for “museum fan” or “museum studies graduate, unemployed.”

Under the current categories, I am not eligible to join the AAM.  I just find that a bit strange, considering how much of my time I spend thinking about museums.

Dear AAM – if you recognize that Museum Advocates come in all shapes and sizes, then you need to extend AAM membership to Museos of all types.

Regardless, good luck with Museums Advocacy Day!  Museos Unite supports the cause/revolution.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Salary and Experience using Salary Survey Data

In an effort to keep our arguments backed up with solid data, we return to the salary survey.

It is time that we revealed to you, Museos, how much the average museum salary goes up per year.  There is good news, and there is bad news.

Good news:  it does go up!

Bad news: it really doesn’t go up that much!

[Disclaimerzzz: Sample size was 99 full time people.  We didn’t have responses for every year, so that explains the gaps between the dots. This chart goes through the first 25 years since that is where we had the most data, although we had responses up to 34 years in the field.  There were too many gaps as we got farther along to really have the data be representative.]


The peak at 8 years is due to two of our respondents who have been in the field 8 years seem to have really high paying jobs.  The peak at 25 years was due to there being few responses at that year, and they are obviously doing really well!

The trend line reveals the real rate of change of Museo salaries.

y = 1124x + 32764

For those of you who maybe forget what that means, basically it translates into saying that the average starting salary (the y-intercept) is around $32,764, and for every year you work over that, the average increase (the slope) is $1,124 more per year.

Except that our trend line is obviously thrown by those [3] people earning more than $100,000, our “outliers.”  So keep that in mind.  Look more at what the actual data looks like.  For most people, the reality is far below the trend line.


Keep in mind for the future: a larger sample size will help us get closer to the truth.  We hope that you will participate next year when we repeat our great experiment!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Solutions Series 1: The Robin Hood Rule

Here is the first entry in our previously announced “solutions series,” in which Museos Unite presents options (aka crazy ideas) that could be utilized by museums to remedy the whole really-low-paid-museos issue.

Just to review the situation: we have Museos all over the world who are coming out of graduate programs in Museum Studies--having racked up student loans—who are then forced to volunteer (unpaid), intern (unpaid or low paid), take part time work (low paid and no health care), or even get a full time job that offers a wage below the living wage. This unfortunate situation leads to Museos feeling undervalued, overworked, resentful, and angry. In some cases, Museos with a lot of potential have to leave the field they love because they cannot afford to work for free.

Yes, people sometimes have to leave a field they love and make a difficult choice to take other work, and many people point fingers and accuse these discouraged Museos of “not loving museums enough” or “caring about money too much.” Any Museo who has been following this blog since we started in August knows this argument well, and has probably gotten frustrated that the people who are making these arguments must actually be on the flip side: they must have some sort of financial support in place that allows them to throw this argument around.

This brings me to what I would call the “Robin Hood Rule.” The original idea, “rob from the rich and give to the poor,” is slightly related, but my idea is more derived from the very argument I brought up above. The two elements (1) that someone who works in museums or nonprofits should not be in it for the money and (2) that if someone works in a museum and is dedicated to its mission, then they should accept a lower pay than people in other fields because they love what they are doing. I say, let’s take this argument and instead of applying it to entry level jobs paying $25,000 , let’s instead apply it to the museum directors at the top who are making $250,000.

That’s right. Use that exact argument they are throwing down at the entry level museos and throw it back in their faces. If they love museums so much, then why do they need a high six-figure salary? Or even, in some cases, a SEVEN figure salary? Isn’t the fact that they get to be in such a great place enough? Or that they get to interact with an incredible collection, or the admiring public?

Therefore, I propose that museums cap the amount that directors make. I would say there is no need for a museum director (or any employee) to make more than $100,000. Sure, in some large cities maybe they would need a cost of living adjustment, but let’s be reasonable. If you take the extra money that person was getting and then redistribute it down to the other salaries, you’d never have anyone starting at a salary below the living wage. Let’s say the lowest salary able to be offered would be $36,000 to someone with an undergrad degree and $40,000 to someone with a grad degree. Those are very fair starting salaries.

“But then the best people would leave the field or go to other museums!” you say. Oh really? If the money is so important to them, then should they be in charge of the museum? Just think. There are hundreds of applicants for a entry level museo job these days, which is why they can afford to offer low pay. There is ALWAYS someone who will work at that lower pay. How many great Museos do you think would be willing to say “heck yeah, I’d be a museum director for $100,000!” And then if they decided they wanted more money after a while, they could go ahead and leave the field, thus opening the position up to new talent who is again willing to accept a very fair wage.

For example, let’s use the biggest museum in my home city, The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). The director made $338,873 in 2008 (guidestar.org). If we take that down to the proposed $100,000 then we have a stunning $238,873 to redistribute. Now, if I add up the 8 highest paid employees (who all make over $100,000) and limit all of them down to $100,000, then guess how much money we have to throw around?

$771,352. From eight people.

If we assume there are a bunch of people at the bottom making $20,000 (which is probably not that far from the truth), then we could raise their pay up to $40,000 with this money… dramatically changing their lives from living below the poverty level to having a very good starting salary. How many of those low paid Museos could be helped with the extra [excessive] pay from the top Museos?

38 people could go from $20,000 to $40,000.

Even more dramatically, let’s delete the above option and just do this one. How many unpaid interns could be hired at a starting salary of $36,000?

21 people could go from unpaid to making $36,000.

And all of this because 8 people took pay cuts that limited them to a wage that's incredibly reasonable for living in Philadelphia.

There are actually many nonprofits with a structure like this. I talked to a man last month who runs a nonprofit, and he explained that everyone in the company makes between $40,000 and $90,000, no more and no less. No one is struggling to live, and no one is buying a yacht with golden toilets.

How can museums be a medium for discussion of social fairness if they are operating just like any huge, multi-national corporation instead of the nonprofits that they are? Ethically managed companies often have limits on what senior management can make, so why don’t museums join in?


NB – I know that for many small museums, no one is making even $40,000. I know this argument doesn’t apply to them. I’m going to think more on how to fix those things, but I think if the big museums started making changes, there would somehow be a trickle down effect. Does anyone have any ideas about that?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What Ever Happened to the Salary Survey?


What happened is that we forgot about it completely. Kidding! It’s just that calculating and tabulating takes a lot of time, and calculating and tabulating the results that people are most interested in seeing takes even longer. Logistically it makes more sense to hold off until everything is calculated, but we were so excited at first that we didn’t realize this. Now we’re putting the results posts on hold while we crunch the numbers and figure things out. When we’re done you’ll have a veritable glut of data to look forward to.

Image via Toothpaste for Dinner.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Tipping Point: Part 2 – The Rebuttal

Kat is away this week so you’ll be hearing from me a lot over the next couple of days.

This is, first and foremost, my reaction to a prominent vein of thought that I can’t stand. It is, secondarily, a continuation of the debate started on the AAM-EMP list-serv and summarized in The Tipping Point: Part 1.

The vein of thought I can’t stand is the one that says sit down and shut up, this is the way things are done. Salaries have always been low. That vase has always been displayed there. We’ve always considered people over 40 our main audience. We’ve always interpreted things this way. If you want more (money, responsibility, opportunities for training and advancement) then maybe you’re the one who needs to reconsider (your career path, your attitude, how much you love museums.) It certainly can’t be the status quo that needs to be reconsidered! After all, things have always been this way.

There were several people chiming in to the conversation claiming that docents who didn't get a lot of tips would be envious of docents who did and that would be bad for workplace morale. Or that unpaid docents would be given the "poorly tipping" shifts and the paid one would get the better shifts. These responses ignore just how rare a tip is in a museum environment. Unless tipping culture (that old chestnut!) were to change drastically, neither of these situations would present a problem. If unpaid docent Horatio gets a tip at 2pm on Tuesday and unpaid docent Wolfgang (working a Tuesday morning shift) does not, the most likely result (if they discuss this at all) is that they'll figure out if it was something about the tour or the visitors themselves that prompted the tip. If it was the sheer awesomeness of the tour, Wolfgang might incorporate elements of Horatio's tour next time around. They’re probably not going to duke it out for the Tuesday afternoon shift.

I don’t want to dive too deeply into discussions of class divisions and privilege because we have an entry on that topic coming up next week, but this is another element that is relevant to the discussion. Something that one poster (we will call her Gertrude) brought up repeatedly was that museos are professionals. They are not in the service trades. One does not tip professionals, it just isn’t done!

I disagree with the premise that museos should not be tipped because they are professionals for two reasons. One is that THAT notion is based entirely on an outdated class system. The idea that it isn’t the work or the effort that matters, but the amount of education and preparation that one had to undergo in order to enter the profession strikes me as BS. That ties into my second reason: if someone isn’t paid like a “professional” then they aren’t reaping the benefits of a “professional.” It is presumably these benefits that caused the initial distinction between who got tips and who didn’t. (I can hear the Gertrudes of the world crying out “But the minimum wage! Won’t you spare a thought for the minimum wage?” There is a difference between the minimum wage and a living wage. “Professionals” should be earning the latter, not the former.)

I’m not saying that I believe museos should be tipped, but that was never what this conversation was about. It was about whether or not tour guides can keep unsolicited tips. I think it’s pretty simplistic to chalk up this ENTIRE discussion to the history of tipping. That was what Gertrude kept doing, and arguing with her on those terms got the conversation nowhere. We’re at an unprecedented place with museum employment (or at least we’re trying to get there. Who wants a museum sector comprised solely of people from privileged backgrounds?) so we can’t lean so heavily on precedent.

This isn’t about the history of tipping, but it is about who has traditionally been able to work in museums. It is about the volunteers and docents who are trying to get a foot in the door. They don’t all come from money and they can’t all quietly pay their dues while making minimum wage for years on end. They aren’t selfish or unworthy of the museum profession because money is a concern for them or a deciding factor in where they work. (I should write “we” since I include myself in this number. I have no trust fund or wealthy spouse to fall back on if my job doesn’t pay the bills.) Money is a concern for people, even museos, whether we’d like to talk about it or not.

The root of this conversation is compensation. What is a good tour worth? What is a museo’s labor worth? These are questions we’re concerned with here at Museos Unite, and we welcome any thoughts you might have on the subject.

(This was written in spurts over the course of several days, so my apologies if it’s a bit rambling.)

The Tipping Point: Part 1 – The Recap

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

Edited to add: Museumist did an excellent recap of the situation that you might like to check out.