Friday, March 5, 2010

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.


  1. I used to work as an attendant at a museum with a tipping policy. We were asked to refuse the tip and ask visitors to use the donations box instead. This seemed a fair way to avoid misleading the tipper about where their money was going.

    I have mixed feelings about museum tipping. I had to leave that job because I simply wasn't earning enough money to pay my rent and any extra would have been valuable. However, I wouldn't want tips to become an excuse for low wages. Especially since offers of tips were rare and probably wouldn't have made much difference overall.

  2. @Abi - That's a good point, that a permissive tipping policy could give museums the (further) excuse to keep salaries low. One of the points made by the original poster was that these tips were so rare that it was honestly just a matter of a couple of extra dollars, not a massive economic game-changer. (Or at least that was my impression of the situation.)

  3. It sounds like a lot of people don't understand tipping. Maybe they've never worked in the food industry, but tipping is not about "expecting" to get something for your hard work; tipping should be a gesture of appreciation from the recipient of the service. Docents don't expect a tip every time they give a tour, and they do the tour because they believe in the mission of the institution, but getting acknowledgment in monetary form is sometimes a reinforcement for your hard work and mission-driven goals.

    Also, the museum "owning" the intellectual property of the tour is ludicrous. That's the kind of mentality that will continue to keep museums in a pattern of hoarding information and appearing as a place that is unwelcoming and cold.

    It's the docent and the visitor's choice; if the visitor wants the docent to have the money it should be the docent's choice whether to keep it or give it to the museum. Nothing makes visitors (and people in general) more angry than someone else telling them where their money has to go. If we want to encourage as many people as possible to give to our institutions, we had better respect their wishes. We would never EVER suggest that a major donor's contribution to the contemporary art gallery go toward paying for overhead (even if that were more convenient at the time). Why should we make a smaller, but still heartfelt donation, feel less important and less worthy?

  4. Thoughts: If a person hands you some cash, then by god you have a right to it. You can say, "oh that's not necessary" and they can say "I insist" and then it is actually rude to refuse.

    For the people who don't want people accepting tips, I would say: you must be making more money at a museum than the people who are giving the tours. Since "liking money" makes someone unfit to work at a museum, then you should take your entire salary and give it back to the museum. Everyone should just bow down to the great museum gods and sacrifice everything for the honor of serving them, right?

    @everybody - THANK YOU, MUSEOS! Having this discussion really makes me so glad that we started this site, giving all of us a place to voice ideas and get feedback. I love hearing the responses and look forward to the rest.

    @Abi - an excellent point! So glad you said that, as we hadn't thought of it that way.

    @Erin - an excellent comparison drawn to big gifts. Thank you for giving us another way to approach this conundrum!

  5. Great points all, and I have to say more reasonable to me than some of the responses on the ListServ were. If a visitor wants to give a docent a tip for a job well done, I fail to see any harm with that.

  6. I was also following that thread on the listserve and am glad to see it getting some more thought-out responses here.

    At my institution (large historic house + museum in the mid-atlantic) tips are pretty rare. However, during special events the wealthy guests do sometimes give money to front-line staff (ie tour guides and golf cart drivers) that go above and beyond (running through the rain to get them an umbrella, waiting around for a long time for them to finish a conversation before starting a tour, etc...). What generaly happens is that the tip is first refused by the employee, but if the guest insists then they accept and keep it.

    The one exception is when tips are given to managment and above. For example, my boss (who makes over $60,000/year) was given a very large (four-figure) tip by a generous donor who insisted that it not go to the institution. He felt too guilty accepting the money so he cashed the check and donated the money back to the museum.

    I think that's a decent approach to the issue, the staff that are working for low hourly wages get to decide whether they keep the tips or not but managers and other highly-paid staff donate it back to the museum. It also seems in line iwht the "you don't tip the owner" rule of thumb.

  7. I am signed on the AAM-EMP listserve, but I saw the emails too late to join in the discussion over there.

    One thing I was suprised no one mentioned was where is the Museum's leadership in this question? It seems as if they assume that the tour guide should take on policy decisions for the Museum. Where is the manager for the tour guides?

    Honestly, I didn't see anything wrong with accepting tips as they are offered. But I feel like the more important issue is that this worker isn't getting the support he needs from the organization.

    I also thought that the comments on AAM-EMP were harsh. I hope someone sends the original poster a link to this discussion instead.

  8. @Anon2 - great point. Wouldn't it be ideal if a concerned tour guide who worked at a museum could have an open and frank discussion with whoever is his or her boss? Alas, I think too many people are afraid of consequences if they raise their voices and question "the way things have always been." Look how many people shot down the original poster when they don't know him, his situation, his museum, or anything of the like.

    Also, never fear, we have been in email contact with the original poster and have informed him about the blog and the discussion. I am sure he will be glad to see everyone's comments and support here, especially as you pointed out that some of the responses on the listserv were "harsh."

    PS - makes me think again, why are so many museum people not supportive of each other? Why can't we look out for each other and help each other along the way? All infighting is historically linked to lack of resources (in this case, museum jobs and/or well-paying museum jobs) so perhaps that is why...

  9. Thank you for continuing the discussion here, and for your inspired handling of the person on the listserv whose delicate sensibilities were so offended by the continuation of an intellectual discussion. I might not have been so gracious. Bravo and carry on!