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.)

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