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.


  1. I just saw this article in the Times about unpaid internships. It's focused on the for-profit world, but it's obviously relevant here as well.


    Sorry this isn't directly related to the post topic.

  2. Thanks Erin! Someone emailed it to me over the weekend. Any illegalities probably don't extend to nonprofits, but it's good to get people talking about what's fair entry-level practice regardless of field.