Reaction: The Cost of Museum Work

Added to Medium, April 26, 2018

With many discussions about museum professionals leaving the museum field and how we can improve the work conditions in the field, there is an additional post I came across this week. Seema Rao wrote about the cost of museum work for museum professionals in the field. It is a good summary of what is happening to museum professionals and museum work.

I think it is important to acknowledge that all museum professionals, full-time and part-time, face similar situations Rao presented in her post. Should we continue to pay this price to keep museums running? I do not think so. If we continue to go down the path we are going through, our field will not be able to survive and our mission as a museum community will not be fulfilled.

In the post, Rao began the cost of museum work discussion by asking readers to consider scenarios for both the museum and the job seeker. Then the discussion continued with a section on being a museum professional. The last section discussed the museum hiring culture’s effect on the museum field. Each section in the post discussed about the museum field in general, and brings attention to important points on the current condition of museum work so we all can understand why museum work culture needs to improve.

The museum field is beginning to become more aware of the work condition situations, and this post is an example of continued discussion that is happening among museum professionals. One of the points Rao made in the post is that,

Museums want to be able to bring in more visitors for less money while being the most academically rigorous (and ideally garnering an article in the Times), basically the Holy Grail. The path to this endpoint, however, is complicated, confusing, and subjective. Despite the many meetings where a colleague suggests they have the “right” answer to accomplish the grail, there is no single path to improving museums. There are good answers, better answers, and terrible answers–but there are no perfect answers. Museum professionals often feel like they are being measured against this idea of perfection that doesn’t exist.

As museum professionals, we attempt to find the perfect solution to bring in more visitors and revenue for our institutions. The problem is that all museums are structured differently; museums especially in the United States come in different sizes, have different missions, there are different types of museums, different demographics, and offer varying programs. It is hard to define success when no museum is the same as others. If we keep being measured against the idea of perfection that does not exist, we will not only be able to accomplish what we need to do but we will not be satisfied in our well-being as museum professionals.

Rao also discussed the hiring culture in the museum field, and what issues the current museum work culture presents. The museum hiring culture develops a split with local audiences, promotes bad management, depletes the field, and prevents diversity. Museum professionals dedicate a lot of time and effort to their work but unfortunately the work becomes overwhelming when the work load is increased to a point that one museum professional is doing the work of at least five individuals.

Some museum professionals deal with bad management within the museum. In the post, Rao pointed out that

In the first couple years of work, most professionals are given some latitude for their failures. About three years in, their colleagues start to judge them. This is the point at which they can improve or leave. Instead of promoting a culture of self-improvement, the hiring culture effectively promotes people leaving (for more money) before improving.

Museum professionals for a while now have not spent more than a few years working for one museum. What this post did not get into detail about is the amount of work that museum professionals are given as a result of bad management and lack of appropriate amount of staff members in the museum. An individual museum professional is given an amount of work that could be accomplished by multiple people, and with divided attention given to aspects of the responsibilities not a lot is accomplished.

Whether museum professionals work full-time or part-time, museum professionals face similar situations of an enormous workload. Part-time museum professionals are given the workload of a full-time museum professional, and full-time museum professionals are given even more work. Both part-time and full-time professionals have this in common: there is not enough time to accomplish what needs to be done. A lot of decisions are made based on attempting to find ways to cut costs to run the museum but it clearly does not promote the well-being of its employees. If management does not acknowledge or find ways to attempt to resolve matters, it leads to poor management and more museum professionals seeking to go elsewhere.

As museum professionals, we should be making more attempts to be able to make self-improvements for our well-being and our careers. In recent years, we started to find ways to self-improve ourselves. For instance, the New England Museum Association had a conference in Boston with the theme of Picture of Health: Museums, Wellness & Healthy Communities in 2014. A point was made that since our museums are moving forward with promoting health and wellness within the community we need to be promote health and wellness within our staff and board.

Rao also released a book called Objective Lessons: Self Care for Museum Professions which uses creative prompts to help museum workers and knowledge workers focus on self-care. The more we figure out how to practice and promote self-care the more we will be able to have a better workplace for our field.

I believe that the current cost of museum work is not appropriate for all museum professionals. Museums of all types can benefit from seeing what Rao has to say about the cost of museum work. We can do better than what museum work is costing us now, and we need to continue to work our way towards a better workplace.

How do you feel about the cost of museum work? What is your organization doing to help its museum professionals work on self-care and self-improvement?


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