Reaction: Giving Tuesday & Low Salaries in Museums

Added to Medium, December 6, 2018

Many museum professionals, as well as non-profit professionals, are familiar with Giving Tuesday. This takes place annually the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to ask shoppers to consider donating money to non-profit organizations, and museums also participate in asking visitors to donate to help support museums. It is ironic that while museums participate in Giving Tuesday to convince people to give charity to these museums, museum executives and boards are not using the same mentality of charity to its hard-working staff. While I was celebrating Thanksgiving and working at the Long Island Explorium, I came across the blogpost “Giving Tuesday & Low Salaries in Museums” by Seema Rao, and I started to think about the current state of museum professionals’ salaries and working conditions. Articles and blog posts like this one prove that while we are bringing more awareness to the situation we have so far to go to make the changes we need to make for our museums. Another thing that these articles,blog posts, seminars, etc. about salaries and the museum workforce have in common is the salary is the most talked about topic in our field right now.

Our field needs to be doing more to make changes in how we pay our staff and the working conditions in the museum. As Rao pointed out, staff are aware of how low their salaries are:

Junior staff members see their peers making vastly more in other sectors. Colleagues are learning that peers in other parts of their organizations are making more for the same job, and they are unhappy. Mid-career professionals are looking around for other jobs that pay better.

Museum educators are definitely not happy with the current state of salaries in the field. It was one of the topics discussed in NYCMER’sprogram last year “Career Growth in Museum Education” in which we not only focused on  how to build and sustain careers in museum education but we talked about the survey results from the “Why are Great Museum Workers Leaving the Field?” survey conducted in September 2016. According to the results of the survey, which were also shared in the “Leaving the Museum Field” article on AAM’s website, the pay was too low was the number one reason respondents who answered why they left the field. 

I also wrote a reaction piece to the AAM article last year highlighting my thoughts about the conditions of the museum field. In that post, I said that 

I still believe museums can illuminate an individual’s educational experience, and by continuing in the museum field I hope to make an impact on the public. It is a challenge to accomplish this when there are things that prevent me from fulfilling this goal.

This statement is just as true now as it was then. Unfortunately, for many museum professionals including myself, the challenges preventing us from fulfilling our goals in our careers is continuing to present problems that make us want action to be taken to correct our field sooner. And we should be not only having more open discussions about salaries with one another and with our executives we need to see results to keep our passions for our work alive. 

We cannot make effective change without bringing awareness of this issue to the executives and museum boards who make the big decisions to run the museum. Rao has pointed out that

Museums replicate some elements of corporate America, giving their CEO’s higher salaries. But, they have chosen to ignore others. Lower level staff generally doesn’t have any perks that keep them there. Flex time, infinite vacation, and profit-sharing don’t generally exist in museums. Instead, museum staff members remain in place due to their drives and hopes. There is the dream that their penury will have a long-term payoff when they get to the top, or their martyrdom is worth being part of this amazing mission. For others, there is no job mobility. The majority of cities in America don’t have enough museums for professionals to move from museum job to museum job without moving. In other words, museum executives get the benefit of corporate salaries while leading a group of people who might feel trapped by their ideals.

By changing the way museums are run to make them resemble corporations, the staff are the ones that pay the price of greater hardship within their personal and professional lives. While we may be holding on to our passions for museums and to our hopes of having a long-term payoff for the hard work we put in, we cannot hold on forever. Eventually, if we have not done so already, will burn out and be trapped in a never-ending loop of the hardship while the higher ups will reap the rewards they see in their paths.

A question was posed in the blog post that resonatedwith me: If we can’t even preserve our staff at a living wage, why should people trust us with their collections or money?

Since the purpose of many museums is to preserve its collections, we will not be able to do the work that we do if museums continue down this path of paying its staff low wages. What museum executives and boards seem to not realize, as Rao has beautifully stressed in her post, is the staff engage with the visitors on a regular basis and the visitors’ impressions of the museum also depend on how the staff treats them. Staff members may be able to conceal their unhappiness with their work conditions and low salaries, but there may be days that they are  unable to conceal it as well and this could easily effect how they interact with the visitors. 

If the executives and boards are not willing to properly compensate their staff with living wages and create a safe work environment, then how can they convince visitors to come into our doors?

For those who do not workin the museum field, please keep in mind what museum workers are going throughand be supportive to them. To learn more, please read the following sources:

https://www.medium.com/@artlust/giving-tuesday-low-salaries-in-museums-b4080566c81b

https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2017/09/27/leaving-the-museum-field-a-reaction-to-the-alliance-labs-blog/

https://www.aam-us.org/2017/09/22/leaving-the-museum-field/

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