Why are we so tired?

Now that I’m on the second leg of my “Drinking About Museums Listening Tour,” (ha!) a few themes are starting to emerge as I talk to museum professionals around the country (and soon, the world!), and I wanted to note them down before I forget.

First, the good news. It’s clear that, as far as technology goes, we’re not fighting the same battles that we were even a couple of years ago. Technologists that I’ve spoken to seem to not have to fight as hard to convince their directors/curators/educators/whomever that a given technology project is important. We still have to fight for resources (and strategic integration of technology efforts is still a problem, but that’s another post), but at least the conceptual battle seems to have been won, or at least is tilting in favor of more innovation on the technology side. I think this is a good thing.

And now, the bad news. In conversation after conversation, I’m astonished at how tired everyone seems. Almost every single person I’ve spoken to, from across disciplines and institutions, complains of overwork. This isn’t the normal, everyday “we’re being worked like crazy” complaints of the non-profit worker, but rather a “we’re working 12-hour days every day now and still can’t even come close to keeping up with the work” sort of complaint. And that worries me.

Almost universally, it seems that museums are expanding their (exhibition/publishing/web/etc.) programs, and asking more out of their staffers, but are not addressing, over the long term, how that  level of increased activity will be supported. It also doesn’t seem that increasing institutional capacity is being addressed in a structural way; workers are simply being asked to do more, in the same way they already are, rather than being given an opportunity to step back and determine whether there might be more efficient ways of achieving the same goals. The phrase I keep hearing is, “there’s no longer any time to be thoughtful about my work at all.”

This worries me quite a bit–it seems to me that museums are buying their current successes on credit. Staff can be asked to work flat-out occasionally, but to ask that day in, day out, all year round, is ultimately suicidal. New York, LA, and London can count on a steady supply of people to replace the ones that burn out and leave, but smaller cities do not have that luxury. This leads to a significant structural problem in the museum sector that will be really hard to fix.

I feel like there’s a lot more to say about this, but I’m interested to hear from you. Am I overstating the case? And are there museums out there that are addressing structural problems and increasing efficiency? I’d be interested to hear about creative solutions to this problem.

Obligatory sharing icons:

20 thoughts on “Why are we so tired?

  1. Caveat: I’m not exactly your worst-case survivor. I actually dodged the 12-hour days in recent years because with two young kids I physically had to leave to pick up / drop off, etc. Still, took a lot of work home and it was bad for everyone.

    I will say the part that killed me is missing the “opportunity to step back and determine whether there might be more efficient ways of achieving the same goals.” Instead of taking a whole week to solve the problem forever, we kept pissing away the same hours every day doing it the hard way. You are totally right on to pull out that thread, but I don’t know where it ends. IMO you’re NOT overstating the case.

  2. Agree. The norm to work overtime hurts in the long run and will eventually sap people’s creativity.

  3. This is a huge issue for the field and I don’t think that there really is ‘a steady supply in NYC, London, LA’. There’s certainly a steady supply of new talent but the retention of existing talent and the support of their growth inside the sector, if not the institution, is a big problem. In the last two years the sector has lost a lot of mid-level and senior technology specialists to become ‘independent consultants’ or just to earn more money elsewhere. With them goes a whole slew of institutional and sector knowledge.

    New talent is doomed to reinvent the wheel unless we can have ways of effectively mentoring new talent within the sector – and with all these potential mentors leaving, its going to be a big deal, more than it already is.

    What to do about it? I’m not sure – but I do think a workshop at MCN/MW or even AAM, on “productive group therapy for museum technologists” might be something.

  4. I’m really interested in exceptions to the rule. Are there other museums out there that have dodged this bullet? How? Is this an American thing, something unique to our cultural mindset (like our general distrust of public institutions to begin with)? I’m convinced it’s a cultural problem whether it’s a national one or not. I keep encountering a hard-lined resistance to any kind of business analysis. It’s like people are afraid of something, but what exactly they’re afraid of is not clearly defined. Are they afraid that they’ll be singled out as the weak link (even if those fears are unfounded)? Are they afraid that they’ll lose flexibility and independence in their decision-making process (even though they already are due to overwork)? Is it something else entirely?

    There’s definitely a fear of something lying behind this resistance though. I just can’t imagine what is more frightening to these people than the direction they’re already headed.

  5. I think you’re right Seb–the “brain drain” (to use a cliche) and, even more critically, the loss of domain knowledge in our sector is about to become rather a large problem. I’d also agree with Jeffrey’s post (check it out) that this isn’t a problem that plagues technologists alone. That was what has really struck me when talking with people–nearly everyone, across all areas of the museum, is feeling the burnout.

  6. I’d be really interested to know whether there are museums out there that are evading the burnout bullet, as well. My gut tells me that this is not solely an American thing, but I’ll take that back if I hear evidence to the contrary.

    I do think there’s something to dig into there with this reluctance to apply real business analysis to current activities, or to seriously question current methods and models. It strikes me that museums haven’t seen any real true innovation in their business models or their approaches to core activities (fundraising, collecting, preserving, etc.)–most of the innovations have been programmatic ones. And maybe these programmatic innovations (social media, participation, crowdsourcing, etc., etc., etc.) are now creating more expectation and stress than the old business model can handle.

  7. This is all so right on, Nate. I almost hesitated to post this, having recently jumped off the carousel myself, but it really does strike me that this is a sector-wide problem. It’s not just technologists, and it’s not just underfunded institutions. It’s everywhere.

  8. This is a great post, Jeffrey. I think you’re probably right that the stresses we’re feeling are probably more representative of a larger problem. I first started thinking about this issue, actually, when I read David Graeber’s “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” which is not in any way sector-specific.

    Where we (and I’ll include Education in this as well) are a bit different is that one, we don’t really share in the rewards of what we create except in a very abstract way (no stock options & low pay; most museum employees aren’t even invited to the gala openings for exhibitions they work on), and our business model has proven rather resistant to the kind of change that might ease some of the pressure here (see Matt’s comment and my response below). It’s like we’re being asked to work startup hours without any of the potential benefits that come with working at a startup.

    I plan on writing a longer post about this in the near future, but I really feel that the fact that most technology initiatives have not migrated out of technology/digital departments and permeated staff activities elsewhere has caused museums to not realize the functional gains that the technology promised in the first place. I had an interesting conversation with James Forrest (former interactive designer at the Peabody-Essex Museum) today in which he talked about companies like Travelocity suddenly realizing that they were actually “tech” companies and needed to function that way. I think we may have a similar reckoning in our future.

  9. “A lot more to say about this…” More specificity about what the article purports to be highlighting in museums concerning burnout and fatigue, would be a great start.

  10. VALUE THE ARTS. Funding priorities and our relationships to this process, reflecting clear, solid valuing of the arts is the heart of the problem.

  11. Thank you for posting this. In my opinion, this is an issue with non profits as an institution. The current model is not sustainable and only brings frustration. I’d recommend reading Dan Pallotta’s ‘Uncharitable (Civil Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives)’. It does a good job explaining why we, as a society, limit the potential of what non profits could accomplish.

  12. Great post, Koven. For me, there is a lot of tension between being asked to do so much while simultaneously not being involved in ANY high-level decision making or planning. We are often handed down edicts then expected to somehow innovate within these poorly thought-out confines. Most days, it feels like running and going nowhere. Perhaps this is the future post you alluded to in P2?

    I think this issue of exhaustion also points to continued difficulty integrating technology throughout the museum to share the burgeoning workload, instead of relegating to a small section of the staff deemed capable. Technology is a tool, we should all be responsible to test it with (some) impunity.

  13. Hey K. Interesting timing. Only this week I had a similar conversation on the expectations of staff to churn through project after project, without any real time for reflection or that ‘thinking time’ that you’re talking about.

    If we’re talking about this as being a structural problem, it would be useful to know where in the structure it originates from and what are the forces acting upon it. Is it institutional time management? Insufficient staffing? Is it an unrealistic sense of how long particular jobs should and do take, and no allowance for that time? Most tech folk I know have spoken at least a
    few times about how someone in the organisation approaches them wanting a website in mere days, without taking into account how long such projects take. What seem to be the pressure points that lead to this strain?

  14. I think that’s important, but I think that is a separate and only loosely coupled problem to what I’m describing here. I’m seeing the same patterns of burnout across both well-funded and not-so-well-funded institutions. Obviously, increased funding would help, but my concern is when I look at the patterns I’m seeing now, I’m not convinced that more funding would be spent in more efficient ways.

  15. Thanks, Emily! I’d be careful about positing this as a technologist-only problem; the thing that has really struck me is how pervasive this problem seems to be–I’m hearing it from technologists, of course, but also from registrars, from exhibit(ion) designers, from curators, etc. So I think there’s a problem with those carrying out the plans not being involved in high-level decision-making, but some of what I’m hearing makes me wonder whether part of the problem is that the high-level decision-making doesn’t actually exist the way it does in popular imagination. Several people I have spoken with talk about things just “happening,” without decisions actually having been made at all.

    And I think you’re getting at something with high-level technology integration (and yes, that is the post I’m planning on writing next ;). I keep thinking that part of the problem right now is that a lot of technology still requires an absurd amount of facilitation and hand-holding, which creates a bunch of overhead that we didn’t have in the olden days.

  16. Thanks, Tyler. I’ve been following Dan Pallotta’s stuff for a while, though I have yet to actually read “Uncharitable.” I’ll check it out. I still wonder, though, if a lot of what I’ve been seeing in my travels is not so much a business model problem as it is a management model problem. And in that sense, I think museums, more than other non-profits (though I’m obviously generalizing wildly here), have historically had a hard time embracing management as a separate discipline.

  17. I wonder if the point of origin is really a point or more of a pervasive issue. It seems to me (and has since I started at the museum) like there is an awful lot of opacity surrounding people’s responsibilities, not just in tech-related positions but all around. It’s very difficult to coordinate a team effort when you don’t really have any idea what the rest of your team actually does from day to day. It’s hard to get accurate level of effort estimates or identify the interfaces in the process between different groups/departments. You end up with a lot of miscommunication, unmet expectations and general confusion. And then you schedule far more meetings than you really need to try and settle those issues, but meetings are, generally speaking, the worst way to solve those problems, so you just end up wasting more time.

    I often wonder if we all just had a better understanding of what everyone we interface with does, if we could all get a lot more done with a lot less effort. I wonder if just having that knowledge alone would make a noticeable impact? And if we can’t facilitate that, if all of that knowledge is too much to reasonably expect everyone to have, what kind of structure do we need to set up that gives us the same benefit?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.