Take care of your people

December 16, 2018
We’re not doing enough to take care of museum workers.
This essay was originally published in Thoughtforms, which was a print publication created by the Micah Walter Studio in 2018. The publication engaged a group of museum practitioners to consider changes ahead in the museum sector.

When I think about the ways that museums need to change in order to survive this century, I can think of nothing more impactful than for museums to focus on retaining employees.

Asking more, returning less

Museums ask a lot out of their staffs (by which I mean they demand long hours and offer low pay and miserable benefits), and in return used to be able to offer the promise of supporting missions that matter in stimulating and supportive work environments. Over the last decade, as the asinine “museums should be run like businesses” model has taken hold, the benefits of working at museums have been whittled away, one by one. Benefits packages are worse, compensation (already low to begin with) is not keeping pace with rising costs of living, hours have gotten longer, and job security has effectively evaporated. The only thing museums can offer to prospective employees is the satisfaction of a mission with meaning. That’s no longer enough.

And because it’s no longer enough, it’s becoming harder and harder to attract good people, and increasingly harder to retain them once they’re hired. Every year, one more staff member leaves your museum and isn’t replaced. Every year, you spend more time on hiring, or training new staff, or covering for someone who’s still learning the ropes. Every year, your museum has more going-away happy hours than it did the year before. Constant turnover, coupled with a mass exodus from the sector, have become defining characteristics of museum work in the 21st Century.

“Excellence” is straight garbage

Museums have increasingly trained their focus on “excellence” and producing bigger and better exhibitions, publications, and programs than the year before, but when will this pursuit of “excellence” be turned on us, the employees? Museums have optimized everything except caring for those who make them work. And this is a huge problem because museums are a unique sector, with complex internal politics and unusually long production timelines. It takes time for any museum employee at any level to really work at optimum capacity. Museums effectively cannot work properly without long-term staff—long-serving employees are how museums get work done. And every year, we have fewer and fewer of them.

Oh, how to do, now?

So how can we fix this, if it’s even fix-able? I have some thoughts!

First, delete that crap about “we will have the best employees blah blah blah” from your museum’s mission statement. Obviously, you’re going to have the best employees you can get, so that statement is just so much cruft anyway. Replace it with something like “we will have the happiest, most well-supported employees in our metro area.” Instead of the value proposition for an incoming staff member being, “you will have the privilege of working in the best museum doing the awesomest things”, it would be “you will have the privilege of working on something that really matters, and being well-cared-for in the process of doing it.”

Second, identify staff retention as a key priority. Identify a retention rate that seems reasonable, and meet it or beat it every year. Identify the steps you’re willing to take to retain staff. Report to your board on your progress.

Third, eliminate unpaid internships entirely. Nothing says, “we have no respect at all for people” like demanding that interns do work for free. That’s just museums buying “excellence” on credit, while simultaneously reinforcing the inequality that’s already pervasive in our sector. Yes, you might not be able to afford to do as many exhibitions or publications as a result, but them’s the brakes. Grow up.

Fourth, offer the most mind-blowing benefits package in your metro area. I cannot emphasize this enough. I understand that a museum might not be able to afford to offer me the highest salary in my city, but I’d accept an awesome benefits package and the privilege of working on something that matters in return for lower pay. Dedicate your next $10,000-a-table gala not to new acquisitions, but to funding your benefits package for the next two years, and couple this with your staff retention effort.

Benefits!

These are all easy enough things to say, but some companies are starting to do it. Glitch, a software company based in NYC, just published their benefits statement , and it’s awesome. Here are a few of the choicest bits:

Comprehensive health care for you and your family 100% paid for by Glitch. That means no premiums, no deductibles, and no out-of-pocket expenses. 20 vacation days each year - and encouragement from your coworkers to use them! Unlimited sick days, plus additional caretaker days for when a family member is sick. We don’t think you should have to use vacation time for these unexpected circumstances. Fully paid parental leave of up to 12 weeks, with the option to work part-time or with more flex-time upon returning to work.

And it goes on. I can’t emphasize this enough, however: museum benefits packages should be even better than this. This should just be a baseline. A museum that offered a benefits package like this is one is one I would work for for the rest of my life. And if you offered a childcare stipend? Well then.

If we want to make museums better, we need to take care of our people. They’re good people, and they work hard. They should be recognized for doing so. There is no transformation that is more critical to museums’ future than this one.

Of possible further interest:

Image credit: A pamphlet titled People. The pamphlet is one of eight found in a portfolio titled Soul City. Published by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2011.109.13.7 https://www.si.edu/object/people:nmaahc_2011.109.13.7