Museums Can—and Must—Do Better

  • Jessica Brunecky

I love museums. At their best, they can be a tremendous force for societal good. At their worst, they can manipulate, mislead, and undermine. Through my graduate studies, my professional experiences in museums, and my service on boards and as an IMLS grant reviewer, I’ve seen it all firsthand. These experiences have forced me to critically reconsider our histories and our labor practices. Our field draws upon a rich history of creativity, exploration, and scholarship to share knowledge with our communities and improve society. However, embedded power structures lurk as skeletons in our closet that must come to light if we are to treat ourselves and our peers as the valuable workers and passionate changemakers that I know we are.

I am proud of my fellow museum workers who have led the charge to address these power structures in recent years. In 2015, #MuseumWorkersSpeak ran a rogue session at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting to expose and address labor issues. In 2019, the Board of Trustees of the Association of Art Museum Directors passed a resolution calling on their member museums to provide paid internships. Numerous state and regional museum associations now require pay ranges for job postings before they will share them with their networks. This transparency is a great step towards addressing our industry’s pay inequities.

In 2020, we saw more meaningful action in the field. While organizations like the American Alliance of Museums have advocated for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts for years, the events of last year pushed many museum professionals to pressure leadership to take a stand on social justice, diversity, and exploitation issues. Some leaders listened, and meaningful progress was made. When faced with pandemic-related closures in 2020, resulting in mass furloughs and layoffs, #MuseumWorkersSpeak launched a mutual aid relief fund for museum staff experiencing hardship, and they have distributed over $100,000 in funds to those in need. These are just a few examples of meaningful change despite troublesome historical legacies surrounding labor. But there are still skeletons to unearth.

The first public museums in Europe opened in the late eighteenth century at a time of heightened nationalism and expanding imperialism. Alongside the European treasures on display were spoils of war and looted colonial artifacts. Such objects were valued primarily as evidence of Europe’s cultural superiority. Today, objects remain a core storytelling methodology of how museums present knowledge. Historically, those who shape these stories, such as curators, have been part of academia—i.e. educated and privileged—and their narratives are shaped by that privilege.

One consequence of this narrow storytelling manifests not in object histories, but in the stories we are told about labor. Broadly, museums struggle with identifying value, especially that of unseen labor. Acquisition narratives feature objects that have been collected from the natural world or discovered by archaeologists, rather than created by makers or pursued on exploratory missions. The value of this labor by oftentimes nameless people is nearly incalculable. Museums today capably calculate some types of quantifiable worth, like the value of objects for insurance policies or the rate of investment return on blockbuster exhibitions. But what about the workforce? The historical legacy of prioritizing the object over its associated labor makes it difficult for museums to know the value of their employees’ work.

We must acknowledge that museums are built upon deeply rooted power structures that fundamentally inform the current state of exploitative practices in our field, and that is precisely why we must engage in critical and honest dialogue to hold museums accountable. 


Let’s Talk Labor

Today we contend with this legacy of unseen labor. Museums and–more broadly–nonprofit arts organizations operate as well as they do because of an overreliance on unpaid labor, the realities of which look different in each organization. But this sets the foundation for valuation of labor at any institution at $0/hour. Interns, volunteers, and committee members are just a few positions assigned this nonexistent salary. Some organizations even utilize volunteers in place of paid educators and research assistants. Others rely on them to staff large-scale events which should be run by development professionals, to say nothing of the exploitation of artists’ labor at such events.

Unpaid labor is endemic throughout arts organizations, and those in our community are prime examples. In a previous publication, I analyzed regional data to quantify the volume of unpaid labor to illustrate its impact on Denver’s labor market:

[Denver-metro area] arts and cultural organizations reported over two million volunteer hours in 2016 alone (Colorado Business Committee for the Arts 2017). This is the equivalent of $53 million in unpaid labor and equal to the labor of nearly 1,000 full-time employees (Brunecky 2019, 343).

These figures cover the work of docents, guides, and other volunteers, but not that of interns, who are still seen as a separate labor category based on the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA guidelines ought to be a safeguard ensuring that interns aren’t taken advantage of and don’t replace paid employees. Why, then, do we not embrace them? Perhaps because we know that many organizations would not successfully operate without their vast networks of unpaid laborers.

We must erase the arbitrary distinction between intern and volunteer to fundamentally examine our reliance on unpaid labor as a whole. Both contribute significant work at the lowest possible salary, and when a company’s base pay rate is $0/hour, it’s easier to justify lower starting wages for all positions, which results in systemic undervalued labor (Salerno and Gold 2019, 446). A 2016 survey of professionals leaving the museum field showed that their salaries increased an average of 27% when they changed sectors (449). Considering, too, that nonprofit organizations utilizing volunteers in addition to paid staff pay their employees 13% less than nonprofits employing paid staff only, it’s clear that unpaid labor must be addressed to achieve both pay parity and equitable opportunities in our organizations (Pennerstorfer and Trukeschitz 2005, 187). 

Moreover, undervaluing labor undermines Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. The ability to labor for free is a form of privilege, which is why economist Richard V. Reeves frames unpaid positions as “opportunity hoarding” (Reeves 2017, 96). Opportunity costs must be weighed: an individual must be comfortable laboring for free, often forgoing hours at a paying job. Not everyone can afford to make such a choice, which exposes the underlying classism of volunteerism and the internship industrial complex. Until organizations address the privilege of laboring for free, DEI efforts will continue to miss their mark. 

What to Do?

What are some next steps you can take to address the devaluation of labor in the arts?

  • Pay people. Pay them what they are worth. 
  • Don’t labor for free. Don’t let others labor for free. 
  • Advocate for transparency and equitable pay practices. 

Arts and cultural workers:

Know your value and advocate for each other. The American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors publish field-wide salary surveys. The 2019 Arts + All Museum Salary Transparency spreadsheet makes it easy to see where you fit. Familiarize yourself with your peers’ salaries, both regionally and nationally, and start destigmatizing openness about pay. Create institutional labor policies to codify what work gets paid at what rate. This helps our departments see our value and helps supervisors advocate for pay increases. 

Artists and creatives:

Don’t accept offers for exposure only. That’s exploitation. Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.) is an amazing resource for valuing your creative labor. When asked to speak, show your work, perform, or write for an organization, consult the W.A.G.E. online fee calculator to see whether they are offering you an equitable amount based on their financial position. Please share your experiences with others. Transparency benefits us all. 

Those involved with board work or development:

Push to add staff salary support to endowment campaigns. Ask donors to name fellowships, paid internships, and positions throughout your organization, not just positions at the top. Show fellow board members that an increase in staff pay saves resources over time, ensuring less turnover and investment in training new employees, in addition to the many benefits of a higher paid, less stressed, more loyal, and potentially more diverse workforce (Salerno and Gold 2019, 450).

We can all advocate for increased salary support for staff, stipends for interns, and institutional policies regarding unpaid labor at the organizations we value. Have a frank talk with board members or donors, and emphasize the need to pay staff what they’re worth. Tweet museums your concerns and ideas for equity. Money talks. Support organizations making changes and don’t support those that aren’t doing enough. Tell them why. Pressure from both inside and out is needed to get organizations to address structural changes and understand the true value of labor. Let’s overcome our historical power structures and classist legacies and do better.