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Calls for fair pay for museum workers grow louder

What’s the UK’s most popular visitor attraction? Many visitors believe it must be Buckingham Palace, or the Tower of London. If not one of these, then some other well-known site connected with royalty, perhaps?

Congratulations if you knew, or guessed, that it is in fact the British Museum. The BM, now a world class museum of culture, first opened to the public in 1759 when it was described as a “repository for all arts and sciences”. The government of the day believed wholeheartedly in the idea. It passed a bill to raise £300,000 via a British Museum Lottery to purchase Montagu House and the collections of Sir Hans Sloane and members of the Harley family, the Earls of Oxford.

A worthwhile investment? Over 250 years later, the millions of visitors annually would seem to confirm that. It’s not simply about what’s on view either. It’s about the precious knowledge that museums represent. In summary: the UK’s most visited attraction is knowledge-based.

Knowing that museums represent quality and value to visitors should fill museum staff with pride in what they do. However, there is increasingly discontent behind the scenes about inequality and lack of recognition for the contribution made by museum staff.

For instance, a recent ballot on possible strike action by staff at some of the UK’s most popular science museums, including the Science Museum in London and Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, drew attention to the widespread low pay of museum workers. The action prompted the union Prospect to comment that people would be astounded to know how little the pay of staff at the Science Museum actually is, particularly considering its place in the nation’s top tourist attractions.

“Breaking the silence” on museum pay rates

Salaries have become a major issue at some well-known museums in the USA. The current high profile around this issue is in part due to an initiative from Michelle Millar Fisher, an assistant curator in the European decorative arts and design department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with help from colleagues in the sector.

Inspired by inequality and low pay among museum staff, these museum workers took the radical step of creating a Google spreadsheet and encouraging museum workers to upload their salaries, place of work and job title to it.

Within a month the journal had nearly 3,000 contributions. Seeing their work as “breaking the silence” around inequality, low pay and poor working conditions in the museum world. One professional commented that when she returned to a well-known institution after 17 years, the salary was essentially the same as when she left. Stagnating pay is one of the major complaints of museum staff.

The issue seems a straightforward one. Museum staff are dedicated professionals who have spent years acquiring knowledge and qualifications. They view themselves in the same way as any other professionals. Their investment in time and knowledge means that visitors to museums can trust the information they receive and fully enjoy their experience.

museum worker salaries

However, this is often not reflected in pay and conditions, with unpaid internships being a particular issue in some museums across the globe. With museum work often being perceived as high status, enjoyable and stimulating, the matter of unpaid internships has now become a matter of concern, since it effectively means organisations can trade on the competition for museum work and keep pay low.

It’s not as simple as that, of course, and many factors play a part in keeping down salaries, at least for some workers in some of the sector. A much-discussed article by museum professional Michael Holland on the American Alliance of Museums website identified seven factors that were driving wages for museum staff down.

Are these factors keeping salaries low?

Firstly, Holland noted that increasingly museums were adopting management structures that enabled them to contract out work that would once have been done by employees. Although Holland did not directly link this to the need of museums or galleries to cut costs or control finances, it could be argued that contracting out works to the benefit of museum management – but is it always to the benefit of visitors? After all, if a museum has worked hard to recruit individuals who have expertise that applies to their collections, using some of the budget to pay for outside contractors may mean that part of the role is diminished. The result is, inevitably, disgruntled employees.

Holland’s next point took on the financial aspect, arguing that outsourcing in particular gave management the opportunity to “trim operating expenses” that might make management look good. This led on to his next point – using commercial methods to quantify (without looking at quality, seemingly) employee contribution, making particular reference to the “return on investment (ROI)” of each individual staff member.

It’s hard to see how this can be rationally applied to museum employees. For instance, exactly how does a museum quantify the positive experience of visitors as a result of the engagement skills of its front of house staff? Certainly some visitors may fill in a questionnaire and return it; others may send letters praising their experience or even an individual member of staff.

It’s well-known anecdotally that people are far more likely to complain about a bad experience than praise a good one – how would that be taken into account? What of the behind-the-scenes staff who labour on exhibitions and activities, researching and devising display boards and other material?

The issue of “spousal income subsidy” – where one partner in a relationship earns much more than the other, thus allowing their partner to work in a less well-paid but high status or satisfying job – has also been cited. It’s possible that this particularly applies in the museum sector, which has in the past been viewed as largely middle-class employment.

However, this is unacceptable since it debars so much of society from museum work. It would be hard to proclaim the success of a museum’s inclusivity strategy if working class people and minorities were effectively excluded from it because of low pay.

Museums: a saturated market with few opportunities?

The suggestion that there are simply too many qualified people for too few places has been put forward by Michael Holland and other museum professionals. This could account, in part, for the phenomenon of unpaid internships. In a competitive employment market, people are more likely to take what is available and put up with poorer pay and conditions.

However, many oppose this view, pointing to relatively high paid posts, particularly in management. Are museums really short on cash, or is it more a question of how the money is spent? Museum jobs are, by and large, specialist jobs. What is required are staff that can apply their skills to particular collections. If there are only two or three people in the world qualified to conserve a particular type of cloth, then it’s likely their skills have cost them years of investment to acquire. Many would say that museums need to recognise this contribution in salary terms.

Those working in the sector are well-aware of what is happening. They feel that they are under-resourced and insufficiently paid. The starting point for many is the establishment of a proper living wage. Whatever the job – industrial, commercial or public sector – all organisations depend on a regular flow of new entrants to the workplace.

The museum sector hopes for enthusiastic graduates and post-graduates who will take already successful institutions to new and more engaging levels. One factor that is often overlooked is that it’s likely new entrants will want to acquire more skills and qualifications as they progress. If they are starting out in museum work, they may already be carrying high levels of student debt. Their enthusiasm for the sector can disappear quickly without the substance to enable them to progress. It takes little for a jobs sector to move from desirable to toxic.

Calls for industrial action

One thing is certain. The discussion around the fair pay museum workers seek is far from over. With members of the union Prospect pointing out that the most recent 1.5% pay rise of their science museum worker members was both below the inflation rate, and in real terms represented a cut of 13% in pay in the last decade, industrial action looks increasingly possible. In calling for fair pay museum workers are pointing out how much they have really fallen behind.

This means that in real terms museum workers at the lower end of the pay scale are actually being paid below the “real living wage” while the pay of the director of the Science Museum increased by one third in four years. The situation in the USA is even more extreme. The Google file in which museum employees entered their salary details showed astonishing pay disparities.

At curatorial assistant level, salaries tended to be in the $35,000 to $40,000 range. Museum presidents and directors, on the other hand, had salaries ten times as much, or even more, between $400,000 to $800,000. With the wages of lower paid workers stagnating while those of senior management are not, apparently, subject to the same restrictions, perhaps it isn’t surprising that staff are beginning to shout ever more loudly.

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About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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