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Fair pay in Museums?

‘Does your museum pay staff an amount that they can reasonably be expected to live on?’, that’s a question that I’ve been asking museum professionals on both sides of the Atlantic over the past month.

Unsurprisingly, those I asked voiced concern at low pay in the sector, pointing to low starting salaries for graduates, disparities between how curators and educators of similar experience are compensated and the need to come from a certain background to be able to afford to pursue a career in museums.

fair pay in museums

One person pointed me towards a website listing jobs in museums. ‘They don’t pay a living wage, and they don’t hide that,’ she said.

The living wage is the amount that an individual needs to earn to cover the basic costs of living. In the UK the Living Wage Foundation name this amount annually, though there is no legal requirement to pay people at this level.

In London, the living wage is calculated to be £9.75 per hour, but a quick search finds jobs at museums across the city paying below this rate.

Here lies a hidden secret, that while museums are increasing striving to champion social justice and make a difference in our communities, we ignore the fact that our organizations act irresponsibly towards some staff.

They pay them less than the living wage, outsource their jobs to big businesses who profit from having staff on zero hours contracts and erode healthcare and pension provisions.

Labour is a significant cost to museums, and with pressure on funding, it is perhaps inevitable that cultural organizations look to limit these costs by paying what the market demands, rather than what is fair.

But what are the hidden costs of paying staff less than a living wage? Low pay makes the museum sector less able to attract and retain recruits with the right skills and attitude.

It increases staff turnover and absenteeism and has a negative effect on the wellbeing of staff.

Workers earning less than the living wage are more likely to find their jobs stressful, unfulfilling and precarious.

Beyond these problems, I think that we need to think about what kind of future we want for the museum sector.

Our cultural institutions will always be under financial pressure, and there will never be a good time to commit to higher staff costs, but shouldn’t museums strive to be better employers than high street coffee or burger chains?

If museums want to make a positive social impact on their communities, they need to start by paying staff a living wage.


About the author – Jim Richardson

For sixteen years Jim Richardson led a creative agency working with some of the world’s best known museums.

His work helped these institutions to encourage arts audiences to take that next positive step, converting a passing interest into a ticket purchase, a website hit into an actual visit, an appreciation into real involvement?

Through this work he became interested in how technology was changing audience expectations. In 2007 he started to document ‘what’s next for museum?’ on a blog, and two years later he organised the first MuseumNext conference to expand on this question.

MuseumNext now takes place in cultural capitals around the world, bringing together a community of museum professionals with a shared ambition to make museums the best that they can be.

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