Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Museum Work

Author: Seema Rao

This month, we’re talking about work. Not the work we do, but the ways we do that work.
While many American museums require 37.5 or 38 hours of work a week, most of us put in way more. In some old jobs I've had, particularly when I was full-time at part-time, juggling multiple roles, I regularly put in 100 hours a week. I came from a family that did that, so it seemed normal, though my relatives were all earning considerably more for their 100 hours a week.

I’m setting wages aside this month. Trust me, I know they are important. Salary is, often, the way organizations signal your worth. This is particularly evident when organizations pay greater salaries to certain departments overall than others. And, as Phillip Thompson said inour panel last week, the museum business model sets up problems for our field, because we are always trapped by the amount of money we can raise. Therefore, the whole issue of wages gets at the heart of the faulty systems of capitalism, the culture of women’s work, and museums as privilege-concentrating institutions. In other words, wage is enormous conversation and deserves its own month down the road.

This month though, I want to deal with something a bit more manageable. How we do our work and how we can improve it. The big questions are, how can people make changes to improve the working conditions, and how can leaders help organizations run better?

Efficiency is a favorite topic of mine. I like to think about where to shave off a little time (though who knows what I’m doing with that extra.) And, next week, I can share some of my thoughts on efficiency. But efficiency is like calibrating a well-run machine. This month, I’d like to think about our many broken machines.

Museums might earn their philanthropy partly through gifts from commercial enterprises, but for a very long time, their workplaces were run very differently. They had the committee decision-making structures from universities and the collections-authority systems of libraries. But they had a flavor all their own, spiced up with curatorial authority and donor privilege. In the last twenty years, or so, professionalization has changed museum work. Much of the quirkiness in the field has given way to corporate norms. Dashboards and ROI are as much part of our workplace language as community engagement and light-sensitivity.

This transformation has brought some good. Last month, we talked about audience engagement. Almost twenty years ago, when I started in community engagement, meeting after meeting would be held about what X group of people wanted. We never once asked them. We had no data to support our suppositions. And, we still barreled in and gave them the wrong thing. Now, I can’t imagine creating a new program without data.

Moving toward a more professionalized, and I might say corporate, structure has also brought negative issues in the workplace. In an old job, I was asked to track all the costs and benefits of family programs. Our systems weren’t up to snuff enough to let me click a button to generate a dashboard pulling directly from enterprise software. Plus like many organizations, family programs were a necessary evil for that organization, not what the museum perceived as their worthy audience. So, I sat at my little desk and crunched away. In an old life, I took plenty of stats. Numbers and graphs excite me. They are as plain, if not more, than words, in my mind. I sent the report to my boss. Six months later, she said she didn’t read it. She wasn’t into numbers. My tale of wasted work woes isn’t being retold for sympathy. I’m using this as an example of when a museum workplace needs fixing. First, we are often asking ourselves to do more, but we don’t scale up our system to do so. If you are going to become data-informed, you need to have your data easily accessible (or pay someone extra to crunch the data). Data is not free. Second, we are often choosing to make a change without scaling up internal capacity. If your leaders don’t use numbers, get them training, or don’t waste the junior staff’s time on generating them.

We have a certain amount of time allocated for work. As individuals and organizations, we choose how to allocate them. Giving a critical eye to labor, and the reasons certain systems don’t work is an essential way to improve work overall.

Museums are often run like city-states, each solving for their own problems. Just as Sparta and Athens solved city management differently, two museums on the same block can be run quite differently. Diversity in organizations and workplace solutions can be good for our field, that is, if we learn from each other. We often look across the street or nation at other museums for how they solve the big things: exhibitions, building projects, technology. But, we aren’t all that good at talking about the boring mundane parts of our lives like the way we do work. I suggest speaking across the sector about work could improve working conditions and as a result the field.

We are at that museum way more than 37.5 hours a week, and why should those hours be frustrating and unhappy? So, this month’s big issues are: What are some of the big issues you see about how work is done in Museums? What can you do to change this?

Also the picture at the header was Rob Lancefield's old desk, and it was part of Chad Weinard's wonderful talk about work from an age old MCN conference.
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