Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Worst of Museums for this Decade

Ask and you shall receive. Be careful what you wish for. These two adages were both in my mind last week when I asked people for the worst museum trends.

I wasn't surprised that the worst trends had much more pick up than best. The grass is always greener, as the adage says, or rather, we as people are usually pretty good at figuring out what we lack, what other people have, or what went wrong. Or, I should qualify that. We're often good at seeing the symptoms. The real improvement though is when you can get down to the root causes. On social media, it's hard to get into systemic issues effectively, but maybe people did start to touch on some of the big, bad issues in our field.

Brad Dunn basically summarized the overall themes of people comments. In this decade museums worst trends were in labor and tech:

The issues of work were pretty front and center for people. As I looked through the responses many of the issues were intertwined. The cats-cradle mess seemed to start on some level with professionalization. Suse Anderson spoke about the drawbacks of professionalization:
Even five or six years ago, I think many in the field would think of professionalization as being whole positive. Now, many see the downsides, including crushing student debt along large numbers of credentialed people with few open jobs. Susan Spero brought up the cost tuition rises had to the field:
Many brought up the challenges with museum studies programs, with Rich Ligner responding directly to Susan's tweet above.

The rise in professionalization spurred an increase in museum studies programs, as a way to train future professionals. Yet, the market couldn't support the many, many museum studies graduates that came out. As such, we have more supply than we had demand, and the work places used this as a chance to employe cheap labor.It's brought us to this point where we have a culture of underpaying, or not paying people at, to do professional work. I can't think of another professional field where credentialing is so varied or where portions of the work is routinely done by non-credentialed or unpaid professionals.
For my part, another challenge with museum studies programs is that there is a great deal of of variety in programs. As someone who has often hired professionals, I wouldn't say the benefit of a museum studies degree hasn't always been clear to me. I see a vast range in skills and knowledge depending on the program, and I see many qualified people who don't go to a museum studies program. This complexity highlights the complications we've created around training and hiring. There are many ways to become a museum professional and we don't have uniform measures across programs (like a standard set of board exams).

Now, I'm not exactly advocating for boards, but a comparison helps us see why regulation is important. In medicine for example, there are only a certain number of spaces allowed for residency, and it is regulated by congress. We keep ourselves near shortage of doctors and as such there is great competition for seats. We won't go down the looming problem of the lack of physicians our nation will be facing in the upcoming decades, but instead let's look at museum work. Money is the regulatory mechanism in museums. The number of open jobs is based on the amount of money museums can raise. Philanthropy is changing, with large benefactors giving way to people giving less and earned income increasing in importance. Like medicine, we, in effect, have few job openings. Unlike medicine, which graduates slightly more students than residency seats, museum studies programs graduates scores more students than spaces. This problem becomes compounded by the fact that many museum professionals get paid lower wages and therefore likely delay retirement. It's like we're running a roller coaster where few get off while we continue to allow the queue to form. It makes for sick riders and angry potential riders. IThe whole system is nauseating.

No matter how hard you try to make people happy with cosmetic changes, like team building, as Julia Kennedy mentions, these inherent workforce issues must be solved if the field hopes to continue to evolve fruitfully. We're losing many of our mid-career professionals, and we could find ourselves in very real work force issues. As Susan Spero pointed out, a decade from now today's seventh graders will be graduating from college. What will the museum work force look like when they join our ranks?

 In this decade, instead of dealing with workforce issues head-on, we often focused on the shiny new thing. Technology was the number one worst trend in museums in people's comments. Apps, QR Codes, AR/ VR, Interactives, all our most lauded tech, got mentioned. As Dan Hicks and Paul Bowers said:

The tech became a siphon, taking away resources, and was seen an end itself:
Tech didn't support the museum in its mission to engage visitors in specific goals, like social learning:
Instead museums found themselves at the mercy of the next big thing and the whims of tech firms:
As someone with a horse in the race on museum technology, I spent a great deal of time thinking about these comments and coming to terms with them in some ways. For me, technology and labor were really two sides of the same coin.

Museums spent this decade chasing the future on behalf of the past while ignoring the present. There was so much good in tech, like open data and social media, and as Chris Alexander mentioned museums brought a great deal of technology in house. But, these positive aspects of tech was overshadowed by the pernicious aspects of technology, often swallowing whole budgets in their wake. For many museum workers it was like watching a whole family starve short one.

Likely part of the problem was fundamental to how museums only took the worst of corporate culture:

We, as a field, didn't really slay our demons, not just work force issues but real collections issues (repatriation and decolonization), and instead moved onto new efforts like technology. In doing so, we only exacerated or allowed certain problems to fester:
Without looking at our fundamental system, the whole enterprise could be up for a challenge next decade--your thoughts on that next week.

(Please consider passing your ideas about big trends for the next decade. Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB). 

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