If you found yourself on Trafalgar Square in central London during summer 2015, you would likely have seen staff from the National Gallery out on strike, loudly denouncing the museum’s management. The 400 National Gallery Assistants were locked in a bitter dispute for most of 2015 as they attempted to prevent the National Gallery from outsourcing their jobs to a private global security firm.
The strike was an inconvenience and an embarrassment for the Gallery, one of the UK’s great cultural institutions, which had to close some galleries to the public during the strike action. But for the gallery staff, it was a struggle to maintain pay and conditions, and their role as valued employees in the face of the seemingly unstoppable force of privatisation. Finally, in October 2015, the staff voted to return to work, having secured some concessions, but ultimately defeated – they will now become employees of Securitas.
The fate of the National Gallery Assistants is indicative of a broader trend in the UK: frozen wages, diminished collective bargaining power, and the outsourcing of an ever greater portion of the workforce. The British cultural sector is certainly not immune from the prevailing winds of neo-liberal economics and public sector austerity.
Some of the worst hit museums in the UK are the 700 or so local authority museums – those that are funded directly through local councils, and which include some of the finest museums in the world. In England alone, cultural spending by local authorities has decreased by £1bn (or -28%) over the period 2010-2015, leading to restructuring, job losses and museum closures. One notable current example is in Lancashire in the north-west of England, where the local authority is currently closing five museums, and reducing its museums budget by 92%.
Museum closures are still relatively rare, but the impact on pay has been severe. The impact of a public sector pay freeze for the past five years (and four more years to come) means that those paid by local authorities have seen a reduction in real terms pay. Elsewhere, some local authority museums have been encouraged to become independent charitable trusts to take advantage of tax breaks and to removes the museum from the local authority’s books. But for staff in these museums, the move out of local authority control means new – often worse – terms and conditions, reapplying for jobs and a move away from the pay structures of local authorities that guarantee decent wages and pensions.
For the workers involved, this is clearly deeply troubling. But for those at the top of the pile, and for our political paymasters, the situation is far less problematic. After all, the vast majority of museums are still open to the public, apparently caring for (largely unseen) collections, and generally doing their job – all at a lower cost. Add to this the current relatively favourable funding settlement for the national museums – most of which are based in the same London bubble as the politicians who pay for them – and they might very well argue that there is no problem.
The laws of supply and demand in the museum labour market mean that museum sector complaints about low pay tend to fall on deaf ears. Working in a museum is still a ‘dream job’ for many, and the salary sacrifice that CFM director Elizabeth Merritt has written about also applies in the UK. It is fair to say that there will never be a recruitment crisis in the UK’s museums, regardless of pay levels.
Hence, for front of house staff in the UK, ‘Zero Hours contracts’ – in which staff are employed without the guarantee of any working hours – are becoming more common. Low wages for curatorial, conservation and outreach roles are standard practice, while there has been a proliferation in unpaid internships in recent years as competition grows for that first step on the ladder.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. A compulsory new UK Living Wage of £7.20 per hour ($10.24) for workers over the age of 25 will help lift the pay of those at the very bottom of the museum pay scale, while the lower National Minimum Wage (£6.70 per hour) applies to those aged 21-25. The Living Wage Foundation (which was founded before the national wage legislation was passed) runs a voluntary scheme which aims to get employers to sign up to paying their staff at least the real cost of living—which is higher than the legislated minimum “living” wage. (The Foundation uses a wage for London is calculated annually by the Greater London Authority. The rate for the rest of the UK is determined by a university research center.). The National Portrait Gallery and Birmingham Museums Trust have both signed up to becoming Living Wage employers, but the funding pressures on museums mean that uptake across the sector is low.
For those used to earning above the minimum wage, there is less support. The increasing use of short or fixed-term contracts that are based on project work means that freelance work is becoming more normal. One area of future support for the sector will be in identifying acceptable benchmarks for pay in this growing portion of the sector. The Paying Artists campaign in the UK have drafted guidelines for paying visual artists, and this may be a model to follow for museum staff.
So the future for workers looks like one of less collective bargaining power, and less job security – but greater flexibility and independence. And this shift comes with challenges for museums as well as those who work for them. They may become leaner organisations which become more adept at hiring in curatorial and creative resource when they need it. But they also risk losing out on institutional memory, knowledge and loyalty, and will need to find new ways of managing their collective knowledge for the future.