Noted museum bloggers Sarah Erdman, Cabinet of Curiosities, and Marieke Van Damme, Joyful Museums, join Claudia Ocello, President & CEO of Museum Partners Consulting, and Dawn Estabrooks Salerno, Deputy Director for Public Engagement and Operations at the Mystic Museum of Art in this post about why more museum professionals are leaving the field.
We’ve all had the conversation. Maybe it was with your work buddy, or your former museum studies classmate as you caught up over drinks. Or maybe it was you, at home with your partner. The conversation often starts with, “I love working in museums, but I don’t think I can do it anymore because of [insert reason here]. I’m thinking about getting out of museums altogether.”
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the conditions museum workers face. (See the recent protest by Plimoth Plantation workers, Museum Workers Speak, Gender Equity in Museums Movement, Joyful Museums, the Emerging Museum Professionals group on Facebook, just to name a few. For further resources, see below.) We wanted to know: Are these difficult working conditions enough for dedicated (and highly educated) museum professionals to abandon their years of experience to start over in another working environment?
After the 2016 AAM conference in DC, a group of four museum professionals (Claudia Ocello, Dawn Salerno, Sarah Erdman, and Marieke Van Damme) got together to try to find out the reasons museum workers leave the field. We drafted a survey and shared it in the fall of 2016, asking for museum professionals both in the field and those who have left it. Over 1,000 of you responded (thank you!). Below is a summary of our findings. This was not created as a scientific, systematic survey, but rather one that “takes the pulse” of the situation. Here’s what we found.
Why we got into museum work. No surprise, whether you’ve left museums or are still working in them, you chose it as a field because you love museums and/or the content area in which you work. You also like the cross-discipline nature of museums and, to a lesser extent, the community-focus of museums.
Why we stay. Hands down, we stay because of the work we do. Unsurprisingly, for those of us who have made lifelong friends at our museums, we also stay because of our coworkers. The close 3rd and 4th reasons for staying are “Pay/Benefits” and “No Other Option.” The least popular response was “Feel Lucky to Have a Job” (1%) and the write-in “I love dinosaurs.”
Reasons why museum workers leave the field. We had about 300 answers to this open-ended question. We grouped them by theme and found the following reasons (in order of frequency of response):
- Pay was too low
- Poor work/life balance
- Insufficient benefits
- [tie] Workload/Better positions
- Schedule didn’t work
Here are some of the answers to “other”:
- Too few job openings, even in an area rich with museums.
- Was unable to advance beyond entry level despite earning an advanced degree. Left because another nonprofit offered me a higher level position.
- Had a child. Didn’t make enough for childcare.
- I felt I wasn’t effectively serving the community and couldn’t find museum opportunities where I could accomplish that.
- The work/life balance was not there (more work than life).
- No maternity leave/FMLA
- My “advanced” age seems to be a problem. I entered the field late in life, after returning to grad school.
- Racism- Too many white people hiring other white people and too many white people using the white savior approach when doing community outreach in underserved communities./em>
- Unable to secure job: overqualified and under experienced, with only very loose connections.
- I was on a project-based position and once the position ended I was not fortunate enough to find another job in the field.
- Every position I applied for, I was beaten out by Ph.D. candidates for entry-level positions.
At what point do museum workers leave the field? We wanted to know if there was an average time in a museum worker’s career when they decide that museums aren’t working for them. We found that when a former museum worker listed “pay” as the top reason they left, they were emerging museum professionals (less than 10 years in the field) although it was chosen as a primary reason in every age category by at least a third of respondents. Those who cited “work/life balance” as their reason for leaving were 16-25 years into their museum career and no other group cited this reason.
What would entice workers to stay in museums? Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming response was pay (51%). Tied for second place were advancement opportunities and support of staff, budgets, and projects (23%). Third, was a change in leadership (18%). Here are some of the open-ended responses from that question:
- Stop letting vice presidents bully their own and other staff. Show strong leadership from the executive level that brings all departments together, instead of driving wedges and saying that some staff’s work is less important than others.
- Value my perspective, promotion
- Create/collaborate on a senior level position that’s both challenging and has real impact on the organization. Also, be willing to not shortchange the position.
- Greater commitment to professional development and fostering best practices at the governance (Board) level
- Remove members of management that make the work environment hostile. Give opportunities for advancement cross-departmentally. Work on providing funding to allow employees to participate in relevant workshops and conferences in order to enhance their skills. Provide better pay especially for those of us with masters degrees. We should be compensated for that kind of experience.
How can we prevent museum workers from leaving? Again, increasing pay was at the top of the list, but respondents also suggested many free or cost-effective ways to create better working environments, like:
- Create mentoring opportunities
- Respect each other – break departmental silos
- Make room for new ideas
Thinking of leaving yourself? There was also this idea: It’s okay to leave the museum field. Leaving isn’t bad. And for those of you considering leaving museums, our survey found that most people who left are working in the private/non-profit sector, and many of them went into education. And, unsurprisingly, your museum skillset is transferable: more than 1/3 of respondents said research and writing skills, project management, and education skills they learned in museums carried over to their current jobs.
If you’ve read this far, we suspect you are either thinking about leaving museums, or are concerned about the conditions in the field and don’t want to see more of your friends, employees, or colleagues bow out. We get it. We know that working in museums is a complicated, messy tangle of good (our passion for the mission, great coworkers, opportunity to work with the public) and bad (discriminatory societal and economic systems, student loans, intense job competition). If you want/need to go, we understand, and hope our colleagues field-wide will let you go with understanding and without judgment. You can always come back!
For those of us staying, we have to be part of the solution.
- Take care of yourself. Recognize the signs of burnout and listen to your body.
- Be realistic about the amount of work you take on, the true toll of your commute, and your work/life fit.
- Give yourself credit for the work you do and ask for help when you need it.
- Grant permission (to yourself, your coworkers) to slow down and be human.
Professionally: There is a lot that we can do as individuals to help support each other in the field
- Model reasonable professional expectations. Take your vacation days, don’t answer email on the weekends.
- Show genuine respect for others in your institution.
- Welcome new ideas and contributions from others, no matter where they are on the organizational chart. We all have something to give, and we all have something to learn.
- Encourage professional development opportunities, including mentorship at all levels.
- Keep all administration—including the board—mission-focused and responsible
- Look critically at benefits, pay and work/life fit to make sure it is meeting the needs of your employees.Buy the latest salary survey and bring it to a board meeting.
- Commit to diverse hiring
Of course, we wish we could say with confidence “Just make these changes and all will be well.” Sadly, we can’t. Finding ways to make real, sustainable change in our field is going to be a group effort. We need a foundation of real support to keep the museum workforce strong. That is why we need you. Keep talking and sharing your thoughts and ideas. Leave a comment on this article, get discussions going on your blogs and social media platform of choice. Talk about this on Twitter (use #MuseumEdChat or #leavingmuseums so we can find you!). Use this survey as jumping off point for more research.
Museums are often praised for their passionate and skilled workers. To keep our field strong, we need to look beyond the passion and see what really is needed to help professionals join and stay in the museum workforce.
To view all the results of the survey, we have created a Google Slide Presentation.
About the Authors
Sarah Erdman is a mom, museum professional, and early childhood educator. Her research and professional practice explore how museums and educators can connect to make meaningful experiences for young children. She writes at cabinetofcuriositiesva.com and tweets from @cabinetofcurios
Claudia Ocello is currently President & CEO of Museum Partners Consulting, LLC, Claudia has over 25 years’ experience in exhibition development, education, evaluation, and accessibility. Previously she worked full-time at Save Ellis Island, Inc; The New Jersey Historical Society; and The Barnum Museum, CT. A former classroom teacher, Claudia earned an MS in Museum Education from Bank Street College of Education and has won awards from AASLH, AAM, and the NJ Association of Museums for excellence in exhibitions, programs, and practice. Ever grateful, she “pays it forward” by teaching in Seton Hall University’s MA in Museum Professions Program and volunteering on the board of the Education Committee of AAM. Learn more at www.museumpartnersconsulting.com and @museumptnrs.
Dawn Estabrooks Salerno is Deputy Director for Public Engagement and Operations at Mystic Museum of Art in Connecticut where she oversees operations and public programs. She has held positions in the education departments of The Wadsworth Atheneum and Lyman Allyn Art Museum where, among other initiatives, she faced the challenge of engaging local, largely minority, audiences with museum collections and exhibitions. As an educator, she has been responsible for developing, implementing and evaluating a variety of programs for a range of audiences. She has been a grant reviewer for the Institute of Museum and Library Services and for Connecticut Humanities, and she is on the board of the latter. As a New England Museum Association Board member she has served on the Advocacy, Nominating, and Program Committees and she will take office as President in November of 2017. She has contributed to the museum field by presenting conference sessions and by writing and editing articles on the topics of education, museum audiences, and the field. The Connecticut Art Education Association voted her Museum Educator of the Year in 2010. She earned her Master’s degree in Museum Education Leadership at Bank Street College and her B.A. in Classical Studies and Religion at Boston University. More recently, she completed a 2017 residency in Museum Executive Leadership at the Getty Leadership Institute.
Marieke Van Damme lives and works in Cambridge, Massachusetts, blogs at Joyful Museums, and podcasts at Museum People. Her museum areas of interest include workplace culture, equity, and making history relevant. She proudly serves a member of the New England Museum Association’s Board of Directors.