Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Say "Cheeeese"

#TwistedPreservation #MuseumAnarchist

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What is the Fair Market Value of a Museum Job?

 Last week’s post on the Museum Sacrifice Measure generated a lot of discussion on Twitter, Facebook and in the Blog comment section. I recommend you go back and read that post before you read this one: I’m using today’s post to summarize and respond to some of the thoughts lobbed via social media, and since I’m jumping into the middle of the conversation it probably only makes sense read as part two.

A number of commenters point out that there are various categories of people, in museums or other sectors, who have “sacrificed” income for their chosen career, but are quite pleased with the trade. For example, when @NinaKSimon summarized the original post on Twitter ("Thought bomb from @futureofmuseums: does making salary sacrifices make museum staff more resistant to change?") @Mia_out observed "in which case technologists should be most resistant of all? But we're the ones pushing for org change." That kicked off the following train of thought, trying to untangle why some people are happy with the sacrifice they made (lower pay) to work in a museum, while others aren’t, and in a bigger sense, what constitutes a fair wage for museum work.

Today’s premise: Fair market value for a job is the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing and unpressured. (I adapted that definition from the fair market value of tangible property. If any economists are reading this blog, please tell me if there’s a reason I can’t flex those parameters to describe the sale of labor, as well.) So, what is it that leads some employees to feel that their compensation is, indeed, fair, and others to feel they are exploited and undercompensated?

I proposed to Mia that museum technology types are open to change because they want to move museums in the direction market forces are driving the field in any case: away from authority and control and towards openness and collaboration. I leave it to technologists like Mia and her peers (@StaticMade @micahwalter  I nominate you J) to comment on how much pay they feel they gave up to work in museum, and what they get in return for that sacrifice. I'm guessing it has something to do with joy of inventing a role that did not exist before, and of messing about with really cool content. (That is certainly the vibe I got from Micah's post on Medium about playing with the Cooper Hewitt API.) In any case, because their expectations for how technology can transform museums are in line with their employer’s, technologists have an accurate understanding of the job when they accept a job offer. They have have correct “knowledge” about what they’re getting in return for passing up higher pay in the private sector.

When I encounter the "who moved my cheese" reaction I cited in the post last week, it tends to be from museum staff who occupy traditional roles (curators and collections managers have both come up in the subsequent discussion). I suspect many people in these roles went into museum work with a vision of the job based museum norms that were anointed as “norms” decades ago. Or they believed in a semi-mythical version of museum work that was compelling and attractive but never entirely true. In either case, they thought they knew what they were getting into, but they were wrong. Either it wasn’t that way when they arrived on the job, or it was true when they started in the field decades ago, but the world has changed. They may feel they traded salary for non-financial benefits such as authority, or intellectual freedom to pursue their own research interests, and ended up something very different. As Mia noted, people in positions that used to work behind the scenes are now being asked to engage with the public on social media—“almost the opposite of the organization they joined.”  When people in this situation calculated what their position was worth to them, their knowledge was incorrect—the job isn’t what they thought it was.

What about the other factors that go into calculating fair market value? Jeffrey Inscho pointed me to a post titled “Familiar Goodbyes” on his blog Static Made in which he laments the high rate of churn among museum technology staff. He wrote “It's no secret the cultural sector can't compete with the private sector in terms of salaries and benefits. Many people make their lifeswork with technology not because they're passionate about hardware and code, but because it can be a lucrative profession.”  He goes on “once they've got a few years of success under their belt they jump ship for more sustainable financial waters. Who can blame them? I must admit I don't think technologists are isolated here, as I'm hardpressed to name another museum role (other than curator and maybe conservator?) that couldn't earn more outside the sector.”

Bingo, he hit the psychological nail on the head. People who feel they have a lot of options stay in a given job because they are “willing and unpressured.” Each time they pass up applying for a higher paying job outside the sector, or turn down an actual offer, they reaffirm to themselves that the choice they have made to stay in a lower paying museum job is fair—that it fits their needs and their values.

By contrast, when I was a registrar-cum-collections manager, at conferences I’d get together with fellow collections types over beer and we’d air our anxieties over what other kind of work we could get, if we decided to leave. What the heck would prospective employers make of “I was a collections manager for 10 years? (And no that doesn’t have anything to do with repossessing cars.)”

As a supervisor, more than once I had to manage the expectations of curators who felt certain that if they were working in a university instead of a museum they would have more respect, more autonomy and better pay. Also, tenure. Now, I listen to friends with university appointments lament how they are treated second class citizens until they get tenure (if they ever do), moan about their teaching load, and stress about the grants and overhead they are expected to bring in. Quality of life issues aside, there is a huge oversupply of qualified applicants for full time research positions in colleges and universities.  So a curator may calculate that the chance of getting the non-museum job that most closely aligns to his or her training is roughly on par with winning the lottery.

So, changing expectations + lack of other options = unhappy and resistant to change. Put like that it seems dead obvious. Is the observation even useful? I think yes. I think it suggests steps museum managers can take to renegotiate expectations about roles and help employees feel they have other options—and I’ll delve into that next week.

Other posts I see spinning off from this discussion:
--the dysfunctional economics of other fields (scientific research, law, medicine) and lessons they offer for the future of work generally, and museums in particular
--the legal, ethical and economic consequences unpaid labor (internships and volunteers)
--The effect of “sacrificial” work on diversity

Anything you want to add to the list?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Monday Musing: On the Front Lines

Dear Seb*,

Thank you for tweeting me the link to this article

Art gallery ad makes clear wish for an educated staff

about the Art Gallery of New South Wales replacing volunteers at the front desk with paid staff. I see they are looking for applicants with "significant education and a capacity for languages."

My first thought was--this is news?  Imagine that headline written the opposite way 'round. (Art gallery ad makes clear wish for an uneducated staff.) 

My second thought was--gah, maybe they are right, maybe it IS news, not only in Australia but in the US as well. Lots of museums use volunteers as front-of-house staff, and even when they are paid positions they are often poorly paid with modest prerequisites. 

Then all these other thoughts started pinging about inside my skull too:

  • Good! Using volunteers for necessary positions is yet another force driving down museum salaries.
  • Also, this recognizes the importance of front line staff. If a visitor has a bad experience when they walk in, they may never come back no matter how great the exhibits are.
  • What the heck is a "casual employee???" I  lobbed that Aussie:American lexicon question to Seb, who explained "casual" refers to an employee who doesn't get any benefits like vacation or retirement contributions. Wikipedia helpfully added they don't have guaranteed hours, either. On the other hand, the positions pay almost $30 US per hour--four times (Australian) minimum wage. 
  • Wait! Why was the volunteer program not working? Were the volunteers unqualified? Doing a bad job? If so, did the museum contribute to this situation by not providing clear expectations, training, and performance feedback? 
  • Ooooo. The volunteers are going to be ticked off. I wonder how many of them are (were) members and donors as well.
  • What if it were going the other way? What are the ethics of replacing paid staff with volunteers? (Here is one take on that.) 

So, thank you for sharing the link but honestly, I don't know whether to cheer or to stress eat Peanut M&Ms.

Yours from the future,


*Seb Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Media, Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Thursday Thought: Curatorial Poetry

I just added Curatorial Poetry (@curatorialpoems) to my Twitter feed. Highly recommend. Here is an essay by Micah Walter (@micahwalter) on Medium that explains why and how he created this feed.  

The "curatorial poet" is a Tweetbot that randomly selects objects from the the Cooper Hewitt catalog records, and tweets the description field. 

Micah wrote the code during a coffee break one morning.


I love @curatorialpoems because it is a perfect metaphor for the serendipitous beauty I find in museums.

With all the work we put into creating the perfect experience, writing the perfect label, sometimes the most beautiful experiences are unintended.

Like the time I accidentally entered an exhibit at the Cantor Art Centers through a back door, and had the magical experience of puzzling out what the (unlabeled) exhibit was about. When I exited via the entrance, I found the introductory wall text that would have entirely spoiled the surprise.

Or the time I saw a (live) roach trundling about on a case of fossil insects, including a prehistoric cockroach, leading me to meditate on time, evolution, and persistence. (Also integrated pest management, but that thought was less uplifting.)

Or how, on a recent visit to LACMA, I was blown away by the light and shadows in the Art of the Americas gallery. 

We can't control everything. It's important to remember that's not only ok, its part of the magic of what we do. Beauty can arise spontaneously from any mass of content. Even catalog records.

So read what Micah says in his essay about the importance of messing about, silly thinking and trying "little projects." As he observes, "every once in a while they become real." And beautiful. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Proboscidian Preservation

No hints this time, just read the dang article.

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Museum Sacrifice Measure

How much are you willing to give up to work in a museum?  How much did you give up to work in a museum?

I’m not talking about quality of life issues like relocating to a new city, having to explain over and over again, at parties, what a “registrar” is, or spending the day in a windowless cubicle tucked in next to collections storage. I’m talking about cold hard cash.

My head is filled with museum wage data because I’ve been proofing the text of the 2014 Museum Salary Survey (coming soon to the AAM Bookstore). Serendipitously, while taking a break from all those numbers, I read an article in the NYT also related to pay.

"Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?" explores the motivations that lead well-educated young people to flock to that city, despite the dearth of jobs. Synopsis: many people are evidently willing to sacrifice income for “vibe.” They choose to live on a barista’s wages, rather than find a higher-paying job that actually uses their degree, in order to enjoy “a politically open culture that supports gay rights and the legalization of marijuana — in addition to the right of way for unicyclists or the ability to marry in a 24/7 doughnut shop.”

What caught my eye was an attempt to quantify this seemingly irrational decision making. “David Albouy, an economics professor at the University of Illinois” notes the article, “has created a metric, the sacrifice measure, which essentially charts how poor a person is willing to be in order to live in a particular city.”

I think we need to work out a similar measure quantifying how poor people are willing to be in order to work in a museum.

There are a lot of highly educated, seriously smart people working in museums: among the salary survey respondents 90% earned at least a bachelor’s degree (compared to 30.4% of the general population). In some positions, such as director, curator, educator, well over half of museum workers have a graduate degree, compared to 10.9% of the general populace. I suspect that lurking in the back of the psyche of many museum folks is the belief that, given our smarts and the time and money we put into higher education, we could have chosen a more lucrative profession. (I know my dad not-so-secretly hoped I would become a doctor. When I took my first museum job, which paid $12,500 per year, he was, shall we say, less than thrilled.)

This sacrifice measure is important because it has a pernicious influence on many aspects of our field. It depresses wages, since we have, in effect, an oversupply of highly qualified people willing to underbid each other in return for the non-financial benefits of museum work. I suspect that low wages, in turn, contributes to a lack of diversity in the field. And I fear that the psychology of sacrifice helps create a culture of entitlement in which people feel that what they bought with the money they left on the table—the wages they could have had as doctors or lawyers or business consultants—is autonomy. Not everybody, clearly, but enough people that I run into this attitude, voiced or implied, at every conference I attend, at many of the museums I work with.

Some are people who have spent years (or decades) becoming experts in their scholarly fields. They’ve put in their time, paid their dues, and matured into positions where they can do work they know to be excellent. So they may listen to colleagues enthusing about the need for participatory engagement, crowdsourced input and the curator as facilitator and feel, quite reasonably, that somebody moved their cheese. Some, whether or not they themselves are scholars, went into the field to help create the kind of museum experience they fell in love with—a traditional experience of scholarship and quiet contemplation—and are frustrated to find that not everyone loves (or is willing to support) that tradition.

In the US, where museums do not, by and large, receive a majority of their budget from the government, we are subject to the same market forces as any other business. Even within the constraints of our mission, we have to provide an experience people are willing to pay for, preferably because they actually enjoy that experience, or at least because they are willing to support it as an abstract good. And yet, over and over I have conversations with people who feel aggrieved that no one is willing to pay them for what they want to produce. And resentful that they aren’t paid a wage they feel reflects their real value to society.

Now I wonder if I’ve misunderstood these conversations, to some degree. I wonder whether it isn’t so much that the aggrieved party feels that people in general ought to support museums whether or not they actually enjoy going to museums. I wonder if the complainants feel, to some extent, that they themselves have paid the cost of supporting museums they love and want to work in—paid for it with the sacrifice of wages they might earned had they chosen another path.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday Musing: Yet Another Pass at Virtual v. Analog Art Experiences

This Monday's 15 minute musing. 

Last week Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute, announced that 15 new museums were launching exhibits on the Google Art Project. That project is gaining serious momentum—the article reports that the Cultural Institute hosts:
  • 500 partners from over 60 countries
  • 6.2 million objects and artifacts
  • 19 million unique visitors from June 2013 to June 2014
  • 200 million page views in just one year
Sood has evidently picked up on a nervous vibe in the museum field about the effect of free access to high quality digital art from around the globe, because he goes out of his way to make the case that virtual visits are good for museums. After the Hamburg's Archaeological Museum posted its collection online on the Google Art Project, they received over  80,000 views in the first seven weeks, he notes, quoting the Hamburg collections manager as saying " "We believe these virtual visits will be followed by many real visits. Sood also emphasizes the potential for digital artifacts to supplement physical exhibits, mentioning that a digital copy of Wheatfield with Crows was “one of the most popular attractions” in a Van Gogh exhibit staged at the Musee d’Orsay. (Which would weird me out more if I hadn’t already read about the all-digital Van Gogh: The Ultimate Collection exhibit in Amsterdam—home of the Van Gogh Museum—that was such a hit. No, I take it back. That still weirds me out.)

“Open access,” concludes Sood, “means a larger audience and more recognition for artists, their artwork and museums."

I agree, though mostly based on faith, not proof. We are only beginning to untangle the relationship between how we engage with virtual and physical objects. That’s why I was heartened to come across this article inthe Yale Daily News. Researchers at the Yale School of Management set out to explore why we value an original piece of artwork more than an exact duplicate. (Or, as Susie Wilkening has asked, why can historical objects have cooties?) The results of the YSM study suggest the value we place on original art is due to “magical contagion”—the fact that people feel objects embody the essence of their creator in some way, that “A piece of the person is literally rubbed off on the object.”

The next question I hope researchers tackle is—do people value a high res digital reproduction of a fake Van Gogh less than a high res digital reproduction of an authentic painting? And does thinking about that make your head hurt?

Image from PC World