Museum Life: Museums and Labor

Staff on strike at the National Gallery, London. Image via The Guardian, www.the

Staff on strike at the National Gallery, London.
Image via The Guardian,

With ongoing protests over the privatization of jobs at the National Gallery in London and the recently resolved disputes at MOMA over hikes in employee contributions towards health benefits and what exactly constitutes a living wage, there has been much focus this year on museum staff, the work they do, and how they are compensated.

Explicitly stated within a salary and working conditions is an expression of the value of that work and that position to an institution.  While it can be difficult for non-profits to compete with salaries in the private sector (and very few of us, if any, enter museum work to become wealthy–we love what we do and the collections we work with), this “love what you do ethos” is more and more being called into question, especially with the common trade-off of a low salary for a job at a prestigious institution. With student loan debts and the rising cost of living in many major cities (and these major cities rely on museums for tax revenue, tourist dollars, and in many cases, help with lagging economies), doing what you love is not enough to survive, nor is it fair to expect that of the majority of a museum workforce.  On a related subject, Worn Through discussed the ethics of unpaid internships a few years ago.

In the U.S., the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual conference in April 2015 centered around the theme, “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change”. A “rogue session” at the conference endeavored to “turn the social lens inward” on how museums treat their staff, encouraging discussions on how museum workers can advocate for themselves for better wages, work conditions, and reasonable working schedules. Many questions were asked of participants such as, “Why are so few museums unionized? How would a unionized workforce impact the museum field?”, and “What would be the impact if AAM accreditation measures were to address museum labor practices?” You can read some of the comments and other questions and topics continuing to be discussed at the Twitter page for the session, #MuseumWorkersSpeak, as well as a page on On the Storify page you can also download the final version of the handout distributed at the session which includes the questions for discussion.

How do these concerns affect those of us working with dress? A forthcoming paper from Mary M. Brooks will discuss the devaluing of staff with specialized knowledge and the “gendered view” of costume collections and their audiences as a major problem at UK institutions, even as the popularity of costume collections and exhibitions continues to soar (I would recommend reading the abstract of her presentation last year at the conference for the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works–see the link in the sources below).  As has been previously noted by costume scholars (mentioned in a post I wrote last year), the work of costume collections is largely accomplished through female labor. It is associated with traditionally feminine skills and activities—sewing and dressmaking–and at worst is dismissed as frivolous and “dressing up”, or is perceived as something that anyone can do, as everyone wears and is familiar with clothing.  Is it a coincidence that many costume collections worldwide, staffed largely by women, are serially underfunded and understaffed, and in some cases are undervalued in proportion to the rest of the museum collections? Perhaps, but the museum work force as a whole is largely made up of women, at least in the U.S. For example, 75 percent of the represented workforce who had a stake in the outcome of the recent negotiations at MOMA were women.  And low wages and long hours can cut across museum departments, from education to retail to archives to curatorial.

Perhaps it is more the stubbornly persistent view of costumes and fashion as “mere entertainment for a largely female audience” (Rothstein 2010:1), to quote Valerie Mendes from 1992, despite the extraordinary leaps the fields of costume and fashion studies has taken throughout the 20th century and beyond to the present day?  We have seen this again through Hayley-Jane’s last post, which noted the media’s perception of the juxtaposition of the “serious” Velasquez exhibition and the “frivolous” Jean-Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Grand Palais.  This demarcation between “serious” and “fluffy” or “commercial” museum exhibitions is both out-of-date and unimaginative, simplifying how artists work in the world, how they are inspired, the kinds of materials or frameworks they use, the cultural and historical significance of dress, and of course brings up the polarizing debate of: “fashion–is it art or commerce?” (one would be hard-pressed to argue against the commercialization or commodification of fine art, with the world’s largest auction houses having their best year of profits to date with sales in the hundreds of millions).

The AAM’s annual “TrendsWatch” report for 2014 stated that “access” over “possession” is a main motivator for Millennials within a new and emerging “exchange culture”, a facet of which is increasingly referred to as the “gig economy” (Merritt 2014: 40-46). Freelancers and contracts for short-term projects can give museums flexibility with limited budgets and opportunities for those outside of museum employment, but is this at the expense of investment in and funding of full-time staff, sustained staff education and collection resources, or the valuing of deep institutional memory and collection knowledge?  Will there be a shift in what is considered important?

Projects such as Mary M. Brooks’s “Talking Textiles” are helping to shed light on the importance of costume collections, and are simultaneously looking at dealing with the immediate realities of losing staff and expertise along with budget cuts (and hence the continued high standard of care of the collections).  How can this unrecorded specialized knowledge be passed on to remaining staff, or how can the value and significance of the collections be communicated to those who may have little to no experience with or knowledge of textiles or costume?  In Brooks’s project, former or retired staff with many years of knowledge and experience are brought into the museum to teach workshops and sessions on different aspects of caring for, displaying, researching, and interpreting costumes and textiles. Lurking around the edges of this project is the question of whether those with experience and education in textiles who want to find work in museums will be able to secure this work for wages and actively apply their expertise.

Such realities as museum staff loss or wage equality are beginning to be discussed in the U.S. around the margins of mainstream organizations such as AAM, and there are risks in bringing these issues up at one’s own institution.  How will these conversations be received?  With a national conversation in the U.S. surrounding wage equality coming to the forefront with the SEC legislating that CEO to median employee pay ratio must be disclosed, issues surrounding wage equality–and for museum staff dealing with dress, how to obtain and sustain fair wages, schedules, and benefits with an ever-ramping up of activities and exhibitions–will be serious questions for museums to consider going forward.

Below are sources cited, plus a few examples of media coverage and resources on recent museum wage and benefit negotiations, strikes, museum worker’s perspectives, and museum worker statistics.

American Alliance of Museums (2012). 2012 National Comparative Museum Salary Study.

Brooks, Mary, M. (Forthcoming). Sustaining Tacit and Embedded Knowledge in Textile Conservation and Textile and Dress Collections. Conscientious Conservation: Sustainable Choices in Collection Care AIC 42nd Annual Meeting, 28-31 May 2014, San Francisco, USA, American Institute for Conservation.  Abstract of presentation accessed at

Brooks, Mary M. (2012), ‘Talking Textiles’: A Monument Fellowship, York Castle Museum, 2010-2011, DATS (Dress and Textile Specialists), Spring Journal 2012, p. 18-24.  Accessed at

Cascone, Sarah (2015 July 30) London National Gallery Strike to Escalate in August. artnetnews.  Accessed at

Davis, Ben. (2015 June 3). What’s Behind the Museum of Modern Art’s Bitter Battle With its Own Workers? artnetnews.  Accessed at

Graves, Jen. (2015 5 June). Why Would a Museum with a $1B Endowment Cut Staff Health-Care Benefits?: Inside the Ongoing MoMA Labor Dispute. The Stranger.  Accessed at

Merritt, Elizabeth (2014). TrendsWatch 2014.  American Alliance of Museums.

Partesotti, Vega (2015 July 31). Gulf Labor Hips Venice Bienale Visitors to UAE Labor Abuses. Hyperallergic.  Accessed at:

Rothstein, Natalie (2010). 400 Years of Fashion. V&A Publishing. First published by V&A Publications, 1984.

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