This past week many museum professionals and emerging professionals attended the New England Museum Association’s annual conference Museums on the Move. This year was a big year for NEMA celebrating its 100th annual conference. The theme of the conference was meant to investigate how museums have evolved over the past century and how they are “positioning themselves for success in the century ahead.” However, this years conference was marred by situations beyond the conference planners control that brought up many insightful discussions both at the conference and across the field.
According to NEMA’s Statement Regarding the Labor Situation at the Stamford Hilton Hotel and Executive Meeting Center, NEMA went into contract with the hotel for the centennial conference in August of 2016. In December 2017, workers at the hotel voted to join Unite Here local 217 with a vote of 110 to 5. These workers entered into this vote after months of intimidation strategies from the hotel owners including the presence of armed guards and the hiring of anti-union consultants.
UNITE HERE is a labor union representing 270,000 workers across Canada and the United States. They boast a diverse membership, predominately women and people of color, from across many industries. Their goal is “to enable people of all backgrounds to achieve greater equality and opportunity.” The hotel workers at the Stamford Hilton are currently in contract negotiations with the Stamford Hilton for three main demands: better wages, free quality healthcare, and pensions.
NEMA chose not to change locations for the conference as progress had been made in talks between the two sides over the summer. However, in recent weeks the headway made deteriorated and demonstrations and picketing at the hotel has continued. While NEMA choose to continue with the centennial conference they opened lines of communication with the hotel workers and invited union leaders to speak at the crowd at the keynote meeting. Pampi of Decolonize our Museums conference panel facilitator, furthered lines of communications and disseminated information on requests from the hotel workers including the cancellation of hotel rooms and moving workshops off site. The purpose was to show both the union workers and the hotel management our solidarity to the workers strife. So why is it important for museum professionals to show solidarity to unionized hotel workers?
As museum professionals, workers, and emerging professionals we must first and foremost have empathy. As human, we must have empathy for the struggles of others. However, beyond that, museum workers have much in common with hotel and other service industry workers. Not just in the long hours and low wages we share, but in the structures of the industries that often relegate women and people of color to the lower levels. In recent years many non-profits have been turning to unions to organize workers and collaborate on common causes and increasingly museum security and custodial staff have unionized. Museums such as MoMA and Plimoth Plantation have unionized workers and have successfully fought for better working conditions, wages, and healthcare. Other organizations such as #Museum WorkersSpeak have attempted to look “at the relationship between museums’ stated commitments to social value and their internal labor practices.” We stand in solidarity because these labor issues effect this profession as well. We enter the museum field drawn in by a love of museums, but research shows many emerging professionals leave do to low wages, insufficient benefits, and lack of job prospects among other reasons. What more can we and should we do to create better labor environments for both ourselves and others?
Humans have always been interested in unusual, curious, and odd things. For this reason unusual collections, both personal and in museums, exist throughout the world. This interest in collecting the unusual and interesting can be traced back to the cabinets of curiosity popular in 16th century Europe. The Dog Collar Museum, at Leeds Castle in Kent, England, is an example of a once privately owned collection of unusual items now on display for the public.
The Dog Collar Museum run by the Leeds Castle Foundation is billed as “a unique collection of historic and fascinating dog collars [that] has been built up over the years and is now the largest of its kind on public display anywhere in the world.” The collection started with sixty dog collars donated to the Leeds Castle Foundation by Mrs. Gertrude Hunt in memory of her husband, historian and Medievalist, John Hunt. Since its donation in 1977, the collection has grown to over 130 rare and valuable collars spanning from Medieval to Victorian times. Recently, thirty additional collars were discovered in storage and are now on display for the first time. The oldest of the collars in the Dog Collar Museum is a 15th century a Spanish iron collar for a her mastiff that would have been worn for protection of the dog while on hunts. Some of the most interesting collars in the collection are the ornate, gilt baroque collars bearing inscriptions, coat of arms, and messages of the owners.
The collection is housed on display in the former stable and squash court of the Leeds Castle. The castle a museum itself, was started in honor of former owner, Lady Baille. The museum aims to display the collection in a “fresh and creative new presentation–fun for children and adults alike.” It interprets the collars as not just functional objects, but as personal items that can give insight into the lifestyles and relationships between the dogs and their masters. If ever in Kent, England, be sure to check out the Dog Collar Museum and the other interesting exhibits and beautiful grounds at Leeds Castle.
This week, tragedy struck the museum community and humankind with the burning of the Museo Nacional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 200 hundred year old museum, housed in the what was once the royal palace, has lost more than 90% of it’s 20 million object collection. While reports have come in that some objects such as Luzia, the oldest human fossil found in the Americas may have survived the devastation, those lost to the flames are among priceless objects and specimen that represent an enormous loss for not just the Brazilian people but human cultural heritage as a whole. Among those lost are nearly all of the 5 million specimen in the insect collection, roughly 700 Egyptian artifacts, a fresco from Pompeii, a large number of holotype specimen, dinosaur fossils, a Royal Hawaiian feather cloak, pre-contact artifacts, and recordings of now extinct indigenous languages.
The loss is monumental and irreplaceable. However, this is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a loss of this magnitude will affect our natural and cultural history. Akin, to the burning of the library in Alexandria, a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge, this fire was the result of decreasing museum budgets, neglect, and a declining care for our natural and cultural histories. Last year the museum received an operating budget of just $13,000 for South America’s largest natural history museum. Staff and curators were reduced to online crowdsourcing campaigns to raise the money necessary to provide the most basic care and when firefighters arrived on the scene to fight the flames they found that both hydrants in front of the museum were dry.
While neglect and lack of funding was at issue for the Museo Nacional in Rio, even museums with large operating budgets, strong disaster preparedness, and Emergency Response Plans can be at risk. This past year the Getty Museum in Los Angeles faced risk as the Skirball fire moved closer and closer, and many museums have been damaged by hurricanes and other natural disasters in recent years. No amount of emergency planning can fully protect a collection and with hurricane season back upon us it is important for museums to look for other ways to prepare for the worst. For myself, this issue shows the importance of digitizing collections. If the Brazilian Museum’s indigenous language recordings had been digitized and stored off site or in a cloud they would not be lost today. While a digital sample does not replace the actual object or specimen it is highly preferable to have at least a digital record than none at all. The day after the fire Wikipedia began a crowdsourcing campaign to collect images of objects in the museum from museum visitors to help investigators and curators piece together what has been lost and to attempt to keep the museums 20 million specimen collection in memory. Unfortunately, we may never know just what has been lost to the flames.
Following three months of contract negotiations and protests over labor issues at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the MoMA Local 2110 Union reached an agreement this Friday for their new contract with the management of the institution. The five-year contract sets salary minimums and includes a new structure for providing pay increases as well as amendments to MoMA’s health care plan. The new contract will offer a seniority step program that offers raises after certain periods of time, a benefit the museum had previously sought to discontinue, as well as guidelines for tuition benefits, paid family leave, and commission and sales benefits for employees in MoMA’s Retail and Visitor Engagement Department. Protests began after the union’s previous contract expired on May 20th of this year with no new one in place. Contract negotiations came at a time of the final push of their massive expansion plan. This expansion plan added fuel to the fire for many due to the museum attempting to offer less while demanding more from their workers in the run-up to the opening.
MoMA Local 2110, also known as PASTA ( Professional and Administrative Staff Association of the Museum of Modern Art,) have long been protesting during contract negotiations, the most recent of which was in 2015 and a full strike in 2000. However, most museums are unable to unionize and/or are too small to successfully negotiate worker contract leading to the pandemic of low salaries and underpaid employees in the museum world. For most of us in or entering the museum field, we are choosing to do what we love, knowing the monetary gratification may not be there. But does that mean it shouldn’t be? Shouldn’t museums be paying their employees livable wages? The answer of course is yes. But why is that not always the case?
The problem of low museum salaries has grown over-time and is both a results of institutional and societal issues. Institutionally, issues of salary equity, with many long term employees still sustaining on archaically low wages, driving down the pay of new hires. Also at issue, the limited overall funding available to many museums as staff are often included with heat and electricity in the museum’s overhead. However, many of the issues in low museum salaries come down to the gender gap and the historical view of museums as “pink-collar” workplace and the hierarchical nature of many institutions. The idea that many women working in museums have family money, or a spouse that can support their career, has long been stereotype of the museum field. Yet, most of us entering the museum field now are young, single, and professionally educated. We cannot rely of the spousal income subsidy to follow our dreams but must juggle student loan payments while we search the oversaturated job market. So what can we do? Negotiate. Calculate a living wage, plus loan, payments and quality of life. We cannot be afraid as young professionals to negotiate a salary and not just leap upon the first job offer received. Most importantly, as emerging professionals we must advocate for professional associations, unions, and museum service organizations that will set and promote national salary standards for museum positions.