Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Talking the Talk: Next Steps for the Salary Spreadsheet

You may have seen the Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency spreadsheet: a Google sheet of (at the time of this posting) nearly 2000 museum salaries from around the world. The nature of the data for each submission varies, but most entries include the name or type of museum, individual’s role and department, location, starting and ending salary, benefits, and required degree. Some individuals have also provided their gender and race. The bulk of the submissions come from museum professionals working in the United States, but the sheet also includes entries from countries such as Brazil, France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

Kimberly Rose Drew (@museummammy) shared her story of undercompensation at the 2019 AAM Annual Meeting & Expo

Michelle Millar Fisher, an assistant curator in the European decorative arts and design department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and colleagues created the spreadsheet to encourage transparency across the field after being inspired by Kimberly Rose Drew’s story of how she learned she had been undercompensated for her work at The Met. They may have also been inspired by a similar spreadsheet created weeks earlier by Alison Green of Ask A Manager for the same purpose: to “take the mystery out of salaries.”

At this point, the spreadsheet has grown 1800% since its first day and the story has been picked up by news sites such as Artnews, Artnet, Business Insider, Nonprofit Quarterly, and others. Fisher expressed her hope to Artnews that the spreadsheet “… encourages a conversation between coworkers… If you don’t do it, everything stays the same. Sometimes it takes just one tiny action. Solidarity is the only way to effect great change.”

Where do we go from here? What can you do?

  1. If you haven’t yet, look over the spreadsheet. It’s grown from a 100-entry sheet of mainly curatorial submissions to a nearly 2,000-entry behemoth of positions in administration, collections, digital, education, operations, security, visitor services, and other departments. If you’re interested in downloading a copy of the data, you may be able to obtain one by emailing the contact provided on the front page of the sheet.
  2. Submit your own entry. The spreadsheet has been locked to preserve its data, but you can (and should!) add your information through this Google form. While it has grown impressively, we’re still nowhere near a full picture of the field.
  3. Be open with your colleagues. Workplace etiquette has long dictated to keep mum about one’s salary, but silence perpetuates the status quo. Transparency about salaries and benefits exposes both institution-based and field-wide inequities.
  4. Speak up. In a NY Times article about the Ask A Manager spreadsheet, Liz Dolan of the podcast “Safe for Work” and formerly of the marketing teams for Nike and the Oprah Winfrey Network suggests “[asking] for regular raises, noting that the earnings compounded over time [are] considerable.” She also notes, “Sometimes you have to be first and that is the scary part… It’s important to build that confidence.” Whether you are applying for or already in a museum job, use the data from this spreadsheet and other resources such as annual wage surveys to bolster your ask for pay you deserve. (You can find additional pay-related resources under Tab 3: Other Resources on the spreadsheet.)
  5. Team up. Asking for change can be intimidating. Lean on and lend your support to colleagues if you or they decide to speak up.
  6. Share up. Transparency is important; action on the the information provided is doubly so. Share the spreadsheet and other salary data with the people with pockets (or paying power): museum leadership, board members, HR, you name it. They need to understand that this is an issue to be taken seriously, and – hopefully – with our voices combined, we may move the needle.

The Politics of Seeing

A Sign of the Times by Dorothea Lange, 1934

Hopefully summer time is going swimmingly for everyone, whether you’re in internships, jobs, or are relaxing. For museum-goers, popping into an exhibit or two (or thirty) during the dog days is a favorite past-time. And that’s exactly how I kicked off my summer, by visiting the Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeingexhibition in Nashville at the Frist Art Museum.

The difference from last summer to this one is that I have a year of museum studies under my belt, and now I am looking at exhibits with a critical (albeit, novice) eye. Here is my shameless plug and a challengeto anyone reading: send in an exhibit critique this summer for a guest spot on the blog. We would love to hear from places around Boston and beyond—for the nomads. I personally would love to read more about and experience more exhibits that show museums care about engaging all walks of life.

So, rewinding, Dorothea Lange… who is she? She’s a popular photographer from the 20thcentury who used her camera as a tool for justice. She wanted to expose inequalities in regard to race and gender, to address issues around the Great Depression and migrant workers, and to demonstrate the decline of the rural communities and environments. These topics are not unfamiliar to us today, if you will excuse the double negative.

Dorothea Lange

I’ll be frank—I am not a photography fan. I can get down with a selfie or a scenic vista, but my world isn’t transformed by many pictures. I don’t know if it was my schooling coming in handy or maturation on my part, but I appreciated this exhibit for what it was trying to do, to give its audience a lesson on a compelling woman in history who visually captured the lives of those who would have been lost to time and to subtly make a point about how the world hasn’t changed in many ways.

Like many reinvented museum exhibitions today, this exhibit was clearly standing up for something. It wasn’t shying away from pointing out the injustices of this country. The major critique I would give is that it didn’t necessarily give an answer on how to change the oppression of minorities or the neglect of the poverty-stricken in this modern age. However, it does have a charming way of showing how photographs can be edited by the owner to represent the message the owner wants, rather than revealing the whole, complex truth. 

We should care about that visitor connection for so many reasons, but I will start with a basic one: many people for centuries haven’t seen “their story” in a museum and that’s fortunately changing. This exhibit was giving a low down on some of the rundown minorities of the past, but it wasn’t as accessible as it could’ve been due to entrance fees. Go away from this article today thinking about how museums can become more connected with the unconventional museum goer. (On a personal note, feel free to drop a line about how to spice up photography exhibits.)

Taking Stock

As this academic year draws to a close, Kelsey, Amanda, and I are preparing to hand over the reins of this blog to our wonderful new editors who will be introducing themselves to you shortly. In the past year we’ve been able to explore museums from so many angles. We have asked questions about what museums should be and what they shouldn’t. We’ve looked at collections, from the issues with preserving 20th century plastics to the plain weird! We’ve considered how museums play a role in thinking about important social issues of our time and how museums are affected by political events and trends. We believe a deeply considered understanding of and engagement with the local community is crucial to creating a strong and successful museum.

Some of our conversations centered around issues that will concern us directly as workers in the museum industry, whether it be wages and unionization fights, ethical donations, or managing burnout. We’ve examined forward-thinking programs, compelling trends, and how to improve visitor experience. And we’ve considered matters of inclusion, asking who gets included in collections, exhibits, and outreach. We know that museums can not afford to disregard their workers, their visitors, or innovative design if they want to grow and survive a changing landscape.

What we have spent the most time on, however, are matters of race and decolonization. Questions of what history is covered and how, who owns artefacts and how they were obtained are a serious part of the zeitgeist and museums must continue to grapple with them for a long time. We examined changing interpretations to center marginalized people, who is served by an organization, and how to implement decolonization practices. We are certain that this is one of the major issues facing the museum sector globally and many more honest and serious conversations will be needed in the coming years.

We hope that we’ve encouraged you to keep thinking about what a museum can and should mean to its visitors, place, subjects, and workers. We will certainly take these conversations with us as we enter the workplace. Thank you for being a part of this community! Stay tuned to see what the next set of editors will bring to the dialogue.

Case Studies in Community: The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

Often when a museum is dealing with tight margins, dropping interest from local visitors, and growing infrastructure concerns, they are inclined to draw inward, hunker down, and try to weather the storm by protecting the visitors, donors, and physical spaces they need to survive. Unfortunately, this can backfire, further alienating an institution from the very people that can stabilize and enliven it. While it may feel risky, going out into the community can be a pathway to survival and growth for a museum. I recently had the good fortune to meet with one such organization, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, who took this route.

The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV) was created in 2005 with a two-fold mission: To house the fine and decorative arts collections of Julian Glass Jr., whose ancestral estate the MSV is built on, and to collect and share the arts and culture of the Shenandoah Valley. The Museum came about after Glass designated in his will that his family estate, Glen Burnie, become a historic house museum after his death. Glen Burnie opened to the public in 1997 and the house and museum were moderately successful, seeing about thirty thousand visitors a year in 2013. But the MSV seemed unable to grow their visitorship beyond that point and had the all too common experience of small museums where the same group of people was constantly engaged with the site, with little interaction with the larger community.

Executive Director Dana Hand Evans, who came on board around that time saw the potential of the site and set out to bring more people into the MSV. They entered into a phase of strategic planning and created a ten year Master Plan to shape the MSV into a “cultural park” for the town of Winchester, VA and the Valley beyond. Evans made a series of curatorial, programmatic, and financial decisions that resulted in big changes and an uptick in local engagement with the museum.

Some of these decisions were small, but made the MSV more welcoming. They opened up their spaces to local organizations for meetings and other events at no charge. Suddenly the local college had access to an offsite space with a piano they could hold concerts in, and local non-profits didn’t need to search for meeting space, and lines of dialogue were opening up. At the same time, the MSV made the choice to stop pursuing grant opportunities that were open to social services. The Shenandoah Valley is a relatively poor area, with the majority of the students in the public school system eligible for free or reduced lunch. In reducing competition for funding for needed services, the MSV signaled to the community that they wanted to help build the people of the Valley up, not just preserve the memory of the people who lived there in the past.

A bigger change was to completely revise the interpretive experience of Glen Burnie, their historic house museum. Previously, the house had been a traditional historic house, with roped-off rooms displaying beautiful objects but with little context about who actually lived in the house. The house needed structural work and they had obtained an NEH grant to remove the contents of the house, do repairs, then reinstall it exactly as it had been before. However, Evans saw an opportunity to do more than maintain the status quo. The MSV undertook a series of listening sessions with community leaders, organizations, teachers, and more to hear their concerns and interests for the site, and to discuss ways to bring more people into the house. Evans and the MSV returned the NEH grant which did not allow for interpretive changes to be made, and sought alternative funding for a new interpretation that featured Julian Glass, Jr. and R. Lee Taylor as central figures in the house, giving visitors a peek into the mid-century life of two gay men who preserved and restored the house and gardens, filled it with fine decorative arts and furniture, and turned it into a social gathering place for their extensive group of friends and family.

Glen Burnie’s new welcome panel, featuring snapshots from Glass and Taylor’s personal collection.

Building on the success of that risk, Evans and the MSV have taken many more steps to build stronger bonds between the museum and the larger community. Local artists are now displayed in a small gallery, and a cafe was turned into a makerspace that offers classes and workshops to the public. Other arts education spaces have also been constructed. Seeking a way to expand use of their considerable grounds, the MSV recently completed fundraising to add three miles of walking and biking trails that will connect them to the larger Winchester Green Circle Trail and expand recreational space access for the community. And a new event oval is currently under construction, allowing the MSV to grow a small annual concert into a concert series that brings in thousands of visitors each summer.

In all, the MSV has doubled its visitorship in the past six years, bringing in over seventy thousand visitors in 2018. It has taken a lot of work, fundraising, and communication, but the MSV is in a better position now that they have devoted themselves to creating and strengthening their community connections. For any smaller organizations out there wondering how to create their own sustainable futures, looking at the MSV’s philosophy may be the key.

Why we should look towards the hospitality industry to improve visitor experience

This post was written in collaboration with second year Museum Education M.A. student Taylor Fontes

When moving to the Greater Boston Area to pursue my Masters degree in Museum Education, I made a hard decision. I chose to continue working in restaurants (a job I’ve done since I was a teenager) instead of pursuing a position at a local museum. I made this decision because restaurant work is a great way to make fast cash. As I move forward into a career in which that will no longer be the case, I wanted to start off strong with as little debt as possible and ample time to complete my course work. Sometimes, I have struggled with this choice as it has meant there is a gap in my resume when it comes to museum work. However, I have recently realized how important working in the hospitality industry has been to my experience in museums. So many of the skills I have learned in hospitality are transferrable to skills needed in museums. I firmly believe that these hospitality skills have strongly informed my ability to provide positive visitor experiences in museum environments.

When Taylor brought up the idea for this post she came from almost the opposite perspective. While she had been working in visitor service positions for a long time, she was new to the restaurant industry. Quickly however, she began to be referred to as a “rock star hostess.” So how did Taylor pick up the restaurant brand of hospitality so quickly? For her, it was so similar to the type of experience she strived to provide for visitors in museums she has worked in.

As museums become more visitor-centered and less object-centered it is important for us to see ourselves as institutions of hospitality. We can look towards the hospitality industry to help inform our practices within the museum. So what are our biggest takeaways?

  1. The vocabulary we use matters: Most hospitality focused restaurants don’t refer to their patrons as customers. It is too transactional. We focus on our guests. Guests are those that we invite in, they are wanted, accommodated, and catered too. In museums we need to think of our visitors as guests as well.
  2. First impressions are everything: From the atmosphere, to the signage, to the person greeting you. In a restaurant, the host/hostess is your first point of contact. They will set the tone for your entire experience, so friendly and personable staff are a must. But what about museums? Is there someone to greet visitors? Are the visitor service staff responsive? What is the tone we are setting?
  3. Restaurants know how to sell their product: Hospitality industry professionals have a lot of experience in selling their product. From the restaurant itself to up-selling the food and drink, this takes lots of knowledge of not just the products but of the audience as well. We need to know our audiences and understand what they want out of their experience. As we know, there are many different types of visitors with varying needs.
  4. Flexibility: Not all guests are looking for the same experience. We have to be flexible and fluid in order to provide satisfying and enriching experiences to a diverse audience. The same approach will not work with a group of millennials out for drinks that will work with an older couple having lunch. The same is true for museum visitors.
  5. Steps of service: Restaurants have very defined steps of service that guide our guests experiences. This does not in turn mean there is no free-choice within it. However, by creating these steps of service restaurants are able to be flexible while still provide superior service. Many museums think about visitor flow when designing exhibits. Creating steps of service within a museum experience can help us to better serve our visitors.
  6. Empathy and Tolerance: Restaurant professionals are highly experienced in empathy and tolerance. While we may use these words differently in the museum field. It is important as museum professionals that we don’t just teach empathy and tolerance but that we live it. In order to provide positive visitor experiences it is important that we can empathize with our visitors to better understand their needs as well as be tolerant to those that have different needs.
  7. The human connection: Hospitality professionals are experienced in creating personal connections in short periods of time. We talk to people from many different walks of life on a daily basis and if we want them to return it is important to create those connections. This, to me, is the biggest transferrable skill to the museum field. We want our visitors to make personal connections to what we are presenting. If museum professionals are not adept in making those connections how can they design and implement experiences that do. These social skills are so important.
  8. Ability to anticipate visitor needs: It is so important in both restaurants and museums for staff to be able to anticipate our guests and visitors needs before they can verbalize, or even know, what those needs are. These can be as basic as providing easily accessible bathrooms and comfortable seating or more complex such as providing for guests with disabilities. We need to anticipate everything our visitors may need when designing programming and exhibitions.

While this is just a short list there are many more things that museums can learn from restaurants as museums become more and more visitor focused.

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