The Museum Overwork Dilemma—Us or Them?

We've met the museum overwork enemy—but is it us? Join a co-hosted conversation on June 9 to talk it out.

a busy desk covered in various workplace materials
Whose fault? (Photo by Robert Bye / Unsplash)

We've met the museum overwork enemy—but is it us? Join a co-hosted conversation on June 9 to talk it out.

I got a fair amount of traction for my post earlier this year about the "elephant in the room" in our discussions about improving museums as institutional workplaces—how damn busy we all are. How can we hope to make any moves in the right direction when every year we're busier and busier?

Some museum bloggers focus on poor leadership as a more important organizational problem (in a larger framing of structural marginalization and injustice). I can agree, but readers of Museum Human know that I consider the problem with leadership not to be poor or lacking training, but mistaken training—museums are aiming to reproduce their leadership cadres and fill up their c-suites when the nature of c-suites is the problem, or so I have said.

However, a couple of tweets and conversations with leader-level colleagues in the museum field made me think a little more. Is the problem not (or not just) the institutions and the museum sector, but its denizens? Not the leaders, but the led?

Or, to be systems-thinking about it, both? Because there were a couple of ideas raised in these tweets and chats that go beyond my statement that leaders and influential staff are generating too much damn work, and all are interrelated:

  • Museum workers are a dedicated, passionate bunch—that's the reason they got into this long-hours-low-pay biz in the first place. (There are societal and structural reasons that some people can afford to get into museum work, but the fact remains that these people may have some similar personality traits.) Leaders, therefore, can't easily stop them from overworking. Institutions then take advantage of this dedication and bake it into their business models and workflows.
  • Poor training and business acumen in the field lead to poor self-management—workers don't know how not to overwork, managers don't know how to stop them, and leaders don't know how to change these ingrained habits and the resulting culture of overwork. (This all sounds awfully passive-voice to me, but it's been raised in multiple places.)
  • Elite knowledge workers in academic and aligned fields need to credential up because of job-qualification demands from their sector, which leads to harder and harder work just to keep pace with the so-called Joneses.

Now institutions bear responsibility for any and all of these reasons—they are soliciting overwork at the least, demanding it at worst. The question is—can we disentangle institutional and individual responsibility for this culture of overwork? Is everyone—workers and leaders—just pointing fingers at each other?

It's probably not that simple but that doesn't mean we can't have a conversation about it.

So, consider this … 

How much of the museum culture of overwork comes from the individuals in the field?

How much of the museum culture of overwork comes from the institutions and leaders in the field?

And …

Are you game for a chat about it?

So register here to join Museum Human and Museums as Progress for a chat on Thursday, June 9 at 115 ET.

In the first part of this two-part conversation, we'll use collaborative tools in groups to help map out the journeys that we as individuals and museums as institutions have taken to get to this place of overwork. Then we'll break out the practice of "pressure mapping," as described in the short and useful book Start at the End: How to Build Products That Create Change by Matt Wallaert, to frame these questions in positive (as in, what behaviors and systems do we want to create?) ways.

(I'm reading Wallaert's book now, and it made me think about my post on audience research and museum org culture. Every silo in a museum has its own evaluation and investigation belief system—some are more scientific than others—but not all of them test in the same way. So the question for us on June 9 will be, can we pilot and intervene our way to improving the culture of overwork?)

I'd also suggest that you check out some of the conversations that happened at the AAM annual conference's final day on organizational culture—if you didn't go, that is—via Twitter. Rebekah Harding and Stephanie Wilchfort had useful tweets from that day that are well worth reading, and I think that this contribution from Wilchfort captures some of what we'll investigate on June 9:

How much is our work level—overwork or sustainable—a value of our organizations (how many times have you heard from leadership something like "we go the extra mile and make the impossible happen!"), and how is the institution—reflected in its managers—impacting it?

I predict a wide-ranging session that will go in some unexpected directions. If you're ready to delve into this topic and generate some collective ideas, please join us on June 9!


Part of the liberation journey is questioning our own assumptions. My first reaction to reading some alternative points of view to my post was oh yeah? But we have to learn to let go of always being right because we're so smart. I guess both of these co-hosted events started from reading other opinions about points I'd raised. (Is that mercenary of me?)

I hope you can come out of this chat and workshop ("chatshop"?) with some expanded perspectives as well.

cover photo by Robert Bye / Unsplash [description: a busy desk covered in various workplace materials]

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The Museum Overwork Dilemma—Us or Them? by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.