The Schrödinger's Career of Working in Museums

The Schrödinger's Career of Working in Museums

6 min read

Museum workers are calling out the contradictions of their institutions and the field. Are museums—and workers—ready for the changes required?

If you're a museum worker, you might feel a bit like Schrödinger's Cat. On the one hand, you're living your passion and serving visitors and audiences around the world. You work in a world of ideas and impact with brilliant, passionate, mission-driven colleagues.

And yet, it sucks. Our museum careers are both alive and dead. Museum workers love their institutions as entities but many of us hate our workplaces.

To go deeper into the metaphor, the act of measuring our work lives seems to make the whole edifice of a wonderful museum career collapse. (For more on quantum mechanics, Schrödinger paradox, and how it impacted physics for generations, read or listen to Adam Becker's What Is Real?) Like the cat, you're in a world of contradictions.

Or, to apply Becker's retelling of the Copenhagen interpretation of the quantum world, maybe this is a story the leaders in the field have told us to keep us from questioning just what is going on in museum work.

Consider this list, which applies to many museums in the west, especially the United States. If your team or department or museum has avoided these pitfalls or improved upon them, that's good to know; the field needs all the success stories it can get. (This list will probably be nails-in-eyes obvious for anyone who's not white.)

Since this blog is about organizational culture, the list below applies to museum workplaces and not necessarily to the relationship with visitors. And since museums exist in society, these problems are not unique to museums.

  • Museums have a public-oriented mission but a classist organizational culture.
  • Museums have not-for-profit status but rely on capitalist donors (and their heirs) for funding and collections, with all the questions surrounding how they acquired their fortunes.
  • This funding chases big-name projects but shortchanges unsexy maintenance and systems.
  • Museums have significant analog footprints in an increasingly digital world and haven't figured out how to align both in their internal priorities and processes.
  • The passion of museum work has been used as an excuse for low pay, long hours, and poor benefits. People without family wealth struggle to live on this compensation.
  • Museum studies programs turn out many bright and motivated but also debt-laden graduates for too few institutional positions, in a society which says "tough luck" to degree-holders in many fields.
A brick wall by a highway overpass, with the words "Until debt tear us apart" written on the wall.
What are the debts we accrued to get here? (Photo by Daniel Thiele on Unsplash)
  • Many museums were founded on white, settler colonial practices which—whatever the intention towards visitors—span the unethical to the criminal. Good institutional intentions and pockets of decency don't absolve past behavior. These practices are dying hard.
  • Progressive workplace practices, like empathy, agency, autonomy, and innovation, in museums can become easier-said-than-done buzzwords lacking real impact.
  • Museums make the bespoke into a way of life but the mundane into an instrument of torture.
  • Museum workplaces use social yet isolating technology which makes faster work possible while requiring undivided yet collaborative attention.
  • Museums struggle to balance collaboration with opportunities to focus.
Several signs, on a pole, pointing in different directions.
There's no clear direction to workplace collaboration. (Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash)
  • White museum workers often feel that because they didn't go into finance, law, medicine, or tech, but are nice people, they can't have privilege. Thirty-two years after Peggy McIntosh's white privilege backpack article, this view is ridiculous.
  • Museums increasingly talk about some combination of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility, which is a start, but real impact on these structural problems will only come with massive increases and redirecting of pay and resources. White museum workers will have to give up the benefits of whiteness.
  • Museum workers, almost always people of color, have been speaking about and working on this for years. It's long past time for all museum workers, especially white and male, to take on the heavy lifting of this work.
  • Museum workers demand increased transparency on pay and institutional equity, but profound fairness in the museum field will only come with larger cultural changes in what the default staff member "looks like." Not being racist is a far cry from being antiracist. (If it seems like white staff look everywhere and see groups they have wronged and taken privilege from, including the indigenous people on whose land the institutions reside, it's because this is true.) We have to check ourselves and hold power to account.
  • Museum staff have power but often fear using it, perhaps because they know the power they might unleash can come back at them.
The words "art [equals] change!" written on a brick wall.
Are museum staff ready for change? All of it? (Photo by Peder Cho on Unsplash)
  • Museums have been increasingly staffed by women, but power—and wielding it over others—in museums becomes whiter and more male the higher it goes.
  • Museum staff know that institutional leadership has overworked them and see the problem as a baked-in power imbalance favoring curatorial. Yet museum leadership and curatorial see themselves as victims of deeper structural forces.
  • Museums institutionally rarely give credit or respect to front-of-house, visitor-facing staff or those who keep the infrastructure running. This is true even for content and conservation departments who themselves struggled to gain a voice in curatorial-dominated institutions. (Thanks to readers who pointed this omission out of the original version of this post.)
  • Museums are not-for-profits but still follow the growth obsession of the late financial capitalist era, where people are always a drag on growth.
An illustration of flowers and a bird holding a sign reading "game over," with the words "Capitalism is over if you want it."
Are we ready for what we wish for? (Photo by Koushik Chowdavarapu on Unsplash)
  • Profits in surveillance capitalism grow more from pain and fear than from love and contentment.
  • Overlapping museum expertise devolves into "I'm right" friction disguised as "creative tension," while visitors and audiences just want some combination of guidance, information, social connection, or beauty, or maybe just to kill a couple of hours on holiday.
  • Museum workers say they want more innovation and engagement but may not be ready for the top-to-bottom organizational changes which are required. Meanwhile, too many re-organizations don't achieve any lasting impact.
A neon sign reading "change."
Change is shiny, if you want it. (Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash)

Whew. Quite a lot of contradictions. And while contradictions can make life interesting, they also come with a cost. The fact that museums staffers are wonderful people who have studied for years and sacrificed much to work in museums doesn't absolve us from the bills.

For people who were able to get museum jobs, and didn't have to take something else just to make a living, there is a bill for the privilege of being here. For white men who rose through the museum hierarchy by demonstrating traits for which anyone else are punished, the bill must be paid with interest. For all white people, compound that interest. For museum leaders who have seen their staff as fuel for growth, the interest rate is sky-high.

For the western museum field, many, many bills are due.

For western capitalism, I would say "it's time to declare bankruptcy," but that might mean getting away with the debts. The money is there to pay it all back.

Are there contradictions which are obvious in your museum working life? Are you demanding payment? Also willing to pay?

The world is waiting. And so is the cat.

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Cover image credit: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.