A Year in Review: An Assessment of the 2022 Museum Forecast
Rachael Cristine Woody
In the Museum Forecast 2022 post I shared my thoughts on how the following three areas would help to evolve the museum field in 2022: accessibility, elimination of “entry-level” jobs, and a digital boom.
This post will outline the specifics of my forecast for each area and offer observations on how those areas actually evolved over the course of 2022.
Forecast: No More Half-Measures When It Comes to Offering Accessibility
My forecast is that as a “return to normal” is increasingly pursued (in proportion with the threat-level of COVID-19 going down), it will also be met with an increase in resistance. A “return to normal” for our “Accessibility” practices would be a tragic step backward. The pandemic actually made our offerings more accessible. If the museum field fails to realize this, there is going to be significant backlash. As a dual-forecast, I think this area is also ripe with opportunities for innovation. I think we’ll see some amazing work and tools become available in the field that will make everyone’s work and museum experience better.
How “No More Half-Measures When It Comes to Offering Accessibility” Actually Played Out in 2022
In a way, this forecast was true. There was resistance from everyone, including those in the disabled community on the “return to normal” aka the return to in-person office culture. It was also true in the observation that there’s no longer any good excuses for half-measures when it comes to cultivating an office culture of accessibility. However, I’ll be honest and share that I’m disappointed with how far we’ve fallen short on this issue. As more and more people abandon their COVID-19 precautions and pandemic lifestyles we’ve seen the acceptance of remote and flexible working conditions ping to the extremes. Companies and museums alike seem to have gone for either Option A: A complete return to “normal” with the elimination of any remote or flexible work options; or Option B: A solidification (via policy) of remote and flexible work as an option to be used at the employee’s discretion. I raise the remote and flexible work options specifically as they are one major mechanism that can improve inclusion of those with disabilities.
In both office and museum settings we have been able to benefit from improvements and widespread adoption of accessibility-supporting technology (e.g., auto-captioning in real-time). The tools have become better, more available, and more widely used. So, what’s missing? Policy. There have yet to be widely adopted policy shifts towards centering accessibility for all: colleagues and museum patrons. In addition to leadership placing accessibility at the forefront of their work, this is where both education and financial incentive could be tremendously helpful.
Resources: The Ford Foundation recently released a Disability Inclusion Kit with the following note:
The toolkit includes introductory disability definitions and language guidelines, in addition to guidance on creating accessible in-person and virtual events, social media, and disability inclusive employment practices from recruitment to retention. The toolkit serves as a public good available to any organization that can benefit from the tools, tips, and guidance offered within.
Through education, funding incentives, and professional organization support, we can make better progress toward truly including our disabled colleagues and museum patrons. No matter where you are in your museum, you can also make a difference by asking the museum what its accommodation policies are and how the museum can make changes to be more disability-inclusive. You can also be a part of the solution by inviting disabled colleagues to the conversation, finding and sharing resources, and showcasing success stories from peer museums.
Forecast: The Continued and Accelerated Elimination of Museum “Entry-Level” Jobs
My forecast is that this year will continue to be rough regarding the availability of true entry-level museum positions. But, we will also continue to see colleagues step up to demand the adoption of more ethical labor practices. In addition to salary transparency becoming required, I hope to see a similar effort of vetting job posts for entry-level positions to ensure they are truly available to those who are entry-level. And similar with the temporary or term jobs so as to ensure the jobs meet the criteria for term/temporary. By creating better policies and advocating for these changes at each of our museums, we can encourage the spread of ethical employment practices in the field.
How “The Continued and Accelerated Elimination of Museum “Entry-Level” Jobs” Actually Played out in 2022
This year saw a multi-month trend: The Great Resignation. In all sectors there was a massive shift in where and how people work, and for who. While this phenomenon was also seen in the museum field, the salary rates are still critically low—especially in a year that’s seen 9% inflation. Additionally, and related, the museum field has seen a continued (since pre-COVID) increase in union activity. The museum sector wages have been chronically low for so long that they’ve become entirely untenable and unsustainable for anyone trying to work in the field. This was starkly illustrated on November 1, 2022 when New York’s pay transparency law went into effect. Rebecca Shiffman of Art & Object took a deep dive into the numbers and made the following observations:
Art institutions rely so heavily on art administrators. These positions help organize exhibitions, manage staff, and look after buildings. Though administrators wear many hats and perform the duties of multiple roles, the pay is mostly entry-level. According to the anonymous survey that Art & Object conducted, this type of role is notorious for low salaries in a system that is ambiguous and opaque by design to keep the salaries at the top high and the bottom low. Many responders agree that they have thought of pivoting to other art-adjacent fields because they know they pay better.
When you consider that so many of us obtain not one but two post-Bachelor degrees to prepare for our work in museums—and the graduate school debt loads that come with that—it’s inconceivable to then consider starting ranges in the low-$40,000s. The few entry-level jobs that are available are at such a low wage that no one can afford to take them. Entry-level positions start low, and that trend continues for mid-level positions too, as demonstrated in Shiffman’s next quote:
Along a similar line, to become a researcher or archivist one must have advanced education and prior experience. An archivist position at a museum is advertised at $70,000 – $73,000 and requires both an MLS (Masters of Library Sciences) and experience in a similar position. A senior registrar at another museum pays $68,000 – $72,000 and requires a minimum of five years of experience. In other fields, these are entry-level salaries, but in the art world, they are advertised as competitive, mid-level pay ranges.
Kara Newport, CEO of Filoli Historic Home and Gardens, lays it out plainly in her article Museums and the Living Wage: How Filoli Developed a Bold Pay Equity Initiative, published by the Center for the Future of Museums Blog:
The current challenges in attracting and retaining employees stem not just from these high costs of living, but from a competitive labor market that has increased the threshold for salaries. ThinkImpact reports that new graduates are making $52,000 (with a communications degree) to $56,000 (with a humanities degree). If that is the national average for new graduates with limited experience, museum leaders must ask ourselves, how much should we be paying our curators, interpreters, and marketing experts?
Newport takes this one step further by sharing words tweeted by economist Robert Reich:
This is not complicated. If you can’t afford to pay your employees a living wage, you do not have a viable business model.
And it’s true. As much as museums like to think they’re different because they’re a nonprofit, at the end of the day they need to operate responsibly and actually make enough of a profit to appropriately pay for the cost of “doing business”. As one of the picketing slogans from the Philadelphia Museum worker’s strike states succinctly: We can’t eat prestige. Similarly, we can’t eat “good feelings” or “passion for our work”. Everyone has the right to a living wage and a wage that is reflective of competitive market rates.
So, where does this leave us in the forecast? This year did not necessarily see a decrease in entry-level jobs offered—especially considering the shakeup the Great Resignation has caused. However, the continued offerings of decidedly unlivable wages have done much to curb the ability for those to take entry-level jobs at museums. In a way, these positions are self-eliminating in their fiscally unsustainable offerings.
Resource: For an inspiring read complete with step-by-step guidance on how to create better wages (including entry wages) while in nonprofit mode, please check out Kara Newport’s article on the work she’s done at Filoli Historic Home and Gardens as CEO, via the Center for the Future of Museums Blog, Museums and the Living Wage: How Filoli Developed a Bold Pay Equity Initiative.
Forecast: A Digital Boom
My forecast is that the elongation of the pandemic into 2022 will grant a larger and larger space for innovation, interest, and money for museum digital projects. I’m already seeing this increase in resources in the grant opportunities slated for 2022. We are at the intersection of interest, ability, and financial resources and it will lead to a digital boom for the field. We’re going to witness an evolution in how we provide engaging collection content online. There will be better tools available to craft exciting innovations in this area. And I, for one, cannot wait.
How “A Digital Boom” Actually Played Out in 2022
Undeniably the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a hard pivot for all museums to (re)invest in creating a digital representation of their collection online. We’ve seen an increase in granting agencies expand funding into digital spaces, an increase in museums acquiring or switching to new Collections Management Systems (CMS), and CMS platforms evolve their offerings with advances made in collection display and usability. This forecast is one we can definitively check off as a success AND it appears to be a trend here for the longer term—which is good news for all of us.
Philippa Van Straaten, Curator at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), stated it best in this ICOM article, Keeping up with the (online) times:
JAG’s storerooms are full of vibrant, valuable, contemporary and historic pieces that have for too long been silent as a result. Large-scale photography and digitisation of the objects in the collections will be perhaps the single most important project to undertake in these uncertain times, and one that will unlock so much additional content for further digital or hybrid programming. The pandemic has pointed out major flaws inherent in the institution’s unpreparedness for online and digital ways of working, and its capacity to provide digital museum and record-keeping services to its varied audiences.
In the article Why Museums Weathered the Pandemic Better Than Most — and Where They’re Headed Next, Bevin Savage-Yamazaki (senior associate and culture and museums practice leader at Gensler, a global design and architecture firm) makes the observation that these digital interventions are here for the long-term even in a post-pandemic era.
We’re seeing a more ambient digital experience happening, with people bringing their phones and downloading the app when they arrive on site and having this opportunity for deeper interpretation into the collections or the exhibition they’re visiting.
This adjustment of investment into both digital and physical programming is one that will continue to open up collections to a broader audience and offer innovative experiences for our audiences.
I hope you’ve found this exercise of reflecting back on the past year helpful. While it can seem difficult to make measurable change in one year, the truth is that the field has made great strides forward. Our field is an old one—and how exciting is it that we’re at a moment of profound change? Yes. We have our work cut out for us. But, I know we can do it.
Rachael Cristine Woody
Rachael Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. She has authored several titles published by Lucidea Press, including her newest: Museum Digital Projects and You. Where to Begin? Rachael is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter.
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