How to Ethically Adapt Museum Staff Capacity for Digital Projects

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

July 13, 2022

Museums perennially face the challenge of not having enough money to successfully include all of the projects they’re committed to.

It’s important to keep this in mind as we broach the topic of staffing capacity in relation to potentially adding more to the existing work load. A rebalancing of work load is needed in all cases where new tasks are added to an existing staff member’s responsibilities. We each have finite capacity and holding this capacity limit as a rule is a required part of treating staff ethically and not exploitatively.

First, an Evaluation of Who

When a digital project has been identified as a priority for the museum, its components (the activities) need to be reviewed and staff members assigned. This exercise will also help to reveal any additional staff, contractor, or consultant needs in order for the project to be successful.

Tip: For more information on what activities make up a digital project please see What to do When It’s Your First Museum Digitization Project via Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog.

Second, an Evaluation and Adaptation of Capacity

An evaluation of the work load for staff identified as digital project participants is necessary in order to then attempt to balance the load with this project addition. This means that both the staff member and their supervisor will need to prioritize existing projects and decide which of these will be cut or paused. In order to get buy-in and achieve an effective work load balance, both the staff member and their supervisor should be equally involved in this process. Additionally, any work load changes should be documented in writing and included in the employee’s annual performance file. The evaluation and capacity adaption exercise is important in order to achieve an adaptation to staff capacity—as an increase in staff capacity cannot occur without adding more staff.

Gathering Enough Capacity

Now, even with prioritization and work load balancing it’s possible that the project is still in need of more staffing capacity. If the museum staff are at capacity, then it’s time to consider bringing in external help. This help can come in the form of: hiring more staff, hiring a term (temporary) position or contractor, bringing in a volunteer, and/or bringing in an intern. We’ll cover interns and volunteers in a subsequent post.

Avoiding Exploitation with Temporary Position and Contractors

Temporary positions allow for hiring an employee who may be eligible to receive the same or similar benefits as permanent staff. Contractors are not museum employees and do not receive benefits. Both types fall under the precarious labor category because the project (by its definition) is temporary in nature. Additionally, the risk of precarious employment rests entirely on the person in that position. Additionally, contractors are responsible for covering costs of employment that would otherwise be covered by the employer in a traditional employment situation. This typically means contractors have to cover the cost of benefits (e.g., insurance, retirement, unemployment) and pay taxes not covered by the museum. If not approached ethically by the museum, the conditions of these position types are considered exploitive labor practices.

Approaching Term and Contract Positions Ethically

There are a few methods museums can employ to more ethically incorporate both term and contractor positions. If and when the museum decides it wants to pursue a temporary or contractor position, it should pay particular attention to the following:

  1. Is the compensation offered enough to cover some of the inherent costs of employment the museum isn’t covering?
  2. Is the position truly a short-term need, or should it be considered for permanent classification? Hint: If the position is something the museum would renew year on year, then it really should be a permanent position and on budget.
  3. How can the museum provide additional coverage or benefits to help support the person holding that precarious labor position?

Conclusion

People who choose to work in the museum field do it because they love it. This dedication is something to honor, but it can also lead to exploitive labor practices. Museum staff will often take on “just a little bit more” in order to support the museum. But the problem is, there’s rarely a rebalancing of responsibilities placed on staff. It’s also all too easy to create a term or contract position with the focus on minimal compensation, and all too hard to ethically create a term or contract opportunity. Ultimately, it’s the museum administration’s responsibility to take care of its people. Codifying ethical labor practices into policy is one step forward toward valuing people first. There are resources for staff, temporary staff, and contractors to support your own self-advocacy.

Resources

Please visit the links below for more information and resources regarding professional advocacy and how to ethically approach adapting staff capacity.

Additional Reading

Please visit these posts via Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog for more information on approaching digital projects thoughtfully, learning about the different digital project components, and feeling more confident with professional advocacy and calculating your worth.

5 Prompts to Prioritize Museum Digitization Projects 

A Thoughtful Approach to Museum Digital Project Creation

How to Establish Museum Digital Project Core Areas

How to Evaluate Your Museum Work and Calculate Your Worth

Museum Labor Resources for Professional Advocacy

What to do When It’s Your First Museum Digitization Project

And, of course, don’t forget to check out Lucidea’s webinar suite for more on digital projects. 

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, register here for Rachael’s upcoming webinar, “Museum Digital Projects: Strategies for Working with Staff, Volunteers, or Interns” on July 27, 2022. Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to several titles published by Lucidea Press, she is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter. And remember to check out Lucidea’s Argus solution for powerful and innovative museum collections management.

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