Welcome to my fourth year of offering forecasts for the museum field. As we continue our way through the early 21st century we’re seeing growing pains in a field that is centuries old.
The growth is uncomfortable yet incredibly necessary. It’s evolution. In fact, “evolution” appears to be the overarching theme of my forecasts for 2023. More specifically, an evolution in our ethics and subsequent museum policies.
As a recap, here are the first three years of forecast areas:
- No More Half-Measures When It Comes to Offering Accessibility
- The Continued and Accelerated Elimination of Museum “Entry-Level” Jobs
- A Digital Boom
- Museums Will Close
- Collections Accessioning and Deaccessioning
- Digital Collections are a Higher Priority
- DEAI embedded into museums and driving programmatic change
- Grant Funding, modest budgets, funding threatened, and incredibly competitive
- Ethical Labor Practices requiring salary transparency, institutions lack financial health
As I look to 2023, here are the three main items I foresee as major points of reckoning in the museum field:
Forecast: No More Working for “Free”; the Illegalization of Unpaid Internships
Salary transparency is in the process of being codified in state laws and I think the barring of unpaid internships will be next. Currently at the federal level there’s still the “Fact Sheer #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standard Act” (last updated January 2018). This fact sheet provides a test to help determine what opportunities can legally qualify as an unpaid internship. However, the museum field is becoming increasingly aware of how unpaid internships are a predatory practice and one that needs to evolve ASAP. Not only is the concept of unpaid labor categorically unethical, society is now (finally) seeing just how exploitive the practice is. Additionally, it costs candidates a substantial sum of money just to participate which limits those who can afford the opportunity.
My forecast is that states will continue the work they’ve done to require salary transparency and the prohibition of asking candidates for a salary history, and the next evolution will be to tackle unpaid internships. It may take a few years for impact, but the good news is we’re already seeing an increase in paid internship opportunities in the field. For example the Association of Art Museum Directors launched a paid internship program in 2018 (the same group that generated news coverage in their 2019 call to end unpaid internships), as did the Northwest Archivists (that both Lucidea and myself help to sponsor). More and more of these programs are springing up to help both museums and interns afford a paid internship experience. While the goal is for museums to include these costs in the operating budget, these professional organizations are helping to fill the gap and make meaningful change now.
For more on these developments please see How to Ethically Build Museum Intern and Volunteer Opportunities, Museum Forecast 2020, and Unpaid Internships: A Reason to DEAI the Museum Budget.
Resource: If your museum needs help creating a paid internship program, please see my webinar: How to Create a Paid Internship, available via YouTube.
Forecast: Repatriation is No Longer Optional
The case for returning stolen, looted, illicitly acquired, etc. artifacts to countries of origin is finally gaining momentum. Museums have been slow to participate in repatriation of artifacts because of: 1, the financial consequences; and 2, the altering of their “world class” collections. Indeed, some of the more dramatic responses from museum directors focus on the hyperbolic (and inaccurate) conclusion that if one item is returned then ALL items will have to be returned. This is said with the intimation that it’s “a slippery slope”.
Ngaire Blankenberg, Director of the National Museum of African Art, states it best—as quoted in the Washington Post October 11, 2022 article related to the return of Benin bronzes to Nigeria:
We’re not the guardians of the world. Western museums are not the custodians of all things of the world,” she said. “There’s so many false premises around the debate. People are like, ‘Oh, no, if you give everything back, there’ll be nothing in this museum.’ Honestly, we have 12,000 [objects in our] collections. And if our whole museum is based on stolen objects, then frankly we shouldn’t exist.
The Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA) shows us what the next evolutionary phase of our work could look like. At the MFA there’s a Curator of Provenance position, currently held by Victoria Reed. Reed works with curators in each of the collection areas to research, document, and clarify the provenance of its collections. Findings related to provenance are cataloged in the MFA’s Collections Management System (CMS) and a list of their restitution efforts (according to their website) date back to 1997. For an idea of how repatriation can be of extreme benefit, check out the 2006 Italian Antiquities deal.
The MFA is a leader in this area because it proactively investigates its own collection in addition to cooperating with claimants. As explained in their June 26, 2014 press release: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Transfers Eight Antiquities to Nigeria:
If research demonstrates that a work of art has been stolen, confiscated or unlawfully appropriated without subsequent restitution, then the Museum will notify potential claimants, and seek to resolve the matter in an equitable, appropriate and mutually agreeable manner. A list of ownership resolutions at the Museum since the late 1990s can be found here.
My forecast is that repatriation will no longer be optional. First, through ethical “peer pressure” and then followed by laws, museums will be forced to reconcile with decades worth of poor collecting practices and anemic provenance research. The proposition is no longer: Will the museum choose to repatriate? Instead, it’s: How will the museum arrive at repatriation? Will the museum administration offer it proactively or at least cooperatively? Or, will museum administration balk at the request, act poorly, and submit to it only after legal actions and/or reputational harm have occurred?
While some museum heavy weights such as the Smithsonian and the MFA (Boston) are leading the way, we’re still going to see larger, longer established museums struggle to evolve. This will be especially true for museums where there’s not been a robust focus on repair work, ethical collecting practices, and a re-evaluation of its collection provenance. Smaller to moderate-sized museums will have their share of challenges too as lack of staff and expertise will hinder participation in provenance research and repatriation—not to mention the likely financial impact that comes from this work. This is an area where federal granting agencies could assist more robustly by offering financial recompense (and incentive) to support museums performing this ethical and necessary work.
Museums that are engaged in DEI work at a programmatic-level will be better able to meet opportunities of repair as they come. Joining with the MFA (Boston) and others, these museums will lead the way regarding repatriation and will subsequently reap the ethical, reputational, and (potentially) financial benefits.
Forecast: The Evolution of the Collection Development Policy
The collection development policy helps to inform museum collecting and has ties to the previous topic: repatriation. However, I’ve chosen to articulate it as a separate concept here with the emphasis on how it informs the future of museum collecting versus rectifying past collecting practices. The significance behind this emerging effort to evolve collection development is fueled by the desire to make museum collections more inclusive—in alignment with museum Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies. For many Western museums the collections have predominantly been created or collected by wealthy, cis, white men. With institutions and collecting policies dating back to twentieth and even nineteenth centuries, the task to evolve the collection will be a mammoth undertaking. But first, it’s the collection development policy itself that must evolve. The collection development policy serves as an essential guide for what to add to and, in some cases, deaccession from the collection.
My forecast is that as museums make their way through DEI work, an increasing number will begin to explore how their collection and collecting needs to evolve. This will require an assessment and update of the museum collection development policy in order to help guide collection amendments as well as future acquisitions. As incentive, I additionally foresee accreditation, granting agencies, and donors will begin to require the submission of museum collection development policies in order to meet qualifications. Essentially, museums will need to show that this alteration in collecting more inclusively is not “just a fad” but a sincere and long-term programmatic change.
May this theme of evolution serve to inspire you for 2023. The more the museum field can act proactively, the better for everyone. If these forecasts come to pass it will improve museum labor conditions and collecting ethics, and may very well serve to increase museums’ relevance to society.
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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