Museum TrendsWatch 2023: The Future Workplace

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

May 31, 2023

Each year the Center for the Future of Museums (under the auspices of the American Alliance of Museums) publishes a TrendsWatch report. Each year, I provide an analysis of the issues therein via a series of posts. 

The report offers investigation and insight into several topics the Center has identified as emerging trends in the field. This year the report is titled TrendsWatch: Building the Post-Pandemic World and includes six trends: The Future Workplace, A Digital (R)evolution, The Partisan Divide, Repatriation, Restitution, Reparations; the Metaverse and Web 3.0; and Changing Climate Risk. The first three trends are presented in the usual TrendsWatch format, but the last three are presented in a shorter, altered format. The Center offers no explanation for the change in format, and for our purposes we’ll cover each with the last post combining both The Metaverse and Web 3.0 with Changing Climate Risk. Today’s post is The Future Workplace.

Half of all Professionals in the Field Want to Leave in the Next 3 Years

I’m going to start this section off with the most alarming statistic provided in this TrendsWatch section, though it was buried in a side box containing 10 bullet points: 

In a 2021 AAM survey, over half of paid staff said it was somewhat to highly unlikely they would still be working in the museum sector in three (3) years.

How are we not talking more about this? To potentially lose up to half of all museum professionals should alarm EVERYONE. This is likely one of the largest risks the museum field (as a whole) faces and it has the potential to be catastrophic to museum viability because we wouldn’t be able to continue “business as usual”. Not to mention, the incomprehensible level of brain drain that would occur across the field. Unfortunately, the Center offers no further conversation on this risk.

The Causes (as Outlined in the TrendsWatch Challenge Section) 

The Center begins this section with the summary of current phenomena such as The Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, and Tricia Hersey’s and The Nap Ministry (centered in Black liberation). The thesis is that people are underpaid, overworked, and burnout from being underpaid and overworked during a time of persistent trauma. The Center additionally points out a sentiment that those who are burnt out know to be true: “What’s the point going ‘over and above’ at work when your salary doesn’t cover basic living expenses, much less enable you to pay down student debt?”

I covered a similar topic in A Year in Review: An Assessment of the 2022 Museum Forecast; specifically the “How ‘The Continued and Accelerated Elimination of Museum “Entry-Level” Jobs’ Actually Played out in 2022” section. In it I highlight Kara Newport, CEO of Filoli Historic Home and Gardens, and 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. In it she shares the same Robert Reich (economist) quote the Center begins this TrendsWatch section with:

This is not complicated. If you can’t afford to pay your employees a living wage, you do not have a viable business model.

In my Forecast post I follow up with: 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.

In this TrendsWatch report section the Center appears to advocate for the lowering of position prerequisites in order to compete in a tight labor market. The Center does not acknowledge in the article that this questionable practice already exists, except museums use it to also justify the lowering of compensation offered. Additionally, the practice of having low position requirements paired with a low salary typically results in hiring a person who exceeds the stated requirements (and in actuality should command a higher salary). This practice actively de-professionalizes and devalues the field and the damages are felt by employees in both the short and long-term. Instead, I recommend that museums should compete in a tight labor market by increasing salary and benefits. The Center indicates that wages have gone up by 4.6% in the private sector in 2021; however, this percentage increase cannot compete with the 9+% inflation rate the United States saw in 2022.

What This Means for Museums

It’s bleak. Here are a few facts the Center offers for context setting:

  • Staffing challenges were cited by 69% of nonprofits.
  • More than 40% of museum professionals lost income during the pandemic.
  • Close to 50% experienced an increase in workload.
  • Burnout from global crises compounded by “the pressure museums felt to innovate their way out of the pandemic.” 

And from this the Center offers a noteworthy forecast:

The stress of working in pandemic conditions and the worker empowerment created by the tight labor market may be significant drivers of museum unionization. Workers have formed collective bargaining units at more than two dozen museums in the past three years.

The Center’s Advice for Museums

Toward the end of the article, the Center asks a poignant question: Will the shifts made during the pandemic be transitory or enduring? And leaves us with the following considerations in the Museums Might… section.

  • Consider how compensation practices reflect the organization’s values.
  • Provide higher pay and salaries. 
  • Commit to paid internships.
  • Include salaries in position descriptions.
  • Support flexible, remote, or hybridized work.
  • Improve DEAI (no specifics were given).
  • Cut work hours.
  • Create pathways for advancement and offer leadership training.
  • Foster a culture of belonging.
  • Offer accommodations (though no specific callouts for physical abilities or capacity, mental health, or neurodivergent needs).


This particular topic is complex and multi-faceted, and while covered in a TrendsWatch report, the issues presented existed prior to the pandemic. What has changed is the effect of the pandemic exacerbating these issues to the point of crisis. Now that it is an undeniable and widespread workplace crisis for museums (as an institution), we may finally see forward progress toward a healthier workplace for everyone.

Rachael Cristine Woody

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 soon-to-be-released Prepare for Takeoff: Get Your Museum Digital Project off the Ground. Rachael is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter.

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