Revisiting 2020’s Museum Issues; Some Progress

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

April 14, 2021

In December 2019, I wrote up a summary of the issues that dominated headlines and conference conversations. This year I debated doing the same for 2020, concerned about our collective COVID-19 fatigue. 

However, in looking at my Museum Forecast 2020 post (published January 15, 2020); the top three issues I chose to focus on—Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI); Grant Funding; and Ethical Labor Practices—were each front and center in 2020 and in ways we could never have imagined until a global pandemic took hold. This post will provide a brief recap of my 2020 forecast and discuss how it actually played out in 2020.

Relevance & The Museum’s Role in Social Wellbeing 

Museums as Places for Democratic Dialogue and Uncomfortable Learning 

Diversity, Equity, Accessibility & Inclusion (DEAI) Forecast for 2020

  • All institutions will be required to have a DEAI or DEI statement—not legally required perhaps, but required to apply for funding, required by society to meet moral expectations, etc.
  • This requirement will go beyond a DEAI statement on a website. DEAI requirements will grow into specific programs and projects a museum offers, and serve as a lens to evaluate current and future museum work.

How DEAI Actually Played Out in 2020

The killing of Black Americans in the US and the growing social justice movements in response reached a crescendo in the middle of a global pandemic. This reckoning has impacted all industries, museums included, and has caused us all to critically think about what DEI really looks like. I was correct in that we’d need to go beyond DEI statements this year. Museums are now being called on to include Black Indigenous People Of Color (BIPOC) at all levels of staff, including and importantly at the leadership level. Additionally, we’re facing the need to take bold and audacious actions in order to truly diversify our collections.

Grant Funding Forecast for 2020

  • While grant opportunities will remain competitive, museum staff have the opportunity to attend grant education courses. Museum staff will need to remain strategic in choosing the best grant opportunities and remain up to date on the grant funding landscape in order to have the best competitive advantage.
  • Grant funding opportunities will continue to see modest budget increases despite federal funding repeatedly being threatened.
  • The number of granting agencies requiring DEAI activities as part of the museum’s normal operations and as part of the grant project will continue to increase.

How Grant Funding Actually Played Out in 2020

While grant funding did increase with COVID-19 relief funding, it was a paltry amount compared to the need. In this emergency funding situation inequities among museums were further exacerbated. We’ve actually left more museums behind this year, financially speaking. So, while the forecast was mostly, technically true. The actual 2020 outcome was a loss for everyone involved. It is my personal hope that a new US administration will be successful in delivering adequate financial relief to all who need it.

Ethical Labor Practices Forecast for 2020

  • Stating a job salary range will become a mandatory element for job publishing on regional professional sites, if not national. There will be a diminishment in unpaid internships and temporary labor contracts, but they will continue until systemic issues are addressed (e.g. lack of resources and/or ability to prioritize).
  • Grassroots advocacy will continue to lead the way as large national organizations are slow to change. Museum professionals will continue to put in the additional (uncompensated) labor to advocate for change and hold both employers and professional organizations accountable.
  • A few museums and/or professional organizations will emerge as thought-leaders and secure funding from IMLS (or related agency) to research and experiment with implementing operational changes in order to promote the financial health of museums and museum professionals.

How Ethical Labor Practices Actually Played Out in 2020

Well, at this point it’s no surprise for me to say this got worse due to COVID-19. As of November 2020, a study revealed that 53% of museums had to layoff or furlough their workers. Multiply that across 35,000 museums and we’re talking about thousands of unemployed museum staff. As someone who is intensely interested in the value of collection work, I’ve kept an eye on the few job positions opening. At first there were only a few openings, several focused on BIPOC representation (see above) and others listed as contract or term-positions. In the last two months I’ve started to see an increase in job postings a sign of optimism (I think) museums have for the new year and the change in US political leadership. Other good signs include the increasing number of professional associations who are requiring salaries be listed for job positions. This is far from a universal practice, but it’s getting better thanks to individual colleagues pushing change with the little power they have in their own little corner of the field. As for being able to promote the financial health of museums and museum professionals? I hope that COVID-19 provides the ultimate impetus for us to get it together so that we (as a field) don’t suffer as much the next time an economic crisis occurs

Conclusion

We have been through it this year, but in challenge there is opportunity. COVID-19 helped to push priorities to the forefront. And if we can keep it together long enough, we might all just make it through 2021 and more ahead than we were in 2019.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Expert Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, digital museums, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus Museum CMS for virtual, multimedia presentation of collections, visitor engagement, and museum staff productivity and impact.

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