When and How to Ethically Create Museum Term Positions

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

June 17, 2020
Chronic underfunding leads to a preponderance of term positions where permanent museum staff positions used to exist. A healthy museum possesses an operating budget that can account for all staff positions needed for the routine functions of the museum: to care for and display objects.

A healthy operating budget is one that accounts for increased taxes, the cost of doing business, and inflation. It also allows for stowing away a percentage of revenue for unexpected expenses, investment in growing programming, and long-term savings. When a museum budget is unhealthy the most impacted area is staff. Positions that used to exist aren’t filled or are transitioned to term (temporary) positions.

Questionable Museum Labor Practices

Labor in the museum field has become an urgent topic as discussed in a previously published post: Museum Labor Resources for Professional Advocacy. Current museum labor practices such as unpaid internships, term positions in place of permanent positions, and wages just at or below living wages are hallmarks of unethical labor practices and are the result of a very unhealthy museum operating budget.

Principles We Can Agree On

To begin, there are a couple of things I believe we can mutually agree upon: 1. What museum professionals should be able to expect specific to their pay; and 2. What circumstances are acceptable for a term position.

  1. When employed, museum professionals should be able to:
    • Earn a living wage relative to where they live
    • Receive pay commensurate with the education, experience, and skill required
    • Receive pay commensurate with job duties, responsibilities, and oversight
  2. Acceptable circumstances for a term position to be in place:

A term position is acceptable when the majority of the position is primarily dedicated to the execution of a discrete project where there is a defined outcome and strict timeline.

Term positions can cause extreme anxiety and financial stress on museum professionals because their employment will come to an end in the near future. And, when term positions are used in place of a permanent position, this cycle of not knowing if the term position will renew, or moving from one term job to another only increases distress.

Job Stability and What We Pay People Matters

While these principles may seem obvious and easily achievable, they are not—as evidenced by the salary survey that was inspired during the 2019 American Alliance of Museums conference. The survey captures salary, position classifications, and benefits. The results are concerning. Jobs that don’t pay a living and/or commensurate wage have both a short and long-term impact. Here’s a sampling of how term job positions and low salary alter museum professionals’ lives because they often can’t afford:

  • Healthcare to adequately cover their physical and mental health
  • To live near their work and therefore incur transportation costs on top of lost time
  • To buy a house or other permanent living situation
  • To afford a family
  • To pay student loans
  • To save for retirement

Essentially, many museum professionals do not have financial agency due to precarious staffing positions and low pay.

How Can Museums Create Ethical Term Positions?

There are required and recommended elements for museums to consider when crafting ethical term positions.

Required:

  1. The term position must truly be a term position. There must be a clearly defined project and outcomes that don’t overlap with routine tasks or ongoing programs. The term period must be defined ahead of time with no option to roll it over into another project. If you do that, you should create a permanent position.
  2. The position must pay a commensurate rate for the candidate’s education, experience, and skills in addition to the job’s requirements and responsibilities.
  3. The pay must also be at or above a living wage for where the museum is located. Not sure how to check what a living wage is for your area? Use MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
  4. The term position must include benefits similar to or the same as permanent staff benefits.
  5. The term position person(s) must be respected and (at least informally) treated like part of the staff. The museum staff and administration need to be mindful of not segregating or excluding term staff because they’re not “real” museum staff.

Recommended:

  1. Support term staff in their professional development and networking activities as these will be critical to securing their next job.
  2. If the person in the term position has the interest and ability to learn a new skill or gain new experience during the course of the term, encourage and allow them to do so.

An Additional Resource

For more ideas on how to ethically create and manage term positions please see a new resource created by members of a subgroup of the CLIR Digital Library Federation Labor Working Group: “Do Better” -Love(,) Us: Guidelines for Developing and Supporting Grant-Funded Positions in Digital Libraries, Archives, and Museums.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, grant writing and the future of museums for a wide variety of clients. Read Ms. Woody’s other blog posts and check out Lucidea’s unrivaled CMS, Argus, that empowers museum workers in all roles, and of all tenures. 

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