Museum Mission and Museum Interests (Book Extract)

Jul 20

Jaclyn Kelly, an Educator at Milwaukee Public Museum, argues that a museum’s mission and its economic interests are not one and the same - and conflating the two is often one reason why museum staff are so hesitant to demand more.

An extract from our latest book, For Love or Money: Confronting the State of Museum Salaries.

MOST PEOPLE IN THE MUSEUM INDUSTRY, at least the white-collar staff, would probably not use the word “worker” to describe their relationship to their employment. They may use the terms “professional,” or “museum professional,” instead. However, layering on an identity as a worker has powerful implications both for creating financially sustainable careers and for creating richer bonds with the communities we serve. The word “professional,” when used in the museum industry, often describes someone with a high degree of training, education, and experience, which they use to complete their job duties. The identity of “worker” does not override or remove professional identity, but simply denotes that the employee in question does not own or otherwise control the workplace.

Furthermore, a worker identity helps us realize that we have shared interests as a working class and that those interests do not always coincide with management’s interests. Viewed through this class analysis, the museum professional has just as much in common with the building custodian, if not more so, since both are subject to the decisions of the employer and neither control the workplace. Realizing that one’s interests do not always coincide with management’s does not mean that the professional is any less personally or professionally aligned with the museum’s mission. The museum’s mission and its economic interests are not one and the same. Conflating the two is probably one reason workers are so hesitant to demand more. Asserting one’s interests as separate from the institution’s is not a rejection of its mission. Some professionals may bristle at the idea of being lumped into a local (trade union branch) with people who do different kinds of work at the museum and prefer to be among workers of similar training or background.

Differences in education and career path may make professionals feel that their many years of training, education, and sacrifice make them irreconcilably different from other types of workers, although it is worth noting that many types of workers have lifetimes of work and sacrifice too, often with little to show for it.

An industrial structure combined with a shared worker identity allows us to interpret and critique our institution from a cross-departmental standpoint and invites us to understand our fellow workers in new ways. For example, what does it mean to be a worker, a woman, and a person of color? How could those experiences differ from the way an employee who is a worker, a man, and white moves through the workplace? Or a person who is a worker and gender non-conforming? These identities shape the way we interact with employers, the public, and other workers. Layering on a worker identity allows workers to simultaneously stand in solidarity and recognize shared interests with other workers while fostering a deeper understanding of others’ unique experiences. Our struggles are not the same, but they are connected.

Finally, a worker identity has important implications for our work in museums. The identity of worker is the only identity that is almost universal; the overwhelming majority of people in the world do not control their workplace. When we recognize this identity in ourselves it creates a bond with the people in our communities. When we sit alongside fellow workers at the regional labor council or state federation of labor and listen to workers address the delegate body about their struggle in the workplace or their latest contract negotiation, we are connecting with our communities simply as participants and comrades. This contrasts with interactions with the public as museum staff. There, we are the experts and possessors of information, with all the associated status and authority, which inherently alters the dynamic with the public. When we hear about the struggles of working people in our community and attend their rallies or walk alongside them in the picket line, we are standing in solidarity with the exact people we want to serve. Describing our community members in the time-honored language of the labor movement, as our brothers and sisters, has deep potential implications for the way we think about and serve the people.

For Love or Money: Confronting the State of Museum Salaries
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