An Open Letter About Museums

Mark Walhimer COVID-19, Future of Museums Leave a Comment

“remaking museums as agents of change, embracing diversity, deepening community engagement, and focusing on social justice”

– Kathleen McLean

There are too many people hurting for me to stand by and not voice my concerns, museum directors salaries are a significant indicator of the lack of care of senior staff for museum workers.

When Winston Churchill was working to create the United Nations after World War II he said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. I believe museums are facing a crisis and hopefully, museums will emerge from COVID-19 stronger and better prepared to move towards a new future.

Museums As Public Service

In the United States museums for the most part are private non-profit charitable 501(c)3 organizations, placing them in the role of Civil Society. In the USA, unlike most other countries, not for profit businesses and not government organizations (3), but instead the third leg of the stool, civil society.

Three Legged Stool, Government, Business and Nonprofits

Given the changes of Reaganomics and the private/public hybrid, the purpose of museums has become “cloudy”, museums are nonprofits required to receive 1/2 to 2/3 of their revenue from unearned sources (grants, private donations, and corporate sponsorships).

This role has become increasingly confused since the 1990s, are “museums” places of abstract thought only available to a select few or are museums places of community. Since the publication of Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum and the work of Mike Murawski, LaTanya Autry, and Aleia Brown, Adrianne Russell Museums Respond To Ferguson there has been a clear shift in museums towards museums serving the local community.

To move towards this new post-COVID-19 future museums must acknowledge several critical points:

  • The current museum funding model is broken and needs to be revised
  • Museums are a form of public service
  • People who work in museums are performing a pubic service
  • Museums require independence and democracy to function
  • Museums are part of Civil Society and Civic Engagement
  • Museums are not neutral and are active participants in forming public opinion
  • Museums are active participants in white supremacy and have an obligation to acknowledge and change beliefs.

“The differentials are too large,” said James Abruzzo, a nonprofit compensation consultant. “Boards need to take a more valued approach to how their institutions treat their people.”

– James Abruzzo

Museums are a form of public service, and minimum wages need to be changed to $15 per hour and salary caps need to be put in place for all museum directors. Museum Directors will reply, “we have the responsibility to raise between one half and two-thirds of the museum’s revenue”, we require a salary commensurate with such responsibilities. “It is NOT appropriate for a nonprofit to compensate a fundraising professional based on a percentage of the money raised.” National Council of Nonprofits (1).

The entire museum industry needs to change from “us and them” to “we”. Museum Directors working with museum staff, museum associations working with museums and museum workers, working with museum visitors. We all need to get off of our high horses and be on the same playing field. I do not think it is possible to be on the same playing field one museum workers are making $9.75 an hour and museum directors are making $1M plus a year.

Museum Directors and Museum Associations move from organizations built to justify the salaries and expenses of large organizations to organizations of public service to both museum workers and museums as institutions.

We all need to change the perception of museums are for the rich to museums are places of community and places of public service. The majority of museums in the USA are small local museums and we need to acknowledge the importance of these organizations before they disappear.

  • Museums and or Museum Associations to offer group medical insurance to museum part-time and independent museum contractors
  • Museums and or Museum Associations work on behalf of museum workers to demand publishing salaries on job advertisements
  • Museums and or Museum Associations to support the development of museum unions and guilds
  • Museums and or Museum Associations work to support the training and advancement of people of color to enter and remain in the museum field
  • Museums and or Museum Associations create training and certifications for the positions of museum staff.

Sincerely, -Mark Walhimer


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