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How Every Museum Can Respond to Ferguson — Part II

By Imagining America | April 27, 2015

greenberg_photoBy Alyssa Greenberg, PAGE 2014-15 Fellow

As museum professionals, our silence about how social inequality manifests in internal museum practices (discussed in Part I to this post) is tantamount to complicity. I have joined forces with a diverse team of museum workers who are passionate about labor equality, diversity, and inclusion in museums to form a coalition called Museum Workers Speak. Together, we have organized an upcoming opportunity for discussion and action: a “rogue session” at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting called “How Do We Turn the Social Justice Lens Inward? A Conversation About Internal Museum Labor Practices.”

Responding to Ferguson can take the form of public programming or exhibitions, but one way every museum can respond to Ferguson is by addressing internal inequalities. In the list below, I highlight several areas in which museums could re-imagine their internal conversations and actions. What these suggestions share in common are efforts to create conditions under which all workers can thrive and in which all workers have a voice.

  • Take a cue from the labor movement. As a member of a labor union, I had a museum job that paid a living wage and provided benefits including a tuition waiver for my graduate education and protections against discrimination. I would love for this kind of position to become the norm, as very few museums (in this country, anyway) have a union that negotiates for benefits and protections for their staff. I am also inspired by the rise of non-union workers’ groups, sometimes known as alt-labor, which function as a grassroots hub for worker-led initiatives. Particularly relevant for museum workers, the Fight for $15 movement of fast-food workers has persuasively debunked the ideology that would deny student and part-time workers a living wage. Alt-labor practices have secured paid sick days for restaurant workers, overtime pay for domestic workers, and health insurance for taxi drivers — and have the potential to secure these important and much-needed benefits for museum workers as well. (1)
  • Commit to transparency and accountability in the workplace. So that workers can have a voice in their own working conditions, we must cultivate a professional environment that is a safe space even for sensitive conversations, in which discussions of wages and working conditions are not taboo. (For example, let’s end the practice of pay secrecy, which opens the door for wage disparities based on gender and race.)
  • Recruit and invest in workers of color. As of 2010, 34% of the population are people of color yet only 20% of museum employees are people of color. (2) I would love for more museums to follow the lead of the St. Louis Art Museum, which has instituted the Romare Bearden Graduate Minority Museum Fellowship, a year-long paid fellowship for minority graduate students or the Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship Program which offers curatorial training and professional development at elite museums for diverse undergraduates. Another impressive model is the partnership between the Smart Museum of Art and the Odyssey Project, in which adults living at or below the poverty level in Chicago’s South Side have access to a course of study in the humanities, professional training, and paid work as museum educators. Such recruitment efforts could be bolstered by initiatives to support and retain workers of color at all levels. This list of seven ways to make the museum system a better place for people of color is a great place to start.
  • Redistribute the wealth. Many museum pay structures mimic those of the for-profit world, with a remarkably wide gap between salaries for top-level staff and wages for front-line staff including educators, facilities workers, and security personnel. What if museum administrators followed the lead of Raymond Burse, the interim president of Kentucky State University who took a 25% pay cut in order to raise the wages of his lowest-paid workers?

I belong to a group of emerging museum professionals who chose to pursue work in this field to enact social justice. Growing up as millennials and graduating from college post-recession, we have learned that unpaid internships often don’t lead to jobs and that living-wage entry-level positions are scarce. Though we believe in the museum’s potential for enacting social change, we know firsthand that its existing labor practices work against this potential. So let’s not remain silent, as if that will improve our chances at a museum career, hoping we will be the lucky exceptions. Nor should we accept the current state of museum work as inevitable and incapable of transformation. Let’s make our voices heard — not to tear down the museum as an institution but to strengthen it and ensure its continued relevance.

The events in Ferguson last year sparked heated conversations in the museum community about how larger social problems of injustice based in race and class manifest in museums — both in the content they produce and in the makeup and treatment of their staff. It is up to us to continue this vital discussion and ensure that it leads to real change.

We announced our #MuseumWorkersSpeak rogue session only a week ago, and have already received an outpouring of support and excitement from museum workers at all levels. If you’re in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 28, please join us, and if not, follow the revolution on Twitter at #MuseumWorkersSpeak.

1 Josh Eidelson, “Alt-Labor,” The American Prospect, January 29, 2013, http://prospect.org/article/alt-

2 Betty Farrell and Maria Medvedeva, Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums (American Alliance of Museums, 2010), 10, 30.