We are in a liminal space between the status quo and new possibilities as the calls to abolish the Western museum model grow louder. A lot of visioning is dedicated to either the deconstruction of present-day museums or the creation of something new. Both are important, both are necessary. However, there is a middle phase that can get overlooked: an essential bridge between the ending of museums as we know them and regeneration.
This is the first post in a series called “In the Meantime” in which Marabou suggests what we should be doing now and recommends perceived, necessary, people-centric steps that both facilitate the transition out of existing museum models and generate the means to build anew. At the core of this middle-ground work is care and reversing the Western museum’s stripped-down interpretation of care that is reserved for the inanimate (a museum’s structures and objects) and systematically disregards select museum workers, visitors, and people represented through the collections.
The reality is that museums provide jobs and people need jobs to survive. Some people may have the privilege or taken the risk to say they no longer want to work at a certain museum (or museums in general) for ethical reasons. Most people don’t have that luxury. How can we ensure that museum workers are taken care of and supported during this period of museum unrest? Marabou’s suggestions invite action from both those working in the museum and those outside of the museum.
Since early 2019, the museum unionization movement has swept across the US at an encouraging pace. Marabou sees this as a big step in shifting both museum administration awareness and public perceptions of what it’s really like to work at a museum. Marabou doesn’t necessarily see unionization as a shift in power, but in accountability. With a union, a museum has to listen and acknowledge when workers speak up. Whether or not a museum addresses grievances or requests for change is more complicated. Unions make a difference, but they aren’t cure-alls for all the ills of the workplace. As we saw in 2020 during pandemic shutdown, museums can resist and try to work around unions, such as gutting the unions at the New Museum and the Tenement Museum with massive layoffs. Even though museums can try to circumvent unions, worker solidarity is powerful whether those workers are unionized or not. Worker solidarity can create change beyond union limitations.
Museum Worker Solidarity
Marabou particularly appreciates unions because they are, in a way, a proof of concept. The concept: worker solidarity makes things happen and can change the workplace for the better. The unionization process often means that people in different departments speak to each other for the first time and learn about each other’s jobs. The silos that keep people apart, too common in museums, are shattered. You don’t need a union drive to connect with people in other departments. Communicating and building relations are the first steps in developing worker solidarity. To do this, workers need to make a conscious effort to say hi and genuinely get to know their fellow workers. It sounds easy, but most people are creatures of habit. It’s easier to keep one’s routine instead of say hello to someone you haven’t spoken to before or walk the long way back to your desk to visit different departments. Marabou says make the effort, even if it’s just setting the goal of meeting someone new each week. Workers can be so siloed to the point that they don’t know what others do outside of their department. Antagonism can start between departments due to lack of communication and lack of understanding of how each worker in each department contributes to the functioning of the greater whole, the museum.
Although museums may hold all-staff meetings and holidays parties and make attempts to bring people together with mixers and ice breakers, museums actually benefit from silo-ing. It’s counter intuitive, right? One would think that a staff that gets along, knowns how everyone contributes to the museum functioning as a whole, is aware of what their fellow workers do day-to-day (and dare say, know what everyone is paid?!) would cultivate a hospitable environment for growth and productivity. It definitely would be a more cohesive and generative environment, but for museums, the trade-off is that workers, in community and feeling connected, may talk and share views on what can be changed and what should be better. A united voice speaking up, with the leverage of withholding resources like time, labor, collective intelligence, and creativity, is much harder to ignore than grievances from one or two workers at a time. Marabou says get to know your co-workers and encourage work friends to do the same. Don’t depend on the museum to bring you together, do it on your own terms. Though building relations with fellow workers, you can then start to develop trust. With that trust and camaraderie, comes solidarity. Building relations and fostering community takes time. A foundation of trust is necessary to successfully move and make changes together.
What does worker solidarity look like? Marabou shares just a few examples below. At the core of each is consideration of others in addition to oneself and making the effort to speak up. Solidarity can be expressed individually or in groups, so no need to wait for a group consensus – you can begin now!
Support Others Who Speak Up
If you aren’t inclined to speak up and raise issues yourself, one powerful action is to support others who speak up. This can be during an all-staff meeting or a small meeting with an administrator and those they manage. For example, if one of your fellow workers stands-up and addresses an issue that has been overlooked, ignored, or is contentious and you agree with them, don’t stay silent. One of the easiest ways to show you solidarity is to say out loud, “I agree with what my co-worker said. I also feel this issue needs attention. What is being done about this?” It can be very powerful if more people follow suit during the meeting, this takes up space and time and lets administration know workers won’t let things slide. It takes a lot for someone to speak up and disagree with or challenge administration, holding them accountable. If you speak up in support, it lets someone know they are not alone and can inspire others to speak up or at least to support those that take the risk. Another way to support each other is to ask a buddy to join you for a meeting you have initiated with admin. Let whomever you’re meeting with know that someone else (or multiple people) is concerned about an issue and would like to attend.
By connecting to your fellow workers, you learn about their jobs, lives, and interests, eventually feeling more comfortable around them. Affinity groups are created when people come together with shared interests and shared goals. For museum workers, Marabou is thinking about affinity groups based on shared experiences and concerns specific to the workplace. Affinity groups are another way to break the silo-ing, bringing people together across departments. Groups can form around a number of issues that include racism in the workplace, advocating for better accessibility for workers and visitors, and parents and caretakers who want to figure out ways the museum can support balancing work and family needs. Marabou wants to emphasize that they are advocating for worker-initiated affinity groups, not groups started by an institution. An institution may not welcome a worker-initiated affinity group, call it divisive and say the group can’t meet on campus. (This was the case at the Tenement Museum for a while, further explained below.) This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t join together with colleagues – just do it outside of your institution at a café, bar, or park. Museum-initiated affinity groups are created to serve and perpetuate the museum’s agenda. Worker-initiated groups can set the parameters of their group and can speak freely without the institution controlling the conversation. These groups may start as a place to vent about work and built trust, and then become places to brainstorm and plan worker-led initiatives. It just takes a few people to start an affinity group and it doesn’t matter if workers are full-time, part-time, or contract. Marabou acknowledges that building and maintaining affinity groups means taking time to think about work outside of work, but the relations built and change possible can be worth the time investment.
The Tenement Museum’s caucuses were an example of worker-initiated affinity groups. In March of 2016, Tenement Museum workers, led by two workers of color, created two caucuses. The People of Color (POC) Caucus and a White Allies Caucus addressed issues around race and ethnicity as they manifested both internally and externally (such as visitor and community relations) at the museum. Each caucus regularly met on their own. Workers would discuss issues and their experiences, from museum content to interpersonal interaction and how the museum supports (or doesn’t support) workers of color who have encounters and manage situations their white colleagues do not. At least once a year the two caucuses came together to have larger conversations around pressing issues. In the interim, facilitators of each caucus communicated ideas or initiatives that came up during their respective meetings and how to put initiatives in motion. For example, the White Allies Caucus were asked to figure out ways to support the POC Caucus when they raised issues around lack of support and resources for POC workers who experience racism from visitors on their tours. As stated above, the Tenement’s caucuses were not formally acknowledged by the museum because they were seen as divisive and therefore, were not allowed to meet on Tenement Museum property. For almost two years, until a new president came in, the caucuses would meet at local bars and cafes to discuss and plan ways workers could make the institution more accountable and better. Once the caucuses were allowed to meet on campus and facilitators compensated for their time, the caucuses were conscious not to allow themselves to be co-opted by the museum. They made sure their intentions and conversations continued to serve the caucuses’ initial purposes. Inspired by the POC and White Allies caucuses, an Access affinity group was started at the museum in 2019 to advocate for better accessible offerings and support for both visitors and employees. Many of the DEI initiatives at the Tenement Museum, pre- and post-pandemic (some currently touted on its website), were initiated and moved along by workers of color and the caucuses including the new walking tour “Reclaiming Black Spaces” and the museum’s relationship with American Indian Community House. With the mass layoff of 84 employees in July 2020, the caucuses came to an end. With these layoffs, the Tenement Museum also cut most of its union’s members.
Mutual aid funds began popping up early in the pandemic when museums laid off workers in large numbers. New funds start as layoffs continue. The most recent is for NYC Transit Museum workers unexpectedly laid off a few weeks ago. Marabou is inspired that museum workers continue to come together to support one another when their institutions abandon them, and hopes that workers will start to create, if they haven’t already, mutual aid and sharing of resources beyond monetary. Mutual aid can take many forms from childcare to ridesharing. By coming together as a community and identifying needs and sharable resources, workers can support one another in ways that the museum and other institutions fall short. Mutual aid is nothing new, but is something that can be key in helping museum workers get through the current moment until transitioning to better options.
Marabou advocates for museum worker solidarity not just within museums, but across museums. Additionally, Marabou encourages museum workers to connect with community and activist groups that have shared interests and goals. Creating a network across museums and communities allows for the sharing of ideas and resources and building a larger base for worker and community advocacy.
Marabou recognizes that some people are in more vulnerable positions and jobs more precarious than others depending on job type, personal circumstances, and size of a museum. Some of the suggestions above may not be possible for all, but Marabou believes that building relations with and care for your fellow worker is a first essential step everyone can take.
Marabou wants to know, what has worked for you and your community of workers in building solidarity and advocating for change?
Museum Visitors Advocating for Workers
Advocacy for museum workers from those outside of the institution is essential. While activists and unions have been speaking up in support of museum workers, visitors and donors (members, patrons, etc.) can and should voice their support.
Marabou sees visitor advocacy in two ways, 1) in visitor interaction with workers and 2) visitors speaking up with/for workers.
Supportive Visitor Interactions
Marabou encourages you, the next time you step into a museum or cultural space, to be mindful of the people who make your experience happen: from the security guards at the door to the visitor services representative when you pick up your tickets, to the guards, docents, and educators in the galleries, to the facilities staff who may be refilling the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom, to the museum shop staff stocking inventory. Imagine your museum experience without these workers. Without these workers the museum wouldn’t be open to the public. During your next visit, take the time to smile, genuinely say thank you, and think about what each respective job entails, how each of those workers are integral to the museum functioning. Especially during the COVID pandemic, it is important to realize that workers have and continue to be put at risk so your museum experience can be pleasant as possible. You may not realize it, but a friendly face, genuine interaction, and acknowledgement of worker contributions can make a big difference in someone’s day.
If you are curious about a worker’s experience, ask, but be aware of the context. If you want to know if visitor services reps are supported by management and have been provided proper protection for their interactions with the public, don’t ask if there are many people waiting in line behind you. Also be conscious of management surveillance. Workers may not be able to speak freely or may not want to say anything, so if they avoid your inquiry, don’t press it. Balance expression of support and solidarity with not interrupting someone from doing their job. One question to ask, once you’ve assessed the context, is: “What can visitors do to support museum [insert museum worker here, ex. security guards]?”
Visitors, Speak Up to the Institution!
Changing museums cannot happen through internal agitation by workers alone. The museum must hear from and receive pressure both internally and externally.
How do you find out what’s going on at your museum beyond the exhibitions? There are numerous Instagram and Twitter accounts that represent and share museum workers experiences. Hashtags like #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and #ChangeTheMuseum highlight issues at museums across the United States. Do a quick Google news search about your local museum to see what’s been going on. If you are not one for social media and nothing is coming up on news feeds, observe and take note of worker conditions during a visit to the museum.
When Marabou says visitors should speak up to institutions, they literally mean speak up to museums. While social media advocacy, a retweet or post, raises awareness, writing an email or directly speaking to a museum’s president, human resources, or fundraising department is more impactful. If you don’t know where to start, simply ask, “What are you doing to support your workers?” If they respond, ask for further details and explanation of what they consider “support.” If you’re familiar with worker initiatives, echo the concerns raised by workers and ask the museum what they are doing about it. Want to know if there are policies in place to protect workers during the pandemic? Ask. Write an email, stuff the comments/suggestion boxes, let the museum know you are invested in its workers’ well-being in addition to its programming. If more and more visitors hold the museum accountable the museum will need to listen because it can turn into a public relations issue that could impact ticket sales. The museum is more likely to listen to visitors than their own workers.
If you are a donor, you have an even louder voice. If donors speak up, consistently raising concerns and advocating for workers, the museum will be more compelled to respond. Money talks and museums listen. The more money you give, of course, the further your comments/concerns will be carried up the chain of command. Even though Marabou takes issue with the current structuring of museum funding, until another system is developed, they would like to see a donor create a fund/endowment specifically for museum workers’ salaries and benefits. Most general fundraising (unrestricted donations) goes to operating costs. Big gifts are often restricted funding (can only be used for what the donor explicitly specifies) for flashy things like exhibitions and the naming of halls, galleries, and curatorial positions. If curatorial positions can be guaranteed by an endowed gift to a museum, why can’t there be an endowment that ensures the financial and job security of educators, guards, and visitor services staff?
A combination of internal and external pressure can push museums to be accountable and make changes to support its workers. A key part of visitor/donor advocacy is not only highlighting issues, but also expressing and demanding that workers are consulted and included in developing solutions. Visitor/donor advocacy should be consistent. Saying something once won’t make any change. Visitors taking an interest in worker experiences chips away at the invisible barrier that separates visitor from museum worker. Let’s build relations leading to the expansion of the workers’ support base and possibilities for change.
To change the museum, to transform the museum, to create a new type of museum is long work. Until we can transition to new cultural spaces, let’s come together to protect and support museum workers in the meantime.