On the Mass Extinction of Museum Professionals & Why Trustees Should be Worried

Museums are institutions. Generations of employees come and go. They do their jobs and then they walk away. Their impacts are big or small, but in the end, the institution persists.

Most of their names just disappear as their colleagues move on. But, their impact becomes woven into the fiber of that institution. Certainly, impact is easier to assess for those with higher profile jobs, but every single employee makes the institution better. The cleaner, who came in that Sunday at 4 AM to assiduously remove evidence of the night‘s’ events, ensures that a Sunday morning visitor sees the museum at it best. That Sunday visitor leaves feeling good about that visit, shares their feeling with friends, and comes back.

Institutions are like ecosystems. While the director might be at the top of web, every stratum matters. Just as any person living a suburban deer-plagued existence knows, change to any element of an ecosystem makes the whole system go out of whack. A system gone off-kilter is not easily righted. The cost of stabilizing a challenged organization is exorbitant, partly as it’s not a budgeted expense.

Why are so many people in the middle leaving?

Museums are really good at keeping collections but not people. Work is devalued in numerous ways. Many staff work below living wage. Other positions are manned by volunteers. In addition, managers are promoted for their intellectual prowess not their leadership qualities. In other words, the institution is the point of the work not the workers.

For all of these people, at the middle of their life, and the middle of their organizations, a career of scraping and fighting for the mission is exhausting. When corporate America gives them a chance, they feel ready to bounce. When they leave, though, they take, collectively, millions of dollars of knowledge with them.

Given the small scale of the sector, each individual is not just helping the organization that hires them. They are basically peer-training the field, through their presentations, papers, and social media presence. When that person walks out that door of their museum office, the whole field loses.

Why does it matter?

Museums are not a given in society. There was a time before museums, and without care, there could be a time after museums. Museums could go the way of the dodo if care isn’t given. The world will change, as it always has. Museums need to be strategic to survive cultural changes without going extinct.

This cultural evolutionary race will be won by the fittest, most adaptable institutions. Museums are being weakened by the regular loss of skilled, trained, and knowledge staff at the middle levels. Think of a tall tree hollowed by a woodpecker. The bright green leaves reaching to the sky like a crown are like the executive team; they play an essential role in the survival of the whole organism. The roots are like the lowest level operating staff. But, the vast trunk is like the middle of the museum, hallowing it out is the surest way to ensure that tree will go down in a storm.

Trustees need to focus on the future of museums. The future of the field is not solely dictated by directors and curators. The masses of museums workers below them put everything into action are essential to making sure that the whole sector survives.