Exploitation of entry level workers by employers in all fields is a subject that arises in the media on occasion. A flurry of attention recently was directed at the difficulties experienced by young people involved in unpaid internships (Sanburn 2012; Greenhouse 2012; CBC 2012; Loriggio 2011).
With regard to entry level and emerging museum professionals, however, there exists little or no analysis. It has occurred to me that exploitation of young museum workers is an issue that requires some “critical museology” as defined by Teather and Carter (2009: 24). Indeed, this aspect of ‘new museology’ calls for a critical stance toward old [and one also must say current] assumptions and ways of working (Ross 2004: 84).
My analysis of the central problem of museum worker task saturation and time poverty at hand can be illustrated in a simple graph. Figure 1.
I have argued elsewhere (Thistle 2011) that, as “occupational devotees” (Stebbins 2004), museum workers love what we do for a living and pursue excellence regardless of the cost. As a result, both paid employees and volunteers permit continually rising expectations of museum performance combined with flat lined or declining resources to drive us into situations characterised by “work intensification” (Bunting 2004: 28) and “overwork” (Mercadex International 2002: 5). Eventually, task saturation (Murphy 2008), time poverty (Schor 1991: 5), and heightened levels of stress result. One of the rare studies analysing working conditions in museums was carried out by Philippe Dubé (2001), Professeur titulaire et Directeur du Laboratoire de muséologie et d’ingénierie de la culture at l’Université Laval. This research found widespread problems of insufficient financing, a “general state of fatigue,” and “burnout” among museum workers.
Beyond the occupational devotedness of established museum paid staff and volunteers, however, entry level museum workers possess strong additional motivations centred on career advancement that exacerbate the tendency to overwork. For emerging museum professionals who use information technology as second nature, also see a recent blog posting showing how smartphones cause a poor quality of working life. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that many employers treat young workers as ‘dirt cheap and disposable’ (WorkplaceInfo 2005).
Overwork pressures on young workers currently exist below the radar and so require some critical museology. Having forwarded a draft article on the subject of museum worker task saturation to the American Association of Museums (AAM) for comment, I was astonished at the tenor of the response.
Responding to a question about AAM’s recognition of the problem of task saturation and resulting burnout among museum workers, Julie Hart et al. (2009), AAM’s Sr. Director, Museum Standards and Excellence with contributions from other AAM staff, writes:
Certainly, we hear this concern repeatedly from our own members. However, there are still more people clamoring to work in museums than there are positions to accommodate them [emphasis added]. Absent rationing entry into the field, which we see no mechanism to enact even if it were desirable in principle, we are left with the challenge of increasing resources available to institutions. AAM devotes a huge amount of its waking hours to just this challenge, through advocacy, training, and publications, and in almost every area in which we are active.
I believe it is unconscionable for the AAM (and other professional museum organisations; see Thistle 2012) to gloss over the problem simply based on the fact that there remains a superabundance of people who want jobs as museum workers (Schwarzer 2012: 25). From the perspective of someone who is closer to the end of my museum career than the beginning, this says to me: ‘You may be “hopelessly overburdened” (cf. Janes 2009: 64), but many people still want your job.’ Essentially, I interpret this as an admission that experienced museum workers are–if not deliberately exploited–expendable (cf. Gross 2003: 3).
On the other hand and to the point of this posting, what does the AAM statement say to entry level museum workers? In effect, it asserts: ‘Yes, let’s continue to build the museum railroad by relying on a continuous stream of enthusiastic coolies and we will let you become “hopelessly overburdened” too. Surely other young people will still be anxious to replace any who burn- and drop-out.’ Such a response makes clear that the need to manage this problem has not even been contemplated.
How can this approach by the AAM be considered as anything other than a default–if not deliberate–form of exploiting young workers? Professional museum organizations, museums as employers, and other stakeholders must begin reflecting seriously on their attempts to advance the cause of museums by relying on–therefore by default exploiting–museum workers and their love for the work (cf. Friedman 1994: 120; Burke 2006: 120; Mercadex International 2002: 6). Too often, museums as employers rely almost entirely on their paid and volunteer workers to meet constantly rising and altogether new expectations without the necessary resources–other than the enthusiasm of emerging and experienced professionals–to meet the ever-rising expectation inflation (Thistle 2011).
Hart et al. do address the need to increase resources in order to deal with rising expectations. However–and this is a crucial point–Hart et al. (2009) admit at the end of their response:
(As you can guess, there is no one right answer. Part of it is institutional and managerial; part of it is personal responsibility and ambition. The truth is the way we work is changing and will never be the same as it was. There will never be enough resources (time, staff, money) to do everything we want/need to do [emphasis added].)
If it is in fact the case that the AAM is expending ‘a huge amount of effort’ on a plan of action that admittedly will fail, is this not an irrational–if not irresponsible–strategy? Is there no other avenue open for action?
In light of the AAM’s admission that sufficient resources will never be available, I believe that it becomes absolutely crucial to address the other variable in the rising expectations + flatlined resources = task saturation, stress, & burnout equation shown in Figure 1. Given AAM’s admission, and in light of William Ury’s (2007) negotiation approach [outlined in a previous blog] for example, are the variables of rising expectations and museum worker task saturation not the factors which are most amenable to managed change in the current situation (Thistle 2010)? At a bare minimum, is effort directed at attempting to manage expectations and reduce overwork any less likely to be an effective strategy than the current reliance on what is admittedly a doomed lobby for additional resources (cf. Janes 2009: 176)? Why do professional museum organisations appear to resist addressing the museum worker task saturation directly? This and the related issues cry out for critical museology, new research, analysis, and concerted remedial action.
The Canadian Museums Association’s CMA Ethics Guidelines 1999 (Canadian Museums Association 1999: 13) urges senior museum personnel to take responsibility for educating less experienced colleagues. In this light, I firmly believe it is crucial for senior staff and volunteers to identify the task saturation problem in the field for entry level workers and to assist them in avoiding and/or ameliorating it. Indeed, in the context of the many philosophical, organisational, and individual functional competencies recommended to museum workers by the CMA, skills that analyse, create alternatives, act to minimise problems, and value original approaches to problem-solving (Canadian Museums Human Resource Planning Committee 1997: 15) surely must be applied here.
For young emerging professionals, apart from solutions already suggested on this blog such as turning off your smartphone as soon as you leave work and refusing the check messages until you next start work, I believe that it is important for entry level museum workers to pay close attention to their union contracts and, failing unionisation, engage the relevant staff associations in dealing with the work intensification issue following Joseph Ansel’s (1995: 92-3, 98-9) recommendation concerning the advantages of associations over unions.
I personally believe that museum workers also should start to take a more forceful hand in directing our existing regional and national professional organisations such as the AAM to begin addressing the problem (Thistle 2012). Annual general meetings are held as a matter of course for members to play a role in directing the activities of the organisation. Passing members’ resolutions from the floor to make addressing the task saturation issue a priority is certainly possible.
For example, museum workers who take advantage of professional development training, but after returning to work are frustrated that they do not have the necessary time or resources to implement their new learning, could usefully pass a resolution that all training provided in future by the association must address how one can find the time, tools, and resources to actually implement the new learning when back at work where workers are already task saturated. Current professional development practice in the field rarely, if ever, addresses this crucial factor. One element of this approach that professional development programmes need to address is to identify which current burdens fully loaded camels can drop. After all, the wisdom contained in the fully loaded camels and straw aphorism is that the inevitable result of constantly placing more unresourced tasks on workloads is a broken back.
I believe all museum workers–not just emerging professionals–need to become aware of regional and national workers’ rights legislation (Arthurs 2006)–for example laws against unpaid overtime (Thistle 2011). Indeed museum workers should apply internationally recognised human rights to assert some semblance of work/life balance (McIntyre 2008).
Since museum workers–both young and not-so-young–are in the heritage preservation and education business, we also could pay closer attention to the history of the forty-hour work week movement (Golden 2009) and how the advances gained for workers on that front in the last century have been eroded (Thistle 2012).
Future Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blogs will focus on these and other workable responses to the dilemmas of task saturation and time poverty.
In summary, awareness among entry level museum professionals of the dangers inherent in task saturation to one’s physical, mental, spiritual, family, and social health is the first step toward reducing the negative impact of the modern world’s work intensification pressures.
Indeed, all ages of workers at whatever stage of their careers deserve a humane and balanced work/non-work life. Elaine Heuman Gurian (1995: 20-21) presents the fundamental reason for this in her book Institutional Trauma: Major Change in Museums and its Effect on Staff.
Even if impaired work performance were not the outcome of unabated staff stress, I would proffer another, and perhaps better reason to pay attention to staff needs. If our work in museums is evidence of our collective commitment to enhancing the quality of life for society, then we must be attentive to maintaining a high quality of life for our work community (cf. Brumgardt 1995: 70).
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