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I am behind on my reading.

In flipping through my pile of unread American Association [now Alliance] of Museums journal Museum to see what I have been missing, I was arrested by one article in the May/June 2012 issue with unusual upper-case red ink headings, one of which reads “DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME.”

The piece by Elizabeth S. Peña (2012) “Leadership at All Levels” is an excerpt from the new book A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career edited by Greg Stevens & Wendy Luke (2012). From the publisher’s blurb and a limited number of on-line reviews located to date (e.g. Montgomery 2012), the book is directed at both new and experienced museum professionals. Refer to my previous blog posting Overloading of Entry Level Workers: Forewarned is Forearmed for a related perspective on the cohort of emerging museum professionals.

Peña (2012: 46) begins the article by adding the phrase “go the extra mile” to her definition of leadership. There is nothing particularly surprising about this thinking in the museum field that is populated by “occupational devotees.” According to sociologist Robert A. Stebbins (2004: ix),

Occupational devotion is a strong and positive attachment to a form of self-enhancing work, where the sense of achievement is high and the core activity (set of tasks) is endowed with such intense appeal that the line between the work and leisure is virtually erased.

Under the red ink heading “DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME,” Peña (2012: 48) states in the context of advising museum careerists to take ambitious initiatives, step up to address various institutional issues and needs, think strategically, etc.:

Eliminate the possibility that anyone might complain that you are stepping too far out of line. With that said, go above and beyond your job description. Extend yourself. Make yourself indispensable.

All of this is well and good for any workers who love their job, are committed to their institution, and want to further their careers as do the vast majority of workers characterised as “occupational devotees.”

However, in giving this advice, Peña ignores what is blatantly obvious to anyone who works in a museum–regardless of whether or not they have read Stebbins (2004). Rising expectations from all stakeholders, flat lined resources, work intensification resulting from IT and other pressures, general task saturation, time poverty, to say nothing about career ambition are typical. The eventual outcomes of such work settings are stress and poor quality of museum working lives. In this light, some more judicious forethought about the likely outcome of following Peña’s unqualified advice is absolutely necessary for real world museum workers.

Although both Peña’s article and its source volume appear to be valuable resources for managing one’s museum career, it must be asserted forcefully that Peña provides neither complete nor sufficient advice. Indeed, although I must admit that I have not yet laid my hands on this new book, neither the Table of Contents nor Index of Stevens & Luke (2012) A Life in Museums lists anything resembling an analysis of the chronic poor quality of working life issues noted above and below. Only one reference in the Index refers to work-life imbalance, a subject that continues to be the unspoken white elephant in every museum space.

Taken at face value without qualification related to the real world of task saturated working lives, Peña’s advice here is in fact part and parcel of the dilemma in modern museums identified by Dubé (2001, 8-9). Philippe Dubé, Professeur titulaire et Directeur du Laboratoire de muséologie et d’ingénierie de la culture at l’Université Laval carried out a very rare research project studying the quality of working lives in museums. Professor Dubé identified a “general state of fatigue” and “burnout” among museum workers. In fact, many current and future museum leaders in Peña’s intended audience are already “hopelessly overburdened” (Janes 2009: 64; cf. Taylor 2007: 33; Leiby 2003: 13; Deachman 2001: 25; Newlands 1983: 20).

Many in the museum field, however, remain loath to think anything can be done to address the problem (Thistle 2017: 6-9). In replying to questions related to my critiques of the role of professional museum standards and issues regarding Canadian Museums Association advocacy concerning this problem, Executive Director John McAvity (2010) introduced his responses by writing:

What you describe as job related stresses are not limited to the museum field, but prevalent in almost all other publically funded, and private organizations, as well. . .

Most call this change, which I find to be undesirable shift, just as I suspect you do, but like it or not [emphasis in original], it is part of the new reality . . .The truth is that museum workers are not alone. Ask anyone working in almost any other public profession, including health care workers.

A “new reality” indeed. However, one might ask must museum workers passively accept the problem with such unassailable fatalism? I believe we certainly do need to think about and understand the problem of work intensification in global terms, but surely we can act locally in the museum sector. In fact, this issue may be one of the critically important world problems that museums and museum workers can address in their own settings, develop effective coping strategies if not solutions, and then engage the world to meet Robert Janes’ (2009) challenge to recover true relevance of museums to society.

The mythical ‘lemming mentality’ espoused by those who cannot seem to imagine anything beyond the fact that ‘we are all in the same boat,’ must be rejected. All lemmings in every sector in the modern economy may indeed be rushing ahead to jump off the overwork cliff into the sea. What I am urging in this situation is that museum workers take our eyes off the lemming butt ahead of us, stop, and ask ‘Is there no alternative to jumping off this cliff?’

One solution for museum workers is to attend to William Ury (2007: 32). Ury, Director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard, writing in The Power of a Positive No reviewed in an earlier post, advises his readers to stop attempting to do everything anyone ever asks or implicitly expects us to do and to say “wait a minute!” Why do I accept ever-increasing expectations, continuous work intensification, resulting overwork, and the associated stress?

This must be the first step in any effort to preserve a museum worker’s well-being. In light of Ury, Peña and many others in the field must qualify their expectations of museum occupational devotees with a caution about the dangers of overcommitment, overwork, task saturation, time poverty, and resulting stress, if not karioshi–Japanese for ‘work to death’ (Kanani 2006: 171). Just one example of a prevailing perspective in the museum field will suffice here.

Clear evidence of the current expectation in the museum field that paid staff and volunteers need to overwork was voiced during the discussion period after the Museum Management session presentations at the Taking Stock: Museum Studies and Museum Practices in Canada conference marking the 40th anniversary of the Master of Museum Studies programme at the University Toronto on 24 April 2010. Barry Lord, President of Lord Cultural Resources (the world’s largest professional planning practice in the museum, cultural, and heritage field) stated in response to my paper “Fully Loaded Camels: Addressing Museum Worker Task Saturation” that, as “information workers,” we in the museum field should expect “fifteen hour work days.”

I must disagree in the strongest possible terms with Mr. Lord and others who believe that 8 hours of work per day is never enough–”DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME!” Indeed, Mr. Lord and many others expect us to work almost twice that long!

Surely, however, workers’ legal rights, human rights, if not common decency must be brought to bear here. Given the history of the struggles concerning the length of the working day (Golden 2006), would we accept the substitution of “truck drivers” [limited by law to 13 hours per day], or “single parent” workers, or indeed “children” in the assertion about 15 hour work days expected from information workers?

In my view, this expectation clearly is a betrayal of the hard-won advances of the eight-hour day labour movement and is directly opposed to every museum worker’s fundamental best interests in terms of family, social, physical, mental, and spiritual health–not to mention our ability to achieve museum missions effectively. Unrelenting and untreated stresses caused by long work days and other such rising expectations are in fact the leading causes of a rather long list of negative symptoms that significantly impair work performance:

  • illnesses, absences, personal upheavals, divorce, alcoholism, collective depression, lethargy, slowdown, complaints to board members, work stoppages, grumbling, scapegoating, secret meetings, staff turnover . . . (Gurian 1995: 19, 21).

The Lord and Peña path is certainly NOT the only one open to committed museum paid staff and volunteers. Ury (2007: 2, 17-18, 34, 43, 80-1, passim) presents a workable plan of action for saying “No” to rising expectations based on first saying a positive “Yes” to the worker’s own values and core interests.

Among the many other strategies suggested by experienced museum workers during 3 different annual museum conference sessions organised around the theme ‘fully loaded camels seeking solutions’ are preliminary brainstormed ideas such as:

  • Remember that you set a dangerous precedent when you do something heroic [i.e., be realistic about what can be accomplished given available resources. More broadly, heroic effort can serve to increase expectations, not only of your own future performance, but that of others’ in your organisation as well.]
  • Management is about deciding where you put the museum’s capacity. If a newly suggested project is not in the current budget, do not permit discussion of the project until the next budget cycle. Cross-reference priorities. Get budget priorities in writing and establish initial consensus. Base decisions on the budget. In budgeting process, get staff to tell management what they are able do. Stop holding out a large laundry basket and asking people to throw things into it. Record lists of the bright new ideas for future consideration. [From my personal experience in more than sixteen years of working as CAO with museum boards, “management by the next bright idea” is a common cause of the task saturation problem (Thistle 2011: 3). Museum trustees and other like stakeholders bring a constant stream of bright new ideas to the table. The danger of engaging in “management by the next bright idea” when the current bright idea has not been implemented fully yet is a characteristic of museum operations that requires some serious critical attention to the effective consolidation of progress before being diverted by another project (cf. Maniez 2002, 10).]
  • for dealing with new ideas, projects, standards . . ., etc. ask your supervisor “What would you like me to let go [in order to carry out this new task as an already fully loaded camel]?”
  • Procrastination can be useful. You need to make deliberate choices about what you do & what you don’t do [cf. Janes (2009: 156)]. Need to select between doing what is urgent vs. doing what is important. Get help from people around you to get the job done more effectively [cf. Janes (2009: 62, 65, 72-3) primus inter pares management model?].
  • [Solutions to the problem of voluntary commitment of unpaid time by paid museum workers that are recommended by Best, Leah (2007) Giving back or giving out?: Community obligation, Museums Roundup (237): 10-11) include managing expectations by being up front about time limitations, and setting boundaries. See the analysis of this approach in the Problem Statement file of the Museum Workers Task Saturation Wiki (Thistle 2011: 6).]
  • Most of our work to be done on the task saturation issue should focus on the escalating expectations problem. We need to educate partners and other stakeholders about the tremendous demands engendered by the museum field’s own standards and the significant changes that the world faces. Managing these expectations needs more attention than finding additional resources [see analysis in the Problem Statement file in the Museum Worker Task Saturation Wiki] . The most serious gap is in expectations. Museum workers need to take time to think so we can answer the question about what is our priority & to chart a path accordingly.
  • the unreasonable expectations of museum workers is an ethical issue [Both International Council of Museums (2006: 1) ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, Paris: International Council of Museums, p. 1 and Association of American Museums. 2000. Code of Ethics for Museums, Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, p. 2 assert that museum governing authorities have a responsibility to protect the human resources that carry out their missions. This is in line with Elaine Heuman Gurian ed. (1995: 25) “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.”]

The Museum Worker Task Saturation Wiki [UPDATE 7 JUNE 2021: THIS WIKI IS NOW DEFUNCT. Solutions! DOCUMENT IS NOW UPDATED AS THE LAST LINK ON THE ABOVE TOP RIBBON’S Task Saturation Documents TAB.] “Solutions!” document that is the result of brainstorming by experienced museum workers contains many other potential solutions to time poverty, task saturation, and resulting stress in museum work lives.

In the end analysis, our own best interests for self-preservation and work-life balance in the personal, family, social, and indeed professional realms directs us to use Ury (2007) and other strategies to help us reject expert or other pressures coercing us to “DO YOUR JOB, AND THEN SOME.”

The latter advice is patently an unhealthy and unsustainable lemming-like career path that no one has a right to expect museum workers should follow.

References Cited:

Best, Leah (2007) Giving back or giving out?: Community Obligation, Museums Roundup (237): 10-11

Deachman, Bruce (2001) A Question of Leadership, Muse XIX (2): 24-8.

Dubé, Philippe (2001) View: Towards a New Generic Model for Small and Medium-Sized Museums, Muse 19 (1): 8-9.

Golden, Lonnie, (2006) How Long? The Historical, Economic and Cultural Factors Behind Working Long Hours and Overwork, in Research Companion to Working Time and Work Addiction, ed. Ronald J. Burke, Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.

Gurian, Elaine Heuman ed. (1995) Institutional Trauma: Major Change in Museums and its Effect on Staff. Washington: American Association of Museums.

Janes, Robert R. (2009) Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? New York: Routledge.

Kanani, Atsuko (2006) Economic and Employment Conditions, Karioshi (work to death) and the Trend of Studies on Workaholism in Japan, In Research Companion to Working Time and Work Addiction, ed. Ronald J. Burke, Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.

Leiby, Maria Quinlan (2003) Choosing Middle Management, History News 58 (4): 12-14.

Maniez, Erica (2002) Survival Secrets for the Heritage Professional, History News 57 (3): 9-11.

McAvity, John (2010) Personal communication via e-mail to Paul Thistle, 9 January.

Montgomery, Renee (2012) Book Review: A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career, WestMuse Blog, Posted 6 July 2012, Redmond WA: Western Museums Association http://westmuse.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/book-review/ (accessed 3 January 2013).

Newlands, David L. (1983) Stress and Distress in Museum Work. Muse I (2): 18-22, 52.

Peña, Elizabeth S. (2012) Leadership at All Levels, Museum 91 (3): 44-9

Stebbins, Robert A. (2004) Between Work and Leisure: The Common Ground of Two Separate Worlds, New Brunswick USA: Transaction Publishers.

Taylor, Russell Willis (2007) Museum Leaders: A Renewable Resource? Museum News 86 (4): 33-5.

Thistle, Paul C. (2017) Fully Loaded Camels: Addressing Museum Worker Task Saturation located at Fully Loaded Camels 2017 (accessed 21 August 2017).

_________ (2011) Problem Statement: Museum Workers as Fully Loaded Camels Standing in a Rain of Straws in Files, Museum Worker Task Saturation Wiki http://groups.yahoo.com/group/museumworker/ (accessed 14 January 2013).

Ury, William (2007) The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, New York: Bantam Dell.