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An unusually active on-line discourse about museum workers leaving the field will have come to the attention of many followers of this blog Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers. It was sparked by entry level emerging museum professional Claire Milldrum’s (2017) revelatory blog post “Why I Left The Museum Field.”

It is rather sad—yet, for me, not really surprising—to witness the true despair voiced by Milldrum and many other young and mid-career museum workers in the resulting discussions who have given up on their museum “vocations”[1] due to burn- and push-out.[2]

Witness the following blog posts and related comments [coded: Y meaning entry level; M meaning mid-career 5-15 yr. in the field; E meaning experienced/elder workers with 16 or more yr. ; V meaning volunteer; U meaning unknown work experience]:

  • Y: Milldrum (2017) blog post titled “Why I Left The Museum Field” (founded primarily on the issue of exploitative low pay):[3]
    • [Inter alia.] . . . left the field because I decided I was very tired . . .
    • . . . reached my (un)reasonably high tolerance for giving away my labor through volunteering and internships. . .
    • Leaving . . . right decision [i.e. to new non-museum] job that allows me to . . . only work 40 hours. . . These things should not seem exceptional to anyone, but in the museum world they have become some impossible thing.
    • [Decision to leave] . . .  took raging, sobbing, holding back tears while working. It was as bad as my worst breakup . . .
    • Until those [institutions] . . .  actually start managing their expectations of what an underpaid and overworked staff can do, I am not here for them or their apologists. If those large institutions adjusted their behaviors and took the high ground, the entire industry would change (Milldrum 2017).
      • [Comments generated by the above post]: U: This post and the ensuing responses should be put in front of the boards of every museum in the country.
      • U (high paid permanent): . . . related, but slightly different note, I also feel there is also a high level of burn out . . . Too many projects, not enough staff.
      • V: . . . sector broadly suffers a similar talent loss due to unreasonable industry expectations, a culture of free labour in the name of experience and exposure, poverty, stress and the consequent mental health issues this can cause.
  • Blog post “Leaving the Museum Field” (Erdman et al. 2017): reports the findings of a 2016 on-line survey seeking information on why museum workers apparently are leaving the field. Stay tuned for a future blog post on the specific findings.
    • [Comments generated] E: Work/life balance is very important, as I found out the hard way. . . I’m still busier than I’ve ever been in my career . . .
    • U: Too many museum people work more hours than they should for many reasons: fear of being replaced if they don’t get the work done, allow their passions to get the better of them, pressure from peers or management, etc. Doing so can be detrimental to the individual personally. . . employees are in a union. That being said, I still have to kick them out the door to leave or insist they put down the hours that they actually work. When it comes to that burnout point and cry for more staff, I tell them my argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on if the powers that be see that the place is functioning and everyone has down 40 hours for the work week. So that workaholic culture can come back to hurt you.
    • M: Bingo. I’m also looking to leave after 9 years. . . I’m the only person in my department, but goals for revenue and attendance numbers are unrealistic for one person to achieve. . . museums need to stop expecting staff to crank out a high volume of programs without hiring additional staff. That’s where the work/life balance gets out of whack. I’m seeing such burnout and high turnover at my current job because it’s not a sustainable model. . . Yes, I’m very resentful of this field right now.
  • For another source of similar comments concerning work overload & stress in museums see my report arising from the “Museum Worker Overload & the Ethics of Exploitation” session at the 2014 Canadian Museums Association Annual Conference, in Toronto (Thistle 2014b). Post-session comments included inter alia:
    • U: “on my way out & this is my last CMA” [Canadian Museums Association conference]
    • U: “Have retention issues”
    • U: “First Nation professional [providing entry level training]: Working for [how many???] years. Trend was to get & keep job for a long time allowing building contacts. Now seeing high turnover. Many people are getting out.”

Is any of the above commentary at all surprising to followers of this blog? I trust that anyone reading my posts here would be familiar with the problems identified as well as the various solutions proposed on this web site.


  • Your E blogger’s contributions proposing solutions to problems identified in the comments in response to Erdman et al. (2017) that, admittedly, is not a scientific, systematic survey:
    • I believe strongly that it is now time for museum workers to attend annual meetings & pass resolutions that instruct professional museum organisations to carry out formal research on these matters so that we can begin to identify exactly what requires actionable strategies to solve or at least begin to ameliorate the problems. [Following Baldwin (2017), we require formal valid randomised data collection. Some important data is already in hand, but a call to access it has not gained traction (Thistle 2014a).]
    • Re: ‘What would entice staying? Third, was a change in leadership (18%):’ for some critical museology on museum management, see my blog post “Managing Expectation Inflation & Resulting Stress in Museum Work” and the following extensive Comment (Thistle 2015).)
    • Re ‘Grant permission (to yourself, your coworkers) to slow down and be human:’ workers certainly can attempt to do this, but we have little power to enact this effectively without conflicting with the constantly rising expectations of managers, institutions, museum standards, governments, & our visitors. I maintain that unrealistic & unresourced expectations are the primary driver of dissatisfaction with working conditions in our field [& most other sectors too] {meaning that management of expectation inflation in our field is required}.
    • Besides the means mentioned in the ‘Professionally’ section: I firmly believe that museum workers need to assert their rights as the “member-owners” of professional museum organisations. If we can begin to take control over our working lives by persuading our professional organisations that changes to pay, expectations, & working conditions are necessary, there will be no need to create a Museum Workers of the World Union.
    • Re comment by Paul Orselli “when will AAM tie accreditation to fair pay and labor practices?”: Paul: Excellent question! Exploitation of museum workers in lack of fair pay & attention to other workplace problems such as expectations for museum workers to “overwork” above & beyond what we are actually paid for in order to achieve museum goals absent sufficient time, tools, & resources needs to be addressed by AAM & other such organisations. I suspect that many museum workers who toil longer hours than they are actually paid for are working illegally in many jurisdictions. [e.g. I have been told HR departments are not anxious to record unpaid hours as is recommended] Above and beyond the legality here, I point out that many of our institutions–even those who are accredited–fail to adhere to the AAM Code of Ethics for Museums regarding the responsibility to “protect” our human resources as well as collections (American Association of Museums 2000, 2). I do not advocate here for creating a separate Museum Workers of the World Union. However, we do need to wrestle with how professional museum organisations at all levels deal with opposing interests among its institutional & individual members. This seems to me to be a crucial question when we discuss fair pay & labour practices in museums.

Other Solutions in the Broader Context:

  • Refuse to work uncompensated overtime—that in many jurisdictions is illegal. In Canadian federally regulated workplaces for example, this is the case even if you willingly chose to volunteer your time. Worker volition cannot trump the law and it makes your employer liable to penalties under the legislation. The same is true for museums that are regionally regulated where your blogger lives in the province of Ontario, Canada. See the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (Ontario 2000).
  • Read and put into practice the best book for overloaded, stressed out workers (Ury 2007). A participant at a task saturation Solutions! museum conference brainstorming session suggested “Say no; we need to take a stand” (Thistle 2014c: 3). This is rather easy for a museum worker to say in a conference session, but much more difficult to put into practice on the job. In order to be successful with such a strategy, William Ury, Director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard, presents a plan of action that I highly recommend. It bases ‘No’ on first saying a positive ‘Yes’ to the individual’s own values [e.g. volunteering with other community organizations], life situation [e.g. workload], and core interests [e.g. work/family conflict]. Then, negotiation is required to jointly create a plan of action for dealing with unreasonable demands (Ury 2007: 2, 17-18, 34, 43, 80-1, passim). The challenges in the real museum world of work are not hopeless. Positive change is possible.
  • Please consult other posts on this blog, all of which present solutions to chronic overwork, task saturation, time poverty, resulting stress, and burnout in the museum field.


Arising out of the above discussions, Baldwin (2017) in response to Milldrum (2017) has argued the need for data rather than more anecdotes about museum workers leaving the field. I have been calling for such formal research on museum working conditions for many years. Providentially, Erdman et al. (2017) responded only 4 days later to the call for data on this issue by publishing the results of a 2016 on-line survey structured around the question “Why are great museum workers leaving the field and what can we do about it?” See my previous post “New Research on Retention of Museum Workers” concerning this survey (Thistle 2016).

I also have proposed—unsuccessfully—that museum professionals carry out formal research on data already being collected by our institutions under the American Alliance of Museums Best Practice resource “Employee Termination Checklist and Exit Interview Questionnaire.” See this blog’s previous post (Thistle 2014a).

In my 27 years of researching and writing about the fundamental problem of task saturation and rising—yet unresourced—expectations that underlie the departure of devoted workers from the museum field, I have encountered resistance and denial that a problem exists. Given the above expressions of deep concern, it obviously is time to start acting on the need for formal research and implementation of solutions.

In closing, please stay tuned for a future post that will review the Erdman et al. (2017) “Leaving the Museum Field” survey results.

References Cited:

Baldwin, Joan. 2017. “Who’s Leaving the Field and Why Data Matters.” Leadership Matters Blog 18 September.  https://leadershipmatters1213.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/whos-leaving-the-field-and-why-data-matters/ (accessed 20 September 2017).

Erdman, Sarah et al. 2017. “Leaving the Museum Field.” Alliance Labs [American Alliance of Museums] 22 September https://www.aam-us.org/2017/09/22/leaving-the-museum-field/ (accessed 6 October 2020).

Milldrum, Claire. 2017. “Why I Left The Museum Field: A Guest Post By Claire Milldrum.”  ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog 11 September  http://blog.orselli.net/2017/09/why-i-left-museum-field-guest-post-by.html (accessed 24 October 2017).

Ontario. 2000. Employment Standards Act, 2000, S.O. 2000, c. 41 https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/00e41#BK40 (accessed 23 October 2017).

Thistle, Paul C. 2017. “Fully Loaded Camels: Addressing Museum Worker Task Saturation,” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog found at https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/fully-loaded-camels-2017.pdf (accessed 24 October 2017).

Thistle, Paul C. 2016. “New Research on Retention of Museum Workers” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted 22 September 2016 https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2016/09/22/new-research-on-retention-of-museum-workers/ (accessed 23 October 2017).

Thistle, Paul C. 2015. “Managing Expectation Inflation & Resulting Stress in Museum Work” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted 15 May 2015 https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/managing-expectation-inflation-resulting-stress-in-museum-work/ (accessed 24 October 2017).

Thistle, Paul C. 2014a. “HR Best Practice Exit Interview Results?‏” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted 22 October 2014 https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/hr-best-practice-exit-interview-results%e2%80%8f/ (accessed 23 October 2017).

Thistle, Paul C. 2014b. “Audience Participant Comments Report” arising out of the Museum Worker Overload & the Ethics of Exploitation session, Canadian Museums Association, Toronto, ON, Canada, 9 April 2014 https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/museum-worker-overload-session-round-table-report.pdf (accessed 24 October 2017) .

Thistle, Paul C. 2014c. “Solutions! Copy Post CMA Revised 2014 Shared Working Document.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/task-saturation-documents-background-analysis-solutions/ (accessed 30 August 2014).

Thistle, Paul C. 2012. “Overloading of Entry Level Workers: Forewarned Is Forearmed.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted 21 August 2012 at  https://solvetasksaturation.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/overloading-of-entry-level-workers-forewarned-is-forearmed/ (accessed 24 October 2017).

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

[1] Commonly defined as a strong feeling of suitability (or calling as in a divine summons to religious life) to a particular job.

[2] See my analysis of the overwork and resulting stress dilemma for young workers in my blog post “Overloading of Entry Level Workers: Forewarned Is Forearmed” (Thistle (2012) and also see Thistle (2017: 11-12).

[3] Milldrum’s post is centred primarily on the issue of low pay in our industry (and related ‘GLAM’ ones). However, it must be forcefully stated that in all of the feedback [response to the “Leaving the Museum Field” post is now the most-viewed article on the AAM Alliance Labs blog since it started in 2016] there is a lack of emphasis on the fact that the problem of low pay in our sector is exacerbated egregiously when we work longer than compensated by overtime pay or time off in lieu. I personally never calculated it at the time, but just one example in my case (Thistle 2017: 6) for period when I was being paid at $32 CDN/hr. [hint for those wanting better pay and benefits: work for unionised municipality museums], my unpaid overtime over this a period when I worked 32 days in a row between 8 and 16 hours every day placed my actual wage at $13.25 CDN/hr. My pay stub identifying my pay rate at $32 CDN/hr. was a pure fiction. I could and should have doubled my real world pay rate by refusing to work illegal uncompensated overtime. Another post on this issue may be needed.