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The American Association for State & Local History (AALSH) has kindly given permission as per Bain (2020) to post a PDF from its journal History News Autumn 2019 issue “From the President & CEO: We Know Small is Mighty”. This is a commentary by President & CEO John R. Dichtl (2019: 1) addressing an AASLH Small Museums Listserv discussion thread in December 2019. It is related to my November & December 2019 series of blog posts here on “ballooning expectations” being urged on small heritage institutions (Thistle 2019a, 2019b, & 2019c). Please consult the ‘Small is Mighty’ piece before reading on. It is important to note that I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Dichtl, but I have several howevers regarding implications for working conditions in the heritage field. This post has been Updated on 1 January 2021.

I have to disagree with some of Mr. Dichtl’s comments, but I have been disagreeing with professional heritage organisation ED approaches to these matters for many years. Maybe it is my fault, but I believe they have been missing the point of my analysis of the chronic task saturation, stress, & burnout among workers in our business. For example, see my previous critiques of like comments made by leaders of the Canadian Museums Association, the British Columbia Museums Association (Thistle 2017: 4, 8, 9-10), & the American Alliance of Museums (Thistle 2019b; Thistle 2017: 11-12].

In his History News issue-leading editorial, Mr. Dichtl rightfully summarises the concerns of workers operating small heritage institutions identified by the listserv discussion participants about poor Quality of Working Lives (QWL) issues in the heritage field as follows:

. . . small history organizations face challenges and frustrations which are multiplied by the thousands of single instances in which they occur,. . . staff burnout and the pressures of high expectations from boards and the field. Contributors to this particular thread noted that expecting small organizations to seek accreditation or to adhere to national standards is akin to throwing a blizzard of straw at an overloaded camel (Dichtl 2019:1) [emphasis added].

Before proceeding, it should be noted here that the World Health Organization (WHO) (2019) has placed “burn-out” in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) defining it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed [emphasis added] (cf. Sanofi Canada 2020: 3, 8, passim; Posen 2013: 102-113, passim).

The term burnout—remember meaning “chronic” mismanagement of work-related stress—is increasingly being used to describe workers in the heritage field (Stimler 2020: 4-5; Merritt 2019: 43, 44; Tyson 2013: 50, 97, passim). Sadly, this is not a new symptom. Since the mid-1980s, the museum literature in Canada was referring to QWL issues such as “Stress and Distress” (Newlands 1983: 20) as well as “dysfunctional burnout” (Lord & Lord 1986: 116).

As an aside here, one of the authors of the latter report on policy recommendations for the museum community in Yukon Territory, Canada, the late Barry Lord, apparently had forgotten this disturbing “dysfunctional burnout” finding among paid & volunteer museum staff members. In Mr. Lord’s response to my outline of the task saturation problem in the museum industry during a 2010 discussion at the end of our conference panel presentations. Mr. Lord commented on my paper that, “as information workers,” we in the museum field “should expect to work 15-hour days.” Of course, this expectation is twice as long as we are normally paid to do &, demonstrably, is a simple recipe for producing heritage worker ‘broken backs’ as explained below (Thistle 2013a: 5; cf. Posen 2013: 65)

To address burnout, the WHO now is working on “the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.” Heritage institutions & professional organisations need to pay serious attention to this problem & WHO guidance. To date, attention remains chronically absent among these stakeholders.

I appreciate Mr. Dichtl’s reference to my aphorism related to ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’  Regular readers of this blog will know that, for the last 8 years here & starting 30 years ago (Thistle 1990), I have cited a good deal of evidence demonstrating that workers in the heritage field typically operate as fully loaded camels in a continuous rain of ‘straws’ read as constantly increasing—yet on the whole unresourced—expectations. We are expected to accomplish too much, too quickly, with too few resources (cf. Posen 2013: 10, 45, passim). Unmistakably, the only outcomes of such circumstances are metaphorical ‘broken backs’ & declining well-being among museum workers & others in the heritage industry. What has been done to address ‘stress,’ ‘distress,’ & ‘dysfunctional burnout’ identified in the field 3 decades ago? From my experience & research, little or nothing.

Such damage to the Quality of Working Lives in our field includes physical, mental, family, & social ill-health that have been identified in the wider world of work & specifically in the museum field too (Sanofi Canada 2020: 3, 8, passim; Kuroda & Yamamoto 2018; Posen 2013: 3, 10, 45, passim; Thistle 2015[i]).

For example, attend to the Collections on Contract (2020) group that explores the use of temporary labor in museums. An informal survey circulated on social media in 2019 related to the trend to outsource many full-time permanent positions turned into short-term contracts. Results demonstrated that 61.8% of respondents report contracting has had an impact on their mental & physical health. What the Gallery, Library, Archives, & Museum (GLAM) field is “essentially doing is alienating 90% of the incoming, highly qualified workforce and ultimately forcing many young professionals out of the field” [emphasis added] (cf. Merritt 2019; Morris 2019; Milldrum 2017).

These negative health outcomes—to say nothing about the measurable loss of productivity among stressed & burnt out workers (Posen 2013: 216-22, passim)—are driven by our love for the work, passionate commitment to excellence, & most disturbingly by the unrelenting added pressures exerted by managers, professional organisations, & other stakeholders to constantly do ‘more with less’ (e.g. Lott 2019: 5; cf. Thistle 2019b). This unresourced expectation inflation results in the ongoing need for work intensification, over-commitment, resulting task saturation, stress, & the steep decline of Quality of Working Lives in our industry.

Like Milldrum (2017) who left the museum field “overworked” & “tired,” I have encountered similarly well-trained former museum employees who have departed the field to work for retail service firms for reasons including the poor pay, unsustainable conditions in multiple contract work, & resulting ‘precarity’[ii] of employment in the museum industry. Their subsequent experience gained in serving museum clients reveals that museum “people push themselves to extremes.” One noted only about one third of that person’s museum training programme class graduates were still working in the field. Have we been missing something important here? I think so.

Mr. Dichtl (2019: 1) identifies one more source of stress for those operating small heritage organisations:

. . . visitation growth over the past several years, the most dramatic increases have been at the smallest places. Those with a budget of $50,000 or less saw the greatest gain: an 18 percent increase in visitors between 2013 and 2018. . .

I appreciate this information about small institutions that adds support to my analysis. However, having identified this one challenge for small institutions, we must ask: How exactly are small organisations with chronically limited staff and other resources (Dichtl 2019: 1) expected to deal with such increased demand(s)? In my experience & research, stressed & burnt-out workers never get any hint at all as to exactly HOW we in the heritage industry can possibly cope with such types of unsupported growth of the burdens being placed on the backs of small organisation employees & volunteers.

In the absence of solutions to existing task saturation, it is patently obvious that dedicated heritage industry workers are driven to cope with constantly increasing demands by sacrificially working longer & harder than we are paid to do (Thistle 2019d: 223-7, 229, 234-5; Tyson 2013: 4, passim). I vividly recall one communication I received before a conferences session “Museum Worker Overload & the Ethics of Exploitation” I was organising & promoting (Thistle 2014b). The small museum worker informed me that she wanted—but was unable—to attend this session, since she had just returned to work after a stress leave. I anticipate from my personal absences from work during somewhat rare vacations, this return to work likely found a desk full of more tasks to deal with than when it drove the stressed out worker to dump an overwhelming load off her back in the first place. In like manner, volunteers’ desire to devote their time to support a valuable civic-minded heritage purpose in a context of rising expectations & few resources also are liable to burn themselves out ‘to a crisp’ (Thistle 2019d: 224-227, 229, passim).

Mr. Dichtl, other EDs, & like commentators need to attend to another small museum worker response to a similar 3 & 4 December 2019 discussion on the American Alliance of Museums’ Small Museum Administrators Committee [accessible by SMAC members via Facebook]. According to one of my contacts who is a SMAC member, the following quote from one leader of a small museum was part of the discussion:

I am being bombarded more and more with “why don’t you do x?” “Why aren’t you doing anything with x community?” “When are you going to do x?” “When will x be finished?” “Why is x taking so long?” “Why aren’t you open more hours?” “Why aren’t you open on weekends?”

The answer I’ve been giving is:

This is a small museum and it has one employee. That means I have to make difficult decisions about how to use our time and where I can be. I can’t be everywhere and I can’t do everything. So I am where I can be and do I want I can do. That has to be enough for now” [emphasis added] (cited & analysed in Thistle 2019c).

Please don’t miss the point of the first paragraph here! Read it & weep. Encouragingly however, this sole employee is giving a very wise response to the bombardment of unresourced expectations & existing task saturation. It matches the advice offered by Dr. William Ury (2007), Director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard in his book The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes.

In brief, Ury shows workers how to begin by first saying a positive Yes to our own interests, then saying a positive No to unrealistic expectations, and finally saying Yes to negotiated solutions that respect the real world and the worker’s place in it (Ury 2007: 2, 17-18, 34, 43, 80-1, passim). I strongly recommend that “all”[iii] fully-loaded camels in the heritage industry read & apply Ury’s strategy to their working lives. See my review of this essential resource for fully-loaded camels in my first post here (Thistle 2012). Your blogger maintains that this effective self-preservation strategy is especially important when demands remain under- or entirely unresourced which is the chronic condition in our industry.

One suggested resource Mr. Dichtl (2019: 1) does propose is the AASLH programme StEPs, an acronym for “standards in excellence program for history organizations” (Cook & Collins 2020: at 14:12:08) that follows the American Alliance of Museums standards regime (Cook 2019; cf. Thistle 2019b). In the context of museum worker task saturation, stress, & burnout identified by this blogger & increasingly more observers, some professional museum organisation EDs argue that professional museum standards & professional development are unalloyed goods aimed at making heritage workers “stronger” (Harding 2007: 5-6; Dichtl 2019: 1). However, I firmly believe that we must ask whether we are ‘strengthening’ our workers soby deliberate intent or heedless default—we can simply expect them to carry more burdens?

As a result of my regular personal in-service training experience, I maintain that “all” in the heritage field need to be cognisant & cautious about in-service training events that “all” encourage already fully loaded participants to gather many handfuls of new ‘straws,’ yet without any accompanying advice as to exactly what tasks can be DROPPED from already full to overflowing workloads. When was the last time readers heard a trainer recommend, ‘do this & that,’ but ‘drop the other’ to make effective room for the new tasks (Thistle 2014a)?

When the heritage industry fails to require trainers to do this, it becomes liable for “all” the ‘broken backs’ that result from staff members’ workloads. Therefore, “all” PD requires risk management oversight of the impact of new ‘straws’—one dangerous single stalk at a time or tightly packed bales—on worker health & well-being. We can no longer continue to ignore the inevitable outcome of stress loads & burnout due to “blizzards of straws.” Are we missing the point of burnout evidence in the heritage industry due to “all” the ‘oughts,’ ‘shoulds,’ & ‘musts’ gathered at training events? I believe so.

Never having seriously investigated this AASLH assessment programme previously, I accessed the 21 October 2020 AASLH “Webinar: Is Your Organization Ready for STEPS?” (Cook & Collins 2020). In recommending StEPs, it was honestly stated at Transcript 14:09:22, “. . . we all know in the U.S., the work is absolutely endless. However, our energy and our resources are not limitless.” [emphasis added].

If so & beyond this acknowledgement, do we not then need to do anything about this circumstance? On one hand, I certainly have recognised for more than 35 years of experience as an AALSH member that the AASLH resources provided to its members are often more practical & realistic than many other like organisations. Mr. Dichtl is correct. Training can help to “focus & prioritize” the work in small institutions. However, AASLH still needs to be aware & cautious about the unintended effects that arise from standards regimes & professional development events. As explained in more detail below, heritage workers are in danger of becoming “willing slaves” as defined by Bunting (2004: xix, 7, passim) to our vocations. We in the heritage industry must take deliberate care to avoid encouraging ‘living to work’ rather than ‘working to live’ (Burke 2009).

In response to my 30 November 2019 post “Ballooning Expectations: The Human Costs of Aspirations for Small Museum ‘Soaring’” on this blog (Thistle 2019b), Cherie Cook, AASLH’s Sr. Program Manager wrote the following on the American Alliance of Museums Museum Junction Open Forum where I had promoted my piece. Because access to this Forum requires readers to be registered, I provide excerpts of Ms. Cook’s response to what I wrote: “In my view, setting & promoting standards that are undifferentiated according to size of staff & extent of other available resources for “all” magnitudes of institutions is ostrich-like ‘head in the sand’ behaviour” (Thistle 2019a & 2019b).

In outlining the original planning of the AASLH StEPs programme, Ms. Cook explained:

Very soon it became clear to us that a plan to create standards for small organizations – or as some people called it – “accreditation lite” was the wrong path. . . Should we have removed the obligation about legally and ethically caring for collections? Should we have allowed small organizations to only partially meet those obligations? Neither option was possible. It was then that we realized a different set of standards for small organizations was not the answer. So we set out, instead, to hammer out a program that offered small organizations an incremental path to addressing standards instead of the “all or nothing” accreditation approach” [of the American Alliance of Museums standards accreditation programme] [emphasis added].

We created Basic, Good, and Better performance indicators that guide small organizations through the StEPs program (StEPs uses the same national standards as AAM). We created a program that recognizes and celebrates small organizations’ efforts to meet standards beginning at the Basic level. We created a program that allows small organizations as much time as they need . . . to work on meeting standards. We made the program as flexible as we could to accommodate the challenges small organizations face. . . (Cook 2019) [see my detailed analysis in Thistle (2019c)].

In her responses to me, Ms. Cook (2019) then refers to some of the positive effects of the AASLH StEPs programme. . .

Feedback like that tells me small museums can use national museum standards as a structure for achieving wonderful things. . . I believe using standards to guide an organization’s work and planning is helpful even for the smallest of small museums.

I grant that both Ms. Cook & Mr. Dichtl are correct. The AASLH StEPs approach can provide invaluable guidance for practitioners operating small institutions that avoids some of the stresses generated under the unrealistic—& I believe dangerous—approach of the American Alliance of Museums (see Thistle 2019a & 2019b). However, if my suggestion of the need for differentiated standards for small institutions is the “the wrong path” & acknowledging StEPs is an assessment programme rather than a formal standards regime, how is this so different from the AASLH StEPs’ “Basic, Good, and Better performance indicators that guide small organizations through the StEPs program” approach outlined in Cook (2019)? My growing understanding of AASLH StEPs makes me think they are parallel approaches, if not identical.

I refer AASLH to the Association of Manitoba Museums Standards document that differentiates between requirements for “basic” & “specialized” museums (Association of Manitoba Museums 1995). Even with this gambit however, it is clear that strict attention must be paid to effectively differentiating ‘basic’ ideals for small organisations from the advanced expectations for larger institutions. See my letter to the Standards Committee of the Association of Manitoba Museums in 1994 during the process of adopting its set of standards for museums in that Canadian province (Thistle 1994). In sum, my critique was & remains that sloppily-worded distinctions without a difference in the level of actual demands must be avoided at all costs in order to preserve the effectiveness & sustainability of ‘basic’ requirements for small heritage institutions.

lapel button & standards booklet covered by many "standards" words

Museums Association of Saskatchewan (MAS) Standards guide cover & lapel button, 1988.

A few years earlier, I had obtaind a copy of a new museums standards document from the neigbouring Canadian province of Saksatchewan. Attending the Museums Association of Saskatchewan’s conference that year, I received the above lapel pin in my loot bag. It occurred to me the design of the MAS Standards book cover & lapel button provided an internal critique of museum standards regimes. When employed for its intended use, the lapel button presents many standards crammed together in different fonts that are difficult—if not impossible—to read, much less comprehend & we also can say implement. Numerous standards similarly become a blur for busy small museum workers. I thought these images accurately—if unintentionally—portrayed a fundamental problem with the unacknowledged negative impact of a multiplicity of professional standards on the Quality of Working Lives for small museum personnel.

In my first full-time permanent museum job just having some museology training under my belt, I was the sole employee attempting to professionalize a small museum. I soon learned that it is rather easy to write lots of professional standard policy documents. However, in a small one-person operation, in the real world, there is neither time nor sufficient other resources available to implement them effectively. Standards significantly expand & intensify the work of sustaining the operation of a museum & never are accompanied with the resources necessary to put them “all” into practice (e.g. see Tivy 2006: 32, 43, passim; Kurylo 1984 10, 12, passim).

Update 1 January 2021: I happened to be reviewing my “Solutions!” document & came across something about professional museum standards I have reiterated many times before but failed to mention again at the outset here.

In light of all the issues created by the exponential expectations curve, it may not be too subversive simply to examine the potential for redefining how we expect small and medium-sized museums to operate in the absence of resources sufficient to meet rising expectations. Cf. Dubé, Philippe. 2001. “View: Towards a new generic model for small and medium-sized museums.” Muse [Canadian Museums Association] 19 (1): 8-9 who recommended that we look for an alternate model of what small and medium-sized museums can, could, and should be instead of expecting them to meet the myriad of standards in the field (Thistle 2014d: 19).

In view of the limitations of the real world capacities of small museums, Dr. Dubé stated that unachievable standards regimes are “a trap that makes museum work increasingly complex, and even absurd” [emphasis added]. This conclusion was made after a rather rare QWL survey of museum workers carried out in Quebec, Canada (Dubé 2001: 8). As Robert R. Janes (2009: 19) also maintains, high professional standards are among “the multifarious and often contradictory requirements of museum work” that “hopelessly overburden” modern museum workers.

In a related vein, the Small Museum Accreditation Academy pilot project carried out by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) in 2016 that was “. . . designed to help those museums strengthen their culture of excellence and be poised to apply for accreditation” under its standards regime reported:

In their evaluations, participants told us that it was a “tremendous experience,”. . . However, they also told us things like:

  • The academy started out at a good pace but as the modules became more involved I would have liked more time.
  • We have significantly advanced our collective team awareness of requisite Core Documents content but did not secure the time within workloads (and emergent unforeseen circumstances) to dive deeply into Documents-production itself.
  • Size of staff and time given to complete the work were challenges we faced” (Titman 2018) [emphasis added].

Allison Titman (2018), AAM’s Accreditation Program Officer & project manager for the Small Museum Accreditation Academy did acknowledge that, “The most important lesson is that time is scarce in small museums, . . .” Incomprehensibly, at the end of her report however, Ms. Titman missed the point of that ‘most important lesson’ & still was able to make the following statement paralleling similar sophistry in Lott (2019: 5): “Small museums can and will achieve the same standards as larger institutions, but may need increased flexibility in order to do so” [emphasis added] (see Thistle 2019b).

Amen to necessary “increased flexibility” that I maintain must rise above & beyond the only option presented by AMM being to intensify small museum staff members’ current workloads. See the related evidence-based outcomes of task saturation & stress in Dr. David Posen’s (2013) important book Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress. This absolutely is another must read for “all” fully loaded camels in the heritage industry. See my full analysis of the AAM’s misguided approach in Thistle (2029b).

Given the above, Mr. Dichtl & many other decision-makers in the heritage field seem to be ignoring the fact that “all” this work in small organisations is all done at rather high—yet unacknowledged—costs to the QWL, health, & well-being of heritage workers as argued above (e.g. Merritt 2019: 42 passim; Milldrum 2017).

Even the “decent work movement” initiated by the International Labour Organisation fails to understand that there can be no “decent work” without incorporating what is absent from its “Decent Work Charter.” See Thistle (2018), related ‘decent work’ posts, & my marked-up copy of the “Decent Work Charter.” I argue that there must be a serious commitment by the decent work movement in its Charter & the implementation of it by heritage organisations to:

freedom from unresourced expectations, resulting work intensification, unheeding overload, stress, burn-out, & eventual push-out from the field that undeniably also makes work ‘precarious’” (see full analysis in Thistle 2018; cf. Milldrum 2017).

With regard to the work of volunteers, Mr. Dichtl (2019: 1) states:

An all-volunteer run institution, for example, might lack the convenience of a paid staff, but it also might be benefitting from the leadership of deeply experienced and wildly passionate volunteers [emphasis added].

All well & good Mr. Dichtl, but sadly I believe you have missed my point! Your comment immediately above fails to address the desperate need to PROTECT heritage workers against burnout! Protection of museum workers is an obligation found in the ICOM & AAM codes of ethics (International Council of Museums 2004: 1[iv]; American Association of Museums 2000: 2). In fact, it is this acknowledged very ‘wild passion’ for the work that puts “all” heritage workers at risk for overwork & becoming “willing slaves” to our vocations as defined by Madeline Bunting (2004: xix, 7, passim). Also attend to the concept of “occupational devotee” defined by sociologist Robert A. Stebbins (2004: ix, 10, 17, 76). Motivated by our love for & dedication to the “intense appeal” of our “self-enhancing work” practitioners in our field willingly accept evermore work intensification for ‘the good of the cause’—to our own detriment.

Heritage organisations & institutional leaders have been ignoring the task saturation, resulting over-commitment, stress, & burnout of the “occupational devotees” populating the heritage industry now for far too long (e.g. Newlands 1983; Lord & Lord 1986). This ongoing & unheeding disregard of the human resources crisis in the heritage business must STOP before every practitioner in our field is burnt out to a crisp & leaves the vocation like Milldrum (2017) and many of her colleagues are doing (Erdman et al.2017; Collections on Contract 2020).

Do we need any more evidence that the default position of many heritage institutions is to exploit the occupational devotion of workers? If so, reflect on the announcement reported on 11 December 2020 by the Royal Alberta Museum spokesperson in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (admittedly NOT a small institution). Speaking about layoffs of 26 employees, it was stated shamelessly that visitors to the attraction “can rest assured that services provided continue to be at the highest standards” (Heidenreich 2020).

Museum managers have used this kind of sophistry regularly. See similar cases outlined in Thistle (2015: 7). If ‘no impact’ on visitors is so, do we not have to assume—as I do—that remaining staff members will be expected to work longer & harder to make up for 26 fewer employees? If not, maybe already ‘maxed-out’ volunteers will fill in for paid staff?

Would my readers not agree that such a statement of expectation is under- if not entirely un-resourced & therefore can only succeed by further exploiting this museum’s workers’ love for & loyalty to their jobs? When reporting on growing social media commentary on working conditions in art museums, Wagley (2020) uses the term “labor abuses.” In the wider world of work, unsupported increases in the volume & velocity of work are identified in the literature as the primary source of overwork that results in stress on the job. It is recognised as “abuse” of workers by management (Posen 2013: 5-6, 38, 49, 231, 288, 308 passim) & systemic “role overload” (Higgins et al. 2007: 160)—a term familiar to museum workers since at least 1983 (Newlands 1983: 20).

The above statement by a Royal Alberta Museum spokesperson clearly proves again that museum managers don’t understand how widely they miss the point of the damaging outcomes of their decision-making! Yes go ahead, let’s continue to build our museum railroads all across the continent by relying on a continuous stream of enthusiastic coolies &—in the sense of Posen’s book is Work Killing You?—we will let them engage in karioshi (Japanese for “work to death”). After all, coolies can be buried unobtrusively on the track right of way.

Why can managers in our field not see that they are burning out our human resources & this strategy is NOT sustainable? This may be “heritage ‘business as usual’,” but we must begin thinking, talking, & acting to change the existing museum work culture of constantly attempting to ‘do more with less’—especially in the case of small institutions. We must challenge the apparent psychotic need to accomplish unrealistic goals that eventually morphs into “everything with nothing” (Posen 2013: 58-9, 136).

Stimler (2020: 5) reports museums & related institutions are,

setting overly ambitious agendas that they do not have the agency or ability to deliver successfully. . . Without a strong strategy, GLAMs can alienate customers, exhaust budgets, waste precious resources, and burn out staff [emphasis added].

More Solutions:

Do we measure the pushout rate from our industry & the reasons for same? Yes we do, if organisations follow AAM’s best HR practice for “exit interviews.” Therefore, we need to carry out research into these HR records, collect, & analyse anonymous reports from across the industry about rates of “burnout” & resulting push-out from the field. However, my last attempts to raise interest among Canadian museum professional organisation members in 2016 & 2017 to participate in proposed conference sessions to discuss a strategy to mine existing data being accumulated in HR files fell flat as a pancake (Thistle 2014c). Not one ‘interested party’ showed any interest. However, Philippe Dubé & your blogger were finally successful in obtaining a long overdue commitment from the Canadian Museums Association to survey its members on the question of museum working conditions in a future project. Such research under the auspices of other national professional museum organisations also is needed.

Do we engage in any risk management by assessing the increasing numbers of insurance claims for stress leave? A few years ago, I had been informed by a Canadian Museums Association group insurance provider representative that claims for stress-related issues now exceed physical injury claims. This year a major Canadian insurance provider strongly advises its clients to pay serious attention to managing this risk.

We have to get at this now, or else mental health claims at staggering levels are going to be the new norm [emphasis added] (Sanofi Canada 2020: 8, 9, 35).

Clearly, prevention of workplace stress and burnout is more cost-effective than treatment of stress-related physical and resulting mental illness (Posen 2013: 292). Are professional organisations doing anything at all to address this growing problem? I think NOT YET.

No longer can we rely solely on our workforce to take individual responsibility for “self-care” as Merritt (2019) and Merritt & Rao (2019) expect. We must understand that the vast majority of heritage practitioners’ work intensification, stress, & burnout remains beyond an individual’s control. The primary sources of stress at work arise from unending collegial, management, professional organisation, professional development, regulator, & public expectation inflation (cf. Green 2006: 57).

This chronic condition also is characterised by the lack of the additional resource inputs required to meet inflated demands in a context of the continuous scarcity of necessary resources. In case no-one has noticed, heritage workers are already struggling ‘mightily’ to keep our heads above the floods of rising & unresourced expectations that torment us now.

Readers of this blog also should recall that the American Alliance of Museum’s AAM’s Senior Director of Standards & Excellence, with input from other AAM staff in Julie Heart et al. (2009) is of the same opinion as Robert R. Janes (2009: 176). ‘There will never be enough resources!’  In such circumstances what other option do professional heritage organisations have but to work ‘mightily’ (as AASLH expects of small institutions) to help heritage organisations to properly manage the workloads that break heritage workers’ backs? We must take action to effectively diminish the unresourced expectations that are destroying heritage worker Quality of Working Lives & damaging their productivity in achieving institutional goals.

What then should AASLH be doing? Its “Statement of Professional Standards and Ethics” affirms: “

AASLH expects its members, employees, and elected officials to abide by the ethical and performance standards adopted by all appropriate discipline-based and professional organizations  (American Association for State & Local History 2016: 1, 3) [emphasis added].

However, other than specifying the obligations of the employees of its member institutions, AASLH makes NO mention of its institutional member obligations to their paid employees & volunteers other than to “act in their best interests.” Clearly, the ‘best interests’ of heritage workers surely must include the right to freedom from exploitation of their love for the job in circumstances of chronic shortage of resources!

Therefore, I call on the AASLH to revise its 2016 “Standards and Ethics” policy to add a commitment for its member organisations to “CEASE & DESIST” exploiting workers by default or deliberate imposition of unresourced expectations that demonstrably harm paid & volunteer staff members’ health & QWL. I recommend that AASLH make its “Standards & Ethics” statement above parallel with professional museum ethics statements that make it a principled requirement for museum institutions to take responsibility for “protecting” workers as do the International Council of Museums (2004: 1) & the American Association of Museums (2000: 2).

I firmly believe such ‘protection’ MUST include safeguarding workers from exploitative & unfair work intensification. The Museum Association in the UK makes treating workers fairly an ethical requirement for museums to, “Abide by a fair, consistent and transparent workforce policy for all those working in the museum, including those in unpaid positions” (Museums Association (UK): 2016: 19). Above & beyond this, exploitation of workers is biblically condemned (Isaiah 53: 3b) and “masters” of “slaves” are expected to act in ways that are “right and just and fair” (Proverbs 1: 3; Colossians 4: 1).

Although even the “decent work” movement ignores this crying need, I believe it is absolutely critical that heritage institutions start assuming responsibility to protect their workers from management’s expectations that they will continually function as “willing slaves” (Bunting 1984) to their vocation. They “all” will need help in learning ways & means of doing so from their professional organisations.


In the end analysis, professional organisations, heritage institutions, & their workers must cooperatively engage in “changing our world” of work. The instigation of “progressive change” by means of “courageous energy” on the part of all stakeholders actually can employ our forgotten agency & finally “challenge the immorality of inaction” (Janes & Sandell 2019: xxvii, 2, 18, passim).

American Alliance of Museums logo with surrounding words "Museums can change the world."

American Alliance of Museums logo & motto.

I can agree with Mr. Dichtl (2019: 1) that small can be “mighty” & minute “might be more nimble” than larger organisations in some limited circumstances—BUT NOT continually in “all” things! No ‘interested party’ can be allowed to ignore how exhausted, stressed, & burnt out both paid & volunteer workers in our small institutions increasingly are. Because we love what we do, expectation inflation, & task creep apparently are irresistible forces—unless we start to take effctive actions to counter their ‘ill’ effects.

In light of the above arguments, don’t “all” stakeholders have to strive ‘mightily’ to manage these forces effectively to preserve the health & well-being of our workers? Where is this “mighty” effort by those who—if not ‘interested’ in these issues—need to stop missing the point, pay attention to what small museum folk are telling us, & become seriously committed to fixing the poor Quality of Working Lives existing the heritage field? For example, see my post on the need to ‘repair work’ on the National Council on Public History blog History at work (Thistle 2019e).

When will professional museum & other heritage organisations accept the fact that our workers are INDEED already OVERLOADED camels? PLEASE! Listen to the people doing the work in small institutions!

In short, the point of this post, this entire blog’s history, & the increasing evidence available to us not to be missed is that everyone—including our self-sacrificing ‘occupational devotee’ workers—must become brutally realistic about matching objectives, plans, & wildly “Unrealistic” or silly “False Hopes” (2 of “7 Kinds of Hope” PsychCentral 2018) to the amount of human and other resources actually existing to get the work done. The Unrealistic or False Hopes that are unheedingly commonplace in the heritage industry are among the causes of the metaphorical ‘broken backs’ of our workers. These are so dangerous to worker physical, mental, family, & social health that “all” interested parties must begin to strive ‘mightily’ to eliminate unresourced expectations for the staff of small heritage institutions. Then, as Mr. Dichtl anticipates, the larger institutions can copy the success of this initiative implementing right and just and fair treatment of heritage workers.

Under current COVOD-19 circumstances, I believe we are presented with an invaluable opportunity to change the overwork culture in heritage organisations that is too important to miss. Writing on the Center for the Future of Museums blog, AAM VP, Strategic Foresight & Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums Elizabeth Merritt (2020b) states:

But sometimes when people ask this question, they are hoping to hear how the pandemic may change power structures, authority, pay, and working conditions in museums—aspects of our field with which they were already profoundly unhappy before the pandemic struck [emphasis added].

Yes indeed, QWL issues in the heritage industry including complaints of “abuse” of arts workers (Wagley 2020) need a reset just as much as do coping with visitor safety, financing our operations, & . . . After making a quick review of the many recent discussions on how to address the multitude of challenges for the museum sector under the exigencies of a pandemic, I recommend in the strongest possible terms that our industry needs to completely re-think & then “reset” its current working conditions for the new—not ’back to normal’—world post-COVID-19. We cannot allow expectations of our paid & volunteer workers to keep on “ballooning” rapidly as they have been to date (Thistle 2019b). Brutal realism about how personal & institutional expectations can be effectively matched to the actual human resources available is crucial in the re-calibration of every heritage institution’s expectations for its labour force.

I believe, most line workers—but perhaps not all managers (e.g. Heidenreich 2020)—involved in the heritage industry can agree that we must ‘disappear’ the unrealistic expectation inflation rampant in the heritage business & rid ourselves of worker “abuse.” In the small heritage organisation sector, Mr. Dichtl is right. We can do an amazing number of things, HOWEVER, we can’t do it “all” as is expected of us if we want to keep healthy dedicated employees & volunteers in the field without ‘breaking their backs.’

We need to boldly challenge the status quo, rethink outdated models, and lift up the many brave individuals in museums across the globe who are leading us into new frontiers (Lott 2020).

SURELY, it’s time to STOP! missing the point & to “challenge the immorality of inaction” with concerted cooperative ACTION among heritage workers, institutions, professional organisations, & other stakeholders (cf. Janes & Sandell 2019: xxvii, 2, 18, passim). Mr. Dichtl said nothing about the need to address working conditions in the heritage field. However, workers certainly do need to revolt against the culture of unheeding unrealistic expectations, overwork, & burnout in our industry. Evidence of harm to our human resources is piling up, so the sooner we begin to fix the problem the better!

In the past, I received a comment from an anonymous peer reviewer on a draft article submitted for publication that “He sounds angry.” My response to that reviewer and anyone else of the same opinion is: Why shouldn’t I be angry about the default and/or deliberate exploitation of heritage workers? In fact, some of this abuse of hourly-rated employees is illegal in many jurisdictions.

Now is the hour for changing our Quality of Working Lives! To do so without pushing more people out of the workforce or forcing a worker revolt, we require effective leadership from our professional associations & institutional managers to address burnout in the heritage field.

My understanding is that, theoretically, what is said last is best remembered. So, in closing, for “all” who have got this deep into my essay, I have the highest respect for AASLH President & CEO John R. Dichtl in his current & his former ED role with the National Council on Public History. During his tenures, I maintain both have been among the most practical & effective professional organisations in the heritage field.

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Lott, Laura. 2020. “An End-of-Year Message from Laura Lott, AAM President and CEO.” Alliance Blog Posted on Dec 18, 2020 at https://www.aam-us.org/2020/12/18/an-end-of-year-message-from-laura-lott-aam-president-and-ceo/?utm_source=American+Alliance+of+Museums&utm_campaign=a5b35f93f6-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_12_22_08_06&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_f06e575db6-a5b35f93f6-37245349 (accessed 28 December 2020).

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[i] Refer to the growth in museum staff  claims for stress leave that now exceed physical injuries among museum workers by a keyword search for insurance.

[ii] The definition of ‘precarious work’ based on that espoused by the International Labour Organisation is: “non-standard employment that is poorly paid, insecure, unprotected, and cannot support a household (Ontario Nonprofit Network & Toronto Neighbourhood Centres 2016: 3, note 2). Your blogger maintains that the term ‘insecure’ needs to be followed by the phrase “for any reason including causing physical or mental illness,”.

[iii] In this essay, I use the term “all” with quotation marks in the same critical sense as I do in Thistle (2019b) referring to the disingenuous expectation of the American Alliance of Museums yellow balloon issue that “Small museums have to do everything that large museums do” [emphasis added] (Lott 2019: 5).

[iv] Very sadly, the most recent edition of ICOM’s Code of Ethics dated 2017 has substantially limited its call for protection of museum workers.