Call for Research on Museum Worker QWL Issues

Bringing an important reference to a recent New Yorker article on the wider world of work into comparative focus, this post makes the case for nation- and even continent-wide research on the Quality of Working Lives in the museum industry. Anecdotal evidence of museum practitioner burnout and related ill-health is growing, but scant attention is being paid to the worsening human resources crisis in the field.

In my last post here (Thistle 2020), while referencing a museum manager’s questionable comment claiming little or no impact resulting from 26 staff layoffs, I had asked rhetorically, do we need any more evidence that the world of woeful working conditions needs to be taken seriously?

Recently, your blogger has been twigged to the following related reference (Lepore 2021) by a contact on LinkedIn, Greg Stevens (2021), 1st Director, MA Museum Professions Program, Seton Hall University. It was introduced by his comment, “This helps put the museum field in context.” My comment in reply to his post began:

Read it & weep for working conditions in museums & think about the Elon Musk post on LinkedIn some time ago recommending 80-hour workweeks [see Crooks 2018]—notably before his recent explosive space programme disaster! . . . [I subsequently referred to Murphy’s (2000: 128, 130-9) identifying the “smoking holes in the ground” resulting from “task saturation,” “the silent killer.” emphasis added].

From the wider world of work outside museums, Greg Stevens referenced an extensive 11 January New Yorker article by Jill Lepore (2021), a staff writer, professor of history at Harvard, & the author of fourteen books. The headline of the piece is “What’s Wrong with the Way We Work.” Notably, there is no question mark at the end of this title.

Lepore’s article leads with, “Americans are told to give their all—time, labor, and passion—to their jobs. But do their jobs give enough back?” [emphasis added. Is this what museum workers do out of love for the work, but without being ‘told’?] Then follows the story of Maria Fernandes, a worker found dead in her car in a parking lot with the engine running because she needed to sleep between shifts for 2 of her three (3) jobs. Overwork thus can indeed—& avoidably does—lead to death (Murphy 2000: 128, 130-9, passim; cf. on-line updates & expansion in AFTERBURNER Inc. 2018 Part 1: 6; 2018 Part 2: 1; 2018 Part 3: 1, passim).

Later, Lepore adds:

From about 1980, in the United States, the G.D.P. kept growing, even as real wages stagnated. To compensate, many Americans worked more hours, and took on extra jobs, especially in the service sector. (Currently, more than eighty per cent of U.S. employment is in the service sector.) [For your blogger’s take on long hours & museum wages, see Thistle (2019).]

. . . “THE DEATH OF MARIA FERNANDES DEMANDS A CALL TO ACTION,” ran the headline of an article by the head of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a few days after her death. She reportedly worked more than eighty hours a week and earned less than forty thousand dollars a year [emphasis added].

Just in case this needs saying here, I firmly believe Musk’s recommended 80-hour work weeks are not only dangerous to worker well-being, but they are “stupid” due to the proven negative impact of long hours on worker productivity (Posen 2013: 116 passim). This is so even for the wealthy who can afford to pay others to carry out day-to-day duties at home over & above the ill-advised overwork on the job that Murphy & others maintain can & does result in catastrophic failures on the job.

I also believe Lepore’s phrase “do their jobs give enough back?” is not the most important question here. I maintain the crucial focus should be on ‘Why do we work ourselves to death & what must be done about it?’

Canadian physician Dr. David Posen (2013) has written an extremely important book analysing the postmodern world of work titled Is Work Killing You? The answer to his title’s interrogative is: ‘quite possibly Yes.’ Posen (2013: 3, 308, passim) demonstrates that the way we are “working harder isn’t working.” “It’s making people sick.” Some of the necessary solutions to the negative health outcomes of overwork are identified by Posen (2013: 295-7 passim) including first on his list, “acknowledge the problem,” measure stress levels, “Identify problem people and deal with them. Difficult people are among the biggest sources of workplace stress.”. . and more [emphasis added].

Lepore (2021) continues:

Americans work more hours than their counterparts in peer nations, including France and Germany, and many work more than fifty hours a week. Real wages declined for the rank and file in the nineteen-seventies, as did the percentage of Americans who belong to unions, which may be a related development. One can argue that these post-industrial developments mark a return to a pre-industrial order. The gig economy is a form of vassalage (in the museum field, cf. Collections on Contract 2020; Meldrum 2017) [emphasis added].

Lepore (2021) comments further about the “gig economy” that,

developed in the nineteen-seventies in Japan, a country that coined a word for “death by overwork” but whose average employee today works fewer hours than his American counterpart. . . [emphasis added].

Your blogger has referred previously to the increase in the “karoshi” (death by overwork) in Japan that had been graphed year-by-year rising at a 45 degree angle. Significantly however, by the early 2000s—now 2 decades ago!—Japan had turned this labour casualty crisis around completely & was reducing the work to death rate at the same—but downward—angle according to Kanani (2006: 170 passim).

The problem in Japan had been created in large part by the organisational principle of “kaisen,” that is Japanese for continual learning and constant improvement (Posen 2013: 300). Your blogger maintains that those charged with managing museum workers—some of whom employ the same “kaisen” principle—urgently need to investigate how Japanese organisations have been able to make such significant progress in the fight against “work to death!” The successful strategies need to be implemented in museum workplaces. Fundamentally, the problem is one of institutional managers’ responsibility & liability for breaching ethics & human rights. Kanani (2009: 114) concludes as follows:

. . . organizations should take the initiative in overseeing appropriate work hours. Needless to say, the organization should consider work hours on the basis of human rights and social ethics.

Contrary to museum ethics (International Council of Museums 2004: 1; American Association of Museums 2000: 2) & the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Spieler 2003: 86-87, 101, 104), are museums overloading & breaking their workers’ backs (Thistle 2020), pushing people out of the field at an increasing rate (Milldrum 2017; Morris 2019; Collections on Contract 2020), and/or “killing” emerging & aging practitioners’ love for their work?

The experiences of museum workers often heard anecdotally (Milldrum 2017; Thistle 2019) & occasionally reported in small formal & informal surveys (e.g. Sullivan 2015; Erdman et al. 2017; Collections on Contract 2020) make us suspect so. Clearly at this stage, stakeholders including museum institutions, professional organisations, regulators, museum workers ourselves, & other interested parties need to develop a broadly based accurate understanding about how much the poor Quality of Working Lives (QWL) in our industry is debilitating our workforce.

Call to Action:

Your blogger has long argued that formal research is required to target the quality of working conditions in museums (e.g. Thistle 2017: 1, 8, 11, 12-13; cf. Tyson 2013: 3, 4, 19, 21, 48-49). See one of my suggested means of accessing existing data collected by those responsible for museum human resource exit interviews in Thistle (2020). In summary, we need to investigate the levels of unresourced work intensification, resulting stress, & the consequences for museum practitioner physical & mental ill-health—if not karoshi (see Thistle 2017: 4-5).

Therefore, I again call on “all” stakeholders in the museum field & related heritage sectors to attend seriously to the current human resources crisis in our industry. I believe we need to take immediate action to identify the actual extent of the unsustainable work intensification dilemma through formal study of working conditions in the heritage preservation & interpretation business.

If my assessments presented over the past 30 years are thereby disproved, I would be relieved & very happy to move on to other advocacy projects. However, my hypothesis is that research results will show significant levels of “distress” & “dysfunctional burnout” among our employees & volunteers (Newlands 1983:20; Lord & Lord 1986: 116) that have been identified by museum professionals & respected consultants since the 1980s all the way up to the findings of Stimler (2020: 4-5) & Collections on Contract (2020) as referred to in the previous post on this blog. If I am right, then we need to acknowledge the problem!

For workers in our industry, please understand that we do have agency to instigate “progressive change” by means of “courageous energy” & finally “challenge the immorality of inaction (Janes & Sandell 2019: xxvii, 2, 18, passim [emphasis added]) on our issues with working conditions in the museum field. In Canada at least, we continue to have the right to direct our professional organisations to carry out a nation-wide survey to investigate our Quality of Working Lives.

Beyond Canada, it is of serious concern that Elizabeth Merritt’s (2019: 40-47) important TrendsWatch 2019 report section “Take Care: Building resilience and sustainable practice addresses working conditions by stating “the work is often exhausting, debilitating, and traumatic” [emphasis added]. It is extremely significant, however, that not even one of the sources Merritt used to come to this conclusion relates to museum work per se. In this light, I recommend that the research on museum QWL be carried out continent-wide.

For purposes of lobbying these organisations to get busy at surveying their members about the status of QWL in the museum field, consult the wording of a proposed resolution to accomplish this goal in Thistle & Dubé (2019) [the outcome of this initiative is reported in a subsequent 6 September 2019 blog post here].

This lobby for research on museum working conditions is best done sooner than later so we can use the resulting data to take effective action on minimising ‘broken backs’ in our business & pushing more & more workers out of jobs they love, but are ultimately unsustainably destructive to their well-being.

References Cited:

AFTERBURNER Inc. 2018. “How to Combat Task Saturation? [Part 1]” located at [run by James D. Murphy (2000) below; also see Parts 2 & 3] at . Atlanta, GA: AFTERBURNER Inc. (accessed 25 January 2021).

American Association of Museums [now ‘Alliance’]. 2000. Code of Ethics for Museums. Washington: American Association of Museums [unpagenated version available at (accessed 26 February 2019].

Collections on Contract. 2020. “Unsupported, Uninsured, Unsustainable: The effect of contracting on young professionals.” posted February 20, 2020, updated December 11, 2020 9:58 p.m. at  (accessed 25 January 2021).

Crooks, Nathan. 2018. “Elon Musk says you can change the world working 80 hours a week.” The Sydney Morning Herald [Australia] posted November 28, 2018 at (accessed 25 January 2021).

Erdman, Sarah et al. 2017. “Leaving the Museum Field.” Alliance Labs blog [American Alliance of Museums] posted 22 September  (accessed 25 January 2021).

International Council of Museums. 2004. ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums. Paris: International Council of Museums [in PDF format. Very sadly, the most recent edition dated 2017 has substantially limited its call for protection of workers at]  (accessed 27 November 2020).

Janes, Robert R. & Sandell, Richard eds. 2019. Museum Activism. London & New York: Routledge.

Kanani, Atsuko. 2009. “’Karoshi (Work to Death)’ in Japan.” Journal of Business Ethics 84: 209-16.

Kanani, Atsuko. 2006. “Economic and employment conditions, karoshi (work to death) and the trend of studies on workaholism in Japan.” In Research Companion to Working Time and Work Addiction. Ronald J. Burke ed. Cheltenham, UK & Northampton MA: Edward Elgar.

Lepore, Jill. 2021. “A Critic at Large: What’s Wrong with the Way We Work.” The New Yorker posted January 11, 2021  (accessed 25 January 2021).

Lord, Gail Dexter & Lord, Barry. 1986. Yukon Museums Policy and System Plan. Whitehorse: Government of Yukon.

Merritt, Elizabeth. 2019. TrendsWatch 2019. Washington: Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums (accessed 28 December 2020).

Milldrum, Claire. 2017. “Why I Left The Museum Field: A Guest Post By Claire Milldrum.” ExhibiTricks: A Museum/Exhibit/Design Blog posted 11 September (accessed 25 January 2021).

Morris, Martha. 2019. “Reinventing Museum Careers.” American Alliance of Museums Career Management web page blog posted on November 18, 2019 (accessed 25 January 2021).

Murphy, James D. 2000. Business is Combat: A Fighter Pilot’s Guide to Winning in Modern Business Warfare. New York: Regan Books.

Newlands, David L. 1983. “Stress and Distress in Museum Work.” Muse Vol. I, No. 2 (Ottawa: Canadian Museums Association).

Spieler, Emily A. 2003. “Risks and Rights: The Case for Occupational Safety and Health as a Core Worker Right.” In Workers’ Rights as Human Rights. James A. Gross ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Stevens, Greg. 2021. “This helps put the museum field in context.” LinkedIn post at (accessed 25 January 2021).

Stimler, Neal. 2020. WHITE PAPER: GLAMs’ (GALLERIES, LIBRARIES, ARCHIVES, AND MUSEUMS) DYNAMIC SUSTAINABILITY PLATFORM STRATEGY. SAN DIEGO, CA: Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC), BPOC.ORG posted October 6, 2020 at DOI: (accessed 11 December 2020).

Sullivan, Nicola. 2015. “Museum Professionals Have to Meet Higher Demands Due to Cuts.” Museums Journal (Museums Association, UK) (accessed 20 February 2019).

Thistle, Paul C. 2020. “AASLH ‘Small is Mighty’ Idea Misses the Point About Burnout.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted 28 December 2020 at (accessed 25 January 2020).

Thistle, Paul C. 2019. “Decent Working Conditions are Essential for Decent Compensation” pp. 222-244 in Dawn E. Salerno, Mark S. Gold, & Kristina L. Durocher eds. For Love or Money: Confronting the State of Museum Salaries. Edinburgh, UK & Cambridge, MA: MusesumsEtc, pp. 222-224 [LINK CORRECTED ON 26 JANUARY 2021] (accessed 26 January 2021).

Thistle, Paul C. 2017. “Fully Loaded Camels: Addressing Museum Worker Task Saturation” [updated and expanded version of paper presented at the University of Toronto Museum Studies Program 40th Anniversary Conference Taking Stock: Museum Studies and Museum Practices in Canada on 24 April 2010] found on Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers Blog found at (accessed 25 January 2021).

Thistle, Paul C. & Dubé, Philippe. 2019. “Canadian Museum QWL Research Proposed for CMA Toronto AGM 2019.” Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers blog posted 22 March 2019 at (accessed 26 January 2021) [the outcome of this initiative is reported in an UPDATE added on 26 January 2021].

Tyson, Amy M. 2013. The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Author: fullyloadedcamel

Paul C. Thistle has more than twenty-six years of mission and management work in museums & archives. He has an interdisciplinary MA in history and anthropology, a BEd in cross-cultural and museum education, a BA in anthropology and history, and a Museology Certificate. Paul is a national, provincial, and academic award-winning author. He has taught Museum Studies at Beloit College and certificate courses for museum associations in Canada. He also writes the Critical Museology Miscellanea blog.

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