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September 19, 2023

ICOM VoicesLetter to the museum world

Clémence Aycard

Gallery Assistant and Assistant Curator, Glasgow

Keywords: letter, museum sector, wellbeing, precarious employment

A few months ago, I attended a conference on museums. After a presentation on wellbeing in the sector, I asked a question to the panel and the room, related to how people talk about the sector to outsiders.

How do you talk about the museum world to your family, your friends, to strangers?

How do you talk about the museum world to people who dream of working in it?

I asked, you see, because lately, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to have these conversations.

In a world of economic recession, political turmoil, and increasing pressure on museums due to governmental demands, visitors’ expectations, and ever-decreasing funds, I find it more and more difficult to remain positive myself, with colleagues and with outsiders.

The responses I got from the room did not answer my question. The wellbeing speaker kindly informed me that this sector has less employees than a famous fast-food chain. As a small line on the political and economic agenda, it is normal that we face difficulties. Everyone else is also facing issues in their own sector, but at least I am lucky enough to work for my passion. It sounded, more or less, like I should be content and silent.

The rest of the audience was more supportive. Fellow museum workers expressed sympathy and understanding for my concerns and told me how they find solace in our professional network and peer support. I was encouraged to keep applying for jobs, as the sector has many talents and mine would eventually shine through.

As kind and well-meant as some of these responses were, none of them actually answered my question. On the contrary, all of them carefully avoided it.

So, I am going to repeat it – and I will ask you to answer honestly, not to me, but to yourself.

How do you talk about the museum world?

You see, the responses I got made me feel like I had personally offended every person in the room by pointing out the hardships in the sector. While we happily discuss improving wellbeing, creating fantastic projects to improve representation, inclusivity, and accessibility, or reducing our carbon footprints, there is a well-coated reluctance to confront the giant elephant in the room.

The speaker was right on one point. I am lucky to be able to work in a sector for which I have so much passion. Working in museums is a real vocation. We do it because we believe in it. We do it because we see the beauty in caring for objects. We do it because we believe that we can make a real difference to people’s lives: breaking down social barriers, making everyone feel welcome, bringing beauty, knowledge, and harmony to the world. We do it because we want to explore the past, and dream about the future. We do it because we love it.

It is because I love museums so much that I worry about how we talk about them.

I am lucky to be able to work in a sector I am truly passionate about. But, as a friend accurately pointed out, passion doesn’t pay the rent. Passion is what leads me to regularly fill out extremely lengthy application forms for jobs that are, most of the time, under two years temporary contracts, paying barely above minimum wage for a part-time position with a list of responsibilities that could easily allow three full-time people to never feel bored. Passion is what gets me out of bed in the morning to go work in an organisation that is facing so much financial cuts that already under-staffed departments are being cut, projects will never be born and professional development opportunities are a bedtime fairy tale. Passion is what encourages museum workers to support each other with genuine love and community spirit, but will also lead them to compete fiercely, all the time, for fundings, for public attention, and for any (part-time, low pay, high pressure) job, at a ratio of 100 applicants for every miraculous opportunity. Passion is the reason people are leaving the sector – because loving something doesn’t mean it cannot hurt you.

Working in museums is hard. We are underfunded, understaffed, under-appreciated. Most people have no idea what our jobs entail, but visitors or political representatives will be very happy to tell you that you are doing it wrong. Pays are low, jobs are scarce, contracts are ridiculously miserable. Career development prospects for emerging professionals appear heart-wrenchingly dire. Experience is valued more than costly degrees, but unless we can afford to volunteer for years, most of us will struggle acquiring enough of it. Incredible talents get wasted every day because we do not have enough opportunities for them to flourish. We are, too often, either under-qualified or over-qualified. And I do not believe I am wrong in affirming that we are all tired.

Working in museums is hard. And I think it is essential that we start honestly talking about it.

It is not an insult to the sector to acknowledge its shortcomings. I do not expect that by doing so, we will be able to magically fix them. But it does mean that we will be able to create an even better support network. How can we envision the museums of the future, if we are not able to talk about the real state of museums in the present? How can we dream about a more equal, accessible, all-loving world, if we shut down those among us who express fear for their place in it?

I love museums, with all my heart. I cannot envision another career path. But this does not prevent me from regularly wondering if choosing my passion as my life’s purpose was a gigantic mistake. It does not take away the stress, the fear, the occasional tears.

The fact is, being open and honest about the state of the sector is not an insult to museums.

Lying about it is. We do not solve problems by avoiding looking at them. We do not help people feel better by shutting them down. We do not make that elephant in the room disappear just by pretending it does not exist.

Our common refusal to confront reality is the real insult to the sector.

It is, if anything, an insult to my passion.