Striking a balance

Katherine McAlpine, 22.01.2018
Are we trying to do too much for too little?
I cannot imagine there are many people who would choose to start their year stood outside their workplace in the freezing cold. Unfortunately that is how staff at the Cutty Sark, once the fastest tea clipper, began 2018, with its lowest paid staff taking industrial action on 1 January 2018.

Having worked at Royal Museums Greenwich from 2014 to the end of last year, the breakdown in communication between front of house staff and management saddens me.

It certainly seems like a thankless task, being a museum director. Senior figures are having to contend with keeping the doors open, with less money to do so. With the National Minimum Wage going up in April 2018, management has to find a way of balancing these priorities.

Front of house staff, who are among the lowest paid, are concerned with losing paid breaks in a role that is already gruelling and frankly, at times, tedious.

Reducing paid breaks should mean hourly rates increase, which would be good for those working overtime had this not gone hand in hand with a decision to extend contracts from 8am to 8pm.

This is a sensible decision to cover the public and corporate events that have become an essential part of any museum wishing to diversify both its revenue streams and audiences. Many staff understand the importance of the work the museum does, and are strong advocates for the work, but their loyalty is being tested.

As with all these things, the crux of the issue is less about pay than about respect and communication. Staff feel that they have been strong-armed into signing new contracts, with the attitude that there are plenty more overqualified would-be museum workers waiting to take their places.

I’m pleased to see a generation of museum activists who are not prepared to sit back and accept the status quo when it comes to using our collections to reach audiences in new and engaging ways.

So why would the same generation sit back and accept poor pay and working conditions? The decision to take industrial action by some of the most vulnerable members of staff is both inspiring in its bravery, and disheartening in its perceived necessity.

It feels as if a radical rethink is required.

We have been asked to do more with less for years, with money decreasing. We have been asking for more money to do the same, but maybe we need to ask different questions. Are we doing too much? It is heartening to see so much work put into diversifying audiences and revenue streams, but is clarity being sidelined?

January is a time for resolutions, so this is mine: I am proud to be working as part of a working group to explore pay with Group for Education in Museums.

In November 2017, I left the museum sector to join an employer who is proud to pay the London Living Wage, and I look forward to supporting other organisations to be able to do the same.

I hope to bring the humility to listen to all stakeholders in the room to come to solutions that work for everybody, and I urge all museum workers to do the same.

Katherine is public engagement officer at Queen Mary University and the MA’s London representative.

MA members in London are invited to an informal members meeting on 19 March 2018 at 530-730pm, followed by drinks, in the Neil Chalmers Seminar Room at the Natural History Museum.

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20.02.2018, 15:04
It is interesting that while the MA continues to highlight low wages and unpaid internships in the sector as bad practice, only 3 out of 18 jobs currently listed on their website are remunerated.
29.01.2018, 23:31
There has been a longstanding failure to tackle the problem of poor pay in the museum sector; not only in absolute terms, but also relative to changes in what is expected of museum staff. More recently, sectoral leaders have been pushing for museums to be more representative of society, yet they seem totally incapable to seeing (or perhaps publicly admitting) the direct link between the two. The situation in London is even worse and it is amazing how any London based museum can claim to meet equalities legislation with their current pay structures. Working in a museum has always been a vocation, but you can achieve the same vocational rewards, without having to accept pauper wages, elsewhere in the cultural economy. The real question is why would any talented millennial choose to work in a museum if they also need to earn a living?