Task Saturation in Museum Workers

Screen-Shot-2013-10-25-at-4.17.09-PMPaul Thistle is a provocateur. That was his given label as he led an Idea Lounge last spring at the American Association of Museum’s Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, MN. The title of his session was “Rising Expectations, Task Saturation and Time Poverty for Museum Workers.”

As a retired museum worker, he wants to encourage discussion about a growing problem in the museum field. Whether paid staff or volunteer, museum workers recognize that we all have way too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it. It’s been Paul’s mission over the past couple of decades to get museum workers to talk about this openly, rather than grouse about it in private. He also wants us to share sensible solutions to the problem.

While it may not be obvious to the average museum visitor, museum staff and volunteers wear so many hats, that this has become a cliché in the field. We often joke about how a given day requires us to assist researchers, build an exhibit, shovel snow, and scrub the toilet. And that’s an easy day. Our job descriptions are so varied that workers in other fields may have difficulty believing we actually do everything we say we do.

In small museums especially, this variety in daily tasks arises out of necessity. Because most museums are short on funding, it falls to a small group of dedicated individuals, or often one dedicated individual, to keep the organization operating.

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota Extension on the “Economic Contribution of Museums in Minnesota,” there are “562 museums, historic sites, historic houses, nature centers, zoos, and arboreta operating in Minnesota.” Extrapolating from the 245 survey respondents, it is estimated that there are 5,300 employees spread throughout these sites, with an average of two paid staff (full- or part-time) at them. Fifty-one percent of the survey’s respondents said that they had between zero and five staff members. “Nearly a third (29 percent) of museums are volunteer-operated alone and do not have employees.” In 2011 “volunteers contributed nearly 490,000 hours of work” to museums, the equivalent of 236 full-time employees.

Museums are labor-intensive organizations. Museums with collections must manage those collections, starting at the point when items are donated. Each item given to a museum must be accessioned, which includes giving it a unique identification number and recording a description, history, and condition, and possibly taking multiple photographs of the item. It must then be properly packed for long-term preservation. The same care must be taken with archival documents. There’s a lot of moving that goes on in a museum, of artifacts, documents, and workers. (For example, in 2008, MCHS received close to 1,000 items for its collections. If our curator worked every day of the year, she would have to process close to three items each day.)

An artifact or document has little value if it’s forever kept in storage, so museum workers must find ways to provide access to the collections. This includes building exhibits and giving tours, assisting visitors with research and doing in-house research for publications and the web, answering questions via email and phone, and digitizing items for use online. And, if a museum is online (most Minnesota museums are), then website and social media maintenance is required.

Museums must also keep up on business obligations like bookkeeping, tax reporting, meetings, marketing, writing policies and procedures, tracking and communicating with members and donors, grant writing and reporting, project management, and volunteer and staff training. But that’s not all. We also have to manage building and grounds maintenance. Eighty percent of Minnesota museums are trying to do all of this with volunteer workers or fewer than 5 paid staff.

As the field becomes more professional, these expectations place even more pressure on volunteers and staff. According to Paul Thistle, it’s a recipe for burnout. He adds to the metaphor of the straw breaking the camel’s back by stating that museum workers are “fully loaded camels standing in a rain of straws.” Higher professional standards, while generally good for the field, place extra burdens on these fully loaded camels.

While worker burnout is a serious concern, we need to remember that this task saturation also affects a museum’s ability meet its mission. And that’s why this topic deserves discussion both within professional museum organizations and throughout the public sphere. Let’s hope this article helps promote Paul’s AAM discussion and brings more awareness to the problem.

Paul has started a blog called Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers.

Sources:

Thistle, Paul, Abstract: Museum Workers as Fully Loaded Camels Standing in a Rain of Straws, August 24, 2011.

Tuck, Brigid & Bruce Schwartau, Economic Contribution of Museums in Minnesota, University of Minnesota Extension, 2012.

 

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