By Emily Turner
As educators we are often combating misperceptions about what it is that we do and what skills we bring to the table, from visitors and colleagues alike. These misunderstandings interact with a variety of larger systematic forces that result in a rather hostile working environment for a considerable proportion of emerging museum educators. Overworked and underpaid with little job security, burnout brings us to a fork in the road where we either leave the field or are able to land a full-time job, maybe in a museum’s Education department. Granted, that is if you are even able to enter the field in the first place.
There are a number of forces that create these patterns, chiefly the existence of unpaid labor, the abundance of freelance work, and inequitable practices that are tied to gender. One of the biggest hurdles in realizing our full value as professionals is the long-standing reliance museum have on docent- and volunteer-led tours & programs. It can be difficult to explain and to understand how the work of paid educators differs from those who perform similar duties for free; that we have a set of skills that are unique, honed, & valuable, and that our responsibilities lie well beyond the duties of tour-leading. Teaching has also been considered a pink-collar job in the US for over a hundred years. When work is deemed to rely on feminine skills such as caregiving or emotional labor they are monetarily valued less than those deemed to be masculine. Educators are no exception and are among the lowest paid museum professionals, particularly entry-level educators. What’s more, even positions for entry-level or emerging professionals often come with a request for an advanced degree, when at 30k a year said jobs do not pay this degree back.
My own career began in New York, where approximately half of all education jobs in museums are part-time. Getting started as a museum educator can be a whirlwind of multiple part-time, temporary, and freelance jobs that is sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse. As a contract educator I loved having the freedom to set my own schedule, spread myself out across different museums, and be done with work at 2PM. However, this work structure also meant I was without employer health insurance, earned no paid sick leave, didn’t always have work coming in, and was often overbooking myself just to make ends meet. I would’ve never been able to afford working this way if I had a family member I was financially responsible for, if I hadn’t still been on my parent’s health insurance (thanks, Obamacare!), or if I had debt to pay off. For this to be a common experience across emerging museum educators means museums are missing out on an entire population of talented professionals who are unable to enter the field because of financial constraints.
Such high barriers to entry result in a lack of diversity in the museum education field that reflects similar trends in the museum community at large. Museum education is overwhelmingly populated by able-bodied white women; for anyone who does not identify as such, the pressures of adhering to expectations of white femininity can make coming to work feel unsafe and can negatively impact how others perceive you and your work. As the Mellon Study pointed out, the lack of diversity in the field is not something that is going to naturally go away as more young people enter the workforce. I have only been part of a diverse staff (ethnicity, gender, generation, sexual orientation, education, you name it) at museums where creating an inclusive environment was intentional. Museums should know that it’s something educators pay attention to, and that as audience advocates and frequent self-proclaimed social justice warriors we are prone to paying attention to it. We know that collectively we are better at our jobs if our team is coming to the table with a wider set of experiences and perspectives. It means a lot to us to work at institutions that put action towards mission, and whose ethical values align with our own.
As museum workers, what are practical solutions to these problems that we can collaborate with each other on and demand as workers? Paid sick leave for all museum educators regardless of employment status would prevent people from coming to work when they shouldn’t be, just for the sake of earning a full paycheck. Or perhaps our goals are loftier, like removing the existing structure of replacing permanent staff members with temporary/freelance educators whose sole job is program delivery -a system that lends itself to exploitation and creates low return on employee investment. For those of us who aren’t hiring managers or encounter resistance at work, what can we do to create space for emerging professionals in our local educator communities? Free workshops, institutional memberships to networking organizations that include temporary and part-time workers, #drinkingaboutmuseums, and paid internships are all great examples of what this work can look like. Even simpler, when was the last time you made yourself available to an emerging museum professional? It is our duty to support one another, because the state of entry level work affects the state of all of our work.
Emily Turner is a K-12 & Youth Programs Educator at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.