Museum workforce - Museums Association

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Museum workforce

I am very tired of museums claiming that “we’d like to pay more, but we can’t”, or “we’d love to have a more diverse workforce, but they just don’t apply”. Try harder, but also, be honest and reflective about how your existing structures make this happen, and stop pretending it is outside of your control.

MA Decolonisation Survey respondent, 2020

Decolonising the workforce is about who museums work with and how people are valued and supported to thrive. It involves changing ways of working, being critical of structures and gaining buy-in from the whole workforce for decolonising practice.

The Code of Ethics states, under principle 3, Individual and Institutional Integrity, to ‘Abide by a fair, consistent and transparent workforce policy for all those working in the museum, including those in unpaid positions.’

Here we consider what fairness, consistency, transparency, and care of the workforce means to decolonising. This includes everyone who works with museums, including volunteers, staff, freelancers and partners.

Leadership and organisational change

A commitment to organisational change can embed decolonising practice and support practitioners to sustain change. Here we are speaking to decision makers and those who can influence decisions in an institution.

– Engage proactively with trustees to gain buy-in and support for decolonising practice, policy and recruitment. Communicate and demonstrate leadership and trustee commitment to decolonising.

– Make decolonising a core institutional priority, with strategic objectives, long-term actions and transparency.

– Explore what decolonising means across the institution and how you can have a shared understanding and responsibility. As decision-makers, you will likely have time and space to think plans through – ensure all involved have time to do their own thinking too.

– Make an organisational and sector-wide commitment to challenge specific forms of racism (including anti-Black racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism and Gypsy, Roma, Travellers (GRT) racism).

– Analyse where your institution is at present and set goals and targets to measure change.

– Develop benchmarks for positive change to enable your institution to self-reflect and improve. Our Measuring Socially Engaged Practice toolkit offers support here.

– Ensure decision-makers are actively aware of potential biases that may influence decision-making, along with other factors, such as time pressure and fatigue, that can influence decision-making.

– Set up external organisational peer-review or mentoring for long term accountability. Where possible, recruit and pay for this work fairly.

– Develop a clear programme of CPD to ensure all individuals understand and buy into this area of work, recognising the role we all play. Ringfence time and resources for decolonising practice learning.

– Tackle siloed working on decolonising, and address the pressure on dedicated people having to work on their own. Share the work across staff members and teams. Mainstream decolonising across your organisation.

– Pay meaningful attention to those outside the institution who are or could be part of this work.

– Use Equality Act (2010), Public Sector Equality Duty (2011), Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) and positive action to support diversity.

Case study: Manchester Museum – Indigenising Museums Toolkit

The Manchester Museum (University of Manchester) launched its Indigenising Manchester Museum (IMM) programme, supported by the John Ellerman Foundation, in January 2021 with the appointment of the first ever Curator of Indigenous Perspectives, Dr Alexandra P. Alberda (Jemez Pueblo/Mixed). The programme includes supporting museum staff and volunteers in developing their own practices. This work is being built through the Indigenise Speaker Series, which has public talks and internal workshops, and the development of an Indigenising Museums Toolkit.

The speaker series aims to create spaces for staff to encounter and discuss Indigenous perspectives collectively while the toolkit is meant to support individual, focused engagement with decolonisation/ indigenisation specific to different people’s roles and pre-existing comfort and expertise.

Responding to 1:2:1 meetings with colleagues, Alex started to build a focused and thematised collection of multimedia resources that could be easily navigated. It was first populated with resources related to colleagues’ expressed interests and needs, foundational resources, and materials from our existing partners; now, with the speaker series workshops underway resources are being added that respond to needs identified in discussions and knowledge provided through speakers’ presentations.

The toolkit aims to be released publicly and freely at the end of 2022, when the speakers series finishes. It is currently being shared and developed collaboratively with students, researchers, and museum professionals. The toolkit is meant to reflect decolonisation and indigenisation as processes and practices – and not end goals – so that it can adapt to support growth with the museum and its unique staff and partners.

‘Resources’ case in Living Worlds Gallery, Manchester Museum by Ant Clausen
‘Resources’ case in Living Worlds Gallery, Manchester Museum by Ant Clausen. The exploitation and disconnect between the natural world and ‘humans’ is colonialism. The Indigenising Manchester Museum programme seeks to build narratives of reconciliation around issues like this

Recruitment and selection

– Advertise widely to attract the broadest field of applicants. Work with a wide range of networks and partners to build relationships before recruitment.

– Ensure job or role descriptions and other recruitment materials are inclusive and relevant, for example accessible and meaningful titles, Living Wage pay structures, access to professional development and support. Consider, what needs to be in everyone’s role descriptions?

– Be critical of contract terms, including short-term, casual and zero-hours contracts. Question the expectations for poorly paid or unpaid labour. What is the pay disparity between senior and junior staff?

– Challenge assumptions around the requirement for academic or other specialist qualifications for all roles.

– Create opportunities for familiarisation with the museum, making the process more of a two-way approach. This could include open days showing the connection between roles and their environment.

– Ensure selection practices are accessible, transparent and inclusive through diverse panel membership and training for objective decision making.

– Make time to give feedback and cover expenses.

– Remember that taking a holistic approach to decolonising, across all areas of practice, will positively impact on recruitment and improve your reputation.

For more good practice ideas see Fair Museum Jobs manifesto, Museums Freelance resources and Arts Council England’s recruitment advice.

Workforce wellbeing

– How does or could the idea of care apply to all the people you work with? Move from ‘duty of care’ references to a clearly defined and resourced ‘health and wellbeing policy’, delivering an ethical commitment to the wellbeing of the workforce.

– Ensure decolonising activities are assessed for potential physical, psychological and emotional impact. Provide support for those who may suffer abuse or threats in the course of their decolonising practice.

– Make sure everyone understands their role in creating a culture of wellbeing, including volunteers, freelancers and partner organisations.

– Establish clear commitment to supporting those within the institution who face marginalisation or emotional labour by ringfencing time for reflection, support and supervision.

– Challenge the expectations placed on new staff and volunteers to be advocates for change. Who is expected to undertake emotional labour? How is this represented across different jobs and disciplines, such as Front of House, Learning and Engagement and Conservation?

– Burnout is real – recognise its impact for yourself and the people you work with. Value each other, have policies in place and build in breaks for mental and physical health so this practice is sustainable.

Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion which can occur when someone experiences long-term stress or has worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time. Definition from Mental Health UK

Image caption: New Museum School Graduation, Queen’s House Greenwich 2019, Liz Isles Photography. Courtesy Culture&