More than a year into the pandemic, a clearer picture is only just starting to emerge of the long-term impact of mass job losses on museums.
The crisis arrived with such speed that it left little time for reflection, but as the country slowly returns to a new normality, it is becoming apparent that the museum workforce could bear the hidden costs of the pandemic for years to come.
The Museums Association's (MA) redundancy tracker has so far counted 4,126 proposed or confirmed redundancies in museums across the UK – a startling figure in a small industry over such a short space of time.
National Army Museum workers recently spoke to Museums Journal about their concerns about a redundancy process that has had a lasting impact on staff.
And in March, staff from the Victoria and Albert Museum warned of their fears of a “brain drain” at the institution, with every curatorial and conservation team losing longstanding, knowledgeable employees.
The impact of staff cuts at the V&A has led the union Prospect to call on the government to rethink its funding model for culture. Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said earlier this month: “The heritage sector has been badly affected by the pandemic, which has shone a light on the vulnerability created by the current funding model. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the V&A where the response to Covid-related loss of earnings is resulting in the loss of more than 1,000 years of specialist knowledge.
“The government talks a good game on the importance of our culture but refuses to back it up with funding. We are now going to lose experts with unique insights into the collections they oversee and make no mistake - if you lose those experts the public loses access to those collections forever.”
Across the UK
Similar issues are playing out at institutions across the UK. According to data from the tracker, independent museums are overrepresented when it comes to job losses. And unsurprisingly, redundancies have fallen hard on public-facing teams such as visitor services, and learning and engagement.
Front-of-house (FoH) staff have been particularly badly hit, says William Tregaskes, co-founder of the FoHMuseums advocacy group (see box), which is creating a charter for the sector to represent the interests of FoH workers. “Our research has shown that museum workers are increasingly starting their careers in FoH,” says Tregaskes. “The loss of FoH roles today could narrow the route into the sector and, over time, potentially impact the wider sector as people choose their career path.”
And the redundancy tracker does not include staff on casual and zero-hours contracts who were let go with little notice, or self-employed workers whose annual contracts were not renewed – the MA plans to capture this data in a different way.
The pandemic has driven home how insecure those positions are, says one education worker, who has taken a part-time job while hoping that their role might return. “The stupidity of who qualified for furlough and who didn’t makes me angry,” says another casual worker.
The sector can’t hide away from what has happened
In many respects we still do not know the experiences of most people in the sector. We have seen flashes in national and local news stories, but many will have remained hidden for a host of reasons. There is a need now for a concerted, transparent, and real effort to understand the wider experiences of the workforce. The sector can’t hide away from what’s happened or the actions it has carried out.
Restructures and uncertainty around future employment will bring further stress and insecurity to a workforce that has already been one of the worst affected in the country. The budgetary decisions being made now, after a decade of austerity, will further stretch staff as museums reopen to the public. There will be point when the sector’s back is broken by the weight it is trying carry.
The long-term impact is still unknown but as budgets and staffing continue to be cut and museums face challenges from those who seek to shape the perception of the past, there is a real concern about the ability of museums to connect with communities who have for too long been excluded from museums. The challenges the sector faces do not sit in isolation.
William Tregaskes, co-founder, FoHMuseums
Anecdotal evidence suggests that losses have fallen disproportionately on workers already underrepresented in the sector, including people of colour and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, creating further barriers in an industry that is already lagging behind on diversity.
It is also clear that many of those affected by job loss feel that their situations were not handled particularly well, leaving them with bitter memories of the experience. “One area that could have been done differently is the level of communication with staff, listening to people in the sector,” says Tregaskes. “Poor communication has been a shared experience for many.”
The MA plans to publish an in-depth analysis of the scale and impact of redundancies later this year. As the sector looks towards recovery, it will be vital to ensure that museums’ most valuable asset – their workers – are not left behind.
Museum workers in their own words
I was really pleased to be furloughed during the first lockdown, but after that we only partially reopened and I didn’t get any work. Because I wasn’t working on a certain date between the lockdowns it was decided I wasn’t entitled to be furloughed when all the permanent staff were during the second closure. I’m lucky in that I don’t really need the money, but the stupidity of who qualified for furlough and who didn’t makes me really angry.
Former FoH worker on zero hours contract, museum trust
My employers made little effort to manage my redundancy with empathy or sensitivity. In March 2020 we were furloughed with no notice. In June or July I got a letter telling me that the consultation was over (we had never received any info to consult on) and I was being made redundant. My manager made it clear that she and HR had both been aware I should have been offered other roles they were recruiting for during the time I was being made redundant, but I wasn’t. They also underestimated my redundancy pay.
Former community engagement officer, local authority
Even if I do manage to return, I’ll likely be doing it after a gap of 18 months or more, during which I’ve either been working in a completely different sector and skill set, or not working at all. I feel completely de-skilled and I don’t feel like the same person they hired before the pandemic struck.
Museum educator on zero hours contract, local authority