The museum profession was once so poorly paid that recruitment adverts seeking only “gentlemen of private means” were not uncommon. Although much has thankfully changed since then, anyone working in or with the museum and heritage sectors will be aware that low pay is endemic and opportunities for career progression are weak, particularly in comparison with equivalent professions.
A recent report released by the Institute of Conservation (Icon) found that the level of skills, knowledge and experience made little difference to a conservator’s salary. Roles with management and financial responsibility saw the biggest increase in salary levels, the report found – in other words, jobs that are not specific to conservation pay significantly more over the course of a career.
The Museums Association (MA) and the union Prospect are undertaking similar pieces of research this summer on the wider museum and heritage sectors. The MA’s research will inform an update to the association’s salary guidelines later this year.
It is an uncomfortable truth that the sector has been slow to address the pay issue because demand for jobs in museums has always remained high; skilled, talented professionals choose to stay as a labour of love, despite knowing they’d be better off elsewhere. But this model – already unfair and detrimental to the diversity of the sector – is about to be severely tested by the cost of living crisis.
With the Consumer Prices Index – the UK government’s preferred measure for the annual increase in living costs – breaching 11% thanks to record-breaking hikes in energy and food bills, roles that once paid just enough to get by are becoming increasingly unsustainable. According to Prospect, some museum professionals are relying on foodbanks to make ends meet.
Pay negotiations for the current financial year are not yet settled, but with finances hit hard by the pandemic, cultural institutions across the public and independent sectors are likely to have little wriggle room to offer salary rises in line with inflation.
Employees in the cultural public sector have suffered two consecutive years of pay freezes – a significant cut in real terms – and the UK government is capping salary rises at 2-3% in 2022-23. Independent museums are also under pressure, and not just with revenue; some that received rescue packages from the Cultural Recovery Fund are only just approaching the end of the 18-month pay restraint commitment they had to make under the terms of the grant.
The heritage funding model feels as though it needs a significant overhaul
England’s national museums are likely to have their museum freedoms – the ability to set their own pay in line with income generation – restored this year after the Treasury insisted they obey the public sector pay freeze in 2021-22. But the precipitous fall in international visitors has left a gaping hole in their budgets, and it is unlikely that many will have much latitude to raise salaries.
Compounded by the impact of restructures and other Covid-related pressures, the museum workforce is being stretched in many directions.
“It’s very stark,” says Ben Middleton, national secretary of Prospect. “There will be some very difficult pay processes this year. The concern is that where institutions have already had large restructures, that’s already put a lot of pressure on the staff that remain. People are absolutely worn out by the pandemic. The further hit of the cost-of-living crisis is likely to start pricing people out of heritage.”
With museums already struggling to recruit certain roles as a result of Covid and Brexit, the cost-of-living crisis could exacerbate existing staff shortages.
“Institutions could quickly go into a decline that is hard to recover from,” warns Middleton. “They’re in the insidious position of desperately wanting to gear up and get visitors back in, but not having the staff to be able to do that. It’s a vicious circle.”
The crisis must be a wake-up call for the government and sector leaders, he adds: “The heritage funding model feels as though it needs a significant overhaul.”
Museums and their staff are facing huge difficulties, but there is some cause for optimism. Progressive working policies are becoming more common. Several institutions have prioritised pay this year, controlling costs elsewhere to offer salary settlements in line with inflation.
Even with trying to protect wages, we’re struggling to recruit across the board. It’s hard to compete with other sectors
Birmingham Museums Trust has awarded a 5% increase to staff who were not already on the inflation-based Real Living Wage scheme. The trust also doubled pension contributions for workers recruited after the organisation became a trust, who were not beneficiaries of the more favourable council pension scheme.
The Thackray Museum in Leeds has also awarded a 5% rise. Director Nat Edwards says its fair work policy has been driven forward by a supportive board of trustees. The salary increase was facilitated by the museum’s efforts in securing emergency funding, as well a range of other support from trusts and foundations.
It also successfully diversified its income streams during the pandemic, hiring out its space first as a vaccination centre and then for vaccine trials and research into long Covid.
“Being quite small, we’re able to be a bit more agile in moving expenditure around,” Edwards says. “This left us in a position where we can offer a pay rise with confidence.”
But he acknowledges that even this settlement will not be enough to bridge the growing cost-of-living gap. “It seemed reasonable at the time, but by the time the ink was dry, the cost of living was going up,” says Edwards. “With national insurance rising too, it barely makes a ripple.”
Like many, the museum is currently experiencing difficulties in finding staff, with vacancies taking much longer to fill.
“Even with trying to protect wages, we’re still struggling to recruit across the board – it doesn’t matter what the job is,” says Edwards. “People aren’t coming into the sector in the same numbers. It’s hard to compete with other sectors.”
This has serious implications for a sector already struggling with skills gaps and workforce diversity. As well as adopting progressive recruitment practices, such as dropping the requirement for formal qualifications unless essential to a role, Edwards says museums need to collaborate on what they can offer the next generation of workers in terms of on-the-job training and career development, rather than expecting people to fork out for costly qualifications.
“We can never offer the same training structures as the big corporates, but maybe if we work together, we can do more,” he says. “The issue is about how much we invest as a sector in our people.”
Why we need new salary guidelines
The UK has been buffeted by crises in recent years – Brexit, Covid and now a cost-of-living crisis. We know that times are hard for many working in the museum sector and that low pay, job insecurity and lack of progression are impacting wellbeing.
The Museums Association’s (MA) Redundancy Tracker during Covid showed that more than 4,500 redundancies were made in the sector between March 2020 and 2022. Many in museums were already concerned about pay and future employment prospects before the latest inflationary surge, as shown by the Fair Museum Jobs campaign on social media and discussions on pay and diversity in the sector at the MA Annual Conference and other events.
The MA has long campaigned for better pay and conditions in museums and in a period of such rapid economic change we need decent pay now more than ever. As part of the campaign we need good evidence. Previously, we have produced salary guidelines – most recently in 2017 – which analyse and benchmark pay in the sector and we are now undertaking a similar piece of research. We are working with pay experts and researchers to survey the pay policies of museums across the UK this summer and will launch new guidelines later this year for people working in a range of job types and levels of seniority.
Our salary guidelines will provide both a measure of current pay rates and conditions in the sector and a comparison with pay in equivalent sectors. We want to encourage employers to pay museum staff fairly, to close the pay gap that exists with equivalent sectors, and to help staff to cope with the rapidly increasing cost of living. Keep an eye out for more news on the salary guidelines later this year.
Alistair Brown is the policy manager at the Museums Association