Simon Stephens, 01.04.2017
Sector must strive to improve staff’s lives
As any organisation knows, you are only as good as your staff. And the same applies to the whole sector, which derives its strength from the museum workforce. But, like those in many sectors, people working in museums are struggling to adapt to the changing nature of employment.

The emphasis on project funding means that many are constantly moving from one temporary contract to another. This might suit some, but others find the lack of security demoralising and stressful.

For those lucky enough to have a permanent job, many find it difficult to achieve a satisfactory work/ life balance, as they try to cope with huge volumes of work and the fact that digital technology allows us to be available nearly all the time (see p17).

Last year, Theresa May asked RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor to lead a review into how employment practices need to change, in order to keep pace with modern business models. The inquiry will consider the implications of new forms of work on employee rights and responsibilities – as well as on their freedoms and obligations.

What has become known as the “gig economy” is threatening people’s employment rights, as well as their sense of security and self-worth. There is obviously a balance to be struck, but employing people flexibly all too often seems to suit employers, not workers.
Whether Taylor’s review leads to change remains to be seen. But whatever its outcome, museums can act to improve the lives of those working in the sector.

Funders could think more about the impact that short-term projects have on the sector. Museums could look harder at the practise of contracting out services and its effect on employment rights. And perhaps we all need to reassess the benefits of having people on long-term contracts in terms of the in-depth knowledge that they can offer our organisations.

If the sector is to flourish, working in a museum must be seen as an attractive and dynamic profession. This is vital to attract the diverse talent that will make change possible. Ultimately, it is about the kind of sector we want to see in the future. Is it one marked by stasis, short-termism and uncertainty or one where there is a commitment to diversity, long-term planning and staff development?

Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal simon@museumsassociation.org