Is unethical employment a time bomb for museums?

Charlotte Pratley, Issue 115/12, p15, 01.12.2015

Ethical employment models are achievable

To begin with a “wicked” question, as the Museums Association (MA) director Sharon Heal advocated at the organisation’s conference, is the heritage sector’s reliance on unpaid and underpaid staff an unethical and unsustainable model that hinders progression?

At Culture Syndicates, we have been developing a solution. Our projects provide museums with affordable support in collections, access and marketing, while developing trainees’ skills.

We’re a Community Interest Company, with three directors, one intern and seven trainees. No one works unpaid. We are, however, underpaid. The directors have invested £28,875 in support in kind.

Trainees work enough to learn new skills and enhance their CVs, but not yet to pay their rent. The company has only been fully operational since July, and we plan for things to be different next year.

Ethical employment models are achievable, as the Social Enterprise Awards demonstrate. This year’s shortlist includes Old Spike Roastery, a coffee shop in south London that provides homeless people with barista training, housing and therapy.

Wouldn’t it be great if museum cafes operated like this? It’s not a purely selfless act, as the marketing implications are obvious.

But underpaid, overworked staff led by pale male dinosaurs (to use a phrase from the MA Conference) are unlikely to change how things are run.

Innovation in Museums Displays, which funded eight museums to experiment with co-curation, found that poor governance and the resulting staff turnover damaged projects’ effectiveness.

It is easier to do a project yourself: to use it as a training ground takes time and nerves of steel, but its value is proven. Partnership is key and organisations such as Culture Syndicates exist to offer support.

Volunteering in unskilled roles is appropriate for those seeking social and educational  enrichment, but too many skilled roles are unpaid, blocking opportunities and undermining pay structures. A paid front-of-house role gave me the credibility to apply for my information officer role at East Midlands Museums Service.

Building traineeships and graduate posts into grant applications can create roles and is encouraged by many funders. Creative & Cultural Skills is one such supporter. It believes that “true economic growth in the creative and cultural industries in the UK can happen only with access to the right talent”.

Culture Syndicates’ interns are funded by Santander Universities SME Internships – contact a university’s employability department if you are interested in signing up.

Our only option is to change, or watch our salaries decrease as the bottom drops out of our industry, one talented individual at a time.


The title of this article was changed from Skilled roles should never be unpaid to better reflect the author's views. Charlotte Pratley is one of three directors at Culture Syndicates (the December print MJ edition described her as 'director of Culture Syndicates').


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Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Collections, Royal Academy of Arts
21.12.2015, 21:23
I like stereotyping as much as the next person, but as a leaderly pale male dinosaur I like to think I've done a fair bit to improve employment practices. As here, for example And I hope to do plenty more :-)
Charlotte Pratley
MA Member
Director, Culture Syndicates CIC
15.01.2016, 12:37
Perhaps you are more of an evolving dinosaur, Maurice! As archetypal, white, middle class* heritage workers, we must actively re-address the balance in our industry. Looking forward to reading your report and hearing more about activities at your new post soon.

*if the class system is relevant...interesting article here:
10.12.2015, 11:10
With the exception of my two last interviews, I have been interviewed by females which suggest women are moving up the ladder (good) and are at risk of becoming dinosaurs (bad) committed to maintaining the status quo if the culture doesn't change in the museums sector.

I agree with the anonymous contributor. I'm in a catch-22 situation though in different circumstances. I have good transferable experience, have gained good voluntary work with well-known museums but can't get the Masters needed to have any chance of getting particular positions or even good non-entry positions which do not need a Masters. I support volunteers but museums should recognise that skilled positions (or jobs seems as being skilled) need to receive a salary above the living wage or at the new minimum wage level.
MA Member
02.12.2015, 22:54
From my experience being an intern and a volunteer, while I have enjoyed these roles, I have not found them to be rewarding in the sense that they don't do much to add to my development. For the most part these roles allow me to develop the same skills that I have already used elsewhere, but not to add new skills to my CV.
It's a pattern of repetition.

When I think about and when I look critically at my CV, I know that I lack experience handling budgets; I have managed a team and have completed my research thesis for my masters studies but have not yet any project management experience. As per the feedback from my previous job interview "I know it in theory" I speak "passionately" and "knowledgeably" about my subject area but have no practical experience of it - but internships and volunteer roles won't give me this. Only the job will. It's that classic Catch22 scenario. No experience, but no job to get the experience.

Essentially, the point I'm trying to make, is that I would work for no wage to get the experience employers want me to have but those tasks and levels of responsibility are reserved for paid staff. I mean honestly, would you trust an intern with your HLF bid? No. Exactly.

At this stage I'd like to make it clear that I am by no means inexperienced. I am a graduate of art history, a fully-qualified teacher with 4 years experience in London schools and a masters in gallery education. I have completed 1 internship and 2 voluntary roles. I have been a manager and I have been published.

I personally would walk over hot coals to give the employer in my next interview exactly what they want but somehow I doubt I will have the opportunity to develop those skills. I keep chasing that dream job as an Education and Outreach Officer (or Community Outreach Officer, or similar job title) but find that blasted Catch22 will never go away. I'm sorry to say that I disagree with the lady writing this article (Charlotte Pratley) as I do not believe these roles give the necessary skills at all thus making progression harder to facilitate. I genuinely understand the plight of cash-strapped charities and museums that rely on volunteers for the exceptionally good work that many of them do. I know that some of my colleagues genuinely worry that we as a sector could not function without this assistance. I do not want to be unsympathetic of this view. But my own situation is the one I am living and drives my thinking. Is it really fair to ask people to work for no or little pay when the roles they are being asked to perform do not even advance their career prospects?

My colleagues and peers seem to be side-stepping in their job roles, moving between organisations but largely remaining within the same job title and pay bracket. How then will the heritage sector advance to draw in any "new blood"? At some stage someone has to take a chance on someone new. Just please god let that someone be interviewing me....

(Interested in your thoughts and responses)
Charlotte Pratley
MA Member
Director, Culture Syndicates CIC
09.12.2015, 16:57
Thank you for your comment. Your story is a common one, and the reason why we started Culture Syndicates.

All too often, volunteer roles are seen as quick wins for the organisation rather than developmental tools to grow a new generation of staff. It takes a lot of effort to run an internship or volunteer placement that is of genuine value to the student, so it does not surprise me to hear that you have had mediocre experiences. At Culture Syndicates, we can budget up to 50% of a manager's time on a project in supporting a trainee to learn how to run that project. By investing time in this way, we are creating our next wave of staff, who can teach the next wave of staff as well as break out of the Catch 22 situation.

My title for this article has been edited – it was called Is unethical employment a time bomb for museums? but it has been changed. I do not believe that skilled work should never be paid. As you say, there are some situations where volunteering to gain new experience is essential. For example, my business partner and I can choose to make a loss on projects in order to develop our skillsets and portfolio.

The key is therefore finding a placement or entry level role that actively develops your skills, although I know these can be hard to find. My solution to this barrier when I first started out was to undertake projects myself – I put on exhibitions on my work as an artist which gave me administration, project management and budget handling experience, such as recording the cost of my materials, booking the venue and selling cans of luke-warm cider at our openings. I worked bar and temp jobs to support myself while doing this. These small projects with fellow art students led to more ambitious projects until we had a studio and gallery, which paved the way for my first paid job as an Exhibition Assistant. When this role did not develop my skills enough to progress, I relied on my administration experience from a temp job at Nottingham City Council and my own projects. There may be similar ways for you to think outside the box, such as creating a local history project, by researching the area and tracing families. If your local museum or history society is interested in hosting an event or exhibition around this then that is a bonus but if not, you can still create evidence of your skills for your portfolio.

I agree – a lot of managers do not do enough to give emerging professionals new experience. However, it feels as though the industry is warming up to new ways of working and more people are thinking about how to work more sustainably. Although it takes more time and effort, there are support systems in place to help staff and it can add a huge amount of value to grant applications. Our model champions this change so that the next generation of employees are properly supported rather than being lost to other industries who will support and pay them as they deserve.

At Culture Syndicates, we are always keen to help sector entrants – if you would like a chat, my contact details are on