Better than a barista?

Alistair Brown, 30.01.2020
What to do about low pay in museums
It’s no secret among museum workers that pay in the sector is generally low, and sometimes abysmal. But the recent news that Tate is hiring a Head of Coffee for almost £40,000 – more than many of its curators earn – has brought a wave of soul-searching on the museum community.  

Unfortunately, some of the commentary has focused on the salary for the coffee role. Grayson Perry tweeted “I give up, they’ve won,” as if to say that a Head of Coffee – a mere hospitality role! – was usurping the primacy of the curator. The notion that such a role might command a decent wage seems to represent the upsetting of an entire social order.

This state of affairs may be galling for some – but things are changing in our museums. Coffee is big business and museums need to take income generation seriously if they’re to pay their way in the world. That means that our organisations need to compete for talent and expertise in a wider market across lots of disciplines, including hospitality, marketing and digital. No one should be upset at the idea of a Head of Coffee – and fellow museum team member – making a living. 

The bigger question is how to bring museum pay up across the board. Easier said than done. Roles that are more museum-specific, such as curatorial, conservation and learning are all areas that suffer from poor pay, caused by a decade of austerity and public sector pay freezes combined with the fact that some organisations take advantage of the surplus of highly educated, highly qualified people who want to work in the sector. 

In this situation, there are two things that can prevent a race to the bottom. First, solidarity between museum workers, and the willingness to act together to improve conditions. For many, that means playing an active part in a union and collectively negotiating with management for better wages.

Second, we can help to highlight better pay policy, and create an expectation in the sector about what fair wages look like. This is what campaigns such as Fair Museum Jobs are doing via their manifesto and whenever they call out jobs advertised with low pay. It’s also what the MA does through our Salary Guidelines which provide benchmarked salary ranges for different types of museum jobs. We last published them in 2017 – and plan to update and improve them soon, subject to fundraising to carry out the necessary research.

There’s no silver bullet that will solve the issue of mediocre pay overnight – but there are things we can do to make sure that museum pay looks more like Head of Coffee than the price of a cup of coffee.