Is unethical employment a time bomb for museums? - Museums Association

Is unethical employment a time bomb for museums?

Ethical employment models are achievable
Charlotte Pratley
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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