“Will Teach 4 Food”: Museum Education and the Politics of Labor

Imagine that you are an emerging museum educator about to finish a museum studies or public history degree. You have closely studied historical methods, historiography, education theory, and visitor studies. You probably worked at least one unpaid internship while taking out thousands in loans to finish your degree. Now you’re about to start applying for jobs.

You start browsing job openings online and find one that sounds almost perfect to you: K-12 Museum Educator. There is much appeal in this job. You get to work with a diverse range of students teaching them the importance of history in our daily lives. You get to teach them about the ways history is viewed through multiple perspectives and help them better understand local and national history. You get regular training and professional development as a part of your job. And you don’t have to grade papers at the end of the day!

The qualification requirements suggest that you’re probably in good shape. The museum asks that you posses at least two years of college, but a BA is preferred. You’ve got that. But then you look at the fine print, and your overpriced Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte falls to the floor: you will be paid only $9 an hour and limited to working 15-25 hours a week if you get hired for this job.

You may have just drank your last Pumpkin Spice latte.

Fortunately this sort of frustrating situation never occurred during my own search for a public history job last year, but this job posting is real and comes to you courtesy of the Missouri History Museum. And, sadly, I am sure there are many other desperate people out there who are probably going to apply for this job because they have no leverage and no other options save for abandoning the museum/public history field for other employment.

It’s a shame that so many talented and educated people are forced to live on a teenager’s wages if they hope to have a chance of breaking into this field. True, there are many small museums and institutions that are working on shoestring budgets, and perhaps–perhaps–they can be excused for relying on volunteers, unpaid interns, and/or part-time employees to keep the boat above water. But a popular, well-endowed institution like MOHIST paying its educators barely above minimum wage is simply inexcusable.

The taxpayers of St. Louis city and county give the Missouri History Museum ten million dollars a year for operating costs. The museum’s former President, Robert Archibald, ran the institution for twenty-five years and was making an annual salary of $515,000 by 2012. But then Mr. Archibald ran into trouble when an audit revealed that he and another museum board trustee spent $875,000 of the museum’s money, without an appraisal, on a tract of land that was valued by the city of St. Louis for only $232,000. A lot of taxpayers were angered when they heard that news, and eventually local politicians and the museum board forced Archibald to retire. Luckily for Mr. Archibald, however, upon retirement he cashed in his vacation days and sent in a bill for a six-month consulting project he had recently participated in, and the same museum board that called for his retirement compensated him with a cool $820,000 payout. This action also led to a lot of taxpayer head-scratching, and in order to save face the museum board announced that they would not use any taxpayer dollars for Mr. Archibald’s payout. Instead the money would unexpectedly come through private donations from people like Marian and Ethel Herr, twin sisters who regularly volunteered and collectively left $900,000 to the museum after Marian died in 2010. But museum educators? Nine bucks an hour for you! We’ll even tweet the job opening using the hashtags #museumjobs and #STLjobs to make it seem like this is a really important and highly valued position within our institution.

Whether you’re interested in teaching in a classroom, a museum, or anywhere else, you learn quickly that the closer you are to students and/or the public on a daily basis, the less money you make compared to the administrators who almost never interact with the same students or public audience. Society pays a lot of lip service to the importance of education in enriching children’s lives, but they don’t pay much money to actually do that work. The museum world is particularly guilty because they want to have their cake and eat it too. There are a record number of museum studies and public history undergrad and graduate programs in the United States today, and the opportunity to get a good education in these fields has never been easier. But with the increase in programs comes an increase in educated candidates looking for gainful employment. Credential creep occurs as more and more overqualified candidates fight for a limited number of available jobs that have not kept pace with the number of graduates on the market. Similar jobs to the one posted by MOHIST, as Kelly Gannon of Emory University pointed out to me, often provide no career track or hope of a future promotion. Wages get driven down and future museum educators find themselves fighting for crumbs. This “Yoga Instructor Economy” works great for the museum industry as a whole, but it absolutely sucks for its workers, including those interested in education.

To be sure, I actually love the Missouri History Museum. I enjoy many of their exhibits, and their work in helping to heal the St. Louis community in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting last year should be commended. I am going for a visit within the next few days and will continue to be a regular visitor as long as I live in the St. Louis area. I also wouldn’t take away a single penny from the museum’s ten million dollars in tax revenue. But I am not just a patron of this industry – I am a worker too, and people like me who have been encouraged to dedicate our lives to history, museums, and informal education ought to be compensated in a way that allows us to put food on the table, gas in our cars, and money towards our mortgages. I am lucky to be in a good financial position with my current job, but I know so many people who are unemployed or underemployed, and I hate seeing it.


3 thoughts on ““Will Teach 4 Food”: Museum Education and the Politics of Labor

  1. “The closer you are to students and/or the public on a daily basis, the less money you make compared to the administrators who almost never interact with the same students or public audience”

    Word. Truth in a nutshell.

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