Levels of Thought in the COVID-19 Museum Crisis

Levels of Thought in the COVID-19 Museum Crisis

Howdy! It goes without saying that museums and cultural heritage organizations are in crisis. As the Art & Transparency folks have charted, museums have laid off thousands of workers, predominantly lower wage front of house staff, while protecting senior leadership and managers. These layoffs have a disproportionate effect on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBT+ colleagues as they are more likely to be at the very bottom rungs of museum hierarchies and often perform labor that isn’t paid at all in a quest to “break in” to the field.

On Twitter, Webinars, and Zoom Happy Hours I’ve rarely heard anyone defend the layoffs, but I have noticed there is a series of levels of thought about these issues. These levels start at very simplistic critiques like layoffs are bad and culminate in the realization that the museums themselves and museums’ stated desire to dismantle capitalism/white supremacy might be doomed from the start.

The reason I want to illustrate these levels is this dynamic is repeated elsewhere in our society, most notably around #BlackLivesMatter, defunding/abolishing the police, and the 2020 Presidential Election. The goal here is to help museum people who, let’s be frank, identify as “Liberals”  extend their critiques and through that be able to advocate for solutions that are more than get out the vote.

I am heavily indebted to the work of Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein who wrote the book Data Feminism. The book is great for anyone in museums, even those who don’t immediately work with data as it points out the ways in which white supremacy bound institutions analyze situations. Additionally I always plug the work of Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones who’s characteristics of white supremacy culture led me down the path toward a more nuanced view of museum employment and the museum project more broadly.

I’d highly recommend looking at the linked characteristics of white supremacy before reading this if you aren’t familiar with white supremacy being more than just obvious racism.

Level 1: Layoffs, bad, but we can’t do anything about it

This level is probably the most common among my coworkers, every week we host a regular happy hour and at some point the most recent news about layoffs comes up, people bemoan it and get frustrated, but never does the critique rise past individual occurrences and into the structures of *why* this is happening. The other angle to this is people might say they are trying to remain afloat in their own jobs and own lives during the pandemic and so don’t have mental energy to follow the news, to organize, and assist colleagues – which is totally valid.

Level 2: Layoffs, bad, they’re a tragedy, but we live in extraordinary times

I debated making this Level 1, but I think it’s actually more nuanced than just layoffs are bad as it does point at structural forces. This level is held by many museum managers, directors, and finance people. The thought goes that since we are in a global pandemic and museum revenue is running dry the layoffs are a tragedy, yet layoffs are part of running an institution that is attempting to be fiscally healthy and protect its assets (building, objects).

This level admits the existence of a financial system and capitalism – but it makes museums sound like for profit businesses rather than public goods. It also centers the building and objects over people. The hurdle for someone at this level to cross is to understand that late capitalism prioritizes goods or in this case – objects – over human beings. 

Museums’ dedication to objects is probably the most entrenched part of white supremacy. I know that will sound like a radical, inflammatory statement to many since “aren’t museums built around objects?” To which, activists would reply yes! That is the problem. White supremacy values the written word, the object, and data over emotions, stories, and experiences. 

Museums built around objects are fundamentally a hubristic enterprise. Digital preservation advocates often say “there is nothing preserved, only something being preserved” which is accurate, but note the language museums use around objects. We talk about preservation, archiving, safeguarding culture and knowledge, which all sounds like holy things to the general public. These ideas are reinforced by popular media which bemoans the loss of any art or cultural object or building over the plight of real human beings. There is a deep amount of arrogance and even cruelty in this.


If you get laid off and someone says, aw shucks it’s for the sake of these objects, that doesn’t put food on the table for your kids.

Level 3: If I take a paycut it’s an empty gesture / we can’t touch the funds! They’re restricted! Gotta follow the rules!

This level is similar to the above, but goes just a tad farther in attempting to grapple with possible radical solutions. The most annoying and false one of these is museum directors and leaders making 200k plus salaries saying that them taking a paycut or waiving their entire salary is a hollow gesture and would not plug the fiscal whole in their balance sheets. There’s a macro and a micro issue with this argument. In macro a director refusing to take a paycut or taking say only 10% (lol) shows that the institution is not making all the cuts that it could in order to keep jobs. This public kind of cut implies that other things in the background were cut, like maybe canceling a large show coming in 3-5 years or putting a stop to non essential digitization projects or stopping renovation of an area of the museum. In micro the problem is that if you have a director making say 500k, which is typical for many mid-to large museums, they could reduce their salary and save a non-zero amount of jobs. Even saving (1) job is worth it. 1 is so much more than 0 after all, that’s just straight math.

The other aspect of this level is what Twitter shitposters would call peak neoliberalism brain/someone who watched too much of The West Wing. The idea is that change can only come if we follow the rules and the law – the law is somehow an inviolable sacred thing even though for the entirety of American history the law has been written by mostly white men and even in the cases where laws were written by BIPOC or women it took majorities of white men in government to say these new rules are okay. Museums love to point out that Acquisition Funds and many Endowment related funds are restricted, but here’s the thing and I don’t mean to sound crass here – myself and many of our colleagues facing being laid off or who have been laid off don’t. Give. a. Shit. Again, if you agree human lives should come before objects AND should come before fake laws then you can stop caring about the ramifications.

I know people will read this and say what the consequences would be (aside from AAM censure, potential termination of a director who does this by a board, loss of tax exempt status, dangerous precedent), which if so – Good! Tell me the consequences, because whenever I ask people what they are they just say no we can’t do that. Show us, the employees, the field, how your funds are tied up – tell us how it got that way, tell us how to fix it! Tell AAM to advocate against restricted funds and pushback on billionaire capital who only wants to use museums and in this case OUR BODIES for fucking clout.

Level 4? 6? 69?: We Should Organize

This is the level where we reach a solid opinion about the museum crisis and there’s definitely steps in between this, but I got tired.

In summary, the solution to defend yourself and your fellow workers is to unionize. Start talking in private channels your museum doesn’t control, the Signal app is great for this – use Jitsi for video and voice calls instead of your museum’s Zoom license. Talk with people and discuss what you all want from management – right now it might be job protections or severance packages, but it also might involve getting rid of abusive/racist managers or curbing manager/leadership salary growth. The Art + Museum Transparency folks have put a ton of unionizing resources here.

There are levels after this, but they move beyond the museum employment crisis. Levels after this involve speculative theory territory about capitalism and power. I’m still new at this and I’m in the middle of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish so maybe I’ll be able to articulate them someday.

Until then, stay safe, stay powerful, keep your head above water, and remember the words of Lilla Watson, Indigenous Australian artist:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I wish you much more than luck.