Museum Collections Management has an Ableism Problem


This piece started because of a tweet by my friend and colleague Alli Hartley-Kong – who aptly pointed out one of the major blocks to museum employment for folks with disabilities is blanket requirements that you must be able to lift some amount of weight, usually around 25 pounds. This got me thinking about how ableism makes itself known in museum collections management.

My goal here is to outline what physical work is required in museum collections management and outline accommodations and alternatives, so that the field of registrars, collections specialists, and collections assistants can be diversified in terms of ability. Additionally, I want to point out how this is a labor issue and one that museums refuse to solve because it would involve hiring more staff or expending resources on things that aren’t sexy.

  1. What is the work of Collections Management?

All museums collections practices and departments are different. However, there are some broad trends. Most museums have some type of Collections Manager or Registrar who oversees care of the collection physically, legally, and in terms of cataloging. A larger museum might have a Head Registrar with other Registrars below them. Other roles in such a department might be a Collections Specialist or Assistant which are de facto entry level roles on the Collections Management team. Some museums have a dedicated Collections Manager who is separate from a Registrar, some don’t. Rarely, a collections management team might exist outside the Registration department. In that case Registrars handle object logistics and acquisitions, while a collections management team would be in charge of object care and storage. Conservation often exists as its own department, but works extremely close with Collections staff. In the past few decades it’s become more common to have dedicated database folks under the Registration or Collections Management heading. Finally, very often any staff art handlers often exist as a team underneath a Head Registrar or Head of Collections Management.

Collections Management and Museum Registration is a really fascinating job because it encompasses large chunks of being at a desk with physical work. It also might involve a very unique (and taxing) type of travel by being a courier.

Below are types of physical work I’ve seen or done in my 8 years in the field firsthand that are de facto required for collections work. Note that in some museums this work is a regular occurrence in other museums this is only once in awhile, usually during “all hands on deck” moments – however in all cases I’ve found it expected:

  • Standing for 8+ hours a day in a gallery during exhibition installation or deinstallation
  • “Slinging Crates” aka putting heavy art crates on wheeled platforms and moving them around storage or loading them on and off a truck
  • General art movement, whether within storage or down to galleries, involves lifting objects, with aid of others onto “wing wagons” or “A-Frames” or tables which are different wheeled platforms to move objects, sometimes this has been for 8 hours a day for a week or more during big projects
  • Operation of a pallet jack, in my case one summer this was done outdoors in a parking lot in 90 degree weather
  • Loading and unloading of art trucks, involves usually stepping onto a hydraulic lift or lift gate and maneuvering crates on or off a truck. This is where I’ve seen some of the most taxing work, for example I am fairly thin so often I need to squeeze around crates or climb on crates that are packed too tightly (poorly)
  • Outdoor sculpture maintenance – involving walking museum grounds and cleaning off sculpture, including waxing sculpture which requires bending, and vigorous arm movement with pressure for multiple hours
  • Indoor art maintenance – bringing a ladder down to the galleries and setting it up in front of each painting to brush dust off the frames, might involve teardown and set up of a ladder 30 ish times depending on size of installation or museum
  • Contemporary Installation maintenance – my museum had a Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy spill – the candy had to be refreshed every day or so, involved carrying heavy totes of candy, unloading it onto the sculpture, then getting on hands and knees to move candy around in the form desired by curators. Every few months the entire candy spill would be cleaned up and reinstalled as it got pretty gross because people would throw the empty wrappers in it, seriously never eat candy from these things.
  • Pushing of heavy carts or crates
  • Measuring objects, which when large can get very physical
  • Perform work standing at tables or mobile desk carts – all of which are not at sitting height
  • Couriering art: involves riding on a semi-truck for up to 24 hours in one go with minimal rest stops, requires being able to get in and out of a semi on your own. Couriering can also involve flying on a cargo plane and in both cases usually means long stints of standing around often in non-temperature controlled spaces like receiving docks or airport logistics areas
  1. Why are these normal expectations?
Two people stand in a freight elevator next to 3 very tall crates.
Moving crates can be very serious business.

I think it’s possible to make this a difficult question, but I don’t think it has to be. The short of it is within museums there is a huge lack of art handlers and preparators. Art handling as a job has its own issues as a field, namely around workplace safety. I want to be absolutely clear I am not proposing that we merely shift physical labor to art handlers who injure themselves and blow out their backs instead of “professional” staff (I hate that word – there is no such thing as unskilled labor).

Instead, what I am proposing is that the field of art handling needs to be expanded and art handlers and any other physical museum jobs need to be paid substantially more, have extremely good PPE, regular safety training, and all physical work in museums, art handling or facility work or education should structure workplace systems to reduce strenuous physical labor where possible.

For collections management work the problem is that since museums refuse to hire art handlers or have art handlers on staff full time (rather than just bringing them in on contract) collections staff have to pick up the slack on physical work. Even when contract art handlers are brought in often collections staff still must assist with physical work as it saves money to have someone on staff help rather than pay for another contractor.

It sucks to say, but I can’t imagine any head registrar who is already working with a short staff seriously considering a candidate who uses a wheelchair for example. I am sure these people exist and I am sure it has happened, but it would be a major hurdle for a person like that to be a museum registrar.

The logic would go thusly: a person who can’t ride in a truck can’t courier, which means other registrars have to courier more often, if they can’t sling crates, we need to pay more for contract labor, etc etc. 

This mentality is bad, its ableist, and cruel, and essentially says only certain kinds of people can perform museum collection work. If museums are going to be serious about the work of diversifying their workplaces they need to be okay with making accommodations and changes to labor for all staff in all jobs and departments.

  1. Solutions and Accommodations

Aside from hiring more staff so that physical workload can be shared or done by staff with more training and expertise in the work there are a lot of common sense changes collections teams can do.

  1. Stop the expectation of needing to stand for 8 hours a day in an exhibition installation or deinstallation
    • I don’t know why even for able bodied people we expect this – museums should purchase mobile desks that are at a comfortable height when sitting in a mobile rolling chair and not treat staff poorly when they ask for such an accommodation.
      • I think most people would be scared to ask for this because they’d be thought of as “lazy” frankly
  2. Set up a culture of its okay if projects take longer if that means people are being safer
    • Some people can do physical work, but need to do it at slower speeds, Registrars and Collections Managers need to push back on the unreasonable deadlines that Curators and senior leadership push onto collections staff
  3. Art logistics needs to be a funding priority for senior leadership
    • Senior leadership will fund collections work when it’s a big shiny traveling exhibition or a load of new acquisitions from New York, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars or much much more in logistics costs, but will nickel and dime departments on new equipment that can make physical labor easier or reduce physical labor entirely
  4. Send less couriers
    • There are many other reasons to not send couriers, venues receiving the art often have to pay the courier cost and many people think it’s rude when large museums with big budgets like the Met send a courier to a peer institution with similar collections practices. The practice of couriering (on paper) is that someone should be with the objects during transit aside from the two drivers. In practice couriering is often a way to shuttle around staff looking for free trips, especially when the staff are curators. This is not always the case, but it’s been the case with what I’ve seen. There is much more that I could say on this, but that’s for another time. I know I’m people putting people on blast, but again this my experience with what I’ve seen.
  5. Acquire better tables, carts, and other movement aids
    • Many museums use the tables and carts they’ve always used and have not spent funds on updating to better models that might be easier for people to move
  6. Stop offloading destruction of human bodies onto contract laborers
    • Contract art handlers are happy to receive the labor, but are also at huge risks to their physical well being – they have major pressure from museums to work fast over safely lest they be known as a slow handler trying to milk more money out of an institution. Art handling must be treated as the professional, permanent job that it is, just like Conservation, Registration or any other job in museums
  7. Train other staff to help out
    • I have never understood why in both museums I’ve worked at there are facility teams with large staffs who we trust to clean our galleries alone, set up for events, and otherwise take care of the building who we do not trust with our art objects. Museums should train these staff to help out with art handling and other physical collections work. We have to end the “blue collar” “white collar” divide. This does not mean that collections work should be devalued, facility workers and collections staff deserve robust wages commensurate with the importance of cultural heritage work, as do all other workers in the field.
      • This has the added benefit of breaking down silos and building a better workplace culture where everyone has a direct hand in managing the collection

There’s probably more, but this is what I could think of off the top of my head. I hope this piece starts some conversations about how museum labor can be restructured so that everyone can be part of it. The cool thing is that by making museum work more friendly for people with physical disabilities it also makes labor safer, easier, and sometimes even more efficient for everyone else. I personally am about to turn 30 and have some minor back problems, I would prefer to not injure myself on the job lifting up a 300 pound sculpture with some people because we refuse to invest in equipment to move it or tell senior leadership “no we will not move this for an event you want to have in the room it is in.”

If you want to reach out to me the best place is my twitter or porchrates at gmail