Why Do We Keep Working in Museums?

Image of an artwork by Titus Kaphar. Depicts Andrew Jackson on horseback. Canvas strips are nailed into his face and body which bear the text of his words used to justify the removal of Indigenous people.
Titus Kaphar, b. 1976
The Cost of Removal, 2017, Oil, canvas, and rusted nails on canvas. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

First off, I want to say that the following is meant to be inspirational – I personally make myself feel better about my life by putting everything 10,000 feet in the air.

TL;DR A lot of really shitty people hate museums and hate that museums would even attempt social justice therefore museums are okay, maybe.

With how negative and cynical many museum professionals (especially myself) sound about museums on Twitter and in other professional spaces the question that follows is:

“Why do you keep choosing to work in museums since you think they are so awful/bad/whatever?”

For what it’s worth I think the subtext of this question is great. It is well documented that most jobs in museums pay poorly. Even jobs like HR, finance, administration, or security often pay less than their private sector or public sector counterparts.

Gainful, full time museum employment is also notoriously difficult and competitive.

Due to those two facts, it’s fair to say that for many of us it isn’t *just* that we need a job in order to make rent.

Thus the reason we stick around must be something else. Something so powerful that we put up with the low wages, job insecurity, poor benefits, toxic culture that is often racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic, and generally dedicating ourselves to institutions run for and by rich (white) people who might enjoy art and think museums a public good with their right hand, but with their left don’t live up to those values and actively participate in the wholesale grift that is the contemporary art market where value as investment is prioritized over anything else.

This question was rolling around Twitter the other day and I wanted to square my own desire to leave the field with my desire to stick it out. I often talk with my partner about how museums are bad, which, as a sentiment, people in my life often struggle with. “I like museums, they’re fun” they say and that’s an absolutely legitimate and correct sentiment.

There’s an extent to which the problems of museums are the problem of any industry, we know how the sausage is made. However, being aware of the problems of A Thing That Exists is actually the ultimate sign of a healthy relationship to it. People are very aware of the rabid fandoms around various mainstream geek culture, things like Star Wars or Marvel movies for example. Often extreme fans of these media properties refuse to tolerate any serious critique. This emotional response is a sign of an unhealthy relationship to cultural production.

Cultural production, that is, music, art, media, anything created by people that people are into is at its best when people can accept that they love that thing so much, that it means so much to them that they are willing to pick it apart, that they are willing to hold two (or more) thoughts at once.

  1. I like this thing it is good
  2. This thing has issues, nothing is perfect and in fact by examining those aspects I can relate to it better

I do not mean to say our parents, partners, or friends have an unhealthy relationship to museums. I do not think most people in our lives or most people in society relate to museums in a rabid fanbase kind of way. However, I think most museum professionals consciously or subconsciously draw strength from:

“Museums or cultural heritage organizations have all kinds of problems and I stick around because I know they can be better. This is my role in making a better world.”

This passion that cultural heritage workers bring has been taken advantage of for decades and is the source of low wages and poor working conditions. Many people in power tell us only the passionate need apply. However, our passion, aka “how much we give a shit” is also our greatest weapon.

Museums and culture more broadly are valuable tools that human beings have to resist oppression, to endure through tough times, and to flip the table back on oppressors when we have the advantage and ability.

I was struck today while reading an interview with Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch at how the notion of a grandson of a southern sharecropper founding a museum on the National Mall dedicated to the story of African-Americans would be absolutely anathema to every inveterate racist that has ever lived or continues to draw breath. The National Museum of African American History & Culture is only a few miles from the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (the site of Arlington Cemetery if you didn’t know). In several directions only a few miles away hundreds of thousands of people fought, bled, and died horribly over the question of would slavery (and the domination of a landed aristocratic white elite) last. In a different sense this was a war about who gets to be not just American, but viewed as human.

Image of Google Maps showing the proximity of the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

Hundreds of thousands of slaves fought their own part in that war, whether explicitly as soldiers or impressed laborers. Many rebelled against their masters and put the plantation house to flame. Many others endured as resistance. Now, there is a museum that tells that story and thousands of others on the National Mall. Lonnie Bunch said “The Mall is where America comes to learn what it means to be an American” and I *think* museums broadly seek to do this but for humanity.

In so many ways what it means to be American or even human, explicitly, is awful, whether it’s the continued attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, systematic oppression of African-Americans, or any other terrible things people are responsible for nationally and internationally. That might be what America *is* and it’s easy (and I am guilty of this most days) to think of the National Mall as a site that “cleans up” the American Image.

I would refine the Secretary’s quote a tad. The National Mall and museums or cultural heritage institutions writ large are where we learn about what America or human civilization has done, but more importantly what it could be.

The very existence of sites like the Vietnam Memorial, National Museum of African American History & Culture, Holocaust Museum, and many others around this country is a testament to the continued dream of a better world. They are bulwarks and continued rebellion against any ideology which seeks to divide who is and isn’t human in order to conquer and oppress.

Again, to be absolutely clear, museums very rarely hit these high minded ideals, at least actively. Many museums perpetuate violence against marginalized people everyday. 

But I console myself that a lot of hateful and power hungry people look at many of our institutions and hate that they exist. They hate that people like us work in them, especially for our colleagues who have a different skin color than mine. The very survival ideology that says a better world – for everyone – is possible is a threat and culture has always been the razor edged sword in the hand of the oppressed and marginalized.

Our victory is our work. Our testament is our attempt. Our gospel (meant in the classic sense of “the good news”) is the lives we lead.

I stick around in museums because this is what I do. I am one person in a long long line of people tasked with transmuting the culture of what came before and that work has NEVER been clean, easy, or ethical. Yet, the attempts matter and the next time I wake up and don’t want to do my job and think that basically everything museums do is irrelevant or in the interest of the rich and powerful I’m going to remind myself that we, the museum professionals and concerned public are the thorn in their lions paw and only we can remove the thorn because we put it there in the first place.

I’ll close with a quote, it’s from a really weird thing. Don’t Be a Sucker! is a short educational film produced by the U.S. War Department in 1943 and re-released in 1947. It’s a very strange film as it is profoundly radical for something produced by a U.S. Government agency.

“You see, we human beings are not born with prejudices. Always they are made for us, made by someone who wants something. Remember, somebody’s going to get something out of it, and it isn’t going to be you.”

In the Civil War most of the wealthy planter class survived the war and regained their status once Reconstruction ended. Many generals like Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan) lived out their lives to old age. 

The young men who fought to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy died in various locations, but mostly they died in what is now a fairly short drive from the National Mall. Many of these men were also inveterate racists and should not be lionized in the slightest, but all white supremacy gave them was a battlefield amputation or a mass grave, likely somewhere in Virginia or Maryland.

The paramount mission for us, as museum professionals is to enlist the public in using culture to fight the good fight against the forces that wish to divide us, pit us against one another through white supremacy and capitalism, and constantly tell us a better world is *not* possible.

If you made it this far, thank you for indulging in me being On One.