Seb Chan is Chief Experience Officer at Australia Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. Prior to this, he led the digital transformation of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and the Powerhouse Museum’s pioneering open access work. He is an adjunct professor in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University and is an advisor and board member of many cultural sector organizations around the globe, including Art Science Museum Singapore and Diversity Arts Australia.
In 2018 the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) in the UK undertook a large-scale social research project identifying five “giants” that need to be slain: inequality, disempowerment, isolation, intolerance, climate change. These wicked problems often feel like insurmountable challenges for our communities, especially now that in the neoliberal West our understanding of the power of collective action has been actively dismantled by at least three decades of individualism.
Inside museums and outside in the communities we serve and are a part of, these challenges are often addressed obliquely through programming—the curatorial choices of artists, exhibitions, collection, public initiatives. We worry about being “too political” for fear of offending our major financial benefactors —our government stakeholders and private donors. And in so doing we often lose sight of the inherently political nature of all museum work.
In 2018 we witnessed a renewed focus on these politics of curation, where the objects and materials that we display have come from; what and who they represent; and thus who is able to claim ownership of and engagement with them. The year was bookended in the mainstream press by the popular representation of the archetypal colonial museum in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (February 2018), which acted as a mainstream trigger for this awareness, and culminated in “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage” (November 2018), a report for the French government by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy. Even though many have been agitating successfully around repatriation issues for decades, this focus beyond the objects and on the politics of curation, the representative diversity of curators, programmers, collectors, and artists feels different. Not only is this about repatriation and reparations but representation.
Representation needs to happen inside museums. Increasing workforce diversity in the museum profession is a multi-generational long game, but there is one very small, easy, uncontroversial step that we could all make in 2019 which would begin to make a difference. And, given that New Year’s resolutions are supposedly only successfully kept if they are modest, I’ve gone for the most modest resolution possible.
So here it is.
Echoing the call of my friend and colleague Paul Orselli, who works in the science and children’s museum world, let’s commit to publicly advertising all non-executive museum jobs and include the starting salary in the advertisement. This should be non-controversial; in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, at least, all government museum jobs require this anyway. But even in those countries, salaries can often be buried deep in the fine print.
Why does it matter? Because “salary cloaking,” as it is known, wastes everyone’s time and sets worker against worker. In the broader not-for-profit world, paraphrasing Vu Le, salary cloaking has been shown to deter women, people of color, and people with families to support from applying. Instead salary cloaking benefits those who have time and upfront confidence to apply for our roles, and it also establishes an unequal trust relationship between employer and employee which then continues when the employee is hired. For current employees, too, the secrecy around a new hire’s salary embeds individualized competition instead of collective camaraderie—in what is portrayed as a progressive workplace. And if your museum already does this, then let’s move on to eliminating all unpaid internships.
None of this should be controversial—and for those outside of museums reading this, you might rightfully ask, “Is that it?” After all these are the meekest and mildest efforts—the very first baby steps towards workplace diversity and community representation.
If our museums are to begin to effectively address inequality, disempowerment, isolation, intolerance, and climate change, we need to start at home—and with our workers.