When Museums Are Better At Preserving Objects Than Staff

Roughly one-fifth of museum workers do not expect to remain in the field in three years, according to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) report on the impacts of COVID-19. While AAM’s report is rooted in the current reality of the pandemic, the main barriers described by survey respondents—compensation, burnout, and a lack of opportunities for advancement—are long-time challenges that have merely been heightened by COVID-19. In fact, these barriers echo findings of an informal survey about why museum workers leave the field, conducted in 2016 and published on AAM’s Alliance blog. Furthermore, the greatest shared concern of respondents from AAM’s recent survey was for the wellbeing of colleagues, demonstrating that burnout is not just prevalent, it affects a team’s ability to work effectively.

What is burnout?

In her New Yorker article, Jill Lepore defines burnout this way: “To be burned out is to be used up, like a battery so depleted that it can’t be recharged. In people, unlike batteries, it is said to produce the defining symptoms of ‘burnout syndrome’: exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of efficacy.” Lepore explores the history of the term, from its origins by psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1974 to its more recent recognition by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon, not as a medical condition. In 2018, education philosopher Doris A. Santoro also emphasized the role of the work environment, instead preferring the term “demoralization.” In Santoro’s K-12 setting, “burnout” puts the onus on the teacher not possessing the aptitude or self-care practices to handle the job; wheras “demoralization” suggests that institutional structures cause teachers to become separated from their moral motivations that brought them to the field to do the “good work.”

What can we do to prevent it?

Burnout is a buzzing topic right now, and it’s important that we keep the dialogue going. There are systemic organizational structures that can contribute to (and prevent) burnout, and we must all take part in the conversation, from directors to department and mid-level managers, to early career professionals. No one likes to admit that they are struggling, but if we are able to move beyond just leaning in and instead towards leaning on each other, we will have a better chance at preserving not only ourselves but our beloved organizations.

I recognize the irony of writing this post as a consultant, someone who left decades of experience as a museum educator after noticing recurring patterns that were contributing to my own feelings of burnout. However, this break from museums has given me a bird’s-eye perspective that not only contributes to a broader understanding of the museum field’s quirks and intricacies but greatly informs the work I now do in support of it.

This is what I’m hearing from my museum colleagues:

1. Redefine expectations.

Museum teams must take stock not just of objects and programs but also of their greatest resource—their staff. With organizational planning often taking place years in advance, it’s important that museums remain nimble enough to adjust when necessary. This can happen at all levels—administrators who boldly shift timelines or approve contract support and staff members who look for the negotiable elements amidst a haystack of deliverables.

2. Be intentional in nurturing a positive work environment.

What I’m not suggesting here is that you just bottle it up and stay positive. It’s important to recognize and talk about challenges and adverse work elements, but try to do so and maintain a positive work environment. How? Take the time to identify and articulate the things that are going well. Compliment a colleague about that carefully worded email or the inviting atmosphere of an exhibition. Pass on that comment you received from a visitor or that smile from a board member. These things take minimal effort and seconds of your time, but can do wonders in terms of filling the tanks of your co-workers and softening the edges of the challenges your team may face.  

3. Call on your people.

It’s important in any profession to have “your people,” those you can turn to for support, celebration and feedback. These are people who will listen to your vents when needed, but will also hold you accountable when what you need most is honesty. Sometimes these are kindred spirits in your department, but other times (especially when there are staff culture issues) it’s important that they aren’t at your organization. Take the time to nurture these relationships, and allow yourself to be vulnerable, because you don’t have all the answers!

4. Stay true to your professional identity.

When faced with challenging circumstances—whether endless deadlines, stretched staff, or teeny tiny budget—take a moment to remember why you got into this field in the first place. What are the personal goals and values that make up the professional identity that you want to last beyond your current position? While you may not find it immediately reflected in the budget spreadsheet on your screen or overflowing inbox, you can get back in touch with “your why” if you take a wider lens and look at your impact over the past quarter, year or more. On the other hand, if you’re unable to find any traces of your big why, it might be time to reconsider your role.

The topic of burnout has many angles and rabbit holes down which we can get very lost. This post is the first in a series that will include guest authors providing different perspectives and insights into what causes burnout, as well practical strategies that everyone can use to curb it. Because a museum is only as strong as its staff, and during this turbulent time we need our museums to thrive more than ever.

Would you like to contribute to the conversation? Drop a comment below, or get in touch with me here.

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash


Published by Ellen Spangler

Hi, I’m Ellen Spangler. With nearly twenty years in nonprofits, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. My first love will always be museums, but I have also cherished my work in education and membership organizations. I’ve worked as a Development Director, Communications Director, Educator, Trainer and Project Manager, and now own and operate a consulting business, Three Notch’d Nonprofit Solutions.

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