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The Great Museum Exodus

Lori Byrd-McDevitt


Two years ago, in August of 2019, I wrote about The Great Museum Social Media Manager Exodus. In that time:

  • It’s been read 3,100 times and has 65 fans.
  • It’s now required reading in a number of graduate program syllabi.
  • It’s been cited in bibliographies and industry blogs.
  • People have approached me to say that the blog positively impacted how their team functions or how they treat one another.

It’s safe to say that the topic resonated. But it resonated with more than just “Museum Social Media Managers.”

tl;dr, the concerns laid out in the 2019 blog include:

  1. Burnout and mental wellbeing are not proactively addressed.
  2. It’s hard to be under-resourced and unvalued, yet overworked.
  3. There’s work elsewhere — a lot of it.

These issues connected with social media managers from outside of the museum sector, especially in other nonprofits. The topic is also meaningful to other roles within museums who are under-resourced, unvalued, and overworked.

2019 was then. And 2021 is now. That was a pre-pandemic world, and we’re not quite to “post-pandemic” status. If these issues were true then, they sure as hell are exponentially worse today. The good news is that the topics of burnout, unionization, and unhealthy workplace norms are discussed more openly. The bad news is that change is not happening fast enough to prevent the best minds of our industry from leaving it — en masse. Let’s unpack both the good news and the bad news.

The Good News

Over the course of 2020, dialogue about mental health in the nonprofit sector became laser focused on the museum tech community as digital teams scrambled to establish #MuseumAtHome. Social media managers and web content producers became the linchpins keeping their museums relevant and afloat. Museum tech community members lamented the inundation of content ideas from staff while noting the irony of their otherwise misunderstood roles suddenly becoming invaluable.

For years, museum technologists have tried to help their colleagues “get it” — to understand that digital should be part of everyone’s job and not a catch-all silo. This idea was more often than not dismissed or seen as a pipe dream, until COVID closures prompted every department to depend on digital teams to get their content online. The speed and scope of this need, of course, quickly led to burnout among these teams. The good news is that we identified the issue and worked hard to bring awareness to it over the course of the year.

Podcasts: In January 2020 I shared about the need for self-care among museum social media managers on the Social Pros Podcast. In December I was selected as one of the top ten highlights in their 2020 wrap-up. Host Adam Brown noted that the episode was the tip of the spear in discussing mental health in social media — even before the pandemic. The topic had became a recurring theme throughout the year.

Emotional Labor has now rooted itself as an inherent vice in a museum career, far beyond baseline concerns for those who work with trauma-related content. (You know, the “normal” stressful stuff in museums, like war and genocide.) For back-of-house museum workers, the emotional weight often came from endless new strategic decisions, shifting policies, project changes, and nuanced messaging. Meanwhile, front-of-house staff were left questioning the value of their health and wellbeing when choices around museum re-openings and mask mandates were painfully collections-centric or financially driven. The Emotional Labor is now the psychological toll of dealing with anti-maskers and indoor crowds — all for the sake of the “mission” …or the bottom line. Thankfully, these issues are coming to light. For example, in December 2020 a powerful panel of cultural sector pros took to the People. Change. Museums. podcast to share about this increase in Emotional Labor and how it might affect the field.

Conferences: In November 2020, MCN Virtual’s theme was centered on Sustainability in all its forms, mental health included. The program illuminated the scope of 2020’s impact, with sessions on staff resiliency, empathy, emergency planning, and unionization. Vibrant backchannel conversations unfolded about the mental impact of layoffs, closures, and administrative decisions.

Speaking of Unions: Unionization has increased among museum workers since 2018. Recent Bloomberg Law data has found that, “workers from at least a dozen museums successfully voted to unionize via a National Labor Relations Board election in the past three years.” To compare, only one group of museum staff voted to formally unionize via NLRB from 2011–2018.

Museum workers are now coordinating across institutions — and outside of them — to support one another. Established in 2015, Museum Workers Speak is a collective of museum activists focused on improving working conditions in cultural institutions. In May 2020 they established the Museum Workers Relief Fund to financially support colleagues who had been laid off, furloughed, or otherwise impacted by COVID-19.

It has become clear to us that when our institutions will not stand in solidarity with us, we must stand in solidarity with one another. — Museum Workers Speak

Surveys: In March 2021 the American Alliance of Museums released the results of their expansive survey Measuring the Impact of COVID-19 on People in the Museum Field. This work built on AAM’s earlier efforts to increase dialogue around self care in museums, including an August 2019 webinar with Seema Rao, author of Self-Care for Museum Workers.
Among the 2021 AAM survey findings:

“One-fifth of museum staff think it’s unlikely they’ll be working in the museum sector in 3 years and cite burnout a significant barrier to remaining in the field.”

Nope, the idea of museums losing 1/5th of those in our field is not good news. However, it is good news that word is getting out about the dire situation. As we all know, change won’t come if those in positions of power don’t have a full picture of the problem.

The Bad News

The exodus continues.
It started primarily with museum social media managers and has now snowballed into all manner of museum technologists, educators, marketers, curators, and administrators. What’s worse? Many of those leaving the field are the preeminent leaders of our industry.

It’s easy to assume that this is all the result of layoffs. However, we’re now at the point where our colleagues are choosing to leave. They’re leaving thankless jobs, or underpaid positions, or toxic workplaces. How did it come to this?

1. Mission-guilt is fading.

For those who were left behind to pick up the pieces after the 2020 layoffs, it was hard to shake the mistrust in museum leadership. Many of their friends who were laid off cited poor treatment during the process and pressure to sign restrictive NDAs and non-competes. It’s no wonder the museum staff who are left behind no longer experience the sparkly, altruistic veneer of mission-driven (over)work.

Museum workers are used to being taken advantage of for our selfless love of the mission. Working 60 hour weeks is part of workplace culture. Burnout is normalized. All of that altruism can only go so far. It’s exhausting to feel guilty about not giving 150% of yourself for the mission. There comes a point where it’s just not worth it anymore.

2. Staff appreciation increased. Resources didn’t.

Administrators had the chance to build on the momentum of digital-first projects and the newfound appreciation for colleagues who work in tech and social media. Even with limited funding, 2020–2021 was the fiscal year to make the most of board and staff buy-in for digital projects. Beyond the disbursement of money, it was the moment to step up and support all staff with resources for emotional wellness, work-life balance, and proactive space for self-care. Did either of these things happen? No. Instead, in most cases more was expected of tech- and comms-adjacent team members with fewer resources and with little support. Platitudes only go so far.

3. There’s no patience for fake virtue.*

If museums had a chance to show their true colors, summer 2020 was it. Important lessons were learned, like how essential it is to secure permission to use an artist’s work on social media to represent a newly contextualized social issue. Museum leaders went to great pains to publicly “do the right thing” with magnanimous statements while ignoring their own organizations’ uncomfortable racial histories and problematic objects. Staff who are otherwise proud of their work are left managing the cognitive dissonance resulting from their organization publicly airing its now-obvious tone-deafness.

Numerous influential Black and brown women have made their toxic experiences publicly known amidst rightful fury over their organizations’ two-faced proclamations. The Guggenheim was denounced by Chaédria LaBouvier, the Detroit Institute of Arts by Andrea Montiel De Shuman, the Indianapolis Museum of Art by Kelli Morgan, and Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art by LaTanya Autry. And this is just a short list of a much larger group of brave men and women who have spoken out, putting their mental health and reputations on the line within a system that remains entrenched in white-centrism.

4. Who wants to be a cog in a broken machine?

The recurring theme here? Words are not being matched with action. Whether it’s a public-facing statement in a social post or gratitude and praise in an internal meeting, the lack of actual action is making it exceedingly clear that the machine is broken. Decision making is broken, team culture is broken, internal workflows are broken, and now trust is broken.

To even make it this far in a toxic, hierarchical organization one tends to fall into the role of a cog in the machine. Staying quiet, doing your work, and focusing on the mission. But who even wants to be a cog when it’s now so clear that the machine is broken?

Has there been progress?

Higher-ups aren’t acting. But we are. In addition to the progress mentioned above, like unionization, fundraisers, and dialogue, we continue to find ways to support one another in the absence of organizational leadership.

  • Social Media Managers have begun formally taking “content pauses” to focus on strategy, get ahead on production, or simply take a mental break. The Monterey Bay Aquarium set this important precedent and supported others like the Field Museum in following suit — showing others that if these large organizations can take a stand, they can too. These breaks should have been a baseline expectation as the responsibilities of social media managers continually increased. We’re just now catching up.
  • Digital teams are beginning to think more seriously about Agile project management within their internal workflows. Why is this progress? Because the Agile methodology incorporates a consistent space for reflective discussion on successes and challenges. This reflection is centered on the goal of effectively managing each team member’s capacity to ensure there’s enough time to reasonably accomplish tasks. What seems like a simple premise for time management is extremely difficult to maintain within museum work culture. Steps to become more Agile will directly lead to improved emotional wellbeing — not to mention an awareness of impending burnout.

If museum boards and leadership hope to prevent the flood of resignations, they will need to act big and act fast. But honestly, the solutions aren’t that difficult to come by. Those museum professionals who are still hanging on have already been paving the way. Just take a look around, listen, and do something.

* This article has been updated to remove a problematic, appropriated term and replace it with a less harmful word.

** An additional edit was made to accurately attribute the premise of the social media manager break to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I appreciate the grace shown in pointing these important details out to me.



Lori Byrd-McDevitt

Co-founder @1909Digital. Online community + social media + digital marketing strategist. Teaching @JHUMuseumStudies. #musesocial #glamwiki