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Museums and the Gig Economy

More museum freelancers are using co-working

Over the last couple of years I have been working on a small start-up museum. The project has included Museum Master Planning, Building Renovation, Museum Exhibition Design and Project Management of the exhibition fabrication and production. Just over the last couple of years I have seen a significant change in the staffing of museum design and fabrication. I see the “Gig-Economy” as having a large impact on museums.

As background most museum exhibition projects are created using one of the three models below:

  1. In-house design, fabrication and project management. I am seeing fewer and fewer museums having in-house design and fabrication.
  2. In-house staff and freelance, design, fabrication and project management. Again seeing fewer museums with any in-house full-time staff.
  3. In-house project management. I am seeing this as the largest group. Museums having one or two (overworked) project managers that manage capital cost projects, the project managers manage outsourced design consultants and fabrication.

A few models for starting a museum:

  1. Hire in-house designers, fabricators, and project managers and design and build the exhibitions in-house. I do not know of any new projects using this model.
  2. Hire a design firm and then hire a fabrication firm to fabricate the designers plans. Most new museums are created using this method.
  3. Similar to above, but parts of project are sub-contracted to multiple vendors. Less expensive than option 2 and usually results in more creative projects.
  4. Design and Build, one firm that designs and fabricates new museums in one shop. Many of the design and build firms have gone out of business.

For clarity when I say “freelancer” I am referring to designers, curators, registrars, art handlers, installers, fabricators, and researchers.

Given that most projects now use in-house project management and outsourced design and fabrication, I am seeing the gig-economy as having a large effect on museum design, and fabrication. With this project that I have been working on I have seen:

Impact of the Gig Economy on museum design and fabrication:

  1. More difficult to get freelance workers to think about the “big picture”. Freelancers are being paid less and working more and want clearly defined projects without discussing the project objectives.
  2. Freelancers are over worked and are taking less responsibility and less adherence to schedule.
  3. Communication is more difficult, freelancers working on more projects and have less time for communication.
  4. I have seen many firms of more than three or four staff go out of business, more smaller or individuals doing freelance work.
  5. In-house project managers are overworked and most often not trained as project managers. Often there has been a decision to outsource capital projects and the “last person standing” becomes the project manager as a “catch all”.
  6. Less research on projects, items such as publications, in gallery print-outs, on floor programming becoming less (although there is greater demand).
  7. Very difficult to assemble and coordinate project teams. Team members working on multiple projects and have less time for meetings and communication.
  8. Projects as less profitable and freelancers being paid less. I know from a museum point of view this is difficult to understand, but at some point freelancers leave the field and businesses close. I have seen many museum designers and fabricators go out of business in the last five years.
  9. Less billable time, items such as hiring freelancers is not billable time, and it is taking longer to find people. More interstitial work, work that does not fall into one clearly define area and is not billable. Greater need for integration between casework, AV, graphics, installation with less willingness on the museum side to pay for project integration.
  10. Less collegial project teams people are over worked and worried about the future
  11. Less general knowledge of the overall collection gained from years working with collection, and possible connections between objects and/or donors.

Future Predictions:

  1. At some point in the near future this will become unsustainable, there will not be enough freelancers for projects and with people leaving the museum field, projects will take longer time and will happen less often.
  2. Visitors are demanding more experiential museums and there is less funding and less labor to achieve the visitor desired experiences.
  3. More pop-up museum experiences
  4. Fewer encyclopedic museums

Possible Solutions:

  1. Create Guilds and Unions
  2. Create fellowships
  3. Change to greater governmental funding (unlikely).

If the trend continues I am seeing future of less thoroughly researched projects that are smaller in scale and less in depth experiences.

What do you think ? Please leave your comments and feedback below, thank you, – Mark.

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About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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4 comments

  1. A few comments from South Africa – might not be entirely relevant everywhere around the world:

    The ‘tender’ process here is extremely complex and full of red tape, making it unlikely a gig worker can get such a contract – these are usually sub-contracted by a larger company which actually gets the tender. this means the real money goes to the ‘middleman’ and the gig worker is very often getting minimum wage as a subcontractor, if at all. It also means the project is very inflexible, with museums not having much discretionary funding for small installations or mini-projects which gig workers could do quite well.

    Private exhibit designers are very often unfamiliar with museums and tend to come from generic exhibit or digital design companies (museum design may just be a sideline for them). They tend not to have a good feel for the real purpose of a museum and the differences between a museum exhibit and an exhibit found elsewhere. Thus the designs are flashy and artistic but not optimally functional or part of a cohesive experience within the museum as a whole.

    To minimise production costs, design companies often use only existing in-house skill sets, and, also to reduce production time, there is a tendency to rely on printed material with perhaps a small amount of digital interactivity. The bulk of the money goes on display infrastructure rather than the actual exhibits themselves. These almost seem an afterthought.

    Another thing I’ve seen in local museums is that the priority for top management lies with the bureaucratic functions of the museum and behind-the-scenes operations such as inventory management, building management, regulatory management, etc. The front-end exhibits seem to be an afterthought with, as you stated, one overworked exhibit manager just trying to hold everything together.

    Suggestions:
    This is a tough one. I feel when it comes to exhibit design projects, a tender should include a draft proposal plan and that the merits of the exhibit plan are considered by museum in-house experts (or an expert panel), rather than just the check-boxes provided by professional-looking tendering companies.

    An international organisation supporting certain museum exhibit standards could be very useful, and museums or national heritage agencies would need to comply with certain standards to belong to this and be eligible for associated awards, grants etc. Part of this should require a greater proportion of funding for exhibits, of which a portion should be ‘discretionary funding’ for exhibit managers to bring in gig workers on smaller day-to-day projects.

  2. Dear Andrew,
    Thank you for taking the time to write your thoughtful comments.

    You bring up several relevant issues.

    1. Part of the issue lay in the tender process itself, often low bid, little experience firms continue the issue of “gig museum workers”

    2. There is no standard for museum vendors and often the barrier to entry to the field is easy for people in aligned fields (trade shows, commercial graphic production, retail store fixtures) and there are significant differences between aligned fields and the museum field.

    3. Creating truly interactive exhibits is a lot of work and time intensive, it is much easier to create static graphic panels and non inclusive solutions. Since “gig work” is based on low cost, inclusive interactive experiences are beyond the budgets and experiences of gig workers from aligned fields.

    4. Senior museum staff is so overworked with fundraising and bureaucracy often the museum visitor experience is an after thought. Gig workers are seen as an inexpensive solution to much bigger issues.

    Your ideas of an international registry, a standard for museum vendors and peer review of the tender submissions are all excellent !

    Best,
    – Mark

  3. If I drew up a list of museums in the U.S. that I would tell people to go out of their way to visit (Pittsburgh CM, Exploratorium, City Museum, etc.) they all have strong internal exhibits staff and departments.

    Most other newer museums (developed by large outside firms) seem filled with generic exhibits and seem very similar to each other.

    I don’t think either thing is a coincidence.

  4. Hi Paul,
    I would agree, the museums you mention have a “voice”, often the museums created by “large outside firms” become generic. Any thoughts on why some museums still see the importance of maintaining internal museum staff while others see exhibits as a “capital expense” ?
    I can’t think of any new museums that are being built with internal museum staff.

    Best,
    – Mark

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