Culture and a Living Wage

Staff at the National Gallery in London are set to strike, reports the BBC, over the fact that the wages of some of those covered by the union are lower than the minimum living wage in London. This quote intrigued me:
"Staff who protect important artworks and assist the public are sick and tired of working 50 to 60 hour weeks and having to take second jobs to earn a living wage."
It seems to me to be a variation on the old conflation between intangible cultural value and economic free-market value. The argument is not so much that these workers just deserve to be paid for what they do, but that what they do is somehow worth more... Isn't it sad that museum workers have to resort to these arguments? Is as if we don't believe that our labour is equal to the labour of other workers, but that we have to somehow wrap ourselves in the aura of the art in order to ennoble and promote our work? Kind of like stay-at-home mums: they are valued not because their work is work, but because their work is connected to the sacred mysteries of raising the next generation...


Kirsten said…
When you tell people you work in a museum (or are studying museums, as the case may be) their reaction is usually about how fascinating that seems and what fun it must be to do that job/study that topic. Sometimes this is followed up by a comment along the lines of how the speaker wishes he or she had also decided to pursue their dream over money, and how it's so noble that you did. They KNOW you're making peanuts. Because you have a "dream job" you've clearly chosen the nobler of the possible routes: love over money.

When you look at it like that, it really isn't surprising that museos feel the need to moderate their requests for better wages with comments about how they're overworked and how the task they're doing is a valuable one. Because most museum positions don't create value in a traditional, monetary sense we can't lobby for better wages on the same basis as say, bankers or marketers, and because the services we provide are seen as luxuries not necessities we also can't lobby on the same basis as police or plumbers.

It's really not museum workers who don't think they deserve to be paid more. We know we're underpaid! (This is one of the things the Museos Unite salary survey will show.) It's just that the general public doesn't see what we're doing as worth more. You see, we chose to do what we love. It's very noble, and asking for money is not noble. We are being asked to choose between being noble and making a living wage. It's a fools bargain either way, so any requests for more have to be couched in noble terms.

Forgive how rambling that was. It was very stream of consciousness! The idea is worth a re-visit though.
Elee said…
It's definitely a tough call. I would much rather do what I love for a low wage than something I don't care about for more money (which is why I'm not a teacher). At the same time, it would, of course, be nice to get more. I've spoken to teachers who've said they'd love to have my job (or the one I had a couple of years ago), but when they find out how much the pay was, quickly went off the idea.

Having said that, if the museum is paying people less than a living wage, and expecting them to work almost 50% longer hours than the recommended working week, I think this is a big issue. It's one thing going into a job knowing that part of your 'pay' is the satisfaction of doing what you love, but it's quite another when your employers take advantage of your goodwill, and your fear of losing a job that is part of a 'dream job' career plan.

Museums especially can fall into this trap as there are already lots of people working for them for nothing, and lots of people willing to do a poorly paid job for a while just to get a foot in the door. That's what I did. My first job had a shockingly poor wage. I was just lucky that I moved up in less than a year.

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