News of the planned privatisation of the National Gallery’s FoH staff is depressing but predictable. This article makes good points about why museums – not just the NG – might be forced into farming out their services, and a lot of these reasons come down to funding cuts. Museums no longer have the government-granted wherewithal they used to: they are unable to pay a living wage to the volume of staff they need, and are under increasing pressure to show that they can turn a profit.
I’ve written before about what a disaster private agency temps are for museum FoH, and my opinion hasn’t changed. I got some interesting responses to my original post, and I was glad that it seemed so relevant in so many parts of the world – hey, it’s been quoted in Serbian! – and although most of the responses I got from museum workers were positive, some also disagreed with some or all of my points. Some said that if we really truly love working in museums, we should just accept the conditions and get on with it. Others said that it was a mistake to see Visitor Services as a ‘stepping-stone’ to a career in other museum departments, and that instead it should be a career in itself, and one to be proud of. I think this is a perfectly OK idea, to be honest (although I still don’t believe that the skills it would require are only GCSE-level, as one commenter argued) – if this were the way the system is going. But it isn’t. It’s pretty much destroying Visitor Services as a role, let alone as a career.
When you hire private agency workers, you sever ties between the museum and the people who represent it. They report to somebody else; they’re liable to be moved around; they can be got rid of more easily, or brought in for one special exhibition only. High staff turnover and lack of in-house training makes it harder to establish an ethos and to maintain consistency in really serious areas, like accessibility and child protection. There’s no loyalty to the museum, and no special knowledge either: the visiting public, therefore, come to galleries staffed by people who are just likely to be holding a tray of champagne at a corporate event, the amount of connection they have with the organisation they are serving. I don’t mean for a moment that temps aren’t intelligent, enthusiastic, well-informed or even well-qualified: I mean that they are required to represent something without being part of it. Many FoH workers who responded to my original post spoke of how humiliating and frustrating it was to be unable to help a visitor make the most of their time in the museum, how it made them feel worthless and the visitor annoyed or upset. Surely that’s not the ideal museum experience?
I can put it another way. If the pressure really is on museums to prove themselves as viable leisure and commercial ventures, their primary focus must be on making the customer happy. You might have a super gift shop and fabulous interactive noise-machines for the kids, but disenfranchised and/or ignorant staff are a serious stumbling block for visitor satisfaction.
This commercialisation of the museum sector does make me want to weep. I think privatisation of any kind – railways, postal service, NHS – is beyond miserable: anything we might take pride in, sold off to the highest bidder. It’s such a huge mistake to think that a price tag can be attached to these services, and I am uneasy about where exactly it will stop. In terms of the museum sector this is about pricing up our intellectual heritage and future. Access to art and artefacts is not a frivolous thing. I honestly believe that. It means access to a world of intellectual possibilities – a kind of freedom of thought. It means that any kid from any background, whatever they are taught elsewhere, can walk into a museum and discover something they might never have learnt otherwise. It means that on a grim winter’s day the nearest warm dry place is full of extraordinary things. It means that these things belong to all of us, and each and every one of us has a perfect right to look at them. You don’t have to go to a stranger’s house and ask permission, or pay money, or achieve a particular level of education to approach these things and even enjoy them. They are for you. They are yours unconditionally. This is how it should be.
Yes, I am sort of thinking about the likelihood that some museums might be pushed to start charging entry again. It’s not quite at that point yet, and obviously it’s easier said than done especially in the case of the British Museum, which has free entry written into its constitution, but once you’ve sold off everything else – once you’ve farmed out building maintenance and cleaning staff and front of house – what else can you charge for but the permanent collections? And this scares the crap out of me.