Museum Watching: Are We Watching the Right Things? 

November 05, 2018

For the last few years PA Museums has published a list of what to watch in the year ahead. This annual December exercise has been both fun and humbling because no one knows what will really happen. Organizations and think tanks like the Center for the Future of Museums, devoted futurists, probably have it easier when it comes to predicting the future in a more distant, general, “50 years from now there will be no cars” kind of way. While we are all still waiting for robots that do our laundry, here’s what PA Museums was looking at last year, and for museum watchers – fans, visitors, members, and the people who work in and with museums, we are checking in to see if we were on the right track. 

 2018 Watch List 

The Pennsylvania Budget – Pennsylvania has been wrestling with serious budget problems, and the 2018-2019 budget process will be colored by many of the same debates we have seen in the last few years. There are significant elections coming up in 2018, too. 

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission – We will be watching Pennsylvania’s official history agency, its budget, and its programs all across the commonwealth. Its Cultural and Historical Support grants provide a lifeline of operational funding to around 150 organizations, and the expansion of the PHMC’s agency budget and its budget for grants have the potential to lead the way for our member organizations. 

New Museums – New museums open every year. Will a museum be part of the restoration of the First Bank of Philadelphia? Will there be a Hammerstein Museum? When was the last time an art museum opened in Pennsylvania? 

Diversity Initiatives – We may see more diversity initiatives in Pennsylvania aimed at including more people from more communities in the work of museums. A museum may work to add people of color to its board of directors or interpret its collection differently. This is on trend nationally, and we expect to see more museums engaging in these activities. 

New Museum Technology – Somewhere out there in a garage or their mother’s basement, someone is making something that will be in a museum trade show exhibit soon. Is there a robot waiting to do your job? Personal devices and apps seem to have reached a plateau, and virtual reality is getting less expensive. It is definitely still a thing. What will be next? 

Political Fatigue – Our advocacy efforts at PA Museums will continue in 2018, and we are sensitive to the fact that our members may be experiencing some fatigue around political issues, politicians’ behaving badly, and the fact that advocacy is not always exciting. The word advocacy makes your eyes glaze over? We encourage your activism with us around museum issues. We may just stop calling it advocacy. 

Special Events – Special events can certainly drive attendance and revenue, and we have been notified about many events at member institutions that we imagine are a lot of fun. Pennsylvanians will be sure to have their fair share of Beer Fests and Whiskey Tasting events at museums and historical organizations in 2018.  

Professional Development – Professional development for museum workers is an expanding universe. Specialization in the field and loyalty to organizations like ours that present opportunities for professional development have crowded the calendar with webinars, workshops, and conferences. At the same time, museum budgets for professional development have never been large. Combine these ideas with the influx of hungry young minds entering the field. Are you coming to our 2018 conference or are you listening to a podcast? You can do both! 

The Periphery – Out on the fuzzy edges of the crystal ball’s lens there are any number of things that could be the next BIG thing. The tourism industry’s fortunes, activities in historic preservation, the changes in the economy, and social movements like #MeToo around sexual harassment all have the power to push museums in a new direction.  

How Did We Do? 

For most museums, change comes slowly, and predicting what will happen in the museum field in the short term is an exercise in observing the momentum of current initiatives. You could conclude that we landed on safe bets for much of last year’s list. The best way to predict what will happen is by looking at what has happened in the past, and that influences what PA Museums watches. 

While PA Museums scored some easy A’s in predicting Diversity Initiatives, Political Fatigue, and Special Events, we were more of a C student when it came to the Pennsylvania budget, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, and New Museum Technology. For the latter issues we assigned ourselves an average grade, the needle didn’t move much in 2018. That does not mean these aren’t important areas to watch. We could give ourselves B’s for keeping an eye on New Museums, Professional Development, and what we called The Periphery. There was a great deal of activity in these areas. There are new museums slowly taking shape like the First Bank project in Philadelphia and plans for an expanded Da Vinci Science Center in Easton. Professional development opportunities for museum professionals abounded in 2018. There were developments in tourism, Pennsylvania released a new historic preservation plan, and social movements gained traction in an increasingly polarized America.  

Were We Blind-sided? 

PA Museums was watching museum employment back in 2017 and years prior, and there were some issues to watch in that realm. Museums create a lot of jobs, and at any given time in Pennsylvania around 13,000 people seek their fortune in the field. PA Museums posts approximately 300 jobs a year to our website’s job bank. Demographics have been changing in the American workplace, and there may be a small lag time before museums catch up with other industries. Baby Boomer museum leaders began to retire, and today’s museum job seekers, many of them Millennials, are better educated than either Gen X or Baby Boomers. Baby Boomers are also retiring later than the generation before them. There are significant gender gaps in museum work in an already undercompensated field. Women are underrepresented in leadership while earning less than men do in similar roles.  

PA Museums left Museum Employment off our list in 2018, and just after we did that, job seekers in the museum field expressed their dissatisfaction with how museum job descriptions appeared on job banks just like ours. Job seekers wanted to see more transparency about salary ranges, hourly compensation, and benefits. The discussion expanded and became a field wide discussion at the statewide, regional, and national levels. In early October, the American Alliance of Museums addressed the issue. PA Museums did not exactly see this coming, and if we had, we probably would have included it, as we had for years, on our annual watch list. 

What to Watch in 2019 

PA Museums will put together our next set of short-term trends in Pennsylvania museums in December 2018. Please let us know if you’d like to join our newsletter mailing list.   

This article was written as a guest blog by Rusty Baker for Gecko Group. 

Rusty Baker is the Executive Director of PA Museums, the statewide trade association for museum professionals. PA Museums serves 350 statewide members through its advocacy work in Harrisburg, annual conference and awards program, communications initiatives, and museum community building.

Rusty is originally from Lebanon County, and he attended Slippery Rock University and Millersville University. After attempts to break into teaching in public schools, Rusty began working for a local artist, Bruce Johnson, in Hershey in the early 1990’s and never returned to teaching.

Having worked in a commercial art gallery and an art auction house, Rusty began working in Harrisburg at the Susquehanna Art Museum in 1999 and became Executive Director (2001-2005). He worked for a major museum services company in Washington, D.C. in 2006, and began working at the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations (now PA Museums) in 2007.

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