Task Saturation in Museum Workers

Screen-Shot-2013-10-25-at-4.17.09-PMPaul Thistle is a provocateur. That was his given label as he led an Idea Lounge last spring at the American Association of Museum’s Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, MN. The title of his session was “Rising Expectations, Task Saturation and Time Poverty for Museum Workers.”

As a retired museum worker, he wants to encourage discussion about a growing problem in the museum field. Whether paid staff or volunteer, museum workers recognize that we all have way too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it. It’s been Paul’s mission over the past couple of decades to get museum workers to talk about this openly, rather than grouse about it in private. He also wants us to share sensible solutions to the problem.

While it may not be obvious to the average museum visitor, museum staff and volunteers wear so many hats, that this has become a cliché in the field. We often joke about how a given day requires us to assist researchers, build an exhibit, shovel snow, and scrub the toilet. And that’s an easy day. Our job descriptions are so varied that workers in other fields may have difficulty believing we actually do everything we say we do.

In small museums especially, this variety in daily tasks arises out of necessity. Because most museums are short on funding, it falls to a small group of dedicated individuals, or often one dedicated individual, to keep the organization operating.

According to a recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota Extension on the “Economic Contribution of Museums in Minnesota,” there are “562 museums, historic sites, historic houses, nature centers, zoos, and arboreta operating in Minnesota.” Extrapolating from the 245 survey respondents, it is estimated that there are 5,300 employees spread throughout these sites, with an average of two paid staff (full- or part-time) at them. Fifty-one percent of the survey’s respondents said that they had between zero and five staff members. “Nearly a third (29 percent) of museums are volunteer-operated alone and do not have employees.” In 2011 “volunteers contributed nearly 490,000 hours of work” to museums, the equivalent of 236 full-time employees.

Museums are labor-intensive organizations. Museums with collections must manage those collections, starting at the point when items are donated. Each item given to a museum must be accessioned, which includes giving it a unique identification number and recording a description, history, and condition, and possibly taking multiple photographs of the item. It must then be properly packed for long-term preservation. The same care must be taken with archival documents. There’s a lot of moving that goes on in a museum, of artifacts, documents, and workers. (For example, in 2008, MCHS received close to 1,000 items for its collections. If our curator worked every day of the year, she would have to process close to three items each day.)

An artifact or document has little value if it’s forever kept in storage, so museum workers must find ways to provide access to the collections. This includes building exhibits and giving tours, assisting visitors with research and doing in-house research for publications and the web, answering questions via email and phone, and digitizing items for use online. And, if a museum is online (most Minnesota museums are), then website and social media maintenance is required.

Museums must also keep up on business obligations like bookkeeping, tax reporting, meetings, marketing, writing policies and procedures, tracking and communicating with members and donors, grant writing and reporting, project management, and volunteer and staff training. But that’s not all. We also have to manage building and grounds maintenance. Eighty percent of Minnesota museums are trying to do all of this with volunteer workers or fewer than 5 paid staff.

As the field becomes more professional, these expectations place even more pressure on volunteers and staff. According to Paul Thistle, it’s a recipe for burnout. He adds to the metaphor of the straw breaking the camel’s back by stating that museum workers are “fully loaded camels standing in a rain of straws.” Higher professional standards, while generally good for the field, place extra burdens on these fully loaded camels.

While worker burnout is a serious concern, we need to remember that this task saturation also affects a museum’s ability meet its mission. And that’s why this topic deserves discussion both within professional museum organizations and throughout the public sphere. Let’s hope this article helps promote Paul’s AAM discussion and brings more awareness to the problem.

Paul has started a blog called Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers.


Thistle, Paul, Abstract: Museum Workers as Fully Loaded Camels Standing in a Rain of Straws, August 24, 2011.

Tuck, Brigid & Bruce Schwartau, Economic Contribution of Museums in Minnesota, University of Minnesota Extension, 2012.


4 Responses to “Task Saturation in Museum Workers”

  1. August 15, 2012 at 3:08 pm, Kristie Sheppard said:

    This is a very interesting blog post. Since I have always worked in museums, I often wonder if other fields are like this. I don’t really know if this burns people out. I think we all, well at least I do, accept it as part of my job. Although there are many days I wish I wasn’t staffing the galleries or stocking toilet paper.


  2. August 15, 2012 at 3:18 pm, Mary Warner said:

    I think it depends on the field, Kristie. I’m not sure there are too many fields with the variety in tasks that small museum staff and volunteers have to handle. Does the general public know that a museum worker can move from writing the payroll to writing a blog post to giving a tour to checking mouse traps to filling out a grant report … to … to … to … all in one day? My husband has worked in a number of different jobs over the years – cook, greenhouse worker, construction worker, recycling truck driver, housing case manager, military role player – and he has never had the major swing in tasks I’ve had as a museum manager. The closest he’s come is as a housing case manager.

    I’d imagine that small business owners have this level of variety. If workers in other fields see this variety, I hope they’ll share that in the comments and let us know how they deal with the stress this entails.


  3. August 16, 2012 at 9:18 am, Heavens to Murgatroyd said:

    This experience very nearly matches that of the “lone arranger” or solo archivist as an allied profession in both responsibilities and challenges. There is much overlap between many small museums and small archives, the primary difference being a focus on object versus record based collections.


    • August 16, 2012 at 10:30 am, Mary Warner said:

      Heavens – I think any small organization that has collections to care for, be it an archive or museum, that expects one person to do everything is going to bump up against the problem of task saturation. There is so much stuff in this world to collect and people are more than happy to pass that responsibility along to a reputable organization once they’ve come to a point where they don’t want to or can’t deal with that stuff anymore.

      I’m a big proponent of putting moratoriums on collecting for limited periods of time in order to give curators and archivists a chance to catch up on accessioning and properly storing new donations. Our curator has a massive backlog of items to deal with because the donations keep rolling in. If we had a consistent period of time during the year, say from November through February, when we didn’t collect, she would have some breathing space for accessioning. Our curator hesitates to stop collecting because she’s afraid we’ll miss something really great, but I think most donors would be fine with holding on to an item for a few extra months. We’ve done a good job of letting potential donors know that they need to call ahead to see if we’ll accept something, so I’m sure they’d quickly catch on to a collections schedule.

      This is merely one suggestion for dealing with the problem of task saturation in museum and archive workers. If you’ve or other readers have more, please share them.


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