Sunday 2 October 2022

The mental health of museum workers in Portugal: who cares?


Aug 29, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Museum of Art employees and supporters rally outside the museum before handing over a letter to management requesting voluntary recognition of the CMA Workers United union. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns - The Columbus Dispatch

 “For the past several months the YBCA leadership team has been grappling with the unprecedented impacts and volatility caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

(…) Today, because of these impacts, it is with a heavy heart that I announce the elimination of 27 staff positions at YBCA. This represents more than a third of our staff, primarily those in positions that are directly tied to live events and activities which are not operational for the foreseeable future. As an organization that cares deeply about its employees, we held off on making these changes as long as our finances would allow. We also carefully considered equity in all of our decision making.

These valued team members who have made important contributions to YBCA will receive severance pay along with three months of healthcare. They will also have priority as candidates for future openings at YBCA.  For our remaining, most highly compensated team members, we will be implementing tiered salary reductions between 5 to 12 percent, with the highest reductions at the top level of the organization.

I announce these changes with the painful acknowledgement that we are losing members of our YBCA family that have given so much of themselves to create an enduring and indelible legacy at YBCA.  We are eternally grateful for the vision, creativity, commitment, and passion they have contributed to making YBCA what it is today.  I know you join me in expressing gratitude for our departing team members.”

This is how, on 21 July 2020, Deborah Cullinan (then CEO of the YBCA) announced the dismissal of 27 team members due to the impacts of the pandemic.

About a year ago, I was at the Douro Museum, participating in IMMER #3 - International Meeting on Museum Education and Research. In my session, I presented this excerpt from the YBCA announcement. I was about halfway through the reading when one of the people present began to cry. I understood and felt a tightening in my stomach… She was one of the people who had been “dismissed” from the museum where she worked and which became the case that was mostly discussed in the media for the way they treated their workers in that first year of the pandemic. I continued reading, having placed my hand on that person's shoulder. The rest of the room was absolutely silent. There were more people among us who had worked in that museum. The distance that separates it from the YBCA had become even more evident.

I recalled that occasion and the way it affected us when, with an interval of a few days, I became aware of the situation experienced by two colleagues who work in museums and who are at different moments in their careers: one about 10 years away from retirement and the other with about three years of service. What they shared with me, and which profoundly affects their lives - from a professional point of view, but inevitably, personally as well - has been reported to me by several other colleagues and much discussed in trainings. This is not just about one or other case that get in the attention of the media; it is about installed and generalised practices, more or less known and little contested. It is not about one or other person; it is about different people working in this sector, with or without a permanent contract, more or less young. Will we continue keeping our eyes shut? Or feeling powerless?

I believe none of this will sound unfamiliar: rigid hierarchies; superiors with little knowledge or sensitivity on the subject of museums; accumulation of powers and decision-making capacity in one person, who cannot handle the enormous task; little or no delegation of tasks; endless time waiting for answers, whatever the subject; lack of human and technical resources, but great demand for the organisation of numerous “activities” (the only thing that counts for the end-of-the-year report); partisan logics in the management of museums with very perverse consequences in the territories; changes in municipalities that put everything on stand by or tear down what was already being done to do it all over again; eternal reorganisations of services.

All this is associated with abuse of power, moral harassment, lack of respect for the people who are part of the teams – for their knowledge and skills, but also for their right to a personal life. One of the colleagues I mentioned before told me specifically about the effort to stop worrying, stop caring and try to resist the urge to propose things, because… it's not worth it, it's just trouble.

Does any of these things come as a surprise? Something we´re hearing for the first time? I’d say no… But, suddenly, I became much more aware of how these testimonies are multiplying and seem to define, in recent times, the museum sector in Portugal. It is not that these situations do not occur in other sectors in the area of ​​Culture. But, having the privilege of collaborating with different organisations and professionals in this area, I consider that the museum sector has become particularly problematic. Which leads me to question the state of mental health of its professionals.

Discouragement, disbelief, demotivation, pessimism are some of the states of mind expressed by people. But there is also depression, consultations with mental health specialists, medication, sick leaves. There are more serious cases of moral harassment that lead to the thought of suicide, are we aware of this? I'm not making it up, everything I share here has been shared by colleagues. We are talking about the environment in which we work, we are talking about the person next to us.

None of this is unique to the world of Portuguese museums. In other countries, however, and especially in the USA, these situations have become more obvious, they started being discussed in public. Instagram accounts such as Change the Museum or A Better Guggenheim reveal what is going on inside some of these organisations, which publicly present themselves as defenders of values ​​and ethical principles. The pandemic has also led many museum workers to found new unions or reactivate existing ones (see articles at the end of this text).

We’re not experiencing something similar in Portugal. Perhaps because, first, we must become aware of the severity of the situation, admit that we are not dealing just with isolated cases. Sometimes I think about the results of a satisfaction survey not for visitors, but for workers… How many demotivated people? How many people who feel conditioned and put aside, when they can and want to contribute? How many people who feel abused, morally harassed, because they care? How many people taking medication to be able to face the workplace? How many people on psychological sick leaves? And also… how many people who left the “comfort of a secure job”, in such an insecure moment, and presented their resignation? People with many or few years of service at a specific museum, being left with nothing. In my most immediate environment, three. Let's give it a thought...

Right now, I'm reading Joan Tronto's book “Caring Democracy”. The underlying thought is that we have a democratic deficit because we have a care deficit. At the end of the chapter I finished yesterday, Tronto states: “’Choice’ is not the same thing as freedom from dependency. (…) even if we could be free from all forms of dependence, that would not be a free life, it would be a life devoid of meaning. Dependence marks the human condition from birth until death. What makes us free, actually, is our capacity to care and to make commitments to what we care about.” I smiled… Because I thought that the reason why I left the “secure job”, exactly 10 years ago, is that I refused to stop caring. Like several other people I call colleagues – and some whom I call friends – who fight, in different ways, for this freedom. But at what cost? And why, what for?


Further reading

Hakim Bishara, MoMA’s cruel offer to unionized workers during the pandemic. In Hyperallergic, 30.09.2022

John Hurdle, Strike at Philadelphia Museum of Art is Window to Broader Unrest. In The New York Times, 29.09.2022

Maria Vlachou, What can we expect from a museum director?

Maria Vlachou, Fitted for freedom

Zachary Small, U.S. Museums See Rise in Unions Even as Labor Movement Slumps. In The New York Times, 21.02.2022

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