Heritage is a High Stress Vocation

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If we do not support our heritage institutions, will anyone remember the path we came by?

Most Canadians believe that those employed in the heritage field enjoy one of the most pleasant work environments in Canada. This is not the case for most of us — I mean the majority of us — the staffs of medium museums, local historic sites and archives, as well as those who labour in archaeological teams or heritage planning departments.  I think, but don’t know for sure, that the climate may be different for employees of our National Institutions. I hope to hear their experiences.

It is true that we heritage professionals have the privilege of access to a trove of historical treasures.  If it is really one’s thing, then the delight provoked by delicate, translucent Meissen is never stale, and the breath-stopping moment when a fresh find connects a site with Hopewell culture is never diminished.  This is fact.  But in order to have responsibility for custody of our treasures and to interpret and explain a tiny piece of mica a very great deal of education is required and years of patient work once the structured halls of academe are far behind.

In reality, those sweet moments of discovery are a minority. Working with the collection is mostly a never-ending struggle to make sure that everything is inventoried, retrievable and protected.  The work experience generally feels nothing like Antiques Roadshow, but rather like spending one’s days cleaning and reorganizing the basement.   We strain to make ridiculously insufficient space adequate.   We are starved for appropriate containers, shelving, climate controls and conservation help.   We are pressured to abandon half-completed microfilming projects and jump into digitization while our documents crumble on the shelves.   We endure long hours and weekend work, mostly for time in lieu which we know we will never be able to take.

Many heritage workers spend their days struggling to keep the doors open. In Canada, there is always money for celebrations; that is, for short-term projects which are primarily entertainment.   There is sometimes money for infrastructure, which usually means new-build, or handicap upgrades.   In my experience this funding seldom includes specialty furnishings such as high-density shelving.    In Canada, there is never any new operating money.  The Ontario Museum Operating Grants were a rare and wonderful exception which have been neglected and allowed to shrink to almost comic size in proportion to the paperwork involved.   Don’t misunderstand, I am not against asking museums to fund-raise.    I am against curators being forced to spend far too much time doing it.   They are needed to do other things.  Sometimes, the quest for lucre is inspired: more often it drags the staff into a crazy world of teddy bear tea parties, fashion shows and seances. Occasionally we are forced by powers that be to do things against our professional standards — things that actually threaten the things we are sworn to protect.

If we are not chasing money, we are chasing statistics.   While local government assumes that the voters want another hockey arena they cannot believe that the voters want a museum unless one proves it over and over.     But, hey!   Avoid like hot coals any public outcry.   It is not likely to bring help and more likely to make fickle sponsors abandon commitment.  This balancing act is another source of stress for staff.

For, in Canada, culture and heritage are considered “nice” but not a priority.  Canadians remain unconvinced that heritage is worth any investment.  The dark secret is that most politicians privately believe that heritage employees are not worth paying.  For forty long years I have endured elected officials who think that a museum may be saved by having high school students do the work, or that archaeological permits are some kind of plot hatched by the intelligentsia.   Otherwise reasonable people (who would not think of taking grandmother’s pearls to the retired-librarian-next-door for an estate appraisal) somehow think that a team of senior citizens can decide whether a Krieghoff is genuine or assign a value to a daguerreotype for a tax receipt.  Some even believe that when there is no researcher, an archivist has nothing to do!

If an heritage worker is one of the lucky few to escape the world of endless contracts and no benefits, and actually win a full-time job, the relief is short-lived.  In my experience, he or she will spend the rest of their working days in accute terror of being terminated.   Because of the recession, many unfortunate Canadians have been recently put in this situtation.   Welcome to our world.   Small museums have been living on the edge for the last forty years.

All of this is remarkably short-sighted.   Heritage employees are some of the cheapest employees in the country, many working for only a little above minimum wage despite all that post-secondary education.   Heritage generates economic pay-back in a hefty way, including education, tourism, publishing, film / television and sustainable communities.   Our history is the source for expression of our Canadian shared values.   It is how we learn who we are.   It is how we plan where we are going.   Information from our collections exceeds nostalgia. Information supports sound policy development and independent research.

In the twenty-first century world we are told that workers must expect career changes.  If we are unhappy as heritage employees, “Well then re-train and move on.”   I don’t think that this template should or can be applied to the heritage community, where a significant investment in education and experience are required even for entry.   Would we tell our nurses to leave their field, re-train and move on?   Which brings me back to the beginning.  We in heritage are neither respected nor valued, for credentials, experience or loyalty.   Until we change this, Canada will remain a unenlightened society, a one-diminsional country driven by resource extraction economics unable to articulate itself and make a presence on the world stage.

For the Olympics, we are told that Canada needs to attract and sustain the best.   It should be no different for those whom we trust with our heritage.

In the meantime, “Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be curators or cowboys.”

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3 Comments

Filed under Archaeology, Archives, Historical Societies, Material culture, Museums

3 responses to “Heritage is a High Stress Vocation

  1. Bonnie Woelk

    Hi, Jennifer:

    You should submit this as an editorial to that Edmonton paper (or other newspapers, too) — very eloquent piece on this subject.

  2. And 4 years later I can say that Winnipeg has two museums (that I know of) shut down. The Costume Museum of Canada (stored in a vault for years now and doing the odd pop up event) and now the house museum Dalnavert. Sucks. As far as I know, most of the folks connected to those places were volunteer. (I do believe there was a paid currator with Dalnavert. I don’t know if any of the folks connected with the Costume Museum got paid.) It makes me weep that our current museums struggle and yet we are in the process of building a massive and expensive Human Rights Museum.

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