To Pay or Not to Pay: A 2013-14 Study of Museum Practice

Recently, five museum professionals took it upon themselves to conduct a survey of museums and the issue of paid vs unpaid educators. These intrepid professionals were Jeanne Hoel, The Museum of Contemporary Art, LA; Barbara Bassett, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Sheila McGuire, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; and April Oswald, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. Jeanne shared the findings from this study on December 10th, at a National Art Education Association Museum Education Division Peer 2 Peer Google Hangout dedicated to the topic of paid and unpaid museum teaching staff. Jeanne’s full power point presentation is here.

Paid eds and volunteers

Of the 66 museums that responded to the survey, 62% use unpaid educators, 24% use a hybrid model (they work with both paid and volunteer educators), and 14% use all-paid staff. Most museums, then, rely at least partly on volunteers to lead tours.

The study also asked, “What do you want students to take away from their tour experiences?” Below is a chart sharing the student outcomes museums shared, the percent of museums that stated this as an outcome (in parenthesis), and the percentage programs that felt they achieved these goals, separated into paid and unpaid educator programs.

chart - outcomes


What is important or interesting in these findings, as relates to the Museum Questions exploration of field trips?

  1. The most commonly reported student outcome for school tours, by far, is teaching common-core related skills. Only 14% of museums have as their goal that students should return on their own.
  2. Museums self-report that they do not always achieve the student outcomes for their programs. In fact, volunteer-led programs (which, including the hybrid models, constitutes 86% of all programs surveyed) succeed at teaching common-core related skills only 63% of the time. This seems to me to be a very low success rate. When looking at success at reaching some of the other stated outcomes, such as encouraging students to return on their own, or having a positive experience with museum personnel, programs score even lower.
  3. Volunteers lead most programs, and volunteers score lower at achieving program goals almost across the board (the exceptions are encouraging return visits and expanding art historical understanding).

When setting out to explore field trips, I posed a number of questions: What do museums offer students in the context of school visits? How do we articulate a benefit that makes sense to teachers and administrators charged with educating children? How do we make these benefits visible? And how do we deliver these programs to school groups in a way that makes sense given the structure of the schools themselves?

Program success is a critical component in the exploration of what museums benefits offer students. This study shows that a large percentage of museums do NOT think that museums are succeeding at offering the intended benefits to students. This leaves museums with three options:

  1. Continue offering a product that fails approximately half the time
  2. Rethink the design of existing programs, in order to better achieve student outcomes
  3. Consider new models, and possibly new outcomes, aligned with what museums want to achieve and possibilities for achieving them.

I welcome thoughts from readers on the implications of these findings, and the options available to museums. If museums are reporting that they often do not achieve stated student outcomes, what should they – and we as a field – do next?

Thanks to Jeanne Hoel for her help with this post.

4 thoughts on “To Pay or Not to Pay: A 2013-14 Study of Museum Practice

  1. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Goals for Students | Museum Questions

  2. Pingback: How Every Museum Can Respond to Ferguson | Imagining America

  3. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II | Museum Questions

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