With the full onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, museums faced the dilemma of having to maintain outreach efforts without the ability to showcase in-person exhibits. Roughly 90% of museums worldwide closed their doors to the public, and many remained shuttered for the remainder of the year while profits plummeted.
A new study published in the Journal of Museum Education highlights the toll these closures have taken on educators affiliated with a variety of institutions, including museums, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and science centers. Of the 132 respondents to an anonymous survey distributed through professional Listservs, more than half indicated they were considering a career change.
“With the onset of the pandemic, I was seeing a lot of frustration from this community and educators losing faith in their service-focused mission,” said lead author Kathryn Rende, a graduate student in education at North Carolina State University.
Although educators were particularly hard-pressed in 2020, the difficulties they faced weren’t necessarily anything new, said study co-author Megan Ennes, assistant curator of museum education at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “I think the pandemic just exacerbated what was already going on and really drew attention to something that’s been a long-standing issue.”
Most individuals who responded to the anonymous survey were women who identified as white and non-Hispanic between the ages of 25 and 44. All respondents were college-educated. More than two-thirds were entry level or mid-level employees with some supervisory duties that included managing interns or other full-time employees. Fifty-seven percent said their work involved activities like planning or running programs.
“Most people we surveyed were focused on educating targeted populations, like doing youth programs or managing programs for on-site audiences, and almost all of them had some managerial job duties,” Rende said.
Before the pandemic, 88% of educators found their work moderately or very challenging; 95% said it was very or extremely rewarding.
After the pandemic started, 57% of educators said the difficulty grew, and less than 30% were finding their work very or extremely rewarding.
“The pandemic has been extremely stressful for educators at all levels,” said study co-author Gail Jones, alumni distinguished graduate professor in science education at NC State. “We documented that for many informal educators, whose work is dependent on public participation, the pandemic was devastating.”
In an open-ended section of the survey, some respondents wrote about challenges they faced in 2020, including furloughs, losing their jobs, seeing colleagues laid off, issues associated with the shift to online programming and the paucity of available positions.
“The museum education job market is just very saturated because so many people are passionate about educating others in out-of-school settings,” Ennes said. “This can drive salaries down, as there are more people interested in being museum educators than there are full-time jobs available.”
Despite the lack of room at the top and the long queue to get there, aspiring, well-credentialed educators continued to line up before the pandemic. According to one respondent in a follow-up interview conducted by the researchers, “You basically are just waiting for someone to retire or leave and hope the museum decides to refill the position.”
When educators do land a job, they often find themselves working part time, filling split shifts to work around programming events and activities and working for considerably lower pay than they might earn in a different field. The median salary for respondents was between $40,000 and $49,000 per year, well below the national median income for people who hold four-year or master’s degrees.
Researchers said persistent low pay in informal education could serve as a barrier to entry for people who can’t rely on other sources of wealth to sustain them financially, keeping the field from attracting a more diverse talent pool.
“So many educators are dependent on either not having student loans or having help from family,” Ennes said. Seventy percent of respondents said they would be unable to sustain their career without additional support from spouses, parents or generational wealth. For historically excluded groups, those forms of support might not be readily available, making a long-term career in informal education a tenuous prospect.
As COVID-19 restrictions and closures come to a halting end, many science and cultural centers are beginning to open education positions again, and Ennes is hopeful that the lessons learned during the pandemic will carry forward into the future.
“I think institutions will have to do a lot of balancing to make sure that they are bringing in enough money to sustain themselves moving forward while equitably paying their staff in such a way that they’re able to retain their highly qualified educators,” she said. “Educators are the face of museums, making sure visitors have the best possible experience and ensuring that they’ll come back.”