CoC was started by two people who both make our living contracting in museums. Based on our experiences and the testimonies of our colleagues, we have become acutely interested in and concerned with the state of contract labor in libraries and museums today and what relationships between contractors and contracting institutions do, and should, look like. Our goal with this platform is two-pronged: to establish a supportive and reliable community of heritage professionals working on contract and to conduct a methodological deep-dive into the ways that growing reliance on contract labor affects heritage work within institutions.
Through the creation of a collaborative community forum, we want to invite individual contractors from diverse areas of the heritage sector to share stories, experiences, advice, and resources to make contracting work in the museum field more livable.
There is an increasing trend in the American job landscape broadly towards reliance on temporary, and particularly contract, labor and the heritage field is no different, for many complicated reasons. Many heritage professionals, particularly early career professionals, more readily find employment on a contract basis these days. In our personal experiences the only paid positions readily available and accessible to early career professionals in our institutions are contract positions.
What exactly is a contractor?
Perhaps, if you’ve never worked on contract, you find yourself asking how working on contract with a heritage institution is any different than just…working at a heritage institution. You may be familiar with the idea that people hire contractors for things like construction work or something similar. In our case, when we say “contractor” we are referring to a very specific legal agreement between an individual (often called an independent contractor) and a heritage institution in which the institution agrees to pay x amount of money for very specific services rendered in a specific time-frame. This may look, for example, like an individual brought on under contract to process one archival or object collection over the course of one year for a lump sum of money paid out according to an agreed upon schedule. It may also look like a curatorial assistant who works on a contractual basis but has the opportunity to renew that contract on a yearly basis and gets paid along the same schedule that museum staff do. The form and flavor of contract often looks different across sub-discipline, department, and institution but the general gist is the same. They may also vary because some institutions first hire a contracting company (aka a company whose role it is to manage individual contractors) which then writes the actual contracts and handles payment and benefits.
While there are certainly some benefits to contracting (e.g. the ability to make your own schedule and set your own rates) there are also distinct drawbacks to this form of labor, commonly including lack of access to employer-provided healthcare, retirement benefits, and other resources most full-time, non-contract employees have access to. Overall, we have found that contracting can sometimes be a very confusing, frustrating, and isolating experience. Unless your institution proactively orients you to how their contracting process works, what your chain of command is as a contractor, and what recourse you have within the institution as a non-staff laborer you may have to struggle to find these answers in event of an issue (such as workplace harassment, delayed payment, contract disputes, etc.). In our cases this is not something that has ever been offered by our institutions.
Our perspective isn’t that contracting as an independent person with a heritage institution is inherently untenable or irresponsible–our position here at CoC is that the sooner the heritage sector directly acknowledges its growing reliance on contract labor, the sooner we can all join a dialogue on how to make contract labor more sustainable for both individuals and for heritage institutions.
Who is CoC?
Collections on Contract was started by two people who both began working on contract in the heritage sector right out of graduate school, which means that like most emerging museum professionals today we were coming off of a series of unpaid or low-paid internship experiences to network, boost our resumes, and “get our foot in the door”. Neither of us were ever formally, or informally for that matter, taught what it means to work on contract with a museum or archives and how that is different from being hired on as a staff-person. It isn’t something we were ever led to anticipate or expect. In fact, it is only as a result of contracting with institutions for a number of years now that we have been able to even begin to comprehend the technicalities, nuances, and legalities of being a contract worker in general, and in the heritage sector specifically. Between the two of us we’ve personally experienced: payments delayed for over a month on more than one occasion, professional retaliation resulting in lost wages and opportunities with no internal or external recourse, the government shutdown (a long story for another time), and a whole host of smaller and more nuanced issues that we’ll continue to talk about. Despite this, our perspective isn’t that contracting as an independent person with a heritage institution is inherently untenable or irresponsible–our position here at CoC is that the sooner the heritage sector directly acknowledges its growing reliance on contract labor, the sooner we can all join a dialogue on how to make contract labor more sustainable for both individuals and for heritage institutions. We’re also not just interested in discussing the difficult aspects of being an independent contractor, we would love to hear about and share tactics and resources that work for people, stories of achievement and joy, and to signal boost your accomplishments!
How can I get involved?
We’d like to try our best to amplify the conversation about contracting, because it is already happening, alongside parallel conversations in academia and similar fields. Through the creation of a collaborative community forum, we want to invite individual contractors from diverse areas of the heritage sector to share stories, experiences, advice, and resources to make contracting work in the museum field more livable. There are a few ways you can contribute:
- Take our survey, located here! We’re very familiar with our little corner of the contracting world but would love to start building a bigger picture of heritage contracting around the U.S. (for now). The survey also allows us to learn how we can tailor this platform to best serve you. This survey is intended for everyone in the museum and heritage world, so even if you are not and have never been a contractor, we would still love to hear from you.
- Contribute something to the blog: a personal narrative, a resource review, or advice request–see our submission guidelines here.
- Follow along on here and on Twitter, we’re @ContractOn. Say hey and feel free to let us know how we can best serve your needs and if you have any questions.
We’ll be posting a discussion soon of the responses we’ve gotten to the survey, thus far, so if you’re curious check back soon. We’ve got some big ideas for what this platform could become and how it can serve this community, and we really appreciate your input!
The CoC team