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Egypt at the Horniman Museum

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Episode 3: Only Collections in the Building

Episode 3: Money, money, money…..

Heba and Johanna in the recording studio

Money is both one of the most frequent reasons that tensions arise through work with external collaborators, yet at the same time a direct conversation that we often avoid. Episode 3 of Only Collections in the Building drills down into the decisions made about where money is spent, and how perceptions of museums as well funded institutions impact on trust.

In this episode we explore the procedures that surround money, and how they reinscribe power.

This includes how the legal language of contracts is underpinned by assumptions around institutional ownership, and how financial agreements impact on rights to refuse. We ask to what extent the financial year and the deadlines that fall during spring-time respect a Global calendar, considering, for example, the holy month of Ramadan.

How can we have honest conversations about money on a more human level, considering both the inequalities in the allocation of money, and the financial transactions that surround it?

Blinginess

One of the most frequent conversations we have had throughout All Eyes on Her is about money; how we don’t have enough to do the work we want and need to do, and the difficulties of raising funds when our work sits at this intersection of research and public facing museum work.

These conversations often navigate a central contradiction. Whilst museum professionals often experience a chronic lack of money, many of the community groups, artists and indigenous activists that we work with perceive museums in the UK as wealthy places. influencing this perception is the way the funds that we do have access to are allocated.

It is common for the majority of museum income to go on wages (often 60-70%) closely followed by facilities (such as heating, ground rent, rubbish collection). The remaining budget is shared between the different work streams – exhibitions, collections management, public programming, collections research, recruitment and learning programs – some of which might also create income. However within this work, the public face of the museum is often prioritized over the more hidden behind the scenes work.

This faux-blingyness contributes to the perception that museums are well funded, because the areas that are the most poorly funded are far less visible. This contradiction has a significant impact on the expectations around how much money there is to pay artists or freelancers. This is compounded by the very real inequalities in funding for comparative heritage or HE organizations in the Global South.

Community Collaborations: a Funding Blindspot

A central part of our project is community-led collections research and collaboration, however we have found that in the context of University-based collections work, community collaborations are rarely institutionally valued as producing “rigorous” research or expertise.

Within this model, community partnerships are regarded as an add-on fringe activity that might increase funding potential given the current Public Engagement turn in UK arts and humanities research funding. Research projects are rarely encouraged to have enough budget for community-led work, despite the increasing advocacy towards people-centred methodologies and impact. Resolving this is particularly important in relation to collections and belongings in the UK that have a colonial history, and where expertise from community members who have personal lived experience and shared heritage is vital to understanding these collections and their relevance today.

Currency

 

Many Indigenous researchers, activists, artists work on their heritage to benefit their communities. This can make money a sensitive topic for them. For Heba, this work is a community service, something shared among many of her indigenous colleagues working in this space. This makes it difficult at times to put realistic

quotations based on international rates rather than local rates which are usually lower, given the misdistribution of economic capital between Global North and Global Majority.

Additionally, the mechanics of being paid as a researcher, artist or freelancer living outside of Europe or North America can be difficult to navigate. For example, in Egypt the current economic crisis and the devaluing of the Egyptian pound means that many prefer to be paid in British Pounds or US Dollars as this retains the value of their money. However, this is not straightforward given the current Government restrictions on trading with foreign currencies. These conversations about international transfers and how people want or need to be paid are rarely had enough.

Contractual obligations

The signing of a contract is often necessary for any financial transaction between a museum and a freelancer or artist. The contract sets out the work that is expected by the museum, the timeframes, and often stipulates payment upon this work being completed and delivered. However contracts are also a political space that create a legal obligation and underpin the terms of ownership that exist between the work that is produced, the artist/freelancer and the institution. The legal language of contracts can be difficult to navigate, and in our experience spending time to either review this language to make it more accessible (for example by describing how a museum might use a piece of work in the future), or carefully talk it through in person/over the phine before sending it to be signed, is important to creating a safer space for partners.

The strict adherence to deliverables and deadlines in contracts can make flexibility and responsiveness within projects very difficult to manage. Community partners are expected to be flexible and responsive to museum schedules, but that flexibility is also necessary the other way around.

How much?

There has been a big push within museum projects towards payment for peoples time. This is particularly so when external participants are being asked to reflect critically on museum work, or to provide their expertise as consultants shaping projects geared towards a social justice or decolonial agendas.

However clarity on how much to pay is unresolved. There remains significant variability in what museum projects are prepared to pay for the same work, as well as unclarity about when payment is necessary and when it’s not. Financial transactions are not neutral, but create a particular relationship where the museum is a client and has power over what work is delivered, in which form and within which timeframes. Money can put pressure on people to deliver work that they feel meets the expectations of the museum rather than what they feel they can and want to give. It also impacts on the right to refuse.

Looking Forward

We need to be more open about money and have more direct conversations, not only about how much is paid but how people are paid and the potential inequalities that financial transactions create. These conversations need to be had right from the start of projects.

Institutions need to actively place people before collections by prioritizing community partnerships  in budgets in the same way estates and collection management budgets are allocated. Without communities museums hold “things” rather than belongings and their leadership and input can help us better understand ourselves and the world around us.

There is a saying in Egyptian Arabic:

“men bara halahala we mn gowa ye3lam allah.”

Blingy from the outside but only Allah knows how it looks from the inside.

Museums need to learn how to bling inside out.