The Workers’ Day in Museums

The International Workers’ Day or Labour Day is one of the most universal public holidays worldwide. While most holidays are related to specific religious celebrations and national memories, this is the day that unites people from all over the world.

Different countries treat the day differently and might have different names for it. It is not necessarily a day-off nationwide. The essence is clear, though. The day reminds us of the hard fought workers’ rights.

For this Workers’ Day I am not telling the history of this celebration in details. It is easy to find anywhere across the internet. My goal is to include museums in the story.

Working lives

There is a nice selection of work related stories on Europeana Collections, as they include some old black and white photos. One of the galleries shows child labour. We should not forget that children were once forced to work in mines, while many workers had no rights at all.

Traditionally, many societies have spring festivals, and the beginning of May is one of the most popular days of these celebrations. They can relate to religions or just the mere fact that these spring days are nice and enjoyable therefore perfect for festivities.

Workers Day 2020 - Blekinge Museum
Photo from the Blekinge Museum, Sweden (found on Europeana)

One of the very first big protests-strikes for workers’ rights happened in Chicago, precisely on the 1st of May in 1886. Their main goal was simple – the induction of eight-hours workday, something that would later become a standard in many labour laws worldwide.

Museums and Workers’ Day in 2020

As the times change, the struggles follow. Some manual labour becomes redundant due to automation, as new kinds of jobs emerge along with technological development.

Museum profession struggles in the contemporary systems. Usually too quiet, trying to remain neutral and to operate as not for profit institutions, many museums struggle to get noticed. Too often, museums are dependant on public funding and wealthy sponsors.

Any economic crisis hits museums harder because they are not considered so essential. Education also suffers with cuts, as it is also considered non-essential in struggling, impoverished societies. I know it is wrong, but what can we do about it?

These days when millions of people live in a kind of lockdown and museums are often closed, more virtual museum resources and related contents are available online. However, the biggest question is what is next?

Museum merchandise
Museum item: Byzantine patterns

What is next?

There is a whole variety of people who can be called museum professionals. Their work is often overlooked and museums are taken for granted, usually until something bad happens to them – something like the recent earthquake in Zagreb.

Museum Business
Products with stories

These objects show some wonderful variety of museum creativity. However, very few museums have possibilities to create and promote this kind of products. Often underpaid and unmotivated, museum workers remain outside the social focus.

Curiously, Europeana didn’t include any museum and heritage work in their Working Lives collection. They didn’t show artists at work, conservators or archaeologists. On the other hand, they showed something that very much matters – the history of environmental protests. There is a growing number of causes for museums in service of sustainability.

Europeana has embraces sustainability and industrial history, but I would like to see them showing the core of the culture and heritage work in Europe. It is our field. Heritage work matters more than we think.

So, cheers to museum workers!

MAAT Lisboa
MAAT Museum in Lisbon often has incredible exhibitions of work in the context of design and architecture.

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