Wristwatch with can opener multi-tool, 2019.
history museums pragmatic historian

Museum Subsidies

Wristwatch with can opener multi-tool, 2019.
Wristwatch with can opener multi-tool, 2019.

Okay, one more post related to the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums conference, then I will be on to other things. (See how much fodder a conference can provide for a blog?)

While I work at a museum and my employer could have paid for my attendance at the conference, I chose to pay for the conference and its related expenses (hotel, mileage, meals) personally.


One major reason, but there is an ancillary lesson from doing so that is just as important to discuss.

I paid for the conference myself because I wanted to be able to mention The Pragmatic Historian without appearing as though a personal project was benefiting through museum funding. When it comes to nonprofit organizations, whatever side projects we have ought to benefit our organizations, but we should not be personally benefiting from our organizations.

As I wrote that, I realized how difficult it is for a person not to benefit in any way from their nonprofit employer. For one, we do get paid a wage. For another, we learn things from work that help us in other spheres of life. For yet another, if we find any enjoyment in our work, we physically, mentally, and emotionally benefit from that joy. It is impossible for a person’s work not to impact other areas of life and vice versa.

In essence, what I mean to point out is that more benefit (particularly financial) should accrue to the nonprofit than it does to us personally. By paying for the conference myself, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t upsetting that balance in mentioning my blog on my museum’s dime.

The Ancillary Lesson

But, here’s the ancillary lesson in this situation: My museum was subsidized by my paying for the conference and then plugging my organization through the session I designed in my own time.

Here is a rundown of the expenses I had for the conference:

Conference fee: $115

Personal MALHM membership: $25 (I did not use my museum’s MALHM membership for a discount on the conference)

Copies of handouts: $78.35

Hotel: $178.34

Gas: $60.49

Meals: $70.68

TOTAL: $527.86

This does not include the time it took to design my session or the SOAR Guide handout I created.

Museum Subsidies

In case you think I’m looking for a medal for my noble behavior, I’m not; I simply want to point out something museum staff do on a regular basis. We provide subsidies for our organizations in terms of the office or kitchen supplies we donate, food we bring to events, mileage we drive but don’t claim from the organization, people who call us during our time off with work-related questions, and by the lower-than-market-rate wages and lack of benefits we accept to do this work.

Because museum staff are often working at lower-than-market-rate wages, we are actually depending upon the salaries (and benefits) of our spouses to make up the difference in our household budgets. In essence, we are asking our spouses or partners to subsidize our museums. In addition, how often do our significant others or family members volunteer for our organizations? My family has pitched in plenty with time and expertise.

The True Cost of Operating a Museum

Do we museum staff track these museum subsidies? Report them on our IRS Form 990s as donated goods and services? We should. (I say this while admitting I’m trying to be better at tracking this info, but I don’t yet have a foolproof system for it.)

The reason we ought to track these sorts of subsidies is that if we don’t, we don’t have a true and complete cost of what it takes to operate a museum. If museums had to pay market rates for all of these subsidies, how much would it really cost? Our stakeholders need to know.

They need to know how much museum staff and their families are stretching the donation, grant, tax and membership dollars the organization receives.

These subsidies are an important part of how the work of museums gets done. We need to account for it.

If you work at a nonprofit museum, how have you subsidized your work there?