Bullying at the National Museum must not be buried

It’s unseemly to view the artefacts of the past on display at the NMI when staff are being harassed in the present. Complaints have been ignored by the Department of the Arts, writes Clodagh Finn.

Bullying at the National Museum must not be buried

All eyes are on the Dail because of the far-reaching implications of the handling of the Garda Maurice McCabe whistleblower controversy. But what a pity the spotlight has faded so quickly from a building just metres away, the National Museum of Ireland, where bullying has endangered the wellbeing of staff across its four sites.

Ten days ago, an item on RTÉ’s Drivetime highlighted workplace harassment so pervasive that one-in-five employees said they were “often” or “always” bullied.

The findings of that damning report became yesterday’s news in a nanosecond. The news cycle moves on at breakneck speed, but this is important.

Two-in-five people employed by the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) were found to be at risk of developing anxiety or depression, according to the unpublished Work Positive Profile Management Report, which was seen by RTÉ.

In it, a survey into employee wellbeing conducted by Ulster University academic, Dr Robert Kerr, showed that seven-in-ten employees wanted mental health support to deal with work-related stress and depression.

96 of the 140 employees took part in that survey.

There was more. Stephanie Regan, a psychotherapist who worked with the institution between 2008 and 2012, said the atmosphere remained toxic at the museum.

She referred to disturbing stories about “relentless and systematic” bullying and complaints being ignored by museum management and the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht.

Unfortunately, those revelations are not new. The trade union, Impact, said, in 2015, that it had a dozen open files on bullying at the museum.

Now, the museum has been forced to issue a statement to say that it has introduced a range of actions since the report was drawn-up, last November.

They include the establishment of a museum council, a staff consultation forum, and what have been described as “improvements in communications between staff and management”.

It would be worthwhile hearing again from the surveyed staff: have any of those measures improved conditions?

Arts Minister, Heather Humphreys, won’t be getting involved. She says she has nothing to do with the day-to-day running of the NMI, though the chair of the Oireachtas Arts and Heritage Committee, Peadar Toibin, the Sinn Fein TD, would like the minister to join museum representatives to address the “HR crisis . . . wasting taxpayers’ money”.

Any “HR crisis” is costly. In general, workplace bullying brings with it a huge cost, in terms of absenteeism, staff turnover, legal actions and tribunals.

But this “HR crisis”, as Deputy Toibin so neatly puts it, is much more than that. Yes, the money is important. The National Museum receives a lot of taxpayer money. Its annual grant-in-aid, though slashed after the economic crisis in 2008, amounts to more than €11m.

That alone should make its board and management more accountable for the welfare of their staff than they appear to have been to date.

What rankles more, however, is the constant chipping away at staff morale.

When you hear that most of the people hired to safeguard our heritage — 70% — say that their morale is “poor to very poor”, it takes away from the success story of visitor numbers.

Three of NMI’s sites — archaeology in Kildare Street, Dublin, the decorative arts and history at Collins Barracks, and natural history in Merrion Street — consistently rank among the top ten most-visited free attractions in Ireland.

During last year’s centenary celebrations, the numbers rose considerably. When you take into account the Country Life museum, in Castlebar, Co Mayo, the four heritage sites attracted a record 1 million-plus visitors in the first six months of last year.

At the time, it was noted (with cheers and hats tossed in the air) that many of those were repeat visitors and many more were local.

We Irish are committed fans of the museum. The recent Irish Museums Survey (2016), the first comprehensive study of the Irish museum sector in a decade, showed that 6.1m people were welcomed by our museums, north and south, in 2014.

A third of those were international visitors and 61% were ‘domestic’ — that means the artefacts, their context, and associated stories preserved in the country’s 230 or so museums are very important to us.

And that tradition is continuing into the next generation. Many of our museums have embraced new technologies, while education services have doubled.

Of course, the other side of the story is continuing budget decline, reduction in staff, and an over-reliance on voluntary, unpaid labour at smaller, independent museums.

But how can the museum sector make a case for more funding, when the country’s flagship guardian of heritage has done so little to address the allegations of widespread bullying at its very core?

It’s hard to overstate the damage that does to the National Museum of Ireland’s national and international image. It’s a betrayal of the wonderful artefacts that it houses within its walls and the wonderful people — and there are many — who have done so much to understand those who went before us.

And what of the people, in the here and now, whose awful experiences are outlined in that glossed-over report?

I won’t be alone in thinking of them the next time I visit Kildare St to admire its singular collection of Bronze Age gold work.

How can you stand in awe of the past when you suspect that someone in the present, in one of this institution’s four sites, could be feeling harassed at their desk; or crying in a toilet; or feeling trapped in the boozy culture that was laid bare for one short moment, then forgotten again?

For now, it makes sense to keep an eye on the present, rather than the past.

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