The Tipping Point


Over at the American Association of Museums’ Emerging Museum Professionals ListServ, there has been a debate brewing. The issue:

If a museum docent/tour guide/attendant receives a tip from a visitor, should they be allowed to keep it?

I must confess that is not an issue that I had given much thought to before. However, after reading the responses, there have been some interesting arguments raised. Most people agreed that asking for tips lacked class, while some thought tips (whether solicited or not) were completely inappropriate for a museum employee. Someone made an intellectual property argument, and others discussed the possibility of encouraging the tipper to make it a museum donation instead. Ultimately, it seemed that the very reason behind why people choose to work in a museum was at the heart of the debate.

Some interesting highlights include:

  1. “In the museum field we are usually subject to intellectual property rules and that the information you impart on your tour is owned by the museum you work for and therefore tips on such should also go to them.”
  2. “It is reasonable to assume that if a visitor wants to donate to the museum, they will do so (and may have already done so, and in turn will receive the tax deduction they would expect as a donor), and if they want to show appreciation to the guide, they will do that. It is also reasonable to assume the visitor would rather have the control over where the tip goes, and may feel resentment towards a museum that takes tips away from its employees (if they were privy to that knowledge).  So, if a museum values a donor’s intent, they would either let the guide keep the tips, or verbalize the tip-donation practice into the tour at some point.  To do otherwise would be dishonest, so my museum-going sources say.”
  3. “If I had offered someone a tip and they then handed it to the organization they worked for, I would be angry that my money wasn’t given to the person who deserved it. It’s a pretty bogus standard.”
  4. “You are either getting paid to do your tour or you are a volunteer and get personal satisfaction for doing the tour. You should do a good job because you have pride in yourself and your museum. Expecting a tip is like paying for a smile as one blogger put it.”
  5. “It seems rather unethical for a museum to let you accept tips, but then turn around and require you to donate the money back to them. And, tipping is not a matter of who owns the information intellectually, but instead is given for the quality of the delivery of the tour–it doesn’t matter if you had a script, you still have to be personable, accurate, engaging, etc.”
  6. “Generally, the guide is provided the tools (i.e. training) to make the museum “come alive” by the museum educators. Also, if monetary gain is a large incentive for someone, that person may wish to re-evaluate their choice to pursue a career in the museum profession.”
  7. “What is a typical tip? A dollar or two? Let’s not conflate thinking you might be permitted to keep a couple of dollars with being money hungry. I feel like this is a case of museums putting their mission on a pedestal. Workers in other professions can accept tips or expect pay in line with their skill/education level but if you’re a museum professional you have to be doing it for love alone. You can’t even hint you might like to keep your dollar or that you feel like you deserve to be paid well without being told you should reevaluate your priorities.”

I am inclined to agree most with #2, #3, #5, and #7. The idea that museums “own” the information in a tour bothers me a bit. Museums should not operate under the belief that they “own” the information, it is their job to hold items in the public trust and educate the public about those items.  As noted in #2 and #3, if a visitor is aware that they can leave a donation to the museum if they choose, but tip a docent for a particularly excellent experience anyway, that money is meant for the docent, not the museum. Finally, #7 strikes a cord with me, as I am sure it does with a number of underpaid museum employees out there. Yes, being an employee in a museum often means sacrificing financially for a chance to do what you love, but that argument only goes so far. If you did a great job, and a visitor chooses to recognize that, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

In the end, my response would be:

If a museum docent/tour guide/attendant receives a tip from a visitor, they should a) inform the visitor that tips are neither expected nor required and b) that the visitor can offer the tip as a donation to the museum rather than a tip to the individual if they so choose. If the visitor still insists on giving the tip to the docent, then all’s well that end’s well.

What do you think?

Check out what the ladies at Museos Unite think here.

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