Interview with visiting scholar Léonie Hénaut

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Over the past few months, ARAD has enjoyed the company of visiting scholar Léonie Hénaut. Hénaut is an Associate Professor at the National Center for Scientific Research, and a member of the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at Sciences Po in Paris. She is also a permanent faculty member of Science Po’s Department of Sociology. Hénaut received a BA, MA, and PhD in Sociology from University Paris 8, and her BA in Art History from the Ecole du Louvre. Her personal webpage and publications are available here.

Hénaut studies work, occupations and organizations. Her primary focus is on professionalization and organizational rationalization, and how the two processes interact with each other and transform the division of labor. During her time with ARAD, she has been working on her book project on museums in the U.S., provisionally titled “The Rise of Pluri-Professionalism: Transforming the Division of Labor in American Museums.” The book documents the shift of museums toward an increasingly diverse set of knowledge-based occupations in addition to traditional curators.

Hénaut shared more details about her work with Sunny Leerasanthanah, ARAD 19.

Read the full interview transcript below!

Q: Could you tell me about the project you’re working on at TC?

I do Sociology of occupation. I’m working on the transformation of work in the American museum. It’s part of a larger project which involves different units, and is part of my research career. I completed my PhD in Sociology on the professions of conservators. I use an ecological approach as opposed to a singular occupation study. According to the theoretical framework I am using, to understand the occupational dynamic, you need not only to study one group but the whole ecology of the different occupations working in the same field. With the idea that first they are competing for the control over the tasks, over the definitions over the tasks and the mission of the organization or the museum. What is the museum? Is it a place where you conserve artwork? To show it to people? A place where you study artwork? It doesn’t appear like these are competing goals, but in daily life they are competing. It’s a mix of competition and collaboration in the workplace, and this is why I am interested in the ecology of professions.

So this is my project: to study the transformation of the division of labor using this ecological approach. What I call grounded approach, meaning that I am interested in the actual work that people are doing, what work arrangements they have, as opposed to a more rhetoric discourse. Because the other approach is to study what are the discourses they are producing as a group, the claims they are making to claim their expertise or their superiority in their area of tasks.

So this mix of competition and cooperation, you can look at it in the workplace level as well as in the occupational group level. The division of labor is often a hierarchical one, where curators are on the top, having the most knowledge in the collection. They have the say in what the exhibition is going to be about, what works, and what will be on display. And since the 60’s and 70’s, there has a been a growth of other occupations around the curator. It’s not like they didn’t exist, because there was work in education, design, development, membership, and marketing, but it was not as professionized as knowledge based occupations as they are now so this requires higher qualifications. I will work on the statistical data from the Census Bureau from the 90’s up until today, covering 25 years. We can see that there have been more and more people in fields like development and design. I am interested in the transformation of the division of labor and the transformation of museums into multi-occupational organizations and I am interested in how it happened. What changed for the museum and what changed for the public?


Q: You mentioned you are researching American museums in particular. Is there something about the history, or ideology or professionalization of American museums that is culturally different that strikes your interest?

The sociology of France and the U.S. are often compared as counterpoints. When I was doing my PhD examining art conservators I was already looking at U.S. counterparts with U.S. art conservators. How they became professionalized with university training in this line of work, and the difference of paths they took was very striking. To be short, we can say that all of them have been following professionalization processes, but the features are very different. The French gained a form of closure of the museum market: to work on a museum collection you have to have a certain degree. It’s the best form of ideal recognition, to have a form of closure. But the U.S. doesn’t have that, they gain a lot of recognition through the creation within the museum, conservations departments, laboratories, and staff. While in France, they do not have conservator staff, they rely on contractors. The U.S. also has contractors, but often in-house conservators. It’s good for theoretical thinking to compare different countries.

Another comparison between the U.S. and France is that largely museums in France are publicly funded and publicly owned. We don’t have trustees. It is only recently that memberships and development work has been introduced. I am fascinated by how what was happening in art museums in the 60’s here in America is now happening in France. At first the project was a comparative one, but there are too many factors to compare, for example the size of the organizations are very different. The average museum in France is very small and only has 4 to 5 staff members including the guards and curators. Since I am interested in the division of labor, it is not an ideal terrain to study. Unless you think of the exceptions like the Louvre or the Pompidou. In contrast, in U.S. museums there are often 50 to 100 staff members, from the directors to the board of trustees.

Not only am I interested in American museums because of the size, but also because of the changes in the museums. In France, it is still very hierarchal with the single-occupational model with the curator being the dominant figure of the museum, or the “leading role” while other occupations are the “supporting role”. While the American museum still has hierarchy it has growth in occupations. The Natural History Museum is where the authority of curators are being challenged. They are part of the team, and they are there to provide content, to give research. Everyone has an equal voice and they work together to create an exhibition. The content, the look, the advertising campaign, everything is teamwork.

There however is a second museum model, one where the curator is removed from the exhibition work but they are still highly recognized as scholars. Using the example of the Natural History Museum, there are people who work on the exhibition, the education, and encouraging more people to visit, and the curators write papers and books and have a good academic life. But they are maybe more similar to people working at universities than what a curator looks like. I am specifically interested in the teamwork model.

I identified several places, doing fieldwork, interviewing people, observing galleries, looking at archives and annual reports from several decades. And the finding is a lot about how the implementation of the new teamwork arrangement is regulatory of the transfer of tension of management from the top, the director, to the workers themselves. It used to be that the director dealt with the hybridity of the museum, as the place that produces knowledge and provides the population with good arts educational services. It used to be the director that reconciled these differences and reassured constituencies that the museum was the best place where you can do all these things together. But the staff was siloed where they worked in their own areas except in inter-departmental circumstances. It is one-on-one collaboration, such as the curator calling the registrar to ask about the insurance of the objects.

With the implementation of teamwork, where everyone sits at the table, my interpretation is that the management has been transferred to the workers. It is the workers that have to manage the complexity of the organization. So, the curator makes a pitch of an idea, and the education person says, ok, but what is in it for the visitors? Then the development person says ok, but I can’t raise money for this project, so we need to make it more like this or that. These meetings are very productive, because in the end, after several months or years, they culminate in exhibitions yet everyone is talking about the tension. It takes a lot of time and energy as the staff is always challenged in every meeting, whereas things used to be peaceful when they were siloed.

So my argument is that making museums or arts organizations or knowledge-based organizations a collaborative, multi-occupational workplace, means also putting a lot of pressure on the workers, making them do work, and reconcile the tensions of the organization, which is core to the organization.


Thanks for chatting with us Léonie!

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