Plimoth Plantation cuts veteran staff

Historians in the News

PLYMOUTH - Layoffs blamed on declining admissions and an expected downturn in the tourism industry have decimated the managerial ranks at Plimoth Plantation.

The living history museum announced the layoffs of eight veteran employees after the Plantation closed for the winter earlier this week. A ninth employee opted into the reduction in force as the layoffs unfolded. The reorganization consolidates most of managerial duties under four positions. Two are newly created managerial positions. The museum’s Board of Trustees approved the reorganization at its November meeting.
Director John McDonagh said the layoffs result from a need to reduce the museum’s operating budget by 10 percent and reflects the museum’s commitment to maintaining a powerful, interactive experience for visitors. The eight workers are responsible for much of the content of museum programs and exhibits, but generally have limited interaction with the public.

McDonagh would not name the eight people who lost jobs but did identify their positions. They are: the program manager of the Colonial Interpretation Department, the curator of historical technologies, the associate director for historic landscapes, the associate director for facilities, the curator of museum reproductions, the manager of Colonial wardrobe and textiles, the Colonial foodways manager, the director of museum programs and the administrative assistant for programs.

An employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said the layoffs amount to “a complete decapitation of the program division.” The nine workers represent more than 200 years of combined service to the museum. One of the managers, alone, had been with the Plantation since 1979.

McDonagh acknowledged there is no denying the loss of intellectual capital.

“They provided great service for many years, and we’re grateful and respect the work they gave us,” McDonagh said.

“Many were long-serving professionals here who had risen to management roles. Principally, they have, over the years, brought great value to the mission and our program. We had to look at that layer, that level, because we wanted to protect and preserve of our front line interpreters as much as possible because that’s where the magic happens for visitors,” McDonagh said....

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Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 12/8/2008

This calls attention to a problem in financing non-profit cultural activities such as Plimoth Plantation, that are required to start and end with a zero balance (slightly overstated, of course, but essentially true). When I was Chief Curator at Plimoth Plantation, about twenty years ago, it was necessary every year to put together a coalition of banks to provide an operating loan for the first six months. With the museum closed until April Fools' Day, the budget for the first three months was all expenses and no income. From April through June, income began to cover expenses and pay back the loan. From July through September, income sufficed to pay off the initial loan, cover ongoing expenses, and provide a surplus and basis for predicting the situation in the end of the year. When visitor numbers did not match predictions, budgetary adjustments were needed to reduce losses in the last quarter. The museum closed just after Thanksgiving, leaving one more month with no income from ticket sales. The museum relied for more than 90% on tickets and gift shop sales (which were minimal when the museum was not open). One may assume that income has been less than foreseen, so that to end the year without an unmanageable deficit it has been found necessary to fire all the better-paid managers responsible for maintaining the quality of the museum activities that attract visitors. That saves one month's salaries. Next year's loan for the first three months must appear uncertain now that banks are restricting credit. That bank credit problem probably looms for some other history museums.
So this massive lay-off at Plimoth Plantation can be explained purely by structural problems in the system of financing the museum, without reflecting on any
particular manager's performance at all. The only question in that speculative view would be why none of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program's managers was fired, when all the managers connected with the Pilgrim village and its activities were let go. That there may be a shift in priorities is suggested additionally by the fact that the museum fired its librarian several months ago. Now there is not a single Pilgrim historian at Plimoth Plantation.