University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management

Working environment

Former postdoc: Director of Natural History Museum abused his power

Working environment — As a postdoc at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Paige Madison feels she was gaslighted, suppressed and micromanaged. This is her story.

Three times, Paige Madison, a former postdoc at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, cried in her boss’s office.

Time and again she complained that the work pressure was overwhelming. That she was so burdened with administrative tasks that she had no time for her research. And that things had to change if she was to continue to hold on.

And time and again the boss responded by saying that he was »surprised« that she was dissatisfied. He replied that they had to find a solution to that. But nothing happened.

In the end, Paige Madison chose to resign from her position as a postdoc, half a year before her two-year contract expired. This was in July 2022. Two months later Paige Madison had her last day at the workplace.

The boss was museum director Peter C. Kjærgaard, who is the main character in a critical revelation of the working environment at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, a unit of the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), that has been released by the media Frihedsbrevet.

Here 26 current and former employees spoke out, under anonymity, about a toxic work culture that permitted harassment, bullying, and extreme work pressure. And which was led by a boss who »just doesn’t care«. The media also referred to two workplace assessment reports from 2019 and 2022, which showed that more than a quarter of employees do not think their management is taking responsibility for well-being at the workplace and the psychological working environment.

The University Post has itself been given access to the workplace assessment from 2022, including a large number of detailed comments that several employees have added. To the question ‘are you experiencing problems in the psychological work environment that are not covered by the questions in the workplace assessment from UCPH?‘, about 30 employees made detailed comments. They describe a lack of confidence in, and from, management. A conflicted and stress-affected working environment. And a generally low level of job satisfaction.

READ ALSO: 26 employees: Toxic working environment at Natural History Museum

One of those employees was Paige Madison, who was employed as a postdoc at the Natural History Museum of Denmark from January 2021 to September 2022. She says her time at the museum was »a disaster« and has flown home to the United States, where she currently works as a science journalist.

Complained to the dean

She is therefore ready to stand up and express her criticism, which is directed directly at Peter C. Kjærgaard. In fact, she already complained in October 2022, a few months after she had quit, in an extensive letter about the museum director’s management style to his superior, Dean Katrine Krogh Andersen, Faculty of Science.

Here, on three closely written A4 pages, she explained how Kjærgaard »abused his power« during her time there,  and »placed his own personal gain over my career and well-being,« as she wrote in the complaint.

How can you forget that your employee sat and cried in your office two weeks ago? I felt gaslighted to believe that it was me who had not been clear enough in my communication
Paige Madison, former postdoc, Natural History Museum of Denmark

She claims that Peter C. Kjærgaard micromanaged her, and her colleagues’, work, manipulated her into taking on tasks that were outside her field of expertise as a PhD in history and philosophy, kept her from doing her research, and dismissed her numerous attempts to share how pressured and uncomfortable she was in the roles she was assigned.

The University Post has read both the complaint and the correspondence with Katrine Krogh Andersen that followed it. Here the dean replies that she takes the complaint »very seriously« and has read it »very carefully.«

»Peter is surprised by your complaint. According to him you always expressed joy and enthusiasm for your job and your workplace during your employment,« writes Katrine Krogh Andersen and explains that she sees no reason to »take disciplinary action,« since Paige Madison and Peter C. Kjærgaard have had different views on the employment.

Employees ‘drowning’

The University Post has seen the email correspondence between Paige Madison and her manager at the time. Here she states multiple times that she is under pressure and wants her role to change. Peter C. Kjærgaard rarely replied to these – sometimes he followed up with a verbal reply, other times he ignored her emails, according to Paige Madison.

We have also seen messages to colleagues, friends and an HR employee at the Natural History Museum. Here Paige Madison repeatedly put into words her feeling of burnout and frustration at the lack of intervention from Peter C. Kjærgaard.

»Peter is always ‘surprised’ or ‘shocked’. He can ‘not recognize the picture’. It’s absolutely classic, and I heard it so many times during my time at the Natural History Museum,« says Paige Madison when we talk about the process over the phone.


* Paige Madison was hired as a postdoc at the Natural History Museum from January 2021 to September 2022.

* She has now moved back to the US and works in the company ‘Complexy’ and as a freelance journalist New Scientist and Discover Magazine.

Paige Madison was employed as a postdoc on a research grant linked directly to Peter C. Kjærgaard. During her employment, he often reminded her that she »was employed on his money«, so her time was his, she says.

According to Paige Madison, the agreement was that she would do half research and half museum work during her time at the Natural History Museum. In reality, however, the job turned out to consist almost entirely of museum work — work that Paige Madison neither felt qualified for, nor informed that she would be doing.

She says that during the period she was under extreme pressure, and partly acted as Peter C. Kjærgaard’s personal assistant, partly in charge of difficult museum-related tasks with many deadlines she did not feel able to meet.

»Already, it felt low for a postdoc to only do research for about half the working time, but I had agreed because I was excited about the new museum. But then the actual time was closer to three to five percent of the time spent on research. Almost all my work was in the exhibition department instead, which was probably the department that was most challenged in terms of working environment,« says Paige Madison.

She describes the workplace’s overall situation as »a combination of micromanagement, no management overview, and no support for the employees who were drowning.«

»I have extremely many examples of Peter’s micromanagement. He wanted to be all over it, but he didn’t have time for it. The team in the exhibition department experienced several times that we had been working in a direction that he himself had set out for several months. Suddenly he didn’t like it anyway and told us to scrap everything and start over. We were unable to make progress,« says Paige Madison.

The smartest person in the room

Peter C. Kjærgaard was happy with the work Paige Madison did. He expressed this often, and often when he compared with other colleagues he was less satisfied with.

»He often insisted on being involved in projects he shouldn’t be a part of because he thought he could make things better himself,« says Paige Madison.

For example, the team in the exhibition department worked for several months on a Neanderthal exhibition, where Peter C. Kjærgaard insisted on being a part of it. He was advised by several to take a step back because he didn’t have the time when he was director of the entire museum at the same time, says Paige Madison.

»The result was that, firstly, we had to struggle to even get him to show up for meetings during the six months we worked on the exhibition. It was very difficult to get him to deliver the work he himself insisted on doing,« she says and continues:

»Secondly, he behaved disrespectfully several times towards several of the other employees when, for example, he discarded their work because he thought he could do better. He needs to always be the smartest person in the room. And he wasn’t always like that. His expertise lay in one place, others’ lay elsewhere.«

To the exhibition manager and project manager at the Neanderthal exhibition, Paige Madison writes an email in which she expresses her frustration with Peter C. Kjærgaard’s management style.

»I had a very difficult meeting with Peter today,« she writes and mentions that Peter C. Kjærgaard wanted to change the content of the exhibition and that he insisted on writing the exhibition texts himself because he did not think the preliminary drafts were good enough.

»I have tried to keep him in the loop, but today it became clear to me that I have failed,« she writes to the two middle managers after Peter snapped at her over a deadline that he claimed to not have known about. Expressing frustration with the position she had to take during the period as a messenger between Peter C. Kjærgaard and the rest of the team, she continues:

»I’m clearly not doing it well enough, but I don’t see any other solutions. I no longer worry about my own time, because I have dropped all illusions about doing research and have accepted that this [the Neanderthal exhibition] and the Human Family gallery [the other exhibition Peter and Paige were working on] will take up 100 percent of my working time for the next few months.«

The Frihedsbrevet’s anonymous sources also mention another manager at the Natural History Museum who is criticized for harsh behavior towards his employees. According to Paige Madison, you can name several managers on site who have a problematic management style. But she points to Peter C. Kjærgaard as the primary cause of a poor work culture on site:

»There are many at the Natural History Museum who have managed their leadership role incredibly poorly. But to be completely honest, I think Peter’s management style has made it difficult for them to do things very differently,« she says.

The biggest red flag

The first time Paige Madison drew attention to the fact that she was succumbing to the work pressure was in November 2021. In an email, she writes to Peter C. Kjærgaard and the exhibition manager that she needs »to take a step back« from the tasks she has been assigned, which according to Paige Madison were out of her original line of work and had been promised to be temporary.

»I don’t feel I have the tools to fulfill this role,« she writes and continues: »The pressure is very difficult for me.«

Peter C. Kjærgaard replied to this email and expressed to the former deputy museum director that Paige Madison should be relieved of some of her work duties. The problem was just that nothing happened, says Paige Madison.

»The deputy museum director didn’t answer, and then Peter didn’t do anything more about it. He was completely aware that in the following months I continued in exactly the same way,« says Paige Madison.

The following months can be summed up as a period when Paige Madison several times »begged« both Peter C. Kjærgaard and the bosses under him to be relieved of some of the work tasks she felt she was drowning in.

»I sat several times in Peter’s office and cried. I told how stressed I was that I didn’t sleep at night. He said we should find a solution to it, but it never happened. And every single time I came to him, he was always ‘surprised’ or ‘shocked’ at how bad I was,« says Paige Madison.

In front of others, Peter C. Kjærgaard could also dismiss Paige Madison’s experiences – either laughing off any comments of stress or making comments such as »well, Paige is always stressed.«

»To this day he still insists that I never told him my situation wasn’t working. And that is decidedly untrue. It happened many times, but I specifically remember one time when I came to his office and expressed how stressed I was – in tears. He promised that there would be a change. Nothing happened. When I repeated myself 14 days later, he was again ‘surprised’ and said he had no idea how bad I was,« says Paige Madison. She adds:

»That was probably the biggest red flag. How can you forget that your employee sat and cried in your office two weeks ago? I felt gaslighted to believe that it was me who had not been clear enough in my communication.«

»I don’t want to be silent anymore«

In June 2022, Paige Madison approached an HR employee and discussed her problems with Peter C. Kjærgaard. At the same time, she consulted her colleagues, who advised her to look for another job as soon as possible.

At that time, she and Peter C. Kjærgaard had discussed the possibility of extending her postdoc by another year. In several emails that the University Post has seen, she clearly expressed that her role would have to be significantly renegotiated if she were to stay an extra year.

She was afraid of what consequences it would have for her career to have a controversy with Peter C. Kjærgaard, for example by turning down an extra year as a postdoc and by openly applying for other jobs while she was still employed at SNM.

»I have a good friend who is a professor in the United States. He kept assuring me that it is perfectly normal as a postdoc to look for jobs. Everyone knows how difficult it is to get a job in academia. But Peter made it clear he was not OK with me looking for other, permanent jobs,« she says. And continues:

»My friend said the worst thing that could happen by making an enemy of Peter was that I might no longer be able to get a job in Denmark, but I wasn’t interested in that at the time anyways,« says Paige Madison.

My friend said that the worst thing that could happen by making an enemy of Peter was that I might no longer be able to get a job in Denmark
Paige Madison, tidligere postdoc, SNM

According to Paige Madison, she spoke with Peter C. Kjærgaard about the possibilities of an extension, but since they could not agree on the terms under which Paige Madison should be employed, she ended up resigning from her position in July 2022. She remained relatively quiet about the issues until a few months later, when Katrine Krogh Andersen’s responded to her complaint.

»I was tired of being ignored. I have many followers on X (over 18,000 followers, ed.), and I then wrote a few posts, in which I briefly described how terrible my time as a postdoc at the Natural History Museum had been. I have since deleted them, because they were written in great anger, and they got a lot of attention, which I then needed to withdraw from.«

The University Post has seen the two tweets. In one it says:

»It’s no secret that I didn’t have a good experience as a postdoc in Copenhagen. I felt controlled and exploited by my former supervisor (Peter C. Kjærgaard, ed.), who is also the museum director. The environment felt hostile to feedback and my complaints felt unheard. I don’t want to be silent anymore.«

When Paige Madison read the University Post interview with Katrine Krogh Andersen based on the Frihedsbrevet’s article, she became angry. Because she thinks the dean’s answer is just another attempt to dismiss and neglect the problem.

»She (Katrine Krogh Andersen, ed.) says that there has been ongoing dialogue about the poor working environment and that several measures have been taken to make it better. Which ones? It sounds exactly like all the times I was promised that changes would happen, without anything happening at all,« she says.

She was also both disappointed and angry when she received the dean’s response to her complaint back in October 2022. Because can it really be true that the only thing you do when you receive a complaint of that nature is to ask the man who is reason for the complaint, what he thinks about the matter, she asks.

»It seemed like she didn’t care, and I think it’s a huge shame that it’s just going to be a matter of my word against his.«

Paige Madison believes that those in power must be held accountable. This also applies to Peter C. Kjærgaard.

»For a long time I thought it was all going on in my head and that it was my own fault that I wasn’t heard. Fortunately, I know better now. My career has only gone up after I left Denmark and the Natural History Museum, and this confirms to me how I was held down while I was there. I hope others don’t have to be exposed to the same thing as me.«

Dean’s written response

Both Peter C. Kjærgaard and Katrine Krogh Andersen have been presented with Paige Madison’s criticism. None of them wish to be interviewed. But Katrine Krogh Andersen has returned a written comment.

»As this is a personnel matter, I cannot comment on the substance of the case. But I can say that the matter has been dealt with in accordance with the personnel policy guidelines at UCPH for handling complaints about employees and managers. This means that we, in addition to having dealt with written material in the case, have also heard the other party in the case, Peter C. Kjærgaard,« she writes and continues:

»Without going into the matter further, I would just like to state that here – as in many other cases of this type – are many elements and many different perceptions on the course of events, conversations, etc. It is an unfortunate case and a difficult situation for both sides, and it is understandable that there will be reactions.«

The University Post asked Katrine Krogh Andersen whether she considers it good practice to process a complaint by only asking the accused party about their own experience of the process. And whether it is good practice that such an extensive complaint is reduced to a one-person’s-word-against-another question instead of initiating a more comprehensive investigation. To this Dean Katrine Krogh Andersen replies:

»In relation to the handling of the complaint from Paige Madison, I can inform you that I naturally took the complaint seriously. According to the practice laid down in the UCPH personnel policy guideline on the handling of complaints against employees and managers, the person who is complained about must be made aware of the complaint and have the opportunity to issue a written statement,« she writes and continues:

»In this case, I assessed that since this was a complaint about one of the faculty’s managers, namely museum director Peter C. Kjærgaard, it was not sufficient to just get Peter C. Kjærgaard’s written response. So I myself spoke to Peter C. Kjærgaard about the content of the complaint at a meeting where the head of the faculty’s personnel law unit was also present. At this meeting, we examined the contents of the complaint thoroughly. It was my assessment, and that of the head of the personnel law unit, that there were no grounds for launching further investigations.«