This week I received a copy of Museums and Creative Aging: A Healthful Partnership, 70 free, downloadable pages published by AAM. In a post-COVID world, you may have enough on your plate. After all, there’s reopening your site, decolonizing your collection, and the undoing decades of subtle and not so subtle systemic racism, not to mention summer’s frightening temperatures, drought and hurricanes, to remind us of climate change. Should you really have to worry about the over-55’s starting to populate your galleries and heritage sites once again? Well, no, you don’t have to, but you’ll miss out. For one thing Museums and Creative Aging is written by Marjorie Schwarzer. If you haven’t read her Riches, Rivals and Radicals: 100 Years of the Museum in America, you should. She’s the real deal, a writer who can construct a great sentence, while also telling you what you need to know.
Schwarzer focuses on four areas, so if 14 months of lockdown has eroded your attention span, go directly to the Executive Summary where you’ll discover the report breaks down into four sections: Aging and Ageism in American Society; followed by chapters on Positive Aging, Case Studies, and Lessons Learned. It concludes with a call to action for the field. I read the first chapter on “Aging and Ageism” feeling a little aggrieved, convinced that Schwarzer wouldn’t mention the museum workplace or issues of gender. I was wrong. She gently, yet emphatically, makes the point that problems in society also show up in our boards of trustees, volunteer groups and offices. The chapter is peppered with unnerving data like the fact that by 2035 there will be more adults over 65 in the United States than children, not to mention that even though overall life expectancy for today’s children is still below 80, most, according to Brookings, will exceed that, many living into the next century. Schwarzer touches, however, briefly, on the fact that aging and gender are inextricably intwined–women generally live longer than men–that society’s focus on youthfulness pressures women in the workplace in ways men don’t experience, forcing women to conform to youthful stereotypes. And although she doesn’t directly reference it, the ongoing gender pay gap keeps women in the workforce longer than necessary were salaries more equitable.
While I understand and applaud the importance of this report, both in terms of what museums do and who they serve, I would love to see Schwarzer turn her lens toward the museum workplace. Yes, the museum world’s struggles represent many of the same struggles found in the American workplace writ large, but they are confounded by organizations and leadership who fail to put staff first, who fail to offer basic personnel policies, whose board members use their perceived personal power to take advantage of staff, and on and on. And, like other work sectors, many of our workplace problems–and leadership problems–aren’t one thing. They are, in fact, intersectional. For example, Schwarzer makes the point that many of today’s LGBTQ+ elders face additional struggles because they came of age when support systems were flimsy and role models non-existent. So if you’re a person of color, over 60, LGBTQ+, and identify as female, how many different pathways for hatred, fear or simple dismissal can you experience? And how does that affect your ability to come to work each day and be your best most productive self, wherever you work in a museum or heritage organization? And as a leader, how do you make sure a person whose identity is varied and intersectional–an individual many say they want on their teams–is safe, seen and supported?
Maybe it’s just me, but almost daily I experience a schism in the museum world. On the one hand there are angry, hurt, demeaned museum workers, whose stories appear on @changethemuseum and in commentary from Museum Workers Speak, the Equity Coalition, Museum Hue, and GEMM. Those support/special interest groups, and there are more, all formed in the last decade in an effort to address particular issues within the 135,000 museum workforce. (Just an FYI, that figure is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for May 2021. It represents an increase over January 2021, but still lags significantly behind December of 2019 when the number was 177,200.) Yet when many of those same folks come together tomorrow for AAM’s annual meeting, will there be a focus on workplace issues? There are a million problems (not to mention successes) affecting museums and heritage organizations from the outside, all in need of understanding, but wouldn’t it be helpful to turn the lens on staff once in a while? To draw on the expertise of all the people working to support museum workers wherever and whoever they are? Just a thought.
Suddenly it’s summer. Stay well, stay cool, and be kind.
Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to pause and reflect, what we see are intersections. That’s what happened to me this week. It’s a year since George Floyd was murdered, 12 months for many of us spent on re-centering, on understanding that seeing ourselves as nice and not racist was never enough, and that in a world where white is “normal” and everything else is “other,” action is necessary for change. And change, however small or local, is still change. So on the eve of the George Floyd anniversary, I had the honor of listening to a group of high school students report from their 20/21 history class. Although, like everything else these days, the presentation took place on Zoom, in reality, it took place at Salisbury School, an independent boys boarding school in northwestern Connecticut, and in local archives, hiking trails and towns in Litchfield County, CT.
If you spend time around high school students, yours or someone else’s, you quickly realize teenage boys and history aren’t always a natural fit. This class was titled “Searching for Slavery in Salisbury,” and taught by Rhonan Mokriski. What I witnessed was the premiere of the student film “Coloring Our Past,” which focuses on local Black history and the Cesar family in particular, but also on the way the boys learned American history in elementary and middle school. After the screening, there was a discussion where the students and viewers like me were joined by members of the Cesar family including their matriarch and family historian, Katherine Overton.
Ms. Overton’s family has the distinction of being able to trace its roots back five generations in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut to Overton’s fifth great grandfather, Timothy, who fought in the Revolutionary War, and Titus, who is buried in Town Hill Cemetery, Lakeville, CT. If you’ve watched any of Henry Louis Gates’ series Finding Your Roots you know how rare it is for a Black family to have a history that doesn’t dead-end in enslavement. The Cesars are that family, landowners, farmers, and business people, who sent Rae Ellen Williams to Howard University in 1936, launching their descendants away from the tiny pocket of Connecticut where they’d lived for generations.
As important as that narrative is, much of it researched by Overton herself, that’s not what made the Thursday evening Zoom so distinctive. First, it was the privilege of listening to Overton’s family. On the Zoom screen were tiny grandchildren, teens who had helped with some of the filming, cousins, sons and daughters. There was a lot of laughter, and a few tears. Even though we were outsiders, we were present for their reaction to a film about their family, a gift to them, but also for us as witnesses. After a year marked by a murder seen around the world, here were 10 minutes of reparation shared when a high school history class attempted to undo the missteps of standard American social studies, not to mention your basic All-American racism and implicit bias.
This week on Krista Tibbet’s “On Being,”former poet laureate Tracy Smith talks about asking white readers to observe, listen, eavesdrop and reflect. One of the things she says is “As a Black person in America — as anyone who’s not white, in America — you know what it feels like to be the unintended audience of something and to have to bend your ears in a certain way to accept and deal properly with a statement that isn’t intended for you but that implicates you in some way. This is a skill. And this is a skill that it’s time for those in the community of whiteness to embrace, because, like I said, I think the salvation of our culture — and I don’t really think that’s an exaggerated term — depends on that kind of expanded awareness of self, of place, of where we are and what we’re doing here together.” I can’t speak for everyone on the Zoom, but I became a listener to a history I had no active part in, and yet I couldn’t help but think how the threads of my own family narrative and others like mine imprinted families like the Cesars.
The second thing that was so powerful was that this was history in action. A lot of museum folk talk about making history real, but too often that means actor-like guides or labels filled with questions rather than facts. I doubt any of the boys in the class will become historians, but I bet 50 years from now they will still be able to recall their feelings when they hiked to George Cesar’s farm site with their classmates and a metal detector or when they placed a Witness Stone dedicated to writer and abolitionist, James Mars on the Green in nearby Norfolk, CT and were greeted by Connecticut’s first Black Congresswoman Jahana Hayes. They didn’t just learn history, they were historians. They were participants.
There is a line in Allen Bennett’s play The History Boys that goes, “How do I define history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another.” This class, their film, the witness stone, and the other place-based work they did, took them away from learning the long list of stories we call history by making them story tellers, changing them from passive to active. Did they get a five on their AP U.S. history? I don’t know, and honestly I don’t care because they have an experience of doing history which is very different from studying for the AP.
I don’t work in a history museum or historic site any more, and since the collection I manage is largely art-based, I rarely do history exhibits. But if there is a lesson here, it’s what experiential educators the world over know: That we remember what we do, more than what we’re told. There are many museums and heritage organizations that help visitors understand history not as something they read on the walls, but in personal ways, making them part of the narrative. Think of Eastern State Penitentiary’s opening question, Old Salem Museum & Garden’s Hidden Town Project or the way Matilda Joslyn Gage’s house chose not to be another suffocating collection of 19th-century furniture, and instead asks visitors to talk about complicated questions surrounding religion, Indigenous people and women’s rights.
Burbling beneath the surface of American public education is an ongoing argument some have termed “the social studies wars,” pitting those who see teaching history as an opportunity to delve into the country’s complicated past, opposite those who think the “The 1619 Project” is dangerous and divisive. No matter who’s right, there is a generation who are abysmally ignorant about democracy in general and American democracy in particular. So many of our museums and heritage organizations, whether the proverbial wealthy white man’s home, the site of a social experiment or a memorial to carnage and disaster, offer us a window into how people thought and what they thought about. Those are bridges to conversation about how we reached this moment, to a group of high school boys, who learned a version of local history that left everyone out who wasn’t white.
At the end of the Searching for Slavery Zoom someone asked Rhonan Mokriski what he thought. He wiped his eyes, struggling to keep his emotions under control. After thanking everyone, from Katherine Overton and her family to his students and his school, he said he thought he saw change. That maybe, just maybe, this generation would be the doers and the change makers. It was a spark of hope at the end of a long year.
Sometimes it’s better to make change where we can then to rail at the world. As museum and heritage organization people, what can we do to follow these students’ example?
How many of us know a museum where the mantra–even in this post-COVID reawakening–is one of can’t, meaning an absence of resources prevents the organization from changing? It’s a mindset that’s riddled museums and heritage organizations for decades, often those founded in a great rush of concern around preserving a particular building, event or individual collection. What begins as promise, excitement, and hope devolves into a culture of “Well we can’t (you fill in the verb here) because this is the way we’ve always done it.” The result is museums turned inward rather than out, clinging to the familiar rather than walking a path toward change. In this kind of culture, struggle and sacrifice become virtues. Doing without, frenetically working to maintain a mediocrity no one cares about becomes the norm, inverting healthy museum behavior. Instead, work becomes a virtue, and in the worst cases, a loyalty test. It’s brutal, and it’s unhealthy both organizationally and individually.
Don’t get me wrong. Even paranoids have enemies. As the country emerges from the pandemic and the concurrent economic downturn, many museums and heritage organizations, opening their doors for the first time, have more than enough PTSD to go around. And, if we’re to believe AAM’s studies, one in three of them will find themselves working through the myriad state regulations in order to close rather than grow. But one of COVID’s counter-intuitive blessings is that it’s given all of us a hinge moment, a fork in the road, an opportunity to ditch what didn’t work and start again differently.
Do you work in an organization where scarcity is the love language? How has it affected you? And by that I don’t mean are you underpaid or under-benefited? That’s another blog post. What I mean is has that culture started to affect you as a person? Have you developed a kind of “Don’t worry about me, if I fall, I fall” philosophy? How’s that working for you? When you read yet another piece about self care, do you secretly think, “Well, that’s not for us. We simply have too much on our plate?”
And yet who among us doesn’t benefit from a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, good nutrition, close friends, great music, laughter, you name it, all the things that refresh, recharge and sustain us. And sustaining us–leaders and their museum, archive and heritage teams–is key to building organizations better able to respond, rebuild, and change now we’ve arrived at the post-COVID fork in the road. So if you’re a leader of a museum or leading a museum team or program, consider the following:
- Do away with running on empty and acknowledge the importance of time spent on self: Spend five minutes in a staff meeting and ask everyone to report one thing they’ve done that counts as self-care.
- Are you and your team drinking enough? No, not the after work kind, the hydration kind. Sounds dumb, but adults often don’t drink enough. Hydration affects mood, memory and attention. Many sites have closed water fountains because of COVID. Sitting down for a meeting? Provide water.
- Vacation: Make it happen. No need to reiterate that it’s been a difficult and challenging year. For many Summer 2020 was either spent worrying in Zoom meetings or trying (and failing) to open or reopen. Americans are among the most overworked people in the world. If your organization offers paid vacation, make sure you (and your team)take what’s coming to them.
- Don’t forget to mentor or just engage with colleagues. Research shows that helping others, being empathetic, engaging in active listening as opposed to quick fixes, helps you as well.
- Take a moment: It’s almost summer. Go outside. As masks come off, plenty of folks are still experiencing COVID anxiety. Having a walking meeting or meeting outside may do your team a world of good.
- Don’t forget about you. It’s easy for leaders to model behavior they don’t actually follow themselves–to ask after their team’s well being, to empathize, to advocate for personal time, to make sure they leave in time for the final soccer game, kindergarten graduation, whatever, but harder to advocate for themselves. Try not to leave yourself out. There’s no virtue in a leader who’s chronically tired and emotionally drained.
Staying at work for 12-hour days is not a guarantee of productivity. Sometimes we just need to press pause. We all contribute–to our relationships, workplaces, and families–and to be good contributors we need to care for ourselves. That means making time to stop. A colleague, who’s a busy parent to three small humans, told me one of her new practices is rather than saying “Oh crap, I need to clean the bathroom,” she now sets her timer for 15 minutes, and does as much cleaning as she can before the timer goes off. That can work for self care too. Take 15 minutes and do what you need to do even if it’s nothing. You’ll be better for it, and maybe you’ll start to break the facade of self-sacrifice at your organization.
Be well, stay safe.
It is more than a decade since Anne Ackerson and I started working on Leadership Matters (2012), and so much is very, very different. We have long since ceased being the only voices calling for leadership reform in museums and heritage organizations. There are innumerable virtual and actual groups, supporting museum workers, and calling for change. The eight organizations operating under the Collective Liberation mantle are awesome examples of new groups doing great work. And that’s wonderful. One thing that remains the same, however, is leadership itself, how it’s taught and how it’s learned personally, organizationally, and through service organizations and in graduate programs.
Years ago I served on AAM’s annual meeting program committee. The year I participated, Anne and I also had a session proposal before the committee. That meant I had to leave the room during its discussion. Our session squeaked through, but not without comments on whether talking about museum work was really what AAM’s annual meeting was about. I am eternally grateful to the voices in the room who pushed our session through. Not because we needed to speak, but because the field needs to examine the way it works, and museum and heritage organization workers need AAM’s support–if only tacitly–in knowing talking about work is important. Change can’t happen until we acknowledge the problem. And talking about workplace issues is an acknowledgement that all is not Nirvana in museumland.
As I’ve mentioned many times here, Anne and I teach a course on museum leadership in Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies program. Hopkins is one of many museum studies master’s programs, but I’ll wager it is among a much smaller group offering leadership courses as part of museum studies. And there is an even tinier group that actually makes leadership a lynch pin of their programs. Why? I do not know. There are decades of examples of both great museum leadership and the truly horrific kind to remind us it isn’t just the collections or the historic buildings that make a great museum. It’s leadership.
Perhaps it’s not true any more, but for decades people were drawn to museum work because of the stuff: the art, the historic buildings, the textiles, the science, sculpture, jewelry, technology and pottery. What other career gives you the privilege of immersing yourself in creativity, invention, and discovery, in other places and times, as teacher, scholar or interpreter? And yet, if you’re successful, you quickly find yourself distanced from the very objects that attracted you in the first place. Instead, you manage people, people with needs, workplace quirks, illness, small children, elderly relations, and strident beliefs. It’s a different ballgame, and it’s leadership warts and all.
Leadership is about human relationships. You may find yourself as a leader at work, but a follower in the organization where you volunteer. Or the reverse may be true. No matter which side of the equation you sit on, leader or follower, it’s a truth you experience. Because of that, fixing what’s wrong belongs to all of us. It’s not the sole job of unions or boards of trustees, AAM, AASLH or AAMD. Each of us has a role, and a contribution to make, and unless and until there is a moment when museum governance as we currently know it ends, to be replaced by something completely different, then no single entity can wave a wand and end decades of genteel racism, gender stereotyping, patriarchal behavior and on and on. That’s why both volumes of Leadership Matters end with a Leadership Agenda, a list of directives for individuals, institutions, professional organizations, graduate programs and funders. Here is a sampling from each category:
- For Individuals: Seek opportunities to take new leadership responsibility in order to grow and expand skills. Practice new learning whenever you can. Prepare for serendipity.
- For Institutions: Realize that it is not your job to maintain the status quo. The job of institutions and their leaders is to make a difference.
- For Professional Associations: Insist on competitive, equitable pay and benefits to attract and retain great staff, institutional support of the emerging leader and the lone professional, and diversification of governing boards.
- For Graduate Programs: Create programs specifically for leadership development.
- For Funders: Promote hiring practices that eradicate exclusion, champion equity in hiring, promotion, access to leadership opportunities through collaboration with graduate programs and allied associations.
If solving the museum world’s leadership problems is something you care about, there are many more, and they are worth taking a look at. You can find the entire Leadership Revolution Agenda above. Which brings me to this: In December I plan to end this blog. I started it to promote our first edition of Leadership Matters in 2013, and it has challenged me, stretched me, helped me think things through, and, I hope, helped some of you as you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the museum workplace. In the next six months, if there are topics you wish I’d write about, let me know. And if there is an blog post in your brain bursting to get out, let me know as well. Leadership Matters has a tradition of hosting guest bloggers so send a writing sample and your ideas.
In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, be kind.
It’s not a secret that I’m pretty Type A. I’m a list maker. My lists sprout sublists like weeds. I like to do things in order. The strikeout feature makes my heart go pitter pat. I’m a planner, and I always have a Plan B, and sometimes a C or D. But, surprise, surprise, that’s not the way everyone works.
These days– in my world at least– it is performance review season, the time of year when leaders try to knit together organizational mission with a job’s essential functions and, most importantly, with the actual human assigned to make them a reality. That is, of course, where the rubber meets the road. Job descriptions are written for unicorns, folks who don’t have bad days, baggage, health issues or workplace conflicts. Yet somehow, as leaders, when doing performance reviews, we need to figure out how all these paths intersect, while also bearing in mind that for the last 12 months or longer many staff have worked at home in their fuzzy slippers, interacting with colleagues infrequently except on a screen. It’s a tall order.
Like many things in the museum workplace, performance reviews are a vestige from another time and another place. They percolated into the museum and nonprofit world from business. There, they were–and in many places still are– boss-driven, and often used to negotiate raises or promotions, making it less about job performance per se then a given staff member’s negotiating skills. Given our post-pandemic world, the idea of museum staff meeting with their director or team leader annually to negotiate a raise as if that were normal is a little laughable . But are leaders still evaluating performance every 12 months? Maybe it’s time to re-think that model?
A number of big companies have moved away from annual one-on-one meetings with “the boss” in favor of team feedback from a selected group of colleagues. A team member identifies their group of feedback providers. They are approved by their leader, and over the course of a year, they offer feedback often as part of project postmortems. Comments are candid, face-to-face, and yet highly structured. Oh, and one more thing: all feedback is equally weighted. Yup, your leader, your co-worker, and your partner from another department all offer equal comments. So that’s life in a gazillion dollar company like Google or Netflix. What about where you work?
The first question: Do you do performance evaluations or not? If not, why not? Not enough time? Or does it seem like you’re in touch with your team so frequently you don’t feel the need? If you do, is it a once-a-year meeting? And what’s the goal? Is there a complicated alchemy that involves braiding museum mission, essential job functions and individual performance together? Or is it–God forbid–a brief session that opens with praise and ends with scolding? And how do you evaluate those with repetitive tasks? Unlike, say, Google–or at least the way I imagine work at Google–there’s a lot about library, archives, and museum work that has a Cinderella-like quality. It’s never done. You gather community advisors, and create a program. You implement, evaluate and then do it again. Ditto for collections where stuff arrives, it’s processed, catalogued, conserved, stored, before the process repeats. The way people do these tasks is entirely individual, and yet the goals are collective.
If you’re doing performance evaluations now or plan to do them in the future, here are some things to consider:
- This remains a challenging time. Consider using the performance review process to touch base with the fundamentals like your organizational mission statement, your value statement, your departmental goals. Hopefully your discussion will help staff see themselves as an integral part of a larger whole, not someone about to be “gotcha-ed” after a year of fast pivoting.
- Talk about individual goals. The last 12 months have tried us all. Work was disrupted. What new muscles has your team developed? Patience? Compassion? Empathy? Collaboration?
- Talk about DEI. Was your organization part of the wave of museums, archives and galleries who wrote anti-racist statements post George Floyd? How did that play out in real life? Individually and museum-wide? Did it affect your staff or not? Why?
- Recognize and grapple with your own biases–not just about race, and gender, although those are huge, but also about work style. If you are a list-maker like me, evaluating the performance of a last-minute, by-the-seat-of-the-pants high performer, can you set your own work style aside? It’s not the model with everything else as “other.” It’s simply the easiest way for you to work, but clearly it’s not the preferred style for everyone on your team.
- Ask what are the top three things your team member would like to change in the coming year?
- Say thank you.
- If the entire job performance review process seems hinky and unwieldy, consider a re-evaluation for next year.
One last thought. No one likes the uncomfortable conversations around poor performance, but it is unfair and inequitable to fail to be transparent when work consistently goes wrong. Your staff feel as though they never get things right, which is punishing. People want to come to work, do a good job, and be recognized for doing a good job. It’s hard to do that if the guard rails for “good” performance are mushy or keep changing. However you choose to do performance evaluations–as a team, as an individual–make sure the expectations are clear. Your staff will thank you.
Be well. Stay safe.
This year my team participated in a series of “Community Conversations,” designed to help us talk to each other. Why? Well, like everything there is a back story. Since the spring of 2018 when our last permanent director resigned, we’ve been like foster children, passed from one leadership situation to another. It didn’t do a lot for our ability to get along. Let me be clear, though. What suffered wasn’t the work. We were good at what we’re trained to do. What suffered was the connective tissue, the getting along with folks, the trust, and the good humor, that allows a team to do more than complete a task. We were good at hiding petty issues from the community we serve, but backstage it could be rough.
My interim leadership ends this summer when our new director arrives. Like someone preparing for a 5K after a long period of inactivity, we’ve spent the last 10 months dedicating ourselves to getting ready for new leadership. We created a series of community values: patience, empathy, mutual respect, transparency, mutual support, and inclusion. We’re now using those values as themes in team meeting agendas, and they will also be front and center in this month’s performance reviews. And, as I mentioned, we’ve worked on communication and trust through the community conversations, bi-weekly chats in randomly assigned pairs to talk about our goals, both personal and professional. These are 30 minutes of work-sanctioned time to hit pause, put the dip stick down, and talk about how the last two weeks went. Did you succeed? If not, why not? Does your goal need tweaking? One person actively listens, while the other talks. What’s active listening? It’s being there. It’s mirroring what’s heard, It’s not trying to fix anything. It’s simply being there for someone else. Sounds almost too good to be true, right?
So what do team values and conversation in pairs have to do with gratitude? Gratitude is the expression of appreciation for what we have. There are plenty of blogs and articles reminding us to be grateful for our good health, our families, our paychecks, and that’s great, but even if you spend your entire commute to work reminding yourself how lucky you are, it won’t help if your work relationships are suffering. In fact, it’s hard to be grateful if you’re miserable at work. You’re isolated, and your partner’s sick of listening to you bitch when you come home. Perhaps you’re underpaid, perhaps under-resourced, and maybe under-appreciated. What do you have to be grateful for? Well, maybe nothing. Maybe your leader and your organization doesn’t realize how important gratitude is.
I worked briefly for an individual who always thanked me, not in a big showy way, but in a little, folded note, written in handwriting that looked like something from the Bronte sisters. They would arrive late, left on my desk or in my mailbox for the next morning. He never staged thank you’s in front of my co-workers, so they never were about him, the person doing the thanking. They were about me. He took the time and wrote to me. Personally. It was a boost, what former Avis CEO Robert Townsend called “A neglected form of compensation.” (Don’t let your hair go on fire here. I’m not suggesting personal thank you notes in lieu of decent pay.) But I am suggesting that a simple expression of thanks–authentically directed at a coworker– builds the kind of team we all want. Because as we say on our campus, we all want to be safe, seen and supported.
The museum world is in a tough spot at the moment. There is a big revenue gap. Who knows whether visitors will come back. Staffs have been cut. Many staff do more than one job. Most organizations won’t see a raise this year. But gratitude for the team you work with, their creativity, their energy, their devotion, doesn’t cost anything except your time. Don’t just think about writing a note, do it. A thanks doesn’t have to be big or expensive. It’s probably better if it’s not.
Gratitude generates social capital. It makes us seem more trusting, more appreciative, and kinder. As a result, it makes us happier. In a 2020 study–well into the pandemic–only one in three Americans reported being recognized for their workplace successes, and yet 63-percent of those who are recognized are more likely to stay and not quit their jobs.
Gratitude is a practice. It takes time to nurture. Translate your feeling of thanks into action and let your colleagues know. And if you need a boost, listen to Brené Brown on gratitude.
It’s been awhile, but I think it’s time to talk about salaries again. This morning I spent some time searching this blog for articles I’ve written about museum pay, from the gender pay gap, to the leadership pay gap, to questions about museum jobs and a living wage. What’s horrifying isn’t that I wrote so many, (I did) it’s that in 2016 the issues I outlined were more or less the same as today–inadequate salaries, gender pay gap, huge gaps between director’s pay and lowest paid FT staff, and lousy benefits–minus of course the pandemic, and the fact that AAM’s recent survey tells us COVID will devastate the field a second time, as it predicts 20-percent of us will leave the field entirely by 2024.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which released its findings this month, sounds less dire than AAM. For one thing, the BLS looks backward to project forward so we will need to wait ’til next April to fully understand the depth and breadth of COVID’s damage. In addition, the BLS only looks at numbers. It doesn’t ask the museum world how it feels about work, only who is employed, and if yes, doing what? According to the BLS “Overall employment of archivists, curators, museum technicians, and conservators is projected to grow 11 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations.” It projects 4,500 openings annually over the next decade, adding cryptically “Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire. Candidates seeking archivist, curator, museum technician, or conservator jobs should expect competition because of the high number of qualified applicants per job opening. Jobseekers with highly specialized training, a master’s degree, and internship or volunteer experience should have the best job prospects.” And all this for a median salary of $52,140, and the knowledge that if you are working full time and making less than $30,460, you are in the lowest 10-percent, and if you’re making more than $91,800, you are in the top 10-percent.
One of the lessons I’ve tried to internalize since George Floyd’s murder is that we white people of privilege are good at blathering, meaning we can latch onto an idea, sound like we understand, but don’t actually do anything. One of my own promises has been to say less and do more, to–in fact–do the work. (I do acknowledge the irony of any blogger saying they are going to say less, but I have a life outside these pages.) So I understand if you’re a museum leader whose heritage site or museum has recently opened. After months of lockdowns and false starts, it probably sets your hair on fire to think about salary equity when you’re up nights worrying about whether your organization will stay solvent through the summer. Everyone can grumble about directors’ salaries at the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art or the Museum of Natural History, but unless you work at MoMA, Glenn Lowry’s $4,130,549 salary, isn’t your worry. Your worry is your own director’s salary, those of your leadership, and most importantly those of your staff because until salaries and salary equity are a regular and necessary topic of conversation, there won’t be change.
Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who deaccessioning purists pilloried for his efforts to raise BMA staff wages by raising money through deaccessioning has in fact, managed to raise his lowest staff wages to $15/hour four years ahead of Maryland’s minimum wage change over. BMA has also announced that Johnnetta Betsch Cole, the former director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the former president of Spelman College who joined the museum as pro bono special counsel last spring, will establish an in-house task force on equity. Not everyone has the resources to take such bold action, but anyone who is a museum leader can start the discussion at the board and leadership level. Some things to consider:
- Give your board some context: Are they aware what your state’s living wage is? Where are your museum’s lowest FT wages in comparison? Where are your hourly earners’ wages?
- And where are your museum or heritage organization’s salaries in terms of the museum field? Does your board see and regularly discuss AAM’s salary survey? Do they understand that while they are responsible for hiring the museum leader, money allotted for salaries for the rest of the staff has a direct affect on an organization’s DNA?
- COVID isn’t just an epidemic: Has your board read and discussed AAM’s COVID survey results?
- Salaries have meaning: Has your board talked–really talked about the meaning of salaries–how if you are a Black woman and making 63-cents on the White man’s dollar, that not only do you take home less, your organization is complicit in saying you are worth less?
- Staff matters, people matter. Do you talk about your staff with your board? Do you talk about them as contributors and what that looks like? Does your board have opportunities to meet staff and hear from them first hand?
- Does your board see itself as part of a larger firmament, a museum-world currently threatened by a significant brain drain if one-fifth of the workforce walks away?
I am not saying any of this is easy. I once had a board member pivot in his chair so I spent the rest of a meeting about staff salaries staring at his back after I suggested our organization’s location was a theme park for the wealthy and thus challenging for staff making less than $15/hour to find housing. Regrettably, change takes time. Salaries render in cold hard cash what we think of the work we do, the people who do it, and they way we place people in racial and gender hierarchies. I want to acknowledge the many individuals and groups–not least of which is Museum Workers Speak— who continue to make museum wages an ongoing topic of discussion. AAM has done such good work helping us understand the workplace post-COVID, but one of the actions it could take would be to follow the American Library Association in endorsing a living wage for all museum workers.
When I first tackled this subject more than five years ago, I felt like I was ranting alone. But while it’s important to draw attention to the museum field’s systemic issues, it’s also important for museum leaders to look to putting their own houses in order. Until we put wages on the table and start educating our public, our boards, and ourselves that salaries are a political, cultural and social choice this will remain a difficult issue for the field.
Two weeks ago I gave a shout out to AAM for its data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, but I encourage everyone to download the whole report. It’s free, and your staff, your board, your team, and your volunteers should see it. In a crisis–at least on the back side of a crisis–it’s important to understand what happened, and how your experience, organizationally and personally, fits into the larger picture. So maybe arrange some COVID chats to discuss the similarities and differences in your own situation to the larger picture. From students, to museum employees of color, to women, to consultants, there is little the report leaves out.
One nugget? Forty-eight percent of the respondents reported they had increased workload, while nine-percent saw their salaries decrease. And, no surprise, women are far more burned out and disillusioned than their male colleagues. Is it any wonder the museum field is in a bad place right now? One bright spot: it’s comforting to know that among the 2,666 respondents, their greatest concern was for their colleagues, this from a group with increased anxiety and depression. So, once again, kudos to AAM. Illness, fear, and the economics of COVID were and are isolating. In helping the museum community understand what COVID has done, a report like this brings the museum community closer by anchoring individual experiences in lived data.
Each time Anne Ackerson and I teach Museum Leadership in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program we’ve had students wonder why we’re seemingly obsessed with good, clear writing. They’ve told us other faculty don’t criticize their writing, suggesting that as soon-to-be museum folk they don’t plan on writing for a living. True to a point, but they want, after all, to be museum staff, and potentially museum leaders. Our response is that words matter. Not only in the way that phrase is currently used, meaning words can be weapons, but as tools to provide clarity and context. Think how many times museum leaders grow and nurture ideas, and how many words–both spoken and written–see ideas from conception to implementation?
One place it strikes me where words matter a whole heck of a lot, especially in the COVID-age of shifting and increased responsibilities, is job descriptions. Done well job descriptions can be wonderfully crafted road maps, the architecture where museum work rests. Done badly they are truly a waste of time, leading to confusion, meandering nowhere, mired in road blocks of self-doubt and gas lighting. Too frequently there’s more energy put into a job announcement than the subsequent job description. Often anemic in comparison to their sister job announcements, job descriptions are burdened by to-do lists ending with “and all other duties as required,” meaning the morning you shoveled snow, cleaned a sticky craft table or spent time at the reception desk. But in their lack of clarity, they aren’t helpful.
We’ve all heard how strategic plans are “living documents.” Well, so are job descriptions. A good one isn’t one and done, it’s something for leaders and staff members to return to particularly as they prepare for performance reviews, understand an increase–or a decrease–in responsibilities. It’s hard to imagine a museum workplace without job descriptions except to imagine a kind of anarchy. On any given day the educator could put her shoes on the desk and announce she needed to spend some time with advancement, while the communications person could say they were bored with Instagram and wanted to design an exhibit. Hyperbole, yes, but perhaps you’ve been in museum workplaces where job descriptions were mushy around the edges? Over time staff staff choose tasks they like rather than doing the job assigned. When that happens, things fall unacknowledged by the wayside, and ultimately, an organizational belief develops around a given job that may not have been true at conception.
So how do you get this right? First, don’t do it quickly, and don’t do it alone. Job descriptions, like strategic plans, are best written collaboratively. If you are revising an existing job description–perhaps because of COVID–speak with person who currently does the job, their direct report(s), and potentially their colleagues. If this is an existing job that has mutated because of COVID, you’ll want to find out what the position looked like before it absorbed tasks from other positions. If it’s now two positions now co-joined, it’s a good idea to be transparent if for no other reason than in stressful times employees performing two roles as one, need to know which takes precedent over the course of a week, and which role trumps the other in terms of responsibility. For example, pre-COVID you had both a collections manager and a curator. Now you have only a curator, someone whose heart doesn’t race at the thought of a perfectly catalogued collection, but rather at the creation of imaginative and thoughtful exhibits. An honest and transparent discussion will help your colleague identify how their job description and thus their performance goals fit into the organizational scope and sequence.
Once you’ve done your analysis, and potentially amended the title, come up with a pithy job summary. Here is where you want to summon your inner Hemingway, and write a clear, concise, yet intriguing description of what this person will do, not in the worst of times, but in the best of times. Next, draft their responsibilities. They should be broad enough so they’re not a to-do list, but specific enough to prevent anarchy. Last, add the job’s requirements. You don’t want someone applying for a job that requires daily lifting of 25 pounds and up, if there are health reasons that prevent them from lifting. If you have an HR department, they will work from your draft, making sure that the appropriate legal language is included–particularly as it involves HDA compliance — and that you have neither overstepped nor undersold what you expect this person to do.
If you do have an HR department at your museum or heritage organization, they may not look fondly on your revising job descriptions annually. In theory, when that happens HR scopes out how the position has changed state or region-wide in terms of salary and benefits. But jobs within a organization are like an extended game of telephone. They mutate and change to fit the individuals performing them. As leaders, whether it’s a team, a program, department or organization, our job is to watch out for performance drift. Like mission drift, it’s when an individual, perhaps because they are over-burdened, disaffected or simply selfish, begins to work outside the scope of their job description. It’s much easier to do this in organizations where once you’re hired no one ever refers to your job description again. If you don’t already, you may want to consider meeting with your direct reports quarterly to look at how their jobs have changed, and aligning them with your organization’s goals and objectives. Job descriptions connect to people, so it helps to really know your staff. Some may welcome more structure while others more autonomy. Hopefully, you will create the best job description not only for the organization, but also the individual.
Be well. Stay safe. Write clearly.
This first part is mainly for women who read this blog. This week I spoke with a colleague who, despite the fact that we work on the same campus, I see infrequently. So when we check in it’s with a degree of seriousness. “How are you?” isn’t just a pleasantry, but a real question. She reported crying in the doctor’s office. I responded I had too, both of us in answer to that simple question, “How are you doing?” Her doctor told her she needed a vacation. She laughed. There are eight more weeks of school so vacation seems as unlikely as being hit by a meteor. Mine asked what I was doing for relaxation. My only answer was joining a wine club which didn’t seem to be what he had in mind.
Let me be clear: We are the lucky ones. We are healthy. No one in our families was stolen by COVID. We are employed. We have colleagues, friends and families. We have partners who love us. But this is still hard, and it’s hard in a particularly gendered way.
I know there have been about 8 million articles, essays, and news pieces on women and COVID, one or two have appeared right here. The illness, the changes in economics and home life, and the spillover at work–for those who are working–has unnecessarily burdened women. And left some of us in tears. Perhaps you’re hoping I’ll offer the one recipe for healing you haven’t heard about yet–two shots of Brené Brown, followed by a morsel of Mary Oliver or Maya Angelou and a brisk walk on a sunny day–but I haven’t found the recipe yet. I do know my colleague and I ended up laughing, a little irrationally, but honestly what else can you do? The universe demands a lot some days, and some times the best response is to laugh with a friend, even if what you’re laughing at is really the pain of the pandemic.
As some of you know, I’ve spent the last 10 months as interim director of a library, archives and special collections. Beyond keeping the ship on course, my primary job was to serve as point person for the search for a permanent director. I’m happy to say, it’s over, and in a few days when the last of the paper work is complete, we will be able to announce our new director. In the meantime, I’ve thought a lot about the search process, so here are some random ideas and considerations.
- Hiring over Zoom is unnatural. Does it privilege the extroverts and actors? Maybe. The things you’ve read about how to dress, how you present, are true. You should look like you’re sitting down for a semi-serious conversation. You don’t need a fancy living room with strategically placed books just over your shoulders, but you do need to appear as though your entrance to the Zoom room is something you actually thought about and consider important. (Hint: Not everyone does.) And while we all have bad IT days, a device that’s steady, and doesn’t make your interviewer feel as though they’re on a tilt-a-whirl is a must.
- Your references matter, and maybe not in the way you thought. Presumably your references believe you’re brilliant or they wouldn’t have agreed to speak for you, but many employers, my own included, don’t want a letter extolling your virtues. They want to talk one-on-one with your references. So it’s important that the people you ask are not only willing to say nice things, but are good talkers–articulate, smart, and generous over telephone or Zoom. Reporting you have soft skills, and then repeating a list of soft skills from Muse.com isn’t helpful. As someone about to hire you, your new organization wants to know you, specifically how your soft skills exemplify themselves in the workplace.
- NBC News reported this morning that there are now more jobs open than before the pandemic began. It attributes the spike not just to a rebounding economy, but to the fact that many job seekers are too fearful, hesitant, and discouraged to go through the process. My advice? Don’t apply if you don’t mean it. Yes, all job searches are an elaborate dance between job seeker and employer, with each one making choices based on what they discover. While the lucky and the talented may find themselves fought over by more than one employer, that’s not what I’m talking about. Don’t start the process without first engaging in the necessary soul searching. It’s been a rough 18 months. Are you ready to move? Is your partner? Your family? You’ve created a pandemic routine that works for you. Are you willing to disrupt it? Not really wanting to move does not make you a bad person, but job searches are costly, not just money wise, but they are time sink holes. It feels wrong to go through three quarters of a complex process to have a job seeker tell you they really can’t imagine moving during a pandemic.
- Be clear in your own head why this job matters to you. New isn’t enough. Neither is admitting you have a crush on the organization since your crush may be based on half-truths and beautiful Internet photos. It helps if you can explain why this job matters to you now, at this very moment, and how it builds on what you’ve done so far, and challenges you in places you need to grow. And for the love of God, a mid-life crisis is not a reason for a new job. (Yes, that really happened.)
- If you’re stepping out of your lane, for example, you have little leadership experience, but you’re applying to lead a team of seven, be clear about what you know, what you done, what your skills are, and why they matter. Think like an interviewer so when they ask you, “And why should we let you run our team of museum educators, when you have next to no leadership experience?” you have an answer that lets them see you actually understand the act of leadership even if you haven’t had the title.
For all of you looking for work, I wish you the best of luck. Yes, the museum world is competitive, but positions are opening up. My last two bromides: Don’t write the script before anything happens. By that I mean don’t create a novel’s worth of reasons why you couldn’t take the position when you haven’t even applied. If you want a job and believe you’re capable, apply. Second, do the work you need to do before applying. What do you want? Of course you want a job, but if you knew you could earn just as much at Amazon, with better benefits, as you can at a given heritage site or regional museum, why there? Why does joining their team make sense for you?
And last, and this is for the folks at AASLH and AAM, recently I heard an NPR journalist speaking about his own field. He was making the point that print journalism has changed profoundly since last March, adding that his field lost 39,000 journalists in less than a year. Does the museum world know who it has lost?
Be well. Stay safe.
First Kudos: To Mike Murawski for his new book, Museums As Agents of Change, released this week and available through Routledge. A co-founder of Museums are not Neutral, Murawski is a change maker himself, which is just one of the reasons this book is important.
Second, a shout out to AAM. In February I wrote a post complaining about how AAM’s newly-released Trendswatch had sidestepped the ways the pandemic harmed working women globally, and specifically women in the museum world. This week while scrolling through an AAM newsletter, I came across a link to Supporting Women in the Workplace During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. It takes a big-hearted organization to course-correct, so thank you to AAM for providing resources for 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. And if women’s issues within the museum world concern you, join Gender Equity in Museums or GEMM.
Third, a bravo to my friend Frank Vagnone: If museum directors had fans like boy bands, I would be lined up post-concert to see Frank, president and CEO of Old Salem, Inc. Thoughtful, smart, and someone known to push the envelope on occasion, Vagnone writes the blog Twisted Preservation. This week he posted about the need to see COVID for what it is–not an 18-month stop between normal and new normal–but an inflection point that will leave many organizations devastated and fundamentally changed. If you’re a museum or heritage organization leader, you should read his post, and maybe use it as a point of discussion with your board.
And the deaccessioning debate continues: I am struck by the way this debate has become a binary choice. You’re either for it–a progressive–or against it or at least cautious about it–a traditionalist. And like all things in 2021, deacessioning is personalized, becoming a lens with a bifurcated view of the art museum world because, let’s face it, history and science museums aren’t making millions deaccessioning.
Lee Rosenbaum went so far as to metaphorically pit Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, opposite Phillipe de Montebello, former director of the Met, writing that Bedford is among “the new crop of museum directors and curators [who] have embraced social and political progressiveness as a primary part of their mission.” Rosenbaum suggests that “inclusivity and social relevance are laudable” but cautions “patience so museums don’t trash the time-honored achievements of past professionals.”
Where to start? Maybe with the idea that as I said a few weeks ago, deaccessioning is a tool in a tool box, a necessary one, but one that in order to wield successfully, needs a deep collection, a degree of wisdom and sophistication on the part of curators and museum leadership, and a strong community understanding. Second, that it’s possible for smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking organizations to hold two (or more) ideas in their heads at the same time–pruning and shaping the collection to help it better speak to the wider community–while also trying to create an equitable workspace that honors the values museums profess to support. Perhaps communities of color and museum staff are tired of waiting for museums who are afraid of trashing the time-honored path representing the way we’ve always done it?
When did putting community–whether that is your security guard’s hourly pay or your local community’s access to your collection– become a bad thing? Is it okay as long as it doesn’t privilege BIPOC artists over established white, male artists? Shouldn’t we all be modeling ofbyforall.org’s five steps for change? And how will change happen if our first act is to rush to the barricades defending what cannot change?
AAMD is like an exclusive gentleman’s club from the 1950’s. It costs money to belong, when you’re inside it seems powerful, but in reality its enforcement powers are limited. According to The New York Times, a recent vote on whether to codify the relaxed deaccessioning rules of COVID lost 91-88 with 48 members abstaining. Perhaps the 48 abstainers sided with MoMA’s Glenn Lowery who suggests this type of decision making shouldn’t happen in the middle of a crisis. And despite vaccines, and the falling number of COVID cases, we are still in a crisis.
And a lesson in humility: One of the lessons of leadership is that we continue learning. Always. Every day. And the day you stop, you should pack it in, and head for your rocking chair and your memories.
I manage a small collection inside a small, intentional community or a boarding school. Like any lone ranger, I wear the title “curator,” but many other hats –educator, registrar, packer, exhibit designer–as well. Our campus is still officially closed, but last week we hung an exhibit of 22 portraits, part of a project for our 9th and 10th-grade studio art students. Each student will select a portrait, reckon with it, react to it, and create a new work in response. When complete, the student work, curated and selected by their classmates, will hang in dialog next to the collection work. So far so good.
I finished the week with the show hung, but not the labels. I was tired, a lame excuse in retrospect, but nonetheless true, so I reasoned the labels could wait until Monday. Here is one of the portraits, a dual image of Mary Birch Coffing of Salisbury, Connecticut with Jane Winslow also of Salisbury.
In leaving the labels for another day, I forgot about my audience. I forgot they needed context, and most of all, in believing they could wait, I disrespected them. So when they reacted Friday evening about the portrait above via email and social media, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. They were concerned. They wanted information. By Saturday morning I’d reckoned with my own blindness and all the labels were up. Further, we’d reached out to students and offered to talk about the show as a whole, and the Coffing/Winslow portrait in particular.
The lesson for me was not just how a lone ranger needs to push through and finish what was started. It was about the obligation to empathize, to put oneself in the position of one’s audience, and try to imagine what tools are necessary to make their own judgements, to have their own dialog, their own reckoning. That’s all art asks of us: to be there; to be fully present for more than the 20-seconds most of us devote to standing in front of a painting. If that’s what we want from our viewers, then we have to give them a place to start that’s truthful but not opinionated, that leads to dialog not misunderstanding, and most of all that is respectful.
The good news is I know I’m still learning. I hope you are too.