Look back at museum history and you will uncover a wealth of volunteer labor. From Mount Vernon to MOMA, local historical societies to heritage sites, many of the organizations we think of today as staid and patriarchal, owe their lifeblood to a group of volunteers whose persistence created an organization. That moment of transition, when a group of like-minded individuals with a museum goal in mind becomes a non-profit organization governed by a board of trustees is a delicate one. Like it or not, it can stamp organizational culture into the future because it hallmarks who volunteers are, and most importantly, who they’re not.
Recently Michelle Moon tweeted that museum volunteer programs are a “third rail,” meaning they’re too volatile to discuss. Moon’s tweet was in response to an Instagram post on ChangetheMuseum praising Veronica Stein at Chicago’s Art Institute for her efforts in disrupting its all-powerful Docent Council. I don’t want to litigate the Art Institute’s case, but even today almost a year after it fired its docents, the topic still lingers. Why? Well, it incapsulates a gazillion touch stones, many dating to pre-Covid museum history and some to today. There’s gender–the vast majority of museum volunteers are women. There’s ageism. Many museum volunteers are older. There’s class–many volunteers, often called docents from the Latin docere, to teach–are wealthy or at least privileged enough not to work 40/hrs a week. There’s race: the vast majority of docents are White. They are frequently powerful. Collectively they form or join docent organizations, and, because they offer a much-needed service–their organization grows powerful. Even at a county historical society, a strong docent organization has the capacity to cripple an education program by simply failing to show up. And, at another level, docent programs’ origins are often built around women without careers who volunteered while their husbands took positions on the board.
Blech. I can hear you eye rolling. Like we need to feel sorry for a bunch of rich, older, White women, who create organizations within organizations and then refuse to take instructions from anyone. Right? But there are so many ways this narrative speaks to the museum field’s failures and problems. First, how did volunteer organizations become a third rail? Well, to quote Deep Throat, follow the money. When you put a group of well-heeled women together, who by the way, are often married to well-heeled men, who museum leaders want to court for one reason or another, they are teflonned. Any hint of distress might mean less giving. Is it possible less-than distinguished volunteer teaching is an acceptable trade off for a more robust annual fund? Second, museum education is the pinkest place, in a pink collar field. I’ve written about this a bit, which you can find here, and here, but if you want a concise break down look at Margaret Middleton’s Twitter thread on the subject. Her point, that if a field (museum education) is devalued from the start, volunteers are often a necessity not a choice. But once again, dismantling a volunteer program, may mean biting the hand that feeds you.
I understand it’s easy to sit at your laptop and act as though fixing the museum world’s problems is a snap. It’s not. Negotiating with humans is frequently challenging, and who has time to unravel organizational culture when there are so many more pressing problems? That said, here are a few thoughts for anyone considering dismantling or changing a volunteer program.
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics devotes considerable time to the act of volunteering. In fact, it defines volunteers as workers albeit unpaid ones.
- If volunteers are staff, just unpaid staff, then their work expectations, as opposed to their time, shouldn’t be less than staff. In other words, both types of worker, paid and unpaid, serve the museum. Anything less seems like it leads to anarchy. For example, what if the volunteer EMTs formed their own organization and refused to be trained by their parent organizations? No one in a museum will die if their teacher is a volunteer as opposed to staff. So…. is the question whether volunteers are old, rich, and White or whether they are serving themselves and not the institution?
- Interestingly, the BLS notes that volunteers can’t displace paid staff.
- I once heard Darren Walker talk about diversifying the Ford Foundation’s board. Perhaps because there is such is level of trust between Walker and his board, the board confessed it couldn’t diversify on its own. Board members didn’t know how, and more importantly they didn’t know who. Is it possible that if charged with diversifying their ranks, some docent organizations would need help? Might they also need help getting to the point of asking for help?
- Like staff, volunteers, even the most magical ones, take a lot of work. (For example, the Met’s volunteers train weekly for six months before being let loose in the galleries.) Too often volunteers train volunteers, creating an elaborate game of telephone, and distancing volunteers from staff. Does your organization have resources to educate and incorporate volunteers into its wider staff?
- Has your museum leadership talked about how to transparently deal with questions from paid staff about their worth, and what they’ve invested in the field, which is not nothing, versus a volunteer who swans in once a week for a tour?
- Has your museum talked about the language it uses when defining groups, either within or without the museum? As part of DEI education, many organizations offer help regarding appropriate group descriptors. As a museum leader, have you needed to model similar behavior when it comes to volunteers?
- At the end of the day, does your museum need volunteers? If so, which is more important: having a diverse body of volunteers or having volunteers who serve the museum? Or both?
Be well. Stay cool.
See you in September.
We don’t need leaders, we need just need a load of people working together to make sure everyone else is alright. Jayde Adams in Serious Black Jumper
There is little doubt Covid lifted the rock off a host of museum leadership issues. In the hierarchy of museum problems, some point to our class-driven, patriarchal, colonial, racist organizational culture. Others feel the first priority on the road to organizational health might be to eliminate the person in the top spot. While I understand the cries of “Do away with museum leadership,” (I mean look at the tangled mess at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), to date, no one seems to have suggested a workable alternative more detailed than “We don’t need the leaders we’ve got.”
Many of us know or have worked for a bad leader. My optimistic self would like to think that while not perfect, today’s museum leadership is an improved version of the leadership I encountered when I began my museum journey decades ago. At least I would like to think it is. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics lets us know who’s working in museums, it’s sometimes difficult to parse exactly who occupies the top spot. Nevertheless, groups like Museum Hue and GEMM act as a kind of collective consciousness for us simply by taking note of leadership change as it happens.
That is not to say bad leadership’s been banished. Recently I reached out to a younger colleague to ask if they would be interested in a newly-opened leadership position. It’s not a small job, but the outgoing leader has done little more than use the museum and its contents as wallpaper for a personal agenda. While they were honored I thought of them, they said no immediately because a) They’re still recovering from being beaten up in their last leadership position, and b) They feel organizations who hire bad directors, and then publicly praise them, likely have no idea what good leadership is. Probably true. Boards perpetuate their own bad culture by repeatedly hiring versions of the same leader , and then scratching their heads when the scenario repeats itself for the umpteenth time.
So what would museum leadership look like minus the trope of the highly-paid soul in the biggest office with the most perks? One model might be the idea of co-CEO’s. The most obvious version of that is, of course, the Metropolitan Museum, which until recently had both Daniel Weiss, serving as business and administrative leader, and Max Hollein, looking after programming and curatorial issues. Dual leadership, where one leader’s responsibilities sometimes point inward while the other looks outward, has been used successfully in educational settings, but the Met’s choice was unusual in the museum world. It’s also one more easily accommodated at an organization like the Met with an endowment bigger than a tiny country’s GDP. After all, how many boards, who regularly grumble about salaries, would agree to the equivalent of two top positions? And yet, it’s a model that, while unspoken, exists at some government museums, where the top position is appointed, while the deputy director runs day-to-day operations. In the past, this model was often gendered, with the top post going to a man, while the worker-bee position was filled by a woman.
Maybe you read Niloufar Kinsari’s article in the June NPQ? There Kinsari describes moving her organization, away from top-down leadership. One thing I found compelling was her transparency about both the process and her own feelings. She recalls the factory collectives she visited in Argentina, describing them as places where “self-management, mutuality, respect, and dignity were the norm.” What’s not to like, right? So, after discussion and a vote by her staff, she proposed to her board that she lose her ED title. And the board’s response? Initially, it said no. The title stayed, but the organization continued to change, creating a dual-headed leadership structure not unlike the Met’s. This allowed Kinsari time to wrestled with her own demons about self-worth and hierarchical conditioning. As a woman of color, Kinsari writes, “I had been conditioned all my life to chase the positive feedback loop of visibility and status. Attaching some of my professional self-worth to my title was second nature.”
Kinsari and Pangea Legal Services have continued to flatten their hierarchy, and although she doesn’t explain it, her article concludes by saying the organization now uses a “hub” model where “staff self-organized to co-lead internal administration and development committees, including finances, communications, human resources, governance, and operations hubs.” Are museums doing this? If yes, how did their boards react? And is this kind of change easier to effect in a lean organization like Kinsari’s, where the biggest investment is the staff, as opposed to many museums with challenging collections to contend with, not to mention complex campuses populated with aging infrastructure?
It seems as though museum leaders behave badly daily. Not all of them certainly, but enough so there is a steady drain of emerging and mid-career folk who’ve simply had enough, and they’re leaving. Soon. Or they’ve already left. They’re filled with regret, but they’ve had enough. Would a different leadership model change things? Maybe. Sadly, though, organizations most likely to experiment with new leadership models probably already have a healthy culture of collaboration, mutual support and empathy. Change for them is natural whereas organizations prompting people to leave the field are stagnant, rigid, patriarchal, and far from empathetic. Not to mention that too often their pay stinks especially when compared with non-museum employment.
This sounds dark, but some days it feels like evening with the orchestra playing, and if we look, we’d see the iceberg coming towards us. We’ve talked ad nauseam about leaders’ individual behavior, but how should the architecture of museum leadership change to prevent the ongoing brain drain? I’d love to hear some thoughts.
In the meantime, be well, be kind, and make change where you can.
See you in August,
If you’ve read this blog before, you know I am a frequent NPR listener. Because I listen in the car, I often hear pieces I might skip if I were reading. Recently, I heard a long piece on teaching improv, which I associate mainly with comedy and Saturday Night Live. (I was right, but not really.) The interview intersected with something else I heard that week, this time an in-person chat with poet and writer Clint Smith. I was lucky enough to be in the tent when Smith received the StowePrize in Hartford. He spoke with Linda Norris as part of the prize giving.
Improv, as you know doubt know, is live theatre where plot and dialogue are made up in the moment. Why does improv matter? How did my brain connect it to Clint Smith? And how do both link back to museums and their current state of peril?
First improv: For what appears as such a hilarious loosey-goosey enterprise, improv possesses a clearly defined architecture. One of its tenants is “Don’t deny” often expressed as “Yes, and….” affirming the speaker’s statement and connecting it to something else. This sends dialog forward as opposed to shutting it down with a negative.
Now, Smith: One of the questions Norris asked Smith was, while writing his prize-winning How the Word is Passed, what it was like to talk with 21st-century Confederate descendants? One of the places Smith visited was Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. Although its earliest grave dates to 1702, Smith went because 30,000 Confederate soldiers are buried there, and it has long been a place of pilgrimage for people with family history bound up in the Confederacy. His visit with the Sons of Confederate Veterans took place on a Memorial Day weekend when he was likely the only person of color on the 189-acre site. Norris asked what it was like to speak with people whose belief systems were so different from his own? Smith answered that the man he spoke with “was a microcosm of the cognitive dissonance of the American project.” In describing his Blandford conversation, Smith remarked how inconsistent our reckoning with history is, how dependent it is on the randomness of birth, where we grow up, our teachers, and the personal narratives handed down, treasured and burnished by our families. He was respectful of his interviewee, while fundamentally disagreeing with his ideology.
Both in conversation with Norris and in his book, Smith is clear his role was listener. Although he didn’t use these words, what he offered was improv’s “Yes, and…,” adding “there is something to be said for meeting people where they are, and extending grace and generosity……” He said that the best museum guides and teachers he heard while researching How the Word is Passed offered “a balancing act,…… while also not holding back on the truth,” extending an “and” that often included a sentence like “This might be difficult to hear, but I’m going to be on this journey with you.”
Maybe I am late to the party. Maybe you all got there before me, and have absorbed “Yes, and…” into your daily practice. If not, how could it possibly hurt? Not only with the challenging issues of re-centering the country’s history of enslavement, but how sites interpret and present issues of gender, religion, and politics, as well as our inter-staff relations where communication in our divisive age is often challenging. If you want examples of what improv exercises look like, here’s a handy Youtube video. Start at about 6:59 and watch through to around minute 10.
So how might this play out in daily life?
- When you say Yes, and…you’re living squarely in the present.
- When you say Yes, and…you’re promising to listen.
- When you say Yes, and…you’re being present, listening and therefore connecting.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re letting go of the judgement genie for yourself and for others.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re offering trust before it’s earned.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re letting others shine before yourself. (Adapted from David Charles @ Rollins College.)
Clint Smith quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” during his Stowe House chat. That is the poem that famously ends “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” but Smith’s quote came from the first stanza, “I am a part of all that I have met.” How easy it is to forget those 10 words as we move through life, at home and at work, with family, with friends, colleagues and strangers, trying hard to say yes, and… to listen, and then speak our own authentic truth for ourselves or for our museums and heritage sites.
Be well, stay safe, do good work.
Recently I read an Emerging Museum Professionals posting. The writer had invested time and money in a graduate degree in Museum Studies. Covid blocked her path. Then her thesis was rejected. In the meantime, she’d found museum work. She asked whether she should finish the thesis or abandon her degree. Her respondents were divided on the answer, but everyone seemed to agree that investing in a degree is a big deal, and a lot of time and money to leave on the table. This post isn’t really about the need for graduate degrees–that’s another discussion.
It is about that golden moment when you find a field where everything seems right. Charmed by what lies ahead, you imagine yourself doing work that seems important and interesting. Then, grad school ends, and you are thrust into the world. If, like the EMP writer, you’re lucky enough to be hired or already have a museum position, soon your narrative is subtly different. You are no longer a solo traveler; instead, you are part of a larger organization whose needs and values are paramount. How do you know if you’re hitching your wagon to an organization whose values are similar to your own? How much do your own values matter? After all, they’re paying you to be a registrar or an educator or a curator, not wax philosophical about ethics, right?
But what happens when that same organization, the one that chose you out of all those applicants, does something that feels wrong, implicitly or tacitly, sweeping you up in behavior you can’t condone? In that honeymoon moment when you’re courted for the position you’ve always wanted and everyone is on their best behavior, it’s often hard to read a museum’s values. We live in a fractious, divided society where everything from race to faith to medicine to climate change pushes friends and colleagues apart in a heartbeat. Did you ask the right questions? Were there red flags you missed?
If you’re involved in the museum world at any level, you’re likely aware of the Montpelier Controversy. In brief, Montpelier, President James Madison’s 2,600-acre Virginia estate, once home to an enslaved population of 300, spent most of its years with an all-white board. In 2021, Montpelier announced its board would share governance with representatives from Montpelier’s Descendants Committee. All seemed well until earlier this year when the overwhelmingly White board amended its bylaws, seemingly refusing to recognize or collaborate with the Descendants Committee. Subsequently the CEO and the Board fired five full-time staff who supported the merger. When I started this piece, 11,000 people had signed a petition asking Montpelier to seat new Descendants Committee board members immediately. More recently, after being openly chastised by the National Trust, the Board, Montpelier’s Board voted to approve a slate of candidates put forward by the Descendants Committee.
Montpelier is a dramatic example of a heritage organization off the ethical rails, and the Montpelier Five are undoubtedly the poster children for a values/museum workplace clash. After all, getting fired for your beliefs certainly takes the uncertainty of whether to stay at a job that seems to compromise your north star. But what if your experience is less dramatic, but challenging nonetheless? In a field where jobs are hard won, few are privileged enough to pack it in over a values clash. And yet….where do you draw the line between your personal values and the organization’s?
- Start by acknowledging that all of us have different values.
- If you haven’t already, consider your organization’s history. How did it get to be the place it is? Where are its values most evident? To do this, you may want to look at Aletheia Whitman’s Institutional Genealogy pdf.
- Is what you’re struggling with a value conflict or a personal conflict? Admittedly the two can overlap, but fixing them means untangling one from the other. Don’t go to leadership with a value conflict only to rant about how you’re being bullied. Being bullied is wrong, and creates a horrific work climate, but it’s not a value conflict.
- Take baby steps: Try and suss out how the the behavior that is bothering you came to be. Was this an on-the-fly decision or the product of weeks of discussion?
- Are you alone or one of many? There is a value in numbers if you plan to approach leadership about a values issue.
- Is it one issue or is it the organizational culture?
- Pause and consider what you believe and how far you’re willing to go. Ultimatums lead to ultimatums.
- Think deeply about where the line in the sand is for you. Are you willing to walk away?
- You can’t know ’til you know: Discuss your concerns with museum leadership.
- If leadership won’t or can’t hear you, does your workplace have employee support for whistle blower complaints or concerns?
Many museums and heritage organizations have emerged from the last three years better organizations. They’ve become partners rather than pontificators, empathetic rather than my-way-or-the highway, collaborators in understanding who we are in the today’s world. Change isn’t easy though even at the most woke organizations. Part of your due diligence during the hiring process is to try to suss out your organization’s ability to grow and change. Does it match your own? If you move at a different pace, are you willing to be an outlier, a Joan of Arc? Not all of us are willing or able to try and lead an organization out of a values morass. What are you willing to sacrifice?
Be well. See you in June.
A confession: I adore English television mysteries. Not the kind with the dithering, elderly amateur, but the darker more urban variety. One of the tropes of these dramas is the main characters often suppress a ton of personal feelings to get their job done. They go to work–without guns–this is the UK after all, and deal with the sad, the lonely, and the psychologically messed up. Meanwhile, their marriages fall apart, their children are angry, and their lovers are sick of being neglected for the job. I thought about those characters when I listened to CBS’s recent report on mental health post-Covid. Families and individuals are dealing with unresolved grief, leading to deaths from overdose, resulting in four times the rate of anxiety and depression overall. It’s a full-blown mental health crisis. This week the Centers for Disease Control released a report saying that 4 in 10 adolescents feel persistently sad or hopeless. Arthur C. Evans Jr., head of the American Psychological Association says this will be with us for seven to 10 years, in other words a second pandemic. And I’m pretty sure this segment was taped before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the now ongoing devastation and threat of chemical or nuclear warfare.
What does this have to do with museums? Only this: Museums are held together by humans, who are likely suffering, while also serving communities who also suffer. We’ve been over the laundry list of what’s undone us many times: pandemic, racial injustice, gender inequity, epic inflation, wealth disparity, and now war and a mental health crisis. Is the answer that we’re too busy as Robert Weisberg posits in a recent post? Maybe. Honestly, I’m no longer sure about this or much else. I know many of us are overworked. I know staffs have contracted, and many people are doing two times the work of the pre-pandemic era, and because no one found them breathing into a paper bag in the supply closet, everything is supposedly okay. Being asked to do more for the same crap salary is debilitating. Pay isn’t everything, but salaries are still inequitable. In many institutions leadership makes a gazillion times what the front-of-the-house makes, and yet daily the front-of-the-house workers shoulder a good portion of the community’s anger, yet another facet of the country’s mental health crisis.
I respect Weisberg’s argument, and I love his “Time, Money, People, Resources,” but I don’t share his assurance that busyness is the culprit or at least the only culprit. For me there are too many intersecting circles, each part of an overlapping problem. It strikes me that when field-wide salaries are dismal, the museum workplace promotes to reward. That means you move up the food chain, receiving a bigger salary and a title change because you succeeded in your first position. The problem is that being able in one position doesn’t always translate into being an able at leading people. If the organization needs a leader at whatever level, it should hire a leader, not reward staff by throwing them into the deep end. How would the picture change if museums could acknowledge and reward good work, allowing individuals to stay in their lane, while making more money and perhaps receiving a title change. Logically, that should happen, but it rarely does. We have a culture that teaches us success comes with managing others. (Some state HR laws are written such that an employee’s desire to be salaried as opposed to hourly, hinges, in part, on whether they supervise staff.) In the museum world we don’t train for leadership. So when promotions work, we pat ourselves on the back. When they don’t, we scratch our heads. And sadly, it’s staff who suffer in these circumstances.
In all our moaning about what Covid did to us, and it did plenty, it also taught us that flexibility is a key workplace resource. Not everyone can work away from their museum or heritage organization, but many can. In the first month of Covid we learned how much we could get done from our home offices. But Covid taught us something else. It isn’t just a binary choice between remote vs.on-site employees. It’s an acknowledgement that, particularly for women, flexibility matters. Many have life situations which make flexible hours a necessity. We know the failure to flex meant many women who are also caregivers and parents left the workforce over the last two years. But we don’t need to be workplace thought leaders to imagine that when staff are happy and not worrying about child or elder care, their work is better. If you have an employee who needs to begin work later because of family responsibilities, would it kill you to make that happen? And most importantly, can flex time become not just an individual exception, smacking of favoritism, but an organization-wide trend?
I wonder too, whether in a field like museums where jobs are hard won, if we expect too much from them. They represent huge investments and when they don’t speak our love language daily, we’re convinced they’re not for us. I am the first to admit this field has its share of bad leaders and boards, but even the best job isn’t Nirvana every day, nor should it be. I’ve written about this before, but your job, however intellectually stimulating is not your family. It may include some in your friend group, but hopefully it isn’t substituting for your friends as well.
The Canadian writer/researcher Paul Thistle has done a ton of work on the museum workplace and self-care. In addition to the high expectations and ridiculous pace of many museums, something that comes through loud and clear in his writing is our responsibility to ourselves. Yes, I know it’s often impossible to seek mental health care when you have no insurance or when the one counselor who takes your insurance is miles away, but we need to try, and our organizations need to try too.
Decades ago I remember a conference conversation where having heard a living history site was thinking of interpreting an 18th century workhouse, the cynical and jaded in the group opined we could go there when we “retired” because by that time we’d be so burnt out, role playing someone who had had a breakdown wouldn’t be a stretch. Not funny, but also darkly funny, and an indication that the constant search for perfection, coupled with too little time and too few resources has been a theme in museum work life for decades.
I’ve made a tradition of adding to-do lists at the end of blog posts with ideas for individuals and organizations, but I think this isn’t a one size fits all scenario. So here are some links and resources:
- If you’re not already reading Dr. Laurie Santos, start. A Yale psychology professor whose classes are consistently oversubscribed, Santos offers practical tips for leading a happier life in her podcast “The Happiness Lab.“
- Read Mike Murawski. Not everyone can let go of the security of full-time employment, but if you need a positive role model for making change, it’s Murawski.
- If you supervise staff, you may want to read AAM’s 2022 Trendswatch, particularly the chapter on mental health. I am not a fan of putting leadership in the position of acting as a mental health counselor, but I do think it’s important for leaders to model wellness behaviors, and be transparent and open about their own challenges.
- Remember to lobby for improved healthcare and childcare at the local, state, and national level. It may seem out of your lane, but knowing family is cared for at a price you can afford is a stress reducer.
- If you’re a reader, try also On Being, NPR’s Lifekit, and The Marginalian, and Henna Inam. And keep in mind, if your stress was a disfiguring rash, you’d undoubtedly see a doctor. If you find yourself beset by stress and mental health issues, try to see a caregiver.
- If you’re a leader, be careful not to talk about the importance of your front-line/hourly staff unless you are willing to regularly make them part of museum decisions. Their work experience is part of your organization’s DNA. Respect it.
Spring is coming. Take some time to be outside. Sit, walk, run, whatever works for you. Your work will be better for it.
It’s a month since my last post. In that time Covid and all its attendant problems took a back seat to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To quote Thomas Campbell, Director of the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco in a recent Instagram post, “Against the backdrop of the atrocious Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the appalling suffering it is causing, it seems almost disrespectful to speak of anything else.” A week ago, a quote from the Ukrainian Library Association made the rounds of social media. The Association posted to cancel its annual meeting writing, “We will reschedule as soon as we finish vanquishing our invaders.” How about the rest of us, would we be that brave?
It’s against that background–the idea that in an instant you can be forced to flee home, family, friends, and your known world–that it’s time to put the dipstick down on our own. So what’s the latest on the museum workplace? What I’m reading seems to offer some diametrically opposed messaging. Nationally inflation is at a 40-year high and as of December 2021, 61-percent of us were living pay-check-to-pay check. Among that group, those who are Gen Z’ers, have an average savings is $1,158. On the other hand, LinkedIn News reports that 38-percent of employees in the arts plan to leave their jobs in the next six months, along with 37-percent of those working in recreation and travel. I think it’s safe to assume some individuals in either group are museum folk.
These two data lines don’t necessarily seem to intersect unless we believe poor pay makes us more mobile, and maybe it does. Couple that with AAM’s survey of museums post-Covid where some 73-percent of respondents reported that thanks to PPP funding, their staffs were back at pre-March 2020 capacity, although hourly positions continue to be hard to fill. That group may overlap with the 38-percent of employees planning to switch jobs. They were the most discounted at the height of the pandemic, and, since they couldn’t work at home, the first to be let go, so it’s no surprise they aren’t rushing to return, and hopefully have found work elsewhere. Not to mention yesterday’s stabbing at MoMA. It redefined, in the most horrible way, the reason we call them front-line workers, and the risks they take in dealing with the public.
I want to pause here and say that when AAM released its Trendswatch report in the winter of 2021, I wrote a post expressing concern that it had missed the boat when it came to women. I felt women deserved more of a mention since they were disproportionately affected by Covid. Not that it’s all about me (it’s not), but it was such a relief (and a pleasure) to find AAM’s new Covid survey devotes time specifically to the pandemic’s effects on women and women of color.
So, so far, we know what we know: We’re struggling, everything costs more, 40-percent of us lost income during Covid from which we’ve likely not recovered. Women, who account for 51-percent of the museum workforce, bore a greater increase in responsibilities as staffs contracted. They also report they are less optimistic, more burned out, and, although the survey didn’t put it this bluntly, in many cases their poor compensation is overlaid by the gender pay gap. In addition, we’re still working through a lot of post-Covid fear and weirdness at returning to work or returning to work in person, and yet many museums are open or extending hours to something resembling life pre-pandemic times.
So clearly another shoe will drop. And apparently it’s the same old shoe: race, gender, and class aka income disparity, a subject highlighted in AAM’s post-Covid survey. In addition to its Covid data, AAM is also partnering with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and AAMD to try to understand how or whether the field has moved the needle on staff diversity. As Mellon puts it, “More than a marker of progress to date, this data serves as a tool for the future—whether quantifying the challenges we still face, establishing a baseline against which to measure impact, or equipping museums with the insight they need to structure and implement pipeline-building programs.” Mellon acknowledges that while there has been progress, it’s uneven. I would add that it’s uneven because too often museum boards, and in many cases their leaders, feel that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Many of them see their institutions as fine. Maybe not perfect–more money would be nice–but fine, and what’s fine to those at the top of the food chain, is often untenable to those further down.
So what’s to be done? Clearly the work begun on diversity and gender in the summer of 2020 remains unfinished. AAM, AAMD, the Mellon Foundation, the American Association for State & Local History (AASLH) and the National Council on Public History (NCPH) are all gathering data, but the randomness of equitable and humane work conditions remains a problem, a problem that is most acute for women and particularly women of color. I’ll close with the same suggestions I made a year ago:
- Does your organization post its values statement so visitors, donors, tradespeople, trustees and staff know where it stands on issues of DEI and specifically gender equity?
- Does your organization list salaries when posting positions? Within the institution, are your salary levels transparent?
- Does your museum offer equitable professional opportunities and mentoring?
- Does your museum have a policy on employee participation in public protest for gender equity and other forms of social justice?
- Have you completed an equity audit of your institutional salaries?
- Have you reviewed your human resource policies and procedures to reveal and address discriminating behavior?
- Are you confident, that an employee with a problem or a grievance can navigate your organization, and be treated equitably and fairly?
- Do you offer sexual harassment training along with DEI training in your workplace? And is your organization clear on its definition of sexual harassment, and how such cases are handled?
- Got time for a podcast? Listen to HBR’s Women at Work.
See you next month. In the meantime, be well, be kind, and do good work.
This week the Berkshire Museum posted a job announcement for a new Executive Director. The museum, a small-city, art, history & science museum, founded in 1903, and located in Pittsfield, MA, has been without a full-time director since last September when Jeff Rogers abruptly stepped down after two and half years in the top spot. For anyone with memory loss, in 2018 the Berkshire Museum became the poster child for monetizing collections when it summarily sold $57 million worth of art, earning censures from the museum world’s governing bodies, and condemnation, gossip, and ire from the museum world at large.
From the outset, the Museum said it wanted a new direction, adamant that it couldn’t be who it wanted to be unless it sold a piece of itself. The decision left a gaping hole in its collections, and four years later, an organization that still seems to lack intent and self awareness. It hired M Oppenheim, a San Francisco-based search firm, to find a new ED. This week they released a five-page position description. Oppenheim is not without museum experience–the Philbrook, Peabody Essex and the American Visionary Museum are among its current and past clients–but the kindest thing you might say about the Berkshire’s position description is that it’s odd.
I used to work for a leader who liked to tell me, “Joan, people don’t change.” I found those four words truly disheartening because I really wanted people to change. I wanted them to be better, to do their best, to be humane. The unspoken words behind that sentence were “unless they want to.” In this case, I have to assume, based on this strange job description that–despite a five-year interval–the Berkshire Museum’s culture remains unchanged, a place in search of itself in a city it doesn’t much care for.
The job description begins with this sentence: “The Berkshire Museum offers in-person and online visitors a gateway to the natural and cultural history of the Berkshires and the world,” a weirdly grandiose sentence (the world?) built around a curiously passive verb. One of the themes that comes through in the five-page job description is board leadership. We learn the Board has installed strong financial controls, and that it’s hired a design firm whose work will be well underway before the new director arrives. The job description requires (their word) an experienced fundraiser, and explains the ED will manage curators, who curiously are listed separately from staff and volunteers, as well as collections, operations, exhibits, programs, systems and processes to ensure financial strength….” Community partnerships are barely mentioned. In fact, community seems to take a back seat except for a sentence about Pittsfield’s population. And the re-centering of whiteness, decolonizing, and doing the work of dismantling patriarchy that has permeated much of the museum world’s narrative over the last three years is absent. Nor does the job description point to towards success. Instead it seems to suggest the new director’s time will be spent shoring up unfinished projects. And despite the fact that the museum appears to have multiple curators, the new director will be responsible for a monster amount of collections management.
Absent from this executive vision is a museum value statement, the idea of community partnership and participation, of creating a place where Pittsfield’s people are resources. The idea of the citizens of Pittsfield and Berkshire County as independent beings with agency who deserve respect doesn’t come across. Perhaps most frighteningly, the Museum is portrayed as a place unmoored from the museum world’s ongoing themes of partnership, participation and not being neutral. After reading all five pages, imagining the Berkshire Museum as a place for voter registration, for discussion on Berkshire County’s wealth disparity or as a lynch pin in community collaborations around the subject of race feels close to impossible. It reads as though the Museum’s biggest accomplishment was raising a ton of money by monetizing the collections’ treasures, and the Board, like folks hallmarked by the Depression, remains fearful the money, and thus their hedge against a board’s relentless work, will vaporize.
The museum workplace is having a moment, and it’s not a good one. Numerous directors have either been pushed aside or have left as part of the Great Resignation. I recognize as well that for some this entire post could be considered a cheap shot, but Oppenheim makes it clear on its web site that they want the job description shared, which is how I ended up seeing it through social media.
The Berkshire Museum is in the unusual position of having a strong endowment, and yet somehow it has ended up with a job description that, rather than emphasizing the Museum, Pittsfield, and Berkshire County as places of possibility and avenues for change, reinforces the same scarcity mindset that prevailed four years ago, and still seems to hang cloud-like over the building. To quote Amy Edmundson’s The Fearless Organization, (recommended by Museum Human) “The problem solving that lies ahead is a team sport, and so you want to start by identifying and naming what the creative opportunity might be…” Creative opportunities in this job description are absent. Instead, it’s mind the money, mind the store, expand and diversify revenue streams, and maintain best practices.
Words matter. A lot. Few organizations are where they want to be, but many can point to what they’re proud of, what they’ve accomplished, what matters, and why. For many in the museum world, people matter: people who visit and people who are part of the workplace. Is this job description an anomaly? How many other museums and heritage organizations, especially those who can’t hire a search firm, don’t have enough self-understanding to identify their faults alongside their creative opportunities? I worry the answer is too many. Yet doing that work is the first step toward change, and that’s how we grow.
Be well, be kind, and do good work, and I’ll see you in March.
First, the announcement: In December this blog will be a decade old. As I’ve said more than a few times, it was started to support and augment the original publication of Leadership Matters. Later, when I worked for an epically bad leader, it helped me unpack workplace problems, and later still when I became an interim leader, it served as another type of sounding board. When I started this blog, I was literally alone. Yes, there were leadership blogs written for the business community, but there were few, if any, about the museum workplace. In fact, a decade or more ago, I would argue the field was actively engaged in NOT talking about working conditions.
Thankfully, that has changed. Today it’s a relief to share space with writers like Mike Murawski (Agents of Change,) Robert Weisberg (Museum Human,)and Paul Thistle from the country that’s friendly, foreign, familiar and near, and many more, including all those who confine their opinions to the Twitterverse, as well as organizations like Museum Hue, National Emerging Museum Professionals, and @changethemuseum. Together, I believe we all help change the culture of silence in the museum workplace. So with this good company, I’ve decided to take a tiny step back. Beginning February 14, Leadership Matters, will appear monthly on the second Monday of each month.
In keeping with my own pursuit of change–accepting, learning, growing–I realize there are other things I’d like to do on a weekend besides worrying my thoughts about museum leadership into a six-hundred word piece. So I’ll be here this week, next week, and then, going forward, monthly.
And now to some thoughts on work. Long ago, in another lifetime, I was a ballet dancer. Like many girls I took daily classes while trying to decide whether I had the courage and talent to move from avid student to something more. Clearly I didn’t, but that’s not the point. Ballet dancers–at least female ones–are used to pushing themselves beyond what’s normal. They are the people choreographers make pieces “on” as opposed to “for.” Their teachers and choreographers push and push, and feet bleeding, muscles aching, they take it.
I thought about that this week when I realized I’d reached the proverbial wall. Shouldn’t I know better? Yes, but since the beginning of January I had said yes repeatedly, often to things outside my workplace lane, and the result? It was too much and my work was suffering. And let’s not even talk about work/life balance.
There is some kind of masochistic pride in overwork, and like many workplace behaviors, I believe it’s gendered. Women are used to “doing it all.” They are the finders, the doers, the schedulers, the nurse, and while I’m sure there are households where work is equitably shared, they are often cook, maid, and primary child, pet, and elder minder as well. Those same skills show up in the workplace, where no matter their job description, women fulfill roles as schedulers, planners, cleaner-uppers, and counselors, all while trying to preserve enough brain space for a few big thoughts.
Let me pause here to acknowledge my own position of privilege. I’m White, reasonably well-paid, my children are launched, and I have a solid benefit package. So my hitting the wall is a hang nail compared to what some women cope with. McKinsey’s January report on Burnout for Women in the Workplace reports that the rate of burnout between women and men has almost doubled since last year. The Report also says that despite their own increasing weariness, women take action more consistently than men to fight it, all while–at the corporate level, at least–delivering results, but at a great personal toll. It would be nice to know how these trends and behaviors play out in the museum world, but even with a workforce that’s 50.1-percent women, the field seems disinterested in spending money on knowing what its workforce thinks.
If you’re a woman and a woman leader, what can you do?
- Keep talking. Speak with your colleagues–particularly women– your direct reports and those up the workplace food chain– about what you’re experiencing.
- If you’re a leader, acknowledge women who do extra work, whether it’s workplace housekeeping, mentoring and counseling or logistics and planning.
- Look at your HR policy. Policies aren’t one and done, they need to grow along with your team and your organization. If it’s been awhile, work on your HR policy.
- Acknowledge how the current health crisis may propel your organization into a talent crisis, and what the costs might be.
- Many museums want to diversify their workforces, but be alert to how being the only BIPOC woman can put a new hire in a space of otherness that as White on-boarders you never even thought about. Learn–which is a process, not something you get from reading an article–how to be an ally. Be a mentor, open doors, and explain the Byzantine rituals and culture of your organization.
- When you lobby this month for your institution and museums in general, remember to mention how important societal supports are for working women, like maternity/paternity leave, childcare, and oh, how about the gender wage gap?
1.8 million women have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic. As far as I know, until the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes out with its 2021 numbers this spring, we won’t know how the museum world has been affected. But you might. You might be a woman or know a woman, who’s feeling like this world she struggled to enter has let her down, and she doesn’t have the best-job-ever any more. What can we do to change that?
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
There’s a blizzard here in the northeast this weekend, and it’s hard to think about anything except comfort food, a heat source, and a good book. But despite the relentless wind, blowing snow, and the fear we may lose power, it’s time to say something, and ironically it’s something about moving forward despite the circumstances.
Self-care and wellness permeate the online world of information exchange, preaching to the choir as it reminds us what a huge emotional and mental health toll three years of COVID has taken. I’m about to add to that. If you’re a regular reader you know that since the New Year, I’ve been a bit obsessed with change. In considering change, I’ve also thought about what holds us back, individually, organizationally, creatively, physically and emotionally. What keeps us in place when we find ourselves paralyzed, procrastinating, and frozen, unwilling to disrupt the current moment, which, while maybe not perfect, is at least familiar? Sailors call this “being in irons,” when a boat turns into the wind and stalls. The sails luff and you’re stuck. It’s not good. The only way to move is to turn so the wind hits you sideways, into the sails.
So what can we do to feel the wind in our sails again? And more importantly, why are we holding back? Well, the short answer is probably COVID. Along with being a pandemic, COVID was also a change agent, highlighting faults, issues and problems in the museum world and in society at large. Maybe you remember your college literature classes where the novels were filled with change agents. Frequently, a character left or arrived, their addition or absence acting as a destabilizer. Characters went to war, were enslaved, ran away, or found themselves somewhere new. The point being that movement often prompts behavioral change.
But back to real life. For some, COVID provided an opportunity to move. Having discovered we could work remotely, if we were lucky, we moved sometimes in the company of family or friends. Some found new jobs. The act of physically separating took us away from old habits, offering, whether we realized it or not, a new beginning. If you experienced this, you may find yourself a year later, already looking back on the original lockdown as a hinge point. By providing time you never meant to take, by putting you in a new environment–even if that meant 40 hours a week at home instead of in the office–it offered a chance to think, and perhaps to think differently. But now, for what seems like the third or fourth time, we’re beginning again. How can we use what we learned and not hold back?
- Take some precious time and think deeply about the last two years: What did you learn? What do you want to hold onto? What habits hold you back? Is your volunteer work suddenly more meaningful than your career? Ditto your COVID hobby? Can you nurture it rather than see it subsumed by work?
- Did you learn to work more mindfully? Maybe you had to create space between your playroom, the kitchen table and the sink to work, and because uninterrupted time was at a premium, you had to plan. You may want to read this, yet another reason to let go of your devices for 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of your work day.
- Shed Load: Borrow from the power companies, and learn to shed load. For many, the pandemic underscored what is really important as opposed to what seems important, both at home and at work. Try letting go of what’s not.
- Can you take the creative time you had at home to work? How would your colleagues react if they were encouraged to take time every day to think without devices in the room? Is that possible?
- Did you discover new subject areas during COVID? Did you read astronomy and Rumi when you used to only read history or material culture? What can you do with that? Recently I read a piece in The Atlantic called Your Bubble is Not the Culture by Yair Rosenberg. My favorite line is “But when critics lose sight of why most people consume culture, they start missing what makes most things popular. In their search for significance, they forget about the fun.” The same could be said about curators, yes? Can we just be regular folks and put collaboration ahead of significance, working collaboratively with our communities to build bridges between collections and community? We might discover our bubble isn’t our community’s bubble, and low and behold we might find the wind in our sails.
Be well, be kind, do good, and do good work.
Wednesday I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room scrolling through email when an announcement for George Washington University’s Museums Today popped up. The title was 1,000 Ways to Reshape the Future of Museums with Mike Murawski, author of Museums as Agents of Change. I registered on the spot, which seemed appropriate since one of the things Murawski has encouraged his readers to do is reflect on their own relationship with change. Change is not something I adore, but encouraged by Mike’s writings and others, I am trying to live more in the present and not always anticipate the future as its own special brand of disaster.
Promptly at 6 p.m. Murawski appeared on screens around the globe. He opened by asking us to breathe while reflecting on an ancestor, mentor or guide who’d been important to us in our journey. He followed up by reminding us that for him (and for me too) museums are human-centered. I am old enough to remember when that would have been considered a completely wackadoodle thought. The immediate response would have been about the primacy of collections, their importance, and their meaning. A decade or more ago, museum humans’ only role was to be the air beneath the wings of the collections they served. A noble cause, but ultimately futile because it is humans–as care givers, people who see, people who love, people who bring their own stories, people who transform things–are the ones who make collections do their work.
As the talk continued Murawski reminded us to be disrupters, to celebrate the questioners among us, and to–where we can– break down hierarchies within our own institutions. So in that spirit, here are 22 ideas for creating change in 2022. What would you add? What would you delete? Share them here or with Mike.
- Consider cross-training both as a way to augment staffs decimated by COVID and by plummeting budgets, and as a way to increase understanding and empathy across your staff.
- Prioritize your HR policy: Does it reflect your organization’s values? If not, why not? Does it reflect life in 2022?
- Put your organizational values front and center. Are they something the staff knows about, talks about, lives and breathes? If not, why not?
- If you’re among the many museum folk preparing to advocate for the field in front of state or federal legislators, consider letting them know how important the American Families Plan will be to your organization in terms of parents, families and caregivers who make up your staff.
- If you’ve never done a gender equity audit, consider doing one now. Women make up slightly more than half of museum staff nation wide, and the gender pay gap remains a critical and unsolved problem.
- Model praise for questioners and creative thinkers.
- Always say thank you.
- Support your colleagues. Build empathy.
- Support going outside. It’s 4 degrees where I am, but when it’s appropriate, take your meetings on a walk or out-of-doors.
- Take a page from Murawski’s book and begin a meeting with a breath. Or more than one.
- Nurture creativity by looking at time. Are you and your colleagues always rushed? Are you ever encouraged to sit and think? If not, can that change?
- Make sure planning meetings include your colleagues across the spectrum so doers, not just deciders, are in the room.
- Work to make discussion equitable.
- Stand up and advocate when a colleague is bullied or harassed.
- Consider how your organizational values connect with your larger community? Does your museum help with issues around citizenship, food insecurity, childcare, or the environment? What would that look like?
- What work have you done recognizing historical and implicit biases ingrained in your catalog, in the narratives dominating your collections, and in the presumption of privilege permeating your organization?
- How does your museum or heritage site work against neutrality? When was the last time you took a stand?
- How is your museum or heritage site working to recenter its whiteness? See also La Tanya Autry’s recent article for more questions.
- How do new ideas germinate at your museum or heritage site? Is it an easy path or a risky one? Does everyone from security and housekeeping to curators understand how to broach an idea?
- Is your staff is safe, and do they know what to do if they’re not.
- Are your colleagues are seen?
- Are they are supported?
Be well. Be kind. Do good work, and do good at work.