#MuseumMeToo: Aren’t We Done with Excuses?Posted: January 20, 2020
In 2017 Anne Ackerson and I published Women in the Museum. One of our final chapters is titled “Ground Hog Day,” after the eponymous film with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. We needed a title like that because in the years of fighting the gender battle in the museum workplace its problems remain relentlessly unresolved, raising its head, year after year, just like a virus.
Fifty years ago women’s leadership was still a question. Women museum directors were rare, and women leaders were often found in the second spot, being logistical titans all while providing the emotional glue and the soft skills to keep the museum workplace turning over and moving forward.
Today, things are different. There are many more women leaders–and not just white women, but women of color. But the underbelly of workplace gender issues–sexual harassment–is alive and well. For those of you who were off social media last week, the director of the Erie Art Museum, Joshua Helmer, found himself without a job after an article in The New York Times reported that in his previous position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, multiple women had accused him of making inappropriate advances. When Helmer moved to the Erie (PA) Museum of Art in 2018, he continued his predatory pattern. This time involving a museum intern. The incident resulted in a Change.org petition and several articles by New York Times Reporter Robin Pogrebin. Indeed, the week ended with Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, an ex-officio member of the PMA’s board, calling for it to strengthen its harassment policies. This led PMA director, Timothy Rub, to say, ““The mayor is right and as we have indicated, our policies are undergoing close review,” all while 240 members of his staff signed a statement in support of their colleagues and the women at the Erie Art Museum.
Neither the Erie Art Museum nor the Philadelphia Art Museum are unsophisticated organizations, and yet Joshua Helmer somehow victimized women at first one institution and then another. No matter who you are in the museum world–trustee, volunteer, leader, curator, guard, housekeeper, intern, educator–this is your problem. Workplace sexual harassment destroys the social trust that exists back stage in the museum workplace. Museum workers, regardless of their titles, deserve to be safe, seen, and supported.
As we’ve seen, sexual harassment scandals plunge museums and heritage organizations into a world of bad press, not to mention legal complications. So if you are a….
Museum Trustee: If you don’t already know, ask what your organization’s policy is on sexual harassment. Where is it written, how is it available to staff, and who handles complaints? Boards are not immune to bad behavior. As a group, how do you police yourselves? If you don’t have an HR office, where do complaints go? If your organization has an HR office, when was the last time your board or its personnel committee heard from the HR director on this topic?
Museum Leader: Do not say this won’t happen here. It happens everywhere. Review your organizational policy for sexual harassment; check-in with Human Resources and your leadership team. Make sure everyone understands what happens when a complaint is made. If appropriate, role play. No victim should be made to feel what’s happened to her is her fault. Make sure victims are treated with compassion. And further, make sure you know and have thought through how complaints involving the board, significant donors, and/or consultants will be handled.
Museum Worker: Go to bat for your colleagues. Speak up and intervene. If you don’t, no matter how you frame it, you are complicit. Know your organization’s policy; know what to do in the event of an incident. Know what kind of support is available through EEOC, and how your state defines sexual harassment. And know who in your city or town offers pro-bono legal services. And for goodness sake, sign the GEMM pledge.
Sometimes we’re so besotted with our roles caring for artwork, objects and living things, and placing them in dialog with one another that we forget our staff and colleagues. If you’ve been sexually harassed or victimized, it’s difficult, if not impossible to function at work. As a museum leader no one is asking you to serve as staff psychologist, but if a staff member seems “off,” ask whether it’s something work-related. Create an atmosphere where staff feel safe, seen and supported, make sure your policies are clearly written, easily available, and that they provide a road map for anyone experiencing harassment. It’s 2020. Aren’t we done with excuses?
Image: From the infographic, “The Survey: Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace,” 2018, by Anne W. Ackerson and Joan H. Baldwin.