The Chickens Come Home to Roost: Museum Values in Times of Crises


Liz Lawley from Rochester, NY – Rooster 3, CC BY-SA 2.0,

It’s been an emotional week. We can rail against social media’s pervasiveness all we want, but the video of George Floyd’s murder forced us to look and be present. Suddenly it’s no longer possible to believe things aren’t that bad. They are. So from our living rooms, online, in parks, highway overpasses, or courthouse squares, alone and together, we began the work of ending systemic racism. Floyd’s death is only the latest in a long line of crimes stretching back to Emmett Till and beyond. And for those of us who’ve been happily ensconced in our white, liberal bubbles, perhaps there is a connection between our complacency and the eight minutes and 45 seconds that ended Floyd’s life.

So where are museums in all of this? Some are entirely present and forces for good in their communities, but some seem to believe hashtags function as a value statements. They don’t. I live in the northeast within an easy drive of many museums and heritage sites. In an admittedly anecdotal survey I scrolled the websites of a dozen art, history and general museums within 50 miles of me. What was I looking for? First to see if any of last week’s events had made it to their webpages. Second, to see if any had a values statement. Why does that matter? Maybe the public wants something more right now? Maybe the world cares as much about how a museum acts as it does about its role as collections steward. A mission statement tells the public what you do; a vision statement spells out who you want to be, but a values statement tells your staff, your trustees, your volunteers and your community how your organization behaves. And it affirms the behavior your organization expects at your site.

So, what did I discover? Only one organization had a values statement front and center on its webpages. Five of the 12 had new statements regarding George Floyd’s murder, systemic racism, and their beliefs. The remaining sites were unchanged. I understand that altering an organizational webpage isn’t as easy as changing your socks, and that many organizations utilize Twitter and Instagram for instant communication, but I don’t understand the absence of values statements. In a world where people are unkind, domineering, rude, and sometimes unlawful in our workplaces and sites, how does it hurt to say up front, “This is who we are. This is how we behave, and this is how we expect and hope you will behave too.”

Is a values statement a panacea in connecting a white, privileged museum or heritage organization to its wider community? No. Would it help? Maybe. Crafting a values statement asks your organization to focus not only on mission, but on engagement. Maybe mission statements aren’t enough any more? Perhaps museums need to be good citizens as well as good stewards. 

A lot of wiser folks than I have written about the ease and superficiality of responding to a national crisis with a hashtag. If you haven’t already, you should read Mike Murawski’s post from this week. In it, he quotes Madison Rose whose response to #BlackoutTuesday was clear, concise and powerful. The questions she poses would make excellent fodder for discussions surrounding the creation of values statements. You may also want to read Vu Le’s brilliant “Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the white moderate that Dr. King warned us about?” In his piece, Vu suggests too many nonprofits are governed by white moderates whose emotional, financial and civic investment in the middle of the road prevents action. (That moderate sensibility did not, I might add, prevent them from furloughing hundreds of women and staff of color during the opening weeks of the virus. The point being, when they want to act decisively, they can.)

If a collective values statement seems a better choice than the social media equivalent of “thoughts and prayers,” talk with your staff. If your organization sees itself as apolitical, what does that look like in action, and most importantly, what does it look like for someone in your community? Does being neutral mean in times of community crisis a museum or heritage organization’s role is essentially unchanged? Or is there a civic role for your museum? And if yes, what might that look like? If your organization already has an active community role, can it be enhanced? And how can museums gently and explicitly let visitors know their sites are places hallmarked by kindness? 

If George Floyd’s death stands for anything, perhaps it should mark the moment we re-centered, demonstrating that black lives matter, and creating more humane, value-driven organizations and museum workplaces. 

Joan Baldwin

7 Comments on “The Chickens Come Home to Roost: Museum Values in Times of Crises”

  1. Leslie Ferrin says:

    Thank you Joan for this essay and the links. It is helpful to read as I consider our responsibility at Ferrin Contemporary and structurally different from that of publicly supported exhibition venues. Our mission is very simple, we sell art by artists to support their practice and build private and public collections by guiding gifts and purchased acqusitions. Not-For-Profit institutions have responsibilities and missions that come with funding requirements based on education and community engagement. As a commercial entity we are open (not at the moment … ) to the public for free but dependent on sales to operate but we still have to make choices, decisions and commitments on how we commit to future programming that reflect our values. Given the current economic collapse, it is not clear how or exactly what role we can play or how we navigate our future. The pressure of COVID19 on businesses dependent on sales to support staff and artists, is now extremely challenged and possibly permanently damaged. With online taking over as a business model our bricks and mortar may go the way of many NFP’s unable to find sustainable funding. To all who might read this comment, if there are opportunities for partnerships between for-profit and not-for-profit entities, we offer our support and welcome the use of grants or programs that include sales platforms for independent living artists. We often hear “we can’t sell art” but that must change where it can, at the very least through choices made for products offered by gift shops and in partnerships that respect the exchange of contributions from one sector to help the other in exhibition sponsorship. The shifting of priorities in the present and future to use shared resources and engage with mutually beneficial audiences will enable us to continue our work with artists, diversify ours and others’s future programming, expand collections while we systematically address the necessary structural changes throughout society that must take place in 2020.

  2. Kim Kiehl says:

    I agree that an organization’s values should be at the heart of who they are and what they do and many places spend too little time really digging into this area. Once you have a set of values they should guide all your decision making, it should be the base of the story you want to be telling to the public, as well as the story you are telling internally. It should be the base for your organizational strategy. I wonder how many of those places that do have a values statement have used it to make decisions during the last few months–have they made decisions that tell true stories that reflect their values to the public and to employees? I wonder if other organizations don’t spend time on really developing these statements because they don’t really understand how it forms the base for the story of their organization. I wonder if places don’t spend time really developing their values because they don’t want to offend donors or visitors—they want to be “everything to everybody.” Vision statements, mission statements and strategy should come out of your values–they should be the plans of how an organization will live those values and should guide all decision making. Now is a good time for all organizations to really examine their values and plan according to those values.

    • Kim–Thank you for your comment. I think you pose an important question about whether organizations shy away from values statements so as not to offend anyone. This is a big question that could be the subject of an article: When do you bite the hand that feeds you? The Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker has written about this, but it’s one of the tricky things about values. They can’t be foisted on anyone, and they have to be universally accepted from trustees to volunteers or there will be problems.
      Joan Baldwin

  3. […] values statement” mostly what you get is a few blogs–not this one, although I’ve written about this before–and examples of how museums are valuable to their communities. That’s fine, but […]

  4. […] By building museums that are value driven. […]

  5. […] Almost half (49%) want to share values with company leadership. I’ve written a lot about workplace values on these pages. Museum jobs are hard to come by, and precisely because the process is so fraught, […]

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