Is Calling for Their Death the Path to Fixing Museums?: A Leadership Agenda 2021

960px-Gravestone_(World’s_Best_Music,_1900)

By Johnson, Helen Kendrik (Ed.) (?) – Johnson, Helen Kendrik (Ed.): “World’s Best Music”’ (1900)[1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=706443

Museums aren’t in a good place. From furloughs and layoffs, to discussions about unionization to organizations failing to grapple with systemic racism, it’s a bleak picture. It’s almost as if the global pandemic unleashed the genteel restraints governing so many museum workplaces. Or maybe, with so many individuals out of work, there’s no need to stay quiet. Whatever it is, the genie is out of the bottle, and nowhere was it more evident than at the Unconference, August 1 and 2nd, titled Death to Museums.

Kudos and a round of applause go to organizers June Ahn, Rose Cannon, Emma Turner-Trujillo. As someone who’s been an observer and a participant in the museum workplace for a long time, this conference was one of the most thought-provoking I’ve attended. Twenty four hours later, while on my morning walk, I was still ruminating on many of the conversations from the day before. And isn’t that what a good conference should do?

The day opened with a talk by Dr. Porchia Moore. She defined this moment as a point of crisis, a moment of shared trauma, especially for BIPOC museum staff, and she pointed out that the constant harping on “when we can return to normal,” is yet another slap in the face to so many, since “normal” for museums meant a racist, patriarchal, poorly paid, gendered workplace.

As an older, cisgendered white woman, I can’t disagree. There’s no doubt we’ve failed. It’s as if we’ve taken each object, each historic site, each painting, and told half its story. That silk wedding dress, worn by the wealthy landowner’s bride had a story before the wedding itself. Who tended the silk worms, who sacrificed to make the fabric, who shipped the fabric, who made each tiny stitch, who made sure it was spotless, not wrinkled or stained? And who was threatened and harmed if it was? For every object there is a dominant narrative and an untold narrative. If you’re white it’s too easy to revert to the dominant. It’s what we’ve always done, while making some audiences comfortable and disenfranchising others. Clearly to give our collections their full due, we must showcase their interwoven context, giving many narratives an equal chance to be heard.

I am less sure how Death to Museums or perhaps its aftermath, applies to museum leadership. Not because I don’t believe museum leadership needs an overhaul. It does. When Anne Ackerson and I wrote Leadership Matters in 2012 and its revision in 2019, we saw museum leadership clinging to mediocrity as a place of safety. No where is that more evident than in the thousands of mission statements telling the world museums preserve and protect collections. Cryogenic preservation facilities do the same thing, and they don’t pretend to be half as important as museums.

And there is no doubt museum leadership has made a world of bad choices regarding its workforce. Many of those choices–poor pay, anti-union, the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, no HR departments, workplace bullying and other forms of inhumane behavior–have made the news recently, and many are documented and discussed in blog posts here.

But let’s imagine, it’s a new day. Gone are today’s museum boards, peopled with wealthy white men over 55, intermingled with the occasional, acceptable BIPOC. Their annual gifts are gone too as are their connections to wealth managers. So where will the money come from? Will museums follow a European model and be mostly government funded? What does that look like? Are our current federal museum workers happy at work? Is there racism, genteel or otherwise, at the Smithsonian or in the National Park Service? What does it mean to take the King’s shilling? Would museums be subject to the four or eight year cycle of political change that comes with elections? And on a more local level, how will museums run without boards or without a single leader whose role is, at some level, to be the decider?

Maybe I’m naive, but after a lifetime of working with and for, a variety of humans, it matters less to me what an organization’s structure is and much more what kind of people are in charge. Working in a museum ,where decisions are made by a group as opposed to an individual, is no guarantee of a humane, equitable workplace. In other words, to me it’s not the structure as much as it is the people in power.

Good leaders are good leaders whether they govern in groups or alone. I believe at the heart of good leadership is a strong sense of personal values, and an equitable, empathetic understanding and respect for staff, from the ones furthest from the seat of power to the ones closest to it. Any organization without that is an organization headed for peril.

Some museums–albeit not many–used the pandemic to reformulate. Yes, they had to let workers go, but they used the pause to reorganize, bringing workers back to more equitable wages, clear job descriptions and better-written HR policies. Anne Ackerson and I concluded each volume of Leadership Matters with a Leadership Revolution Agenda.  Here’s my amended and abbreviated agenda for 2021 and beyond:

Leadership Revolution Agenda

For Individuals:

  • Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. If you’re white, recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down.
  • Know what you don’t know. Pledge to recognize and fight against your own biases.
  • Develop your own leadership practice.
  • Figure out if you are an active listener. If not, learn.
  • Practice self-care.
  • Assist with or take responsibility for leadership training and development activities for your team, your department, your volunteers, or if you’re the lone professional, for yourself.
  • Stand up for your colleagues when they become targets. Be a voice for the voiceless. Be an ally and an accomplice.
  • Speak up for the counter-narrative whenever it’s absent.

For Organizations:

  • Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. Recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down. Apologize and own your organization’s past behavior.
  • Acknowledge the importance of all your staff. Pledge to make yours a human-centered museum. 
  • Build something new. Complete an equity wage review. Pledge to resolve issues of wage imbalance based on race, color, religion,  sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
  • Give staff a voice. Create space, virtual or otherwise, where staff can bring issues of inequity to the fore without fear of punishment. Pledge to listen and make change.
  • Insist upon institutional support of the emerging leader and lone professional, and the diversification of governing boards.
  • Don’t maintain the status quo; instead make a difference.

Use this moment and make change.

I want to conclude by honoring and thanking again this weekend’s speakers. They are the future and as complex as it’s clearly going to be, they are a courageous and awe-inspiring group.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


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