There’s a lot about the last 20 months that’s lamentable–lost jobs, the bandaid pulled off workplace racism, the daycare crisis–but we learned a few things as well, and some of them are keepers. Certainly one of those is that we can meet and learn–albeit not quite the way we do in person–via Zoom. It’s fashionable to moan about Zooming and how exhausting it is, but in reality bad in-person meetings aren’t much better are they? But, I digress. All I really wanted to say was I had hoped to be in Little Rock, AR this past week at AASLH’s annual conference. Clearly, I’m here and not flying home today because in the end, for a host of personal reasons, and despite an amazing conference schedule, it just didn’t seem like the moment to go to a national meeting.
So…I was feeling kind of whiney and sorry for myself, when AASLH announced its online conference. No, it’s not the same. No, you don’t get to combine listening to panels with sightseeing, meals out, and drinks with your old friends, but you get to hear and participate in a pretty awesome three-day event that touches on many of the themes of the Little Rock Conference–Doing History/Doing Justice.
This week I also participated in a zippy little online event presented by George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum as part of their Museums Today series. It was titled “Why Monetizing University Museum Collections is A Bad Idea.” In the last year, tracking who is deaccessioning and why has almost become a sport. The lesson presented is you’re either for it or against it, with no middle ground, giving way to too many presentations and social media comments with an undercurrent of hysteria. This program, featuring GW Museum director John Wetenhall, along with Kristina Durocher, Director of the Museum of Art at the University of New Hampshire, provided a calm, measured explanation of why cashing in on collections shouldn’t be a thing. Yes, we all think we know this, but for collections owned by schools, colleges and universities deaccessioning is a particularly tricky area because academic boards of trustees, unlike museum board members, have fiduciary responsibilities beyond the art their organization owns.
For me, this program showed up the same week our new auditors asked for a current appraisal of our collection. In my experience, that hasn’t happened in 20 years, and it was like a door opening on a house of horror. So…to spend an hour in my own kitchen listening to a couple of thoughtful folks talk about my concerns was affirming, and wouldn’t have happened two years ago. COVID didn’t bless us with much, but online learning and discussion certainly changed.
I want to close with an invitation to listen to this Brief But Spectacular Moment from PBS’s News Hour where NYU professor Scott Galloway talks about going from crisis to opportunity in a post-Covid world. One of my favorite lines: “So the enduring feature of COVID-19, it will be seen as an accelerant more than a change agent.” He closes with three questions: Number one is whether this is an opportunity to become a caretaker for someone else, meaning not so much looking after your aging relatives as pledging to care for and about another human in person, and face-to-face? Two is whether we’ve made the investments in friendships to carry us forward, and number three is whether we have the grace and the courage to allow forgiveness to work its magic. A great listen. As Anthony Hamilton says, “Love is the new black.”
Leadership Matters will be on hiatus until the week of October 11.
Take care and be well.
See if this sounds familiar: A staff member is tasked with leading a project, program or a team. Once the task is assigned, they are largely left alone. They wait for a check-in, and when it doesn’t come, they assume all is well. Life goes on. They make choices, and enjoy their autonomy. When performance reviews fail to materialize, they assume it’s because their work is satisfactory. Their budget–another indicator of organizational confidence and priorities– remains stable. Their program/project/team has a few triumphs and avoids disaster. In fact, you’d call it a success, until there is an epic event like a pandemic. But it could be a weather-related catastrophe, a stock market crash, something unexpected and external. Suddenly this staff member and their program enter a no-fly zone. After months of no commentary suddenly it seems there were things wrong, but now it doesn’t actually matter because the program/project/team needs to end because suddenly the organization needs to save money. If they are lucky, your colleague will be reassigned.
I have seen this happen more than a few time across organizations. Perhaps you have too. It’s not confined to colleagues low on the organizational food chain. It happens to directors, and it happens to hourly folks, to people who’ve demonstrated the kind of loyalty not seen much these days, and to those hired a short time ago. So what’s going on? There’s a kind of kill-the-messenger similarity about these narratives. How does someone go from being the golden girl to being fired or reassigned with few words exchanged?
Admittedly, if you’re in the middle of a similar scenario, figuring out where you went wrong may not save your job, but it may prevent it happening in the future. One thing many of these stories have in common is the individuals–whether it’s a director, curator, museum educator or hourly employee– are sometimes distanced from their colleagues. Maybe they work remotely. Or maybe it’s subtler than that. Maybe they’re in the top spot or maybe they’re launching a new entrepreneurial program. But one thing’s for sure: over the long haul, they didn’t get feed back, and that is a problem. Why? Because a presumption that no news is good news is just that: a presumption. No feedback, whether from the Board, from your direct report, from your colleagues or volunteers, means you’re not learning, and you’re not getting better. You’re autonomous, but you’re also–deep down– unquestioned and unmotivated. And as annoying as your colleague’s suggestions or your leader’s directives might be, they keep you tethered to the organizational mother ship. You may be doing excellent work, but if it’s not in tune with the way the organization as a whole is trending, you and your great ideas are far easier to sacrifice. You will express surprise at having built such a successful program, but your director, your leader, your board, may say, but we didn’t ask for all that. And now we don’t need it. And it’s costing us money. True of course, but that’s because they weren’t actually talking to you, and you assumed everything was okay.
So what should you do if you’re asked to launch a first-time, path breaking program for your organization?
- Celebrate. Leaders don’t give stretch assignments to losers.
- Set up regular check-ins with your direct report and a group of colleagues who benefit or utilize your project.
- If you do receive feedback, listen, reflect, change, and grow.
- Submit an agenda before each meeting. Recall for everyone why the organization wanted the project in the beginning. Ask if you’re still on track and driving in the lane?
- Send a confirming email after the meeting with a list of your take-aways. (Yes, you are covering your own ass, but you are also opening doors for dialogue and questions.)
- If people put you off by refusing to meet–they’re too busy, there’s a worldwide pandemic–set yourself a deadline, and submit a short bullet-pointed report detailing what you’ve accomplished and the challenges you see on the horizon.
- If you’re not sure about something, ask questions.
And if you’re a leader who inherits what was once a first-time, path breaking program, and it now no longer makes sense?
- Know what you don’t know before cutting anything. Why was it started? What was the motivation? Who uses it? Who will be hurt if it’s cut?
- If there is no information except the proverbial game of non-profit telephone where 10 people have 10 different memories about why something started, vow to change going forward, and document what’s happening. Your successors will thank you.
- Find the documentation about performance. What’s been accomplished? Was this program stellar in its early years, but less so now? Or the reverse?
- Get to know the project point person. If you have to turn off the tap, it’s good to know them and their skill set.
- Remember, if they’ve submitted regular updates and/or performance reports and gotten no feedback, they aren’t the problem so don’t blame them. If they were asked to only color in the lines, but you want an abstract, that’s on you. Explain your concept, and let them try.
- Bringing a program to a close is hard. Be respectful. Do it with grace, so the person whose position is changed finds some self-respect in the process.
It’s almost July. Be well. Stay cool.
Leadership Matters will be on hiatus until July 12. I hope you get some time off too, and if you’re in the United States have a safe July 4th gathering. I’ll be catching up on reading, seeing family, and walking with my dog Scout.
nevil zaveri – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nevilzaveri/2211600979/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29855988
We’ve all had enough Zoom, but weeks ago I agreed to be part of a panel discussion. I was one of four museum women asked to speak about gender in museums for a group of museum interns. I had a difficult week so when our Friday morning planning session rolled around I logged on without much thought about what might happen except a group of women slicing the intersectional pie regarding gender and race in the museum workplace. I anticipated a kind of cut and dried divvying up–five minutes on the gender pay gap, 10 minutes on sexual harassment, overlaid with time spent on museums as a pink collar profession, and on and on, while also trying not to make a field these interns might someday join sound too horrific. And besides, I thought I could encourage them to join the Gender Equity in Museums Movement, always a good thing.
I was wrong on all fronts. From the get go, our moderator was more interested in our own narratives and what we’d learned from them, then tidbits about navigating the museum workplace. After introductions and some background on the intern group, it suddenly occurred to me we’re wise, and if we suddenly turned the clock back, what would we say to our 22-year old selves? And that’s where we started. One of the panelists recalled how she’d chosen the path most expected. Each time the road forked she selected the way forward that seemed conventional and secure. Would she do that again? No. We talked about letting life, fate or some force beyond our control make choices for us. One of us recalled how when the worst thing happens–and maybe each of us has our own worst thing–it not only fills us with sadness, but it reframes all the small stuff. Even a world-wide pandemic isn’t quite as devastating when you’ve already visited your own pit of grief. We talked about how it felt to be bullied at work and the inexorable damage sexual harassment visits on a career. We referenced the fact that too many of us see a career’s beginning as a long, slow climb toward some pinnacle of success off in the distance, but how for many women there’s not a direct path, but a series of zigs, zags, sharp slopes, and the occasional deep dive. And one of us reminded the group that we’re all victims of other people’s imaginations, that trying endlessly to fit ourselves into someone else’s conception of us is exhausting, and headache-making.
So what made this such a breathtaking hour? I can’t speak for everyone, but not knowing one another might have helped. There was no posturing. There was humor and openness. There was a willingness to read the room in its weird Zoom squares. There was generosity, and thanks. There was, I think, grace.
One of the participants characterized museums as being the kid–probably the white, privileged kid– at the back of the room behaving like a jerk, but who never gets caught. And if he does, he deflects, letting us know it was simply a mistake, not in any way a series of deliberate choices that leave women of color navigating racism, all women navigating harassment and gender bias, and collections too often reflecting curators’ biases rather than communities they represent.
So here’s my take away: If we could come to work and leverage a little grace in our workplace what would that look like? I have filled these pages with how important it is for museum staff–indeed any staff–to be safe, seen, and supported. Grace nurtures empathy and compassion so colleagues feel valued and cared for. Those values breed happiness, which turns on creativity. And who doesn’t want all of that?
Grace is the place where wisdom, humor, empathy and compassion intersect. It is a practice, and museum workplaces could use more of it.
The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking around. Lewis Carroll
Every leader out there knows some weeks are just not your week or as an old friend used to say, “Some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” I’ll just put this out there: a) What is life without irony? and b) How funny is it that after eight years of writing about leadership as a follower, now the shoe is on the other foot?
I understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of a leader who can’t apologize or who can’t make decisions to save their soul. I’ve thought deeply about what it means to be bullied at work, to have your colleagues shun you because supposedly you can’t get along with the person who’s bullying you. But in those situations I was only responsible for myself. Leadership is different, right?. I know, duh?
As a leader I’m responsible not just for myself, but for my team, for their well being and professional growth at work. So here’s what I’ve been thinking about: I have a team member who appears to collaborate, who appears to listen, who seems friendly and nice, but I’ve come to realize maybe what’s happening is more like a facade where credit is given, but where collaboration is absent. Why? Well maybe there are some control issues going on, maybe there is some insecurity, but I’m an interim leader not a psychologist, and all I know is absent real collaboration we don’t get a multiplicity of skills, voices, and creativity.
Let me pause and say that the work in question is good and in some instances very good. It’s brought our team attention, compliments, and respect. So what’s not to like? Well, sharing credit with your colleagues isn’t sharing ideas. And despite the rhetoric, it’s exclusionary. People are left out, and when they’re excluded often enough, they stop trying, which in a weird way fulfills the bias of the bossy team member who acts as though they weren’t good enough in the beginning. What makes a person want to do everything themselves? Why don’t they trust their colleagues? I don’t honestly know, but here’s the journey I’ve been on this week:
- First, I had to get my own feelings out of the way. I’m someone who would likely walk over broken glass to avoid out-and-out conflict, so there’s that. Sitting down to explore something negative isn’t my go-to place as follower or leader.
- I also had to figure out whether my distress was because another team member had been hurt or because my own ideas were being stone walled. That meant exploring this pattern of someone who says they’re happy to partner, but only if things are done their way, while making everyone else feel a teensy useless. Was I just cranky because my own ideas weren’t being applauded? The answer was maybe, until I realized this wasn’t about me. Projects and programs are outward facing, and in this case, the community needs to decide what’s useful, not an individual, and particularly not me.
- Next I had to talk about what was happening without making it personal, and hopefully to help our team member be not only self-aware, but socially aware, conscious of how their colleagues are feeling.
- Then there is that old saw, listening. Perhaps we all need periodic re-sets on whether we’re really listening or just waiting to speak.
- And last, as part of listening, to discover a way team members can identify their strengths so when they do collaborate, they contribute the best of their skillsets?
Change is a challenge, but it’s necessary to keep us all growing. There are too many days when like Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts we’d like to say, “Off with your head,” rather than ask open-ended, thought provoking questions that create a safe space for creativity. But it is creativity we all need to move our team, program, museum or heritage organization out of mediocrity. So let’s play to our strengths, listen, and let ourselves be vulnerable. Who knows how we’ll transform.
P.S. In one final nod to the ongoing deaccession discussion, if you haven’t read Glen Adamson’s In Defense of Progressive Deaccessioning in Apollo Magazine, read it. It’s beautifully expressed, thoughtful without being ranty, and it makes it clear deaccesioning is more than a binary choice of keep or sell. Done right it is thoughtful, nuanced and about the future, not an apology for a century of bad choices.
Of all the things COVID-19 has unmasked for museums–race, class, money, #museummetoo, digital sophistication, collecting practices–communication is rarely at the top of the list. And yet, for those of us who are back in the office, attempting a new normal-normal, communication is the core of what we do, and it’s challenging.
Have you ever finished work and felt as though maybe you hadn’t said anything even though you engaged with colleagues all day? You weren’t mean. You weren’t demanding, but throughout the day it felt as though there was a scrim between you and your team? As if whatever you were saying, muffled by your mask, a piece of plexiglass, six feet of separation, or Zoom, just didn’t compute?And then, as a kind of coup de grâce you learn your team thinks it communicates poorly. You could blame the masks, Zoom, the plexiglass, or the six feet of separation or maybe you could accept the challenge and try to improve your own communication skill set. I am, and here are three things I’m thinking about:
- Poor communication is a symptom not a cause: When humans in the workplace grapple with difficult but ill-defined issues, people tend to fixate on communication. What they really want is information, but because information is slow in coming they focus on a human, suggesting their director or the board are poor communicators. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” If you make communication the problem, you may miss the real issue altogether. Gather your team, and ask them to focus not on communication, but on their work. Perhaps it feels impossible to plan anything–the annual spring fundraiser or book an exhibit for 2022– because no one knows how long the pandemic will continue? Then the issue isn’t necessarily communication, but planning in the face of so many unknowns.
- Which segues to communication as something you participate in, not something that happens to you. Too many times the workplace turns us into children, waiting for someone further up the food chain to tell us what’s coming and what to do. Yes, many of our museums and heritage organizations are hierarchical. Your direct report, whether that’s the director or chief curator or shop manager may know things before you do, but when they talk, whether six feet away, in an email, or via Zoom, that’s communication. Be present. We need to bring our whole selves to these interactions so we don’t miss information because communication is also listening, reading and comprehending. COVID has made that more challenging which is why we all need to work harder.
- Last, communication is value-driven. It is a way to convey who you are. It’s also a way to empathize. Be humble. If you see a colleague in trouble, see if you can help. If you feel a story’s not being told, ask why not. If you have an idea, make a proposal. Each of us is unique in our experiences, our world view, the culture that shaped us. We all want to work in the kind of museum where we can be our whole self, but we need to act on the fifty-percent of the equation that’s ours. If we hold back and blame colleagues for not understanding us is that their fault? If an idea doesn’t make it onto the agenda, should we blame the team because they didn’t intuit what was in our head?
We hear a lot about when the pandemic is over as if someone somewhere will press a switch, and we will return to life as we knew it. But we know it won’t be like that, and also that once there is a reliable vaccine, the mending and the healing will take a long time. Many days it’s difficult to stay focused. Take time to let your staff talk about how the pandemic has affected them personally. Meet regularly in small groups or Zoom’s breakout groups to make sure no one’s voice gets lost. Let’s all pledge to help each other feel valued, appreciated and confident.
This week I had a staff member resign. Although they had been offered feedback, support, and encouragement, ultimately they decided to leave. Which is fine. Staff need to choose what is best for them. But organizationally, two narratives circulate. One, outlined by the staff person, and given to close friends and colleagues, and another by the leadership that is a version of the classic “this staff member chooses to seek new challenges.” Neither is very satisfying, and neither is honest.
Personnel issues are poor examples of leadership’s failures to be honest or transparent because ethically and legally most of the time organizations need to keep their mouths shut. But they also point out one of the issues with transparency. We have the facts: A staff person resigned, but the facts don’t tell us why, and it’s the why humans want.
Here is where transparency and honesty collide. Transparent is defined as “easy to perceive or detect” and also “having thoughts, feelings, or motives that are easily perceived,” and yet time and again it’s directed at leadership implying they were not being honest, which means “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere.” But how much can you tell? How honest are you willing to be? And if you focus more on “the what” than “the why,” will you create a kind of “gotcha culture” within your museum or heritage organization?
When someone we know receives a big promotion, my husband often quips they are the same person today they were yesterday, adding that the promotion, the increased salary, and the perquisites don’t make anyone any smarter. We might hope that in the wake of the trust a museum places in a director that leadership comes with a huge dose of humility, but too often it doesn’t. So we have my-way-or-the-highway leaders certain they know it all, and they don’t. And their nervousness at not knowing everything makes them protective of what they do know. Meanwhile, staff, particularly those who’ve worked through an almost seven-month pandemic, don’t want surprises. They don’t want to guess when the next wave of terribleness will hit them. They are weary. They want honesty and a degree of control over a world that seems frighteningly turbulent. They want leaders who will share what they know, and more importantly share a plan of action based on what they know.
So maybe it’s not just transparency we’re after? Maybe we want more than the facts. Maybe we want honesty delivered with a side of humility. Because when staff ask for honesty they also ask for trust. And when leaders trust staff with information, whether in person, via Zoom or in emails, they signal their belief in staff. But that information–whatever it’s about–must come coupled with honesty. Leaders need to say here is what I know about this particular issue, but here is what we need to think about. Honesty banishes the proverbial elephants from the room, and nurtures relationships.
As we weather this crisis, here are some things to consider about honesty and transparency for individuals practicing leadership throughout museums and heritage organizations:
- When you need to deliver information, sort out the facts from the “whys” and make sure you deliver both. When you don’t know, say so.
- Transparency and honesty are aspects of communication. Leaders take blame for being poor communicators, but sometimes staff can’t communicate either. They are fearful of disagreeing with one another because they have to work together. Practice being a good communicator no matter where you are in your organization. And if you find good communication happening in a particular program or department, ask why. Then listen and learn.
- Share what you know when you know it. And listen to what staff say in response.
- Make yourself available. Be there for your staff virtually or actually.
- When you make a mistake, be honest. Apologize. Move forward. If you don’t, no one else will either.
Be well and stay safe.
How many times have you heard the words “I just want to do my job”? Sometimes shouted, the implication is that work is monstrously challenging not because of its tasks, but because of co-workers. If only they weren’t there you could get so much more done. You would, in fact, be perfectly content.
It’s doubtful the museum world was ever as benign and complacent as it appeared, but the combination of COVID-19, layoffs, remote work, and a long-needed racial awakening has left many workers stressed, sad, and anxious. And those are the ones still employed. Add to that the fact that many of us have returned to a workplace under threat by both the virus and what will happen if our organizations need to close again, and you have a perfect storm of issues. Not to mention, we just spent six months working from home, and only seeing our colleagues on the screen. Why is the return to work so difficult?
It’s a universal truth, that virus or no virus, some co-workers are challenging. They are poor listeners, they’re immature, and they seem to save their worst behavior for the office. Americans spend one third of their lives working so over time that bad behavior can reach epic levels. It’s as if junior high, the nadir of all educational experiences, never left us, waiting instead until we got what we were certain was the dream job, only to plunge us into an environment where colleagues behave cliquishly, rudely and emotionally. No wonder people want to be alone.
The museum world is unique in that it employs a broad spectrum of ages. Between the board at one end, volunteers, and full and part-time staff at the other, there may be as many as five generations working side by side. While that’s a sign of a healthy workplace because intergenerational viewpoints generate creative thinking, it can also be a point of contention as Millennials and Boomers, Generation Xers and Z collaborate. Overlay all that with issues of gender and benign and overt racism, and whoa, what a mess. So…unless you’re going to embark on a career where you always work alone, what should you do?
First, a few truths:
- Much of museum work involves collaboration.
- Collaboration challenges us and spurs creativity.
- You don’t have to be friends with your museum colleagues, but you need to work with them to serve the museum well.
If you work with a problem individual you should:
- Put on your empathy hat and listen. Their work experience may not be yours.
- Try a different way of communicating. Maybe they are better at hearing than reading? Ask which they prefer.
- Whatever happens, don’t take it personally; instead, make work your priority. That’s what you have in common, not your combined negative feelings.
- Be friendly, but try to curb oversharing.
One caveat, none of the above means putting up with racist, sexist or inappropriate remarks. Never enable that behavior. Be prepared to interrupt with a remark like “I find that offensive.” There are some great examples here.
If you’re a leader:
- Listen first.
- Reflect on the way you communicate. Are you rushed? Leaving things out? Expecting staff and colleagues to intuit details?
- Be respectful. Remember to lead with a positive, and assume the best about a staff member’s actions.
- Be clear, be concise, and underscore a conversation when it’s important. There’s nothing like saying, “I have something important to say, and I hope you can help.”
There are very few times when we get to hire an entirely new staff. Most leadership opportunities mean going to war with army you’ve got. That means figuring out how to encourage your team to put the exhibit, the fundraiser, the project, ahead of their differences; to see collaborative, creative thinking as the reward; to collaborate and communicate rather than compete and argue because in the end, we all–community, staff, and board– benefit when the museum succeeds.
COVID-19 and antiracism have pulled the bandaid off so much in American life, exposing and highlighting inequity after inequity. So it’s no surprise, museum leadership is under fire as well. It’s an emperor-has-no-clothes moment as staffs call out directors, boards remove directors, and directors sometimes behave just horribly. As a result many have called for a new kind of leadership, less paternalistic, less hierarchical, more collaborative; you know, the kind of unimaginably perfect working environment we all think we want.
But what does less hierarchical really look like? What if there is no leader, just a leadership team? Sounds great, right? Everybody plays to their strengths and happily gets the work done. But what happens in a crisis when decisions must be made quickly? What if the team can’t come to consensus? Or what if other members of the staff quickly learn to play one member of the leadership team against another to ensure decisions go their way?
Another issue about team governance versus individual leadership is that the team needs to be highly disciplined and self-motivated. Otherwise one member–likely the compulsive one, who’s still answering emails at night– is sure to shoulder more work than the others. While this may work temporarily, in the long term it’s bound to fail as it requires too much of one individual without the requisite compensation. And speaking of compensation, there are many in the museum world who expect and occasionally demand a straight glide path to their “top spot.” In disrupting that pattern, a leadership team can produce a situation where members aren’t mentored properly, and consequently struggle to move out and up.
On the positive side, when problems don’t need to migrate to the top office, decision making can be swift. In addition, by removing the traditional high-paying director’s position in favor of the more egalitarian leadership team, boards eliminate the huge friction-causing problem of a museum president who makes many thousand times more than their lowest-paid full-time staff. And last, by its very nature a team may engender more risk taking, more creativity and entrepreneurship that a traditional director/president supported by department heads.
So where’s the hitch you ask? Why isn’t everyone doing this? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest two answers: First, the museum world is traditional, hierarchical and patriarchal. Based on AAM’s 2017 Board Source survey, 55-percent of the people who make leadership decisions for museums are white, male board members over the age of 50, and their knowledge base and comfort level is all about the hierarchy. Second, and probably most important, is in order for the leadership team model to work, everybody on it has to act like a leader. No surprise here, but in my humble opinion, leadership is often an absent ingredient in too many museums and heritage organizations. In many museums it’s proffered sometimes as a reward and sometimes as a career full-stop when in fact it is anything but. Leadership is a practice, a way of behaving within an organization. Being a museum director or president asks you to be the primary person who leads, but not the only person who acts like a leader.
Yes, there are museums and heritage organizations where people have big salaries, chic clothes, the right languages, the right degrees, and fancy perquisites, but in the end, a huge part of being a good leader means being a people person. It means being someone who understands it’s not about you or about the content that brought you to the field in the beginning, but instead about the team you lead, and the people and careers you nurture. The absence of leaders who actually care about staff creates institutions where bullying is rife, where hot-shot attorneys are hired to defeat unionization, where sexually harassed women are told to go work things out with their co-workers is a horrific and bothersome bi-product of this absence of leadership.
Museums are made up of people. Whether those skills coalesce in a team of five with no top spot or in a single, much-revered individual, they are still absolutely necessary in creating humane institutions where staff take risks, think creatively, and trust one another. Because guess what? Leadership matters.
It’s three weeks since George Floyd’s murder, and public protests continue. In some states the virus escalates, while in others museums and heritage organizations begin a slow reawakening after the pandemic shut down. Last week, many museum writers and thought leaders posted reading lists, suggestions and commentary, asking those of us who are white (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that was 83-percent of museum workers in 2019.) to stop being so complacent. To make change. To understand not being overtly racist isn’t enough. Despite the overwhelming amount of information coming at us, it’s critical we engage. Trying to understand the ever-changing rules for opening after the virus is one thing, but now we’re battling two foes, COVID-19 and systemic racism.
As we set up the bowling pins again, but differently, I would like to throw something else in the mix. You’re likely familiar with “Museums are not neutral.” Created by Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry in 2017, it raced across social media as the catch phrase for individuals, museums and heritage organizations who understand their role as active, not passive, engaged not isolationist. So here’s my question: Does clinging to museum neutrality come from the same place as white people who declare they’re not racist? Don’t both ideas–the idea that a museum isn’t apolitical and the idea that without doing anything illegal or overt you can still engender and support racism–challenge our comfortable complacency, and our desire to stay motionless and opinion-less?
It’s always easier to say it’s not me, believing someone else will do the heavy lifting. You have a team to lead, a museum to run, an exhibit to design. Yet every single choice we make in service to the public is charged. From who sits around the board table, what the staff looks like, to our exhibit subjects, the ticket price, and how front-facing staff is trained, we choose. And those choices include and exclude, people, ideas, and possibilities. Isn’t choosing not to be a neutral museum a little like choosing to no longer be complacent in a racist society? Both choices ask us to understand how we got here. And both ask us to act.
So as you open the museum you closed three months ago, think about talking, listening, and learning.
LEARN: Know what you don’t know. Read, and then read some more. If you haven’t read James Baldwin since college, it’s time. And read what black women have to say. This week I read Dr. Porchia Moore’s post for Incluseum. It’s about mapmaking and we fragile white folk who can’t see the forest for the trees. I also read Rea McNamara’s “Why Your Museum’s BLM Statement Isn’t Enough,” and my colleague Carita Gardner’s piece on ways out of complicity. You’ll likely find pieces that speak to you, but don’t just read for a week or two. Make reading outside your bubble a practice.
LISTEN: Listening, as opposed to waiting to talk, means hearing what staff and colleagues say. Try to understand your staff’s experience with the museum field and with your organization may be different than yours. If your organization is located in a white, suburban neighborhood, your colleagues of color may pass through a series of gauntlets unknown to you just getting to work every day or going out on a lunchtime errand. You need to hear and understand those experiences around race precisely because they’re not yours.
TALK: Provide space and time for staff and colleagues to talk together. No, you’re not a therapist, but your staff needs to process what’s happened and be a party to opening a museum that’s different from the one you closed. A month ago that might have meant becoming an organization with a more robust virtual presence. Now we mean a museum that knows its own values, ready to be an active citizen. We mean a museum where staff of color feel free to challenge content because it’s inequitable, unfair or a narrative is missing. All of this means talking.
Change is hard, but this is long overdue. Social media is the low-hanging fruit of change. Systemic racism requires systemic change, and it’s individual change that creates organizational transformation. We’ve put this off for too long, and the 11-percent of Black museum colleagues are weary, angry, and beyond frustrated waiting for us to catch up. Let’s act now to create a museum world that’s more diverse, no longer has a gender pay gap (which adversely affects women of color), and where artists, scientists, and historians of color are equitably celebrated.
Nothing changed this week, and yet everything did. Pandemic numbers continued to climb, all while public health officials predict the worst is still to come. Lines for food banks grew as the number of unemployed multiplied. Museums and heritage organizations made headlines with massive layoffs of front line staff. Midst it all, those of us lucky enough to work from home, found our worlds simultaneously shrink to the size of our houses or apartments and expand to the farthest reaches of the world as we spend more and more time online.
This week I’ve been thinking about separation. As museum folk, our livelihood depends on our interaction with things — paintings, documents, buildings, living things or objects. Suddenly, we’re apart. Apart from the stuff we care for, caring that comes in many forms, through leadership, advancement, scholarship, education, conservation or transportation. Whatever our role, we’re separated. And in this case we’re separated not just from the heartbeat of our museums or heritage sites, we’re separated from colleagues, our human communities, volunteers, tiny children, bigger children, budding artists and scientists, families, and elders.
Is there such thing as a good separation? How do you manage disconnection yet stay attached? How many novels, plays and movies take shape when one character announces they must leave, but they’ll be back? How do relationships deepen between absent friends? Does absence may the heart grow fonder?
And what sustains us through a separation? It used to be letter writing. Now, not so much. Are separations also defined by how we choose to fill the absence?
This week I read a wonderful piece by John Stromberg, director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum to his community. Stromberg talks about the Hood’s commitment to art “by all, for all.” But more exciting to me is his open acknowledgement that however empathetic and caring the Hood’s exhibitions were, now the museum is closed, he acknowledges his staff must pivot. He writes:
As the Hood Museum staff continues to transition to our new digital work format, we are challenged to revitalize and update a key tenet of what we do: putting individuals in direct contact with original works of art and each other. How do we move forward without the physical proximity that has been critical to our practice? Can digital means replicate the intimacy of face-to-face dialogue about today’s most pressing issues?
So must separation incorporate a willingness to change and grow?
Then there is the Philbrook Museum of Art whose relationship with its community, both virtual and actual is a marvel, thanks in part to the leadership of Scott Stulen, a multi-talented artist who admits his directorship is about putting community building into “overdrive.” Who doesn’t want to know a place that in a matter of days changed its tagline to “Chillbrook Museum of Staying Home, Stay Home, Stay Social” as if this were just another day in the life. The Philbrook’s website makes you believe all your emotional and intellectual needs are in hand. Whether it’s listening to podcasts, hearing a tiny concert or participating in a children’s art class, it’s clear that separated or not, the museum percolates along, even for those of us who’ve never been to Tulsa, OK. This week the Philbrook put its money where its mouth is, announcing it is expanding its edible garden in order to support the food bank. How could anyone forget a place that offers so much for so many, and who manages to be winsome, and serious, musical and witty, all at the same time? Maybe a good separation is about enhancing what’s already there, making it richer in the absence of human contact?
Although Old Salem Museum and Gardens closed ahead of some North Carolina museums and heritage sites, the door was barely shut before it launched #wegotthis, a series of online events that included the History Nerd Alert and the Old Salem Exploratorium. About a week ago, it began transforming its historic gardens into Victory gardens to support the city’s Second Harvest Food Bank. That prompted another online series called Two Guys and a Garden. In addition Old Salem has put its head pastry chef back to work producing 50 loaves of bread a day for the food bank, while its head gardener offers videos on seed starting. Does giving back make an organization more memorable? Is it easier to ask, once you’ve given?
Last, but not least, Raynham Hall Museum, The Frick (What’s not to like about Friday cocktails with a curator?) and the Tang Teaching Museum: All used Instagram before the pandemic, but since COVID-19, they’ve ratcheted things up, speaking directly to their audience, making connections between collections and past epidemics, illness, inspiration, art and spring. And there are many more museums and historic sites you know who, despite separation, are enriching connections, building bridges, and creating new audiences.
So what makes a difficult thing like separation doable? Ah…wait for it….because maybe it’s similar to museum life back when things were normal: How about honest, authentic communication that builds outward from mission and collections to connect with community? Opportunities abound for learning the “how-to’s” of social media, but knowing your own site, and your own community, and translating your organizational DNA to images, video, tweets and Instagram, that’s on you. Because when the separation is over–and it will be–how will your organization be remembered? As the site that closed its doors and then 10 weeks later woke up like Rip Van Winkle? Or as the online friend who made people laugh, taught them some stuff, and helped out the community?
 Scott Stulen, “When an Artist Becomes a Director,” American Alliance of Museums, May 17, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2020.
Image: Chillbrook (Philbrook) Museum Instagram post, “Our cats are lonely and would love to hear from you. Write them a letter and they’ll write back. 🐾”