Twelve days into the new decade, and so much has happened. Last Monday the museum world reacted to President’s Trump’s threatened bombing of Iranian cultural sites with responses from AAM, AASLH, AAMD, and even social media from the circumspect Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was the week’s beginning. By week’s end, The Times had published an article on Joshua Helmer, once employed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now director of the Erie Art Museum. In a #MuseumMeToo moment, Helmer is accused by both current and past colleagues of sexual harassment.
I had planned to write about white people trying to do the right thing, but before we go there, I need to say something. The Joshua Helmer scandal not only generated a social media storm, but a Change.org petition demanding Helmer’s firing. Meanwhile, Friday, the Erie Art Museum released the following statement,”The Erie Art Museum Board of Directors takes seriously all allegations of misconduct. Prior to offering Mr. Helmer the position at the Erie Art Museum, the Board, with the help of an employment consultant, conducted due diligence including background checks. No issues were identified during our due diligence.”
The subtext here is a board who says it did its research. If the complaints about Helmer are true, then it sounds as though the board is shifting blame to its recruitment firm or the Philadelphia Museum of Art for failing to divulge what they knew. But here’s what’s really bothering me: In 48 hours the Helmer firing petition garnered over 2,000 signatures. GEMM–Gender Equity in Museums Movement–has its own page on Change.org, a pledge to stop sexual harassment in museum workplaces. In six weeks it has yet to amass 500 signatures.
Why is it so easy to sign the Helmer petition, but not the GEMM pledge? Does encouraging Helmer’s firing make you feel like you’re doing something? Does it take the onus off you, and put it where it seems to belong? For centuries powerful people have used authority to coerce sexual favors and harm the less powerful. Yet sexual harassment remains an ongoing problem in the museum workplace. Imagine, for a minute, if the GEMM pledge had been around when Helmer left the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Could employees who signed it remain silent as a purported harasser left for a new position? It’s each of us who makes change. Not “them,” whoever “they” are. And we make change by changing our behavior. Sign the GEMM pledge. Don’t wait. Do it today.
So what I really meant to write about is this: In my ongoing journey recognizing the limitations and boundaries of my own whiteness, sometimes I hear stories that speak to the way we as white humans think we’re doing the “right” thing, but it backfires majestically. Let’s imagine there’s a white development officer and a curator who’s a woman of color. The curator knows of an eminently successful young, black businessman who’s just sold his company for $30 million. She follows him on social media, knows he’s a collector, and has met him at a social event. She discusses this with the white advancement officer who’s aware of the businessman’s success. She asks the museum to approach him because her upcoming show will include several artists he collects. She’s hoping for additional underwriting for her exhibit and maybe an acquisition fund for artists of color. Instead, the development officer asks her to reach out first. In his world, it’s better if the businessman is approached by a) someone he sort-of knows, and b) by someone of color. He may also be scared–scared he’s not culturally astute enough–and he’ll say something wrong, and he doesn’t want to be wrong. The curator of color is angry because to her the optics look terrible. The collector isn’t a small business owner. He’s a gazillionaire who’s just sold to a multi-national corporation. Why shouldn’t he be treated like any other 1-percent entrepreneur?
What’s wrong here? Well, a lot, but definitely a failure to communicate. The white advancement officer is unable or unwilling to confess he feels ignorant, something he’d do in a heartbeat if the prospect were an international, and there were a language barrier. In addition, he’s comfortable letting the curator of color carry the burden of race. She, on the other hand, reads the situation from the black entrepreneur’s point of view and suspects he’ll be insulted if he isn’t treated like every other big giver the museum approaches.
So where does leadership come into all of this? Good leaders understand their own limitations and vulnerabilities. Humbling themselves in front of colleagues, admitting what they don’t know, and asking for help come naturally. When we’re all being our best selves–admittedly a daily struggle–we need to model great leader behavior: stop worrying about judgement, stop worrying about control, stop writing the script for others, and instead communicate and collaborate. What if the advancement officer admitted a gift from this young entrepreneur would be a first from a non-white donor, and he was scared of messing it up? What if he asked for the curator’s help and collaboration instead of turning the ask back to her? What if she felt she could say, I am not the spokesperson for my entire race? And further, what if, as a woman of color, she also didn’t need to worry about being characterized as brash and pushy?
There are a number of ways this story could have gone. I offer it only to point out how our narratives hem us in. Understanding our own parameters enough to know what we don’t know, and having the courage to be vulnerable are leadership practices we all need to develop.
Photo by Robert J Weisberg
To begin, I want to announce Gender Equity in Museums Movement’s (GEMM) Pledge to End Sexual Harassment in the Museum Workplace. GEMM released the Pledge November 12. It is available on its website and on Change.org. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 338,000 museum employees in the United States. In 2018, 49.5-percent were women. Based on the two surveys conducted in 2018 by Anne Ackerson and me, and a second by nikhil trivedi and Aletheia Wittman, roughly 49-percent of those identifying as women reported experiencing verbal or sexual harassment at work. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a shockingly high percentage.
Signing the pledge takes a few minutes. It asks signers to, among other things, refrain from sexist language, to be open to dialogue about museum workers’ concerns and needs, and to create and nurture workplaces free of sexual assault and understanding of consent. Maybe you’re not someone who signs things, maybe you believe sexual harassment doesn’t happen in museums or maybe you think it’s simply not your problem. The museum workplace is many things: It’s creative, sometimes inclusive, dynamic, frequently stressful, achingly beautiful, and filled with many big and small moments of discovery and learning. Sexual harassment doesn’t belong there. You are only one person out of 338,000, but by signing, you tell the world, and most importantly your co-workers, you will do your part. Join GEMM in pledging to help end workplace sexual harassment in museums and heritage organization. And don’t save it for later, do it today.
Last week I gave the keynote at the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) meeting in Philadelphia. It was an honor and a privilege, but like any new experience, it made me think. Many of the attendees came from large museums–large enough where the curator or collections manager doesn’t wear a different hat depending on the day. Based on the crowd, many are women, and many are white. That doesn’t make them bad people, but they might be ground zero for the museum world’s old-school hierarchical leadership. Other front-facing departments–education, development, leadership–have diversified more quickly, but this world, on which so much depends–if you can’t find an object, it doesn’t matter how special a curator you are–is in some ways landlocked, caught in a century-old tradition of women caring for and organizing stuff.
That made me think for possibly the umpteenth time about leadership and hierarchy. When you think about diversity, what do you think of first? Be honest. Do you think about race? Gender? Age? You have heard me say–probably too often–how important it is to have everyone at the table, and yet creating a staff who represents your community is a challenge, but say you’re successful. Say your department is like a little utopian United Nations. Say they range from Millennials who tolerate Boomers, Christians who work along side Muslims, men who work respectfully with women, gender fluid folk with resolutely cisgender. But you’re all in the same department. How does an organization’s internal segregation and stratification affect the product, the idea making, the program, the exhibit?
None of this may apply if you work at a small museum. You may see your frontline staff daily, and they may also function as security. But what if you’re part of a larger organization? How often do you talk with staff outside your department about a project that affects them? Do you speak as equals or as one staff explaining its needs to another? All I’m suggesting is diversity and inclusion is more than just outward appearances. It’s more than the Instagram-able group around the table. It’s making sure varied constituencies across the museum or heritage organization have a voice. Maybe it bothers you that there are always folding chairs in your newly-redesigned admission area? Were your frontline staff part of the architects’ focus groups? How about your volunteer coordinator? Did anyone mention what percentage of your visitors are retired? That’s a banal example, but it speaks to how listening to many voices from across an institution makes it a better place. And breaking down hierarchical barriers is another avenue to creating a diverse and healthy workplace.
So….the intentional museum flattens hierarchies and contributes to diverse idea-building by allowing staff at all levels to:
- disagree with one another
- be themselves in the workplace
- contribute to the best of their abilities
Google the words “vision and leadership” and you will get 493,000,000 hits. The two words go together like ice cream and cone. We tend to think of vision as something a leader must not leave home without, and lack of vision as a bad thing, but like most things in life it’s a little more nuanced than that.
There are plenty of museum leaders with vision who are dreadful at what they do. They need to be the center of the stage; their leadership philosophy is “my way or the highway,”and they have all the empathy of a box of Kleenex. That said, in the vision department, you know what they want, and where they’re going. Their vision may be self-centered, but it’s clear. They may raise buckets of money in some weird form of self-aggrandizement, but money gets raised. They like programs and exhibits because it’s a chance for them to shine at the expense of long suffering staff. Having worked for more than one of these folks, in my experience, there’s a counter-intuitive kind of peace that comes when it’s never your job to have an original thought. But maybe that’s just me.
Despite the digression, it’s not leaders with vision I actually want to talk about. It’s leaders who have no vision. Poor communicators, who are attracted to every shiny object, and can wander in the weeds for hours, these folks employ familiar leadership language, but nothing happens. They blather about starting this new program or that new initiative or tell you they’re revising the strategic plan, but to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there.” This is bad enough when you’re living it, but the cost when they leave is lasting. Here’s why: Working for someone who doesn’t know where they’re going creates anarchy. It permits everyone to put up their own guard rails and create their own reality. The curators may see the museum as one thing, while education may believe it’s something subtly different, and external affairs may be selling a third version to funders. Oh, and then there’s the board, and who knows what they think.
In theory a new director’s arrival might close these individual paths, funneling everyone behind the new leader, but old habits are hard to break. You may find staff who don’t meet deadlines well or who never finish projects. Why? Well, working for a vision-less leader means there isn’t a lot of decision making going on. Things happen, but not because the director acted as though they mattered. You may find staff who don’t get along well. Why? While there are myriad reasons for staff dysfunction, but a vision-less leader forces staff to chart their own paths, and if there are six staff, there may be six subtly different paths–a sort of individual mission drift.
A leader who succeeds a vision-less ED must be a great communicator. She needs to be explicit about her vision, while at the same time embodying it. If you inherit staff used to charting their own way, here are six suggestions to make life better quicker:
- Pay attention at meetings. Meetings are organizations in miniature: Be clear what you want to accomplish. Create agendas–as normal as that sounds, your colleagues may not have experienced regular agendas. Assign a note taker. Assign tasks. Follow up at the next meeting.
- When staff talks about previous projects, programs or exhibits, ask how they were tracked. Through data, anecdote, both, neither?
- Be transparent, authentic and clear. Listen.
- Use the Heath Brothers’ concept of mining the bright spots*. Look at staff successes and parse how and why they worked. Understand. Repeat.
- Check in with staff often. Does their work have meaning?
- Recalibrate when possible, pointing out how differences in approach mean differences in result.
*Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard.
Picture this: You’re in a meeting with a direct report. Things are not going well. Her creative impulse seems laser focused on deconstructing everything you’ve built. You cannot understand how someone who’s ostensibly a colleague, and who came to work for you willingly, has misunderstood you and your museum to such a degree. Suddenly you’re crying. Worse, you’re angry that you’re crying, which makes your tears harder to control. Sound familiar? Well it should. According to a 2018 survey, 45-percent of people report crying at work.
Even if you’re in the dry-eyed 55-percent of American workers, given that we toil outside our homes an average of 90,000 hours in a lifetime, and one third of us work more than 45 hours every week, it’s likely, some day, some time, you’re going to cry at work. Is crying a bad thing? The experts say not really. According to the same survey, CFO’s and people over 55 are the most forgiving when it comes to tears, reporting that unless it happens frequently, it’s not a problem. Crying is after all a human emotion, and far less toxic than yelling, which also happens in some workplaces.
As with many things in life, how crying is perceived depends on context and culture. In fact, the person crying often reacts more negatively than those around her who may not know how to react. Crying, after all, violates what anthropologists call “display rules” or a social group’s informal norms. Traditionally, our workplaces–and museums and heritage organizations are still wallowing in a whole lot of tradition when it comes to human behavior–aren’t places for overt emotion; ergo, don’t cry.
If you identify as a woman, you may be told by mentors, friends and leaders to avoid crying at the office like the plague. Why? Because museum workplaces are staffed by humans, not Artificial Intelligence, and humans are full of subconscious biases. For many, whether we acknowledge it or not, crying indicates weakness, emotionality, and a loss of credibility. And women who cry are treated as if the next stop is a rest cure and basket weaving classes.
There are biological reasons that women cry more than men. Women have more prolactin, a hormone that stimulates tears, while men’s higher testosterone levels may prevent them from crying. Men cry less frequently than women at work, but those who do are generally not penalized. Crying somehow humanizes men, while in women it can mark them as weak or hysterical.
This leads women to slink alone to the bathroom, where they sob in a stall before returning to their desks as if nothing happened. But something did. And weirdly, the way your workplace handles crying may be an indicator of how evolved and inclusive it is. In an old school, hierarchical, and male-dominated workplace, crying is a red flag. If it happens too often, your tears–and everything they represent– stamp you with a sign that says “emotional,” and future moves become challenging when you’re described as a good worker, but too emotional. In a more inclusive work environment, where stress is acknowledged, crying is shrugged off as part and parcel of being human in a complex and demanding world.
So what should you do if you find yourself in tears at work:
- Acknowledge what’s happening–“I’m upset and I need a moment here”–and step away. Blot your tears, breathe deeply, return.
- Do a self-check in. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know we advocate for weekly check-ins.) Are you under an undue amount of stress? At home? At work? Are you getting enough sleep, exercise, time for yourself? If the answer is no, can you change any of those patterns?
- If you know some situations make you prone to tears–the board member who winds you up, the umpteenth building crisis with the misogynist plant manager, the unnecessarily sassy staff member–plan for them. You know what frustrates you makes you cry, and once you cry, you’re angry, and things escalate. Anticipate situations like this by role playing and rehearsing ahead of time so you respond with words not emotion.
If you’re a museum leader, and a member of your team cries:
- Be kind. Be mindful that it’s not all about you. Or even necessarily about work. You have no idea what’s going on in your staff member’s life. Instead, ask whether there is anything you can do, and whether they want to be alone for a little while.
- Normalize the behavior with a phrase like, “I think we’re all a bit stressed at the moment.” Again, offer the person crying space if they need it.
- If it’s appropriate, respond with your own story of crying at work. In doing so, you help create a culture that’s accepting, not embarrassed, about emotion.
How do you deal with emotion in the museum workplace? Let us know.
Yours for a tear-free August.
Since we wrote about museum salaries and the populist spreadsheet created to empower employees, we should also mention there’s a second spreadsheet for interns. Together, they offer museum workers at all stages of their careers badly needed information.
As of this weekend, the intern spreadsheet had over 200 entries. Sadly, the column where you’re supposed to post salary or stipends is peppered with zeros. If you are an undergraduate, graduate student or a professor in one of the many museum or public history graduate programs, either add to this list yourself or encourage students to do so. And if you’re an employer, particularly if you are a museum director, you may want to share both lists with your HR department and/or with your board. For emerging professionals there are enough roadblocks to a museum career without committing three months of your life to work for free. Let’s end the myth that museum employees come to work every day satisfied with their salaries or their internships. Not all do. Museum directors and boards need to understand that smart, creative, hard working staff need more than a living wage. And we know many don’t even get that, but that’s a different post OR if you’re coming to AASLH’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, join us Friday @ 4 pm for Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum.
Speaking of museum boards, last week we wrote about an audience member violating organizational values. This week we want to extend that discussion by asking how values play out on boards of trustees, and what happens when an individual’s moral compass moves in a different direction than the organization they serve. For those of you who missed it, this was the week Adhaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer and U.K. resident, spoke about her resignation from the British Museum’s board. In a piece on the London Review of Books blog, she wrote: “My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.” Holy smokes! Have you ever yearned for a trustee like Soueif?
If you said yes, be honest: Who is easier? The trustee who never misses a meeting, who Skypes in, shows up, and gives consistently? Or the trustee with feelings and opinions, the one who deftly unmasks pretense, the one whose giving capacity is great if quixotic? In terms of the group, who is more valuable? Is it a struggle to keep the trustee with feelings engaged, and what do you lose when, like Soueif, she leaves?
In an article written almost 30 years ago, Miriam Wood describes board behavior as cyclical. After the “Founding Period,” boards move through three distinct phases, Supermanaging, Corporate and Ratifying before the whole cycle begins again. Obviously we can’t know much about which phase the British Museum’s board is in, but if I had to guess, I’d say Ratifying. Julia Classen writing for NonProfit Quarterly described that phase like this: Unlike the previous phases, the board in a Ratifying Phase may not be as cohesive a group, and members may not know each other very well. They are less likely to be spending much time thinking about the organization beyond the 30 minutes preceding each meeting. In sum, the board is functional but largely disengaged from the organization.
We know from the Web site that the Museum has 25 board members. Happily, they post their minutes online although since they only meet four times a year, the most recent minutes are from December 2018. Only five of their members are appointed by the board itself, the other 20 positions are the purview of the Prime Minister or nominations from the presidents of other British arts and cultural organizations. They are leading artists, economists, historians, and captains of industry. The board includes seven women (eight before Soueif’s resignation) including three women of color.
If you read Soueif’s piece, it’s clear she loves and admires the British Museum. Somehow though the other 24 board members were waltzing while Soueif was committed to interpretive dance. A bad metaphor perhaps, but you get the gist. She clearly states that public institutions have moral responsibilities in relation to the world’s ethical and political problems. And she recounts how three years ago she tried to get the board to discuss its relationship to the oil giant BP, questioning how its underwriting of exhibits flies in the face of environmental concerns. In the end, she said she realized that the museum deemed money (and therefore BP) more important than the concerns and interests of an as yet largely untapped audience of Millennials and children.
Perhaps many of you have wrestled with biting the hands that feed you. In fact, that came up in last week’s post when audience members who’d paid to attend a gala benefit behaved horrifically to a woman of color. But how do you (and presumably your board chair) deal with a board member who’s out of step? Some thoughts:
- Boards are people not monoliths. No matter how tired or overwhelmed you are, address problems–disengagement, anger, frustration– when you see them. If it’s not your place, then take what you’ve observed to the board chair.
- Meet with the board member in question. Listen. Is she right? Perhaps she needs someone else to make her case? Are there reasons to accommodate her or is the board in the wrong phase of growth to make the shift she wants?
- Make sure your board is unified when it comes to organizational values. In an age when any museum can be called out in an instant over social media, it’s more than a good idea to make sure the board circles ’round to the organizational value statement on a regular basis. The leadership blogger Jesse Lyn Stoner provides a handy test to see whether board, staff and volunteers are on the same page.
- Be careful not to banish the one person who will say the emperor has no clothes. She may be the only board member willing to voice dysfunctional behavior. Think hard before letting her go.
- Boards, like staff, should exemplify diversity, not for the photo op, but for their ideas, and directors and board chairs should encourage healthy debate. If your board member’s frustration results in scapegoating, and the group turns on its own, the bigger more important issues won’t go away. Identify them, and talk.
We’re entering the dog days of summer. Stay cool and stay in touch.
Uncertainty is a leadership hallmark. Museum leaders need to expect it, confront it, and cope with it. Control is almost impossible, especially when it comes to people, who are unpredictable at best. And who does a leader interact with most? That would be your staff.
Sometimes a leader tries to limit unpredictability with command and control. The result is a staff who rarely talks about anything, and if they do, they report and confirm, as opposed to think, wonder, or discuss. By endorsing what the leader says, they agree in public while dissenting in private, a dangerous combination. Thankfully, autocrats like that are increasingly rare. What’s more common is a leader who flees from dissension of any kind. But in today’s fractured world, conflict avoidance can leave a leader in a swamp of unresolved feelings, making change difficult if not impossible.
Conflict is uncomfortable. How many of you have experienced two staff members arguing? It feels both unpredictable and intimate, as if someone were under attack. And if you’re the leader, it may feel as though everyone else in the room wants you to step in and steer the team back to calmer waters. Perhaps they do. On the other hand, they may never have participated in appropriate work conflict and they’re fearful that in the end it won’t be about the work, it’ll be about the individuals involved. And it might.
Learning to argue constructively takes time, so if you’re hopeful that a box of expensive Belgian chocolates will turn a disparate group, ages 24 to 75, into a cohesive team, think again. Healthy conflict begins with trust. Trust grows over time. As a leader you need to:
- Be open, honest, and transparent.
- Apologize when things go wrong and show some humility.
- When things go well, show some gratitude.
- Be consistent and equitable; don’t treat some staff as confidants while leaving others in the cold.
- Share information.
- Listen, don’t judge.
Allow your team to get to know one another. Again, trust in a group builds over time. It’s rarely accomplished by an afternoon hike or a potluck supper. There is a reason outdoor leadership programs frequently incorporate “highs and lows” into team building. By sharing a weekly low and a high, team members get to know one another and quietly build empathy and trust.
And just a reminder here, the bottom line is a better product. When team members are silenced, ideas are sidelined, and what comes to the table is underdeveloped, poorly thought out, and doesn’t include everyone’s thoughts. A team that can really talk about what matters at your museum builds a better museum. So begin by agreeing on communication rules:
- to speak respectfully to one another.
- to attend meetings, be on time, listen fully, and not interrupt.
- to agree on a method for conflict complaints and how they should be handled.
- to agree how decisions will be reached.
Then, grapple with the twin ideas that conflict is healthy, and that you don’t always need agreement. You need compromise, but believing and implicitly asking everyone to agree is a different scenario. Make sure your museum or heritage organization creates a culture of discussions. Ask (you can model this too) staff to back up statements with data and facts so change happens through what you know, not random anecdote or wishful thinking. And last, discussion is iterative. If you reach compromise on a program, exhibit or fund raiser, return to the compromise afterwards. Talk. Decide with hindsight what worked and what didn’t. Move forward.
Bottom line? Assume you hired the good guys. Assume they all want the best for your team, department or museum. Treat them and their ideas as if they matter. They do. Your reward will be a flowering of imagination and creativity. Run with that.