Author photo, taken at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe, N.M., artist unknown
There is a whole lot of blame going on in the museum world with plenty directed at museum trustees. Where are their voices as the pandemic and the racism awakening unleash a Pandora’s box of anger? Anger at the irony of museum leadership releasing statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter while watching staffs decimated by COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs? Of museums sitting silent, serene and closed while women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA staff reveal that life inside isn’t so perfect?
Those of you who regularly read Leadership Matters know my antipathy to Twitter. But, though I rarely tweet, I do read, and recently there have been a a lot of comments about the need for a new sort of museum governance. (Can I pause here and say, how much I appreciate @MuseumsandRace’s series of questions on complicity. If you haven’t read them, you should. And if you need to spark staff or board discussion, use them.) But back to a new governance model. Many questions were raised by @TylerGreenBooks. He points directly at art museum trustees, suggesting art museums act like corporations not charities (his word), and that their boards are made up of folks whose major qualification for board membership besides money is “that they shop for art.” In fact, nonprofits, including museums, are corporations, just of a different type.
Tyler Green also suggests art museum boards are “bereft of experts with knowledge and experience related to the charity’s mission” while adding that “wealthy trustees give the minimum institutionally required board dues, and go along to get along.” Is that true? I have no way of knowing. And given the huge variety, even among American art museums, it seems a massive generalization. However, AAM’s 2017 Museum Board Leadership Report tells us that 2/3 of museum directors say their boards have a positive impact on job satisfaction. Should we believe them? Or have they crossed some economic divide, setting them far from the world of their hourly staff? The Report also tells us the vast majority of museum boards don’t assess their own performance, a concerning fact given that it’s likely boards presume there’s a world of assessment going on inside the museums they govern. And it also offers this nugget: “Board members believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions, but they fail to prioritize action steps to advance these priorities.” That was three years ago. Has that trend continued? If yes, maybe @TylerGreenBooks is correct, but for an entirely different set of reasons.
A year ago, AAM launched its Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion initiative, bringing 51 museums and $4 million dollars together national initiative to diversify museum boards and leadership. That was the same time the Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker wrote, “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” (The Ford Foundation is one of the initiative’s three supporters.) Walker says museums have veered too far in appointing trustees whose only defining characteristic is unimaginable wealth. He suggests that board diversity can’t be seen as a compliance issue, but instead must be a key transformative step. Is the answer museums without boards? How would that work, in a country where the vast majority of museum funding comes from private donation? Or is the answer better boards? And who watches the watch dogs?
This week Darren Walker wrote another opinion piece for The Times titled, “Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege?” It is directed at the world of the one-percent Walker now inhabits. He suggests, “The old playbook — giving back through philanthropy as a way of ameliorating the effects of inequality — cannot heal what ails our nation. It cannot address the root causes of this inequality — what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’” He asks what those with power and privilege are willing to give up?
It seems to me this is a crucible moment for museum boards of trustees, a moment that demands action, because the righteous anger and discontent aren’t going away. And as Maxwell Anderson put it so succinctly in his recent essay for Apollo, “The privileging of endowment balances before the pandemic seems to many a short-sighted goal, resulting, as it did, in knee-jerk layoffs,” and a sense that once again in museum land, it’s money before people.
Museum boards have particular power; they fund, guide and determine an organization’s DNA. But the old ways aren’t working any more. Systemic, and in many a museum’s case, genteel racism, aren’t problems you can throw money at and hope they go away. Boards need to pause and figure out how to respond, acknowledging their responses affect not just their community–however that’s defined–but the staffs who are the lifeblood of America’s 35,000-plus museums. And before we’re all too smug, maybe this question–What are willing to give up?– is one all of us white museum folk need to answer. Our responses may be different than a board member’s, but all of us need to reflect on how we have been complicit and most importantly, how we will change.
Because making #BlackLivesMatter can’t happen without change. And change needs to come from the top.
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. 🐾”
This week I had “lunch” with my friend Franklin Vagnone, president of Winston Salem’s Old Salem Village in North Carolina. Frank had finished his first virtual (and emotionally draining) meeting at 8:00 am, so for him noon felt like late afternoon. As someone who was a museum leader in Philadelphia and then New York City through 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, he’s not unfamiliar with leading in crisis. But like many museum leaders in the age of COVID-19, his Thursday began with planning for temporary layoffs for hourly staff. The layoffs are necessary because they allow staff to collect unemployment until the country emerges from the pandemic and Old Salem rights itself. Vagnone isn’t alone. Last week layoffs were announced by the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, Seattle’s Science Center, and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, Science Center and Please Touch Museum, in addition to Colonial Williamsburg, San Francisco’s MOMA and undoubtedly many more. Sadly, the group most affected is the most vulnerable: part-time employees, many without benefits. As another friend put it, “Suddenly work is like trying to wash the dishes only the kitchen sink is missing and the water’s turned off.”
AAM’s President and CEO Laura Lott estimates that since the crisis began, museums collectively have lost $33 million a day. And whether planned or not, the museum world responded with 33,000 messages to Congress supporting AAM’s crisis request for $4 billion dollars, an amount which sent Fox and Friends into gales of laughter as if the arts weren’t a business, and a home-grown one at that. In the end, thanks to AAM’s tireless work, museums and arts organizations were included in the bill although not at levels that make them whole. You can find a full description here, including the full bill if you’re so inclined.
So what should you as a museum person, leader, or organization do?
As an individual:
- Take care of yourself and your loved ones.
- Maintain social distancing. Wash your hands. COVID-19 dislikes soap and water.
- If you’ve been laid off, don’t delay, apply for unemployment.
- If you’re working from home, there are many sites to support you, Here are a few good articles from last week: The Muse; Museum 2.0; The Atlantic.
- Stop looking at your screen. Take a walk. Do the reading you always meant to do, but put off.
- Plan for the future. Try to imagine, what things you want to keep and nurture, and what things you’ll change in a post-COVID-19 world.
As leader of a team or a department:
- Take care of your people. This will end, and re-hiring is costly. Protect staff in whatever way you can. If temporary layoffs while maintaining health insurance works for your museum, do it.
- Make sure everyone–board members, staff and volunteers–has the tools to communicate. Help them learn to stay in touch.
- Sort out communication methods that are most equitable. Offer tutorials to everyone, and encourage your team or department to talk with one another on a regular basis.
- Treasure your IT and social media team and build bridges between them and your program.
- Talk to your community, whether through email, Instagram or Facebook let them know you’re there.
As a Museum Leader:
- Thank your Congressional representatives.
- If you’re not an AAM member, join now. Its COVID-19 information is worth the individual membership if you can’t afford more. Ditto your regional museum service organization.
- Take care of your people. This will end, and re-hiring is costly. Protect staff in whatever way you can. If temporary layoffs, while maintaining health insurance works for your museum, do it. Don’t let HR make decisions because that’s the way it’s always done. We moved out of the world we knew about two weeks ago.
- Think about your organization’s virtual life. If you can create “A Minute with the Curator” or “A Walk with the Farm Horse” videos they may generate an audience that will outlive the virus. We’ve all watched Tim, the head of security at the National Cowboy Museum. Perhaps you have someone on your staff who’s equally charming and authentic, but never heard from.
- If you have under 500 employees, you’re eligible for a small business loan to make payroll or pay health insurance.
- Remember in the midst of the bleakness to have hope. I’ll close where I began with Frank’s video to his community.
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” President Barak Obama, Iowa Caucus Speech, 2008.
Stay in touch with each other and stay safe.
Image: Franklin Vagnone, President of Old Salem Village, from his message about #WeGotThis
This is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story. How many of you did your due diligence, meeting with your constituencies and creating or revising mission statements for your museum or heritage organization? And when written, and everyone–trustees, staff, community, and volunteers– participated, did you feel a frisson of happiness that you’d done the right thing? That momentary sense of getting your organization where it should be?
Now, how many of you read the story about the Wayfair protests this week? Maybe, like me, you only know Wayfair as a business that clogs your email, one that apparently presumes you buy “home goods” as often as you buy groceries. But this week it made the news, and those of you who are leaders would do well to pay attention. In brief, Wayfair sold approximately $200,000-worth of beds to BCFS, a nonprofit, that supplies the Department of Health and Human Services’ border facilities for unaccompanied minors.
When Wayfair employees learned about the sale, they contacted management. Subsequently more than 500 employees signed a letter asking Wayfair to cease selling to BCFS and any other nonprofit doing business with border facilities. Wayfair leadership declined to stop the sale. In turn, hundreds of employees protested outside its Boston headquarters, garnering national news coverage. What was most interesting was hearing protesters repeat Wayfair’s mission statement, saying Wayfair should live up to the company promise that “everyone should live in a home they love.” One of the protesters added,“We don’t want to profit off of being complicit in human rights violations.”
If you’re eye-rolling here, think how this might translate to the sometimes staid world of museums and heritage organizations. Think it couldn’t happen to you? Remember last spring’s demonstrations at the Guggenheim, protesting donations from the Sackler family? Or the protest when MoMA honored a Bank of America CEO whose company funds private prisons, and the Decolonize This Place protests at the Whitney? You may say, well that’s New York where there is more money and more activism than in your community. Maybe true. But for all the head-down, thumb-tapping, addictive qualities of the Internet, it’s also hugely democratizing. Protests, disagreements and opinions ignite quickly. In an hour your organization can move from every-day complacency to under siege. To add to that, a recent study tells us that staff just aren’t as cowed as they used to be. Employees, particularly Millennials are 48-percent more likely to be workplace activists than either Gen-Xers or Boomers. They have opinions and they aren’t afraid to share them.
So how should you prepare and/or respond? Where are the chinks in the armor of your mission statement versus your organizational actions versus your board’s actions or your investment portfolio? Hint: the answer is not assuming it won’t happen. It might. And if you’re a leader, you need to prepare for praise and protest. Ask yourself:
- What’s your mission and does everyone understand it?
- Does your staff keep abreast with news in your community? If you haven’t already, for goodness sake follow Colleen Dilenschneider and Susie Wilkening. Use their data and wisdom to help understand your community.
- Do you know your supporters and what they believe in?
- Think ahead. What steps might you take to ensure you have the right messaging in the event of controversy or crisis related to your organization and its mission? Role play possible controversies to make sure your organization will react as a team.
- Has your board ever discussed whether there’s a line in the sand that would make it take a public stand?
- How would your board react to your staff participating in a protest? Of their own? With another organization?
- Is your organization able to react quickly? There’s little time to gather your peeps to strategize. If a board member’s caught in a personal or corporate scandal, if a staff member has a DUI or your organization accepts a gift from someone whose politics are at either end of a political spectrum, are you ready? Who’s your point person?
Last, know your organization, and make sure everyone else from trustees to volunteers does too. Know why it matters. If the community loves you, understand why because the more you’re loved, the higher a community’s expectations, and the more you have to lose.
Image: Members of Decolonize This Place and its supporters rally in the lobby of the Whitney Museum, Courtesy of Artsy.
Unconscious bias follows all of us around like a shadow. It’s not exclusive to people we don’t like or trust. It belongs to everyone. It comes to work with us every day. It’s there when co-workers chat over coffee, when we go to staff meetings and when we make decisions. It’s present when we interview new employees or volunteers. And it’s there any time we want to make change in the workplace.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like your problem because you work with a homogeneous staff? Or perhaps homogeneity defines your part of the museum? Living inside a bubble doesn’t mean bias isn’t there. It just means you don’t experience it. And while much of today’s discussion tends toward race, bias is a searchlight pointed alternately at age, gender, weight, voice, education, class, and more.
History shows us life is iterative. A century ago white women struggled to gain museum leadership positions, but for people of color in 1918, even an assistant to the director position wasn’t a possibility. Today, the needle’s moved. Just not enough. We can see what’s wrong, and the data is there in case we need to have injustice confirmed by numbers.
And its not just museum offices where bias raises its head. Recently bias seeped into collections decisions–at the Brooklyn Museum where the well-publicized hiring of a white curator for the African collection spurred the Museum’s community to protest, and at the Baltimore Museum of Art where the decision to deaccession in order to purchase work from marginalized artists set tongues wagging.
Museum leaders and boards need courage. They will never be seen as working with communities if they aren’t brave enough to stand beside them against sexism, poverty and bigotry. Speaking out means risk, and many organizations feel they can’t afford it; the loss of a gift or board member is too dangerous to take a stand. But courage also demands hope, the hope that losing one gift might mean another arrives precisely because a museum or heritage organization stood up for what it believes.
Museums and heritage organizations absorb and reflect the world in which they function, and the world outside is frequently polarized. Should museum leaders take a stand? Yes. Noblesse oblige isn’t enough. The days of museums and heritage organizations doing stuff for communities are over. It’s time to work with them. But before museums can be value driven, their leaders and their boards, and, in fact, all of us need to listen to each other, however hard it is. We need the courage to call out truth, but once the words are said, it’s what comes next that matters. We need to wait for the answer, and listen again. It is exhausting, but naming bias and bigotry isn’t enough. In fact, it can further pigeon hole colleagues, community members or trustees. Perhaps the hardest thing about undoing injustice is understanding it’s not just about us. It can’t be solely about our personal narratives. It’s for all of us, and that requires understanding on everyone’s part.
What should museum and heritage organizations leaders do to change?
- Know your organization. Know your community. Know where your community and organizational values intersect. Be a bridge builder.
- Help your organizational leadership to model ways to change behavior without further polarizing a situation.
- Make sure your staff has a place to go if they are treated wrongly or unfairly. Make sure you and your board actually know what happens to staff who complain about bias or inequity.
- Don’t let diversity and community be social-media deep. Engage.
- Listen. Listen. Listen.
We begin by expressing our sadness and dismay over the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision allowing the Berkshire Museum to sell its paintings. Kudos to Berkshire Eagle reporter Larry Parnass for his dogged reporting, and applause for AAM and AAMD for their quick and direct response to the the ruling. Deaccessioning is not illegal. It exists for a reason. It’s also possible for a museum or heritage organization to change focus and mission. In the Berkshire Museum’s case, leadership seemed to say we’re in crisis, but we also don’t want to be who we’ve been, so we’re going to sell our heritage, become something different, and never have to fund raise again. There is a tangled web of leadership questions here. We hope that over the coming months, AAM and AAMD create safety nets for directors who find themselves with boards who want to sell their museum’s prime pieces and cite the Berkshire Museum as their example.
Say the word diversity and most people think race. But as we’ve said frequently on these pages, diversity actually means variety. Colleagues with identifiable differences produce a better more creative product than a homogeneous team. And age is another piece in the diversity puzzle. That means that while it’s critical to have staff of color and LGBTQ staff at the table, it’s also good to mix the very young with the long-tenured. Why? Because since you serve a diverse and changing community and few communities are homogeneous when it comes to age.
And yet, organizations sometimes fail to look at older staff as anything other than a liability. They command high(er) salaries, they have opinions–sometimes too many–and you know someday they’ll retire, but the waiting is driving you crazy. In fact, it’s no surprise that when CFOs and directors look at longtime staff they see dollar signs because in financial terms they represent money that could be saved or better yet divided between multiple new positions.
So what’s the big deal? These folks will retire anyway, and goodness knows there’s a line around the museum workspace of Gen Xers and Millennials waiting to move up. First, it’s hard to generalize. Perhaps you know staff who are genuine fossils, whose sole reason for working is to cross the Medicare finish line. But what about the ones who’ve stored away a wealth of organizational history and narrative? The ones who know where you’ll find all the information you need. Or what about staff who, despite their greying hair, have reached a place overflowing with creativity? Or what about geezers who are models and mentors for younger staff? Is it equitable to let age be the only determinant?
Younger employees sometimes face a similar situation. They don’t get hired because they don’t have any experience, and they don’t have any experience because they don’t get hired. And then, when they are hired, particularly if they’re women, they are frequently patronized and talked over which means they are not taken seriously, which makes it harder to move forward.
The point is only that diversity is about variety. It is about making your staff reflect your community, and it is about understanding and acknowledging that a diversity of lived experience makes for better chemistry and more creativity around the table. (Don’t believe us? Read McKinsey’s 2018 report on Diversity.) A diverse team also makes a group more aware of its own biases because interaction with staff who are younger, older, LGBTQ or people of color challenges entrenched beliefs at work where everyone shares (hopefully) a common goal.
It may be a lame metaphor, but if you need an image for diversity at its best, remember the Muppets. Yes, The Muppets. I heard Frank Oz talk about their back stories Saturday, and one line stuck with me. He said all the Muppets are very different, flawed characters–even Kermit–and yet they made music, had adventures and looked out for one another. You could do worse than to have staff members as different as Miss Piggy and Floyd Pepper.
If we were sitting in a darkened theater, watching film of the last 10 days we might actually laugh because some things seem so absurd. There is an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass quality to what are now known as “alternative facts.” But we aren’t in a movie theater; this seems to be life as we’re getting to know it. So with that in mind, here are some bullet points about museum leadership in Trumplandia.
- Know your community. Embrace them all. Even the ones you as a leader might not easily befriend. Don’t preach to the choir. Be the place–whether through programming, exhibits or education programs–where everyone is acknowledged as someone who matters.
- Know your collections. If you are master of a collection that reflects generations of white privilege, turn it on its head. Think about the work of Titus Kaphar and invite your city’s artists, photographers, and people to react to your collections. Find a way to say we may be the result of privilege, but as an institution we don’t behave that way.
- Know your staff. How can you preach institutional open-mindedness if the staff break room tolerates cruel remarks or inequity. Make sure your institutional culture models how you want your museum to be in the world.
- If you haven’t addressed your HR policy in a while or, God forbid, you don’t have one, use this moment. This is a world where the White House tells some of its staff to “dress feminine,” so make sure you have defined, know, and believe in your institutional policies. And while you’re at it, review your museum’s values statement.
- Think about your Internet Use Policy. If you don’t have one, you have work to do. This is a time where change can happen in the second it takes to press the return button on a keyboard. How do you want staff to separate their work selves from their online selves?
- Based on what you know about your community, collections and audience, talk with your board. Understand and internalize how political and engaged it wants the museum to be. Think about where and how you can push the envelope and what that will mean for you, your staff, and your institution. If you are active with social justice or political organizations separate from your museum, and are likely to be photographed, quoted or interviewed as part of your volunteer work, consider sharing that information ahead of time.
- Be self-aware. Consider the necessity of self-editing. Which is more important to you: your right to free speech at a museum event or enraging a potential donor who doesn’t share your views? When in doubt, channel your inner Michelle Obama, and remember, “When they go low, we go high.”
- Last, museums are such marvelous places. They can and should reflect their communities. Be the place that offers quiet in a world of tumult, welcomes everyone in a world of identity checks, treats its staff with kindness and equity, provides facts not alternative narratives, and encourages curiosity and engagement. Here’s an example for all of us from Cornell University’s Olin Library. Without taking a position, in the clearest possible language, it makes its point.
If there ever was a time for museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens to push mediocrity aside and be the best they can be, this is it. Let us know how you are coping and changing in 2017.
Joan H. Baldwin
It’s Sunday morning. Leadership Matters has just returned from 36 hours away. We went to Seneca Falls, NY, to join 10,000 people in support of women’s rights–but particularly women of color and transgender and queer women–whose workplace issues, even in the august halls of museums and heritage organizations, dwarf complaints from their more privileged white sisters.
Why Seneca Falls? For readers from outside the United States, Seneca Falls was home to the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Yes, it’s dismaying that we’re still having a variation of the same conversation 169 years later, but so be it. The day was glorious. The speeches, from march organizer and Auburn, NY mayor Marina Carnicelli, to tribal leaders from the Seneca and Akwesasne Mohawk nations, to our own Sally Roesch Wagner, a professor, author, speaker, and museum founder who we interviewed for Leadership Matters, were inspiring. They were uplifting not just for their words, but because while we listened we were part of the 4+ million people on seven continents who took time to stand up for what they believe in.
Which brings us to our real focus: How important it is for museum staff to participate, not just in the life of the museum, but in the community. Don’t say you don’t have time. Do you vote? Can you recognize your state representatives, your city council people people, your town select people if you see them on the street? Do you speak to them? What do you do as a staff or as individuals to make your community a better place? If the answer is not much, think about what would happen if your staff showed up to help pack or serve food at the local soup kitchen, if you picked up trash in a local park or took old photographs to the community nursing home?
Museums are like novels or poems. They provide visitors a chance to step outside their own lives, to experience something different, and to make connections to the world they live in. As museum staff, how can we do our best work, interpret the past, link art and culture or connect to the natural world, unless we actually live in it? So as we begin 2017, make a promise to participate. Do what you can. Do what engages you. If you need inspiration, check out the Womensmarch 10 actions in 100 Days. Even if this isn’t “your” issue, it’s a great model for engagement. That way on January 1, 2018, when you look back, maybe it will be with a new understanding and commitment to some part of your community, city or region.
Good luck and let us know how you participate.