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.