Last week’s post generated some buzz. It also prompted me to continue thinking about race and workplace equity, so here goes:
My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th-century. A generation later she might have been a professor or a politician, but as a young woman who finished college before WWI, her rebelliousness ended when she married. When I was little, she frequently spoke in quotes, most of which sailed past me. A frequent flyer was “Do as you would be done by, ” a sentence that seemed so riddled with verbs and prepositions that it was unintelligible. But decades later, it has more resonance.
Many of our organizations either have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices or aspire to have them. They are there to help us right centuries of wrong doing, to re-center our overwhelming White world views, and to provide staff safety and security in knowing everyone, not just the powerful and well compensated, is treated equitably. In retrospect, what strikes me about the Chicago Art Institute’s decision to dissolve its docent program in favor of paid, BIPOC, front-facing staff, is not the decision itself, but about the museum world’s reaction to it. Equity isn’t equity unless it applies to everyone, even the people whose political views, values, and personal choices you don’t share. In other words, to quote my grandmother, “Do as you would be done by.”
It strikes me that this is likely one of the most challenging parts of 21st-century leadership. As a leader, you need to be fair or equitable, always. Not just because it makes your organizational optics better, not just because you’re trying to appease a particular group or board member, and not just because in your heart you’re more allied with one point of view than another. To be truly equitable, your bag of biases must be kept off-stage otherwise you’re liable to privilege one individual or group over another. Why? Because they appear to share your values? Maybe outside of work they’re your friends? Maybe they remind you of a family member? Who knows? But when push comes to shove, they stir your sympathies, and cause you to lean in ways others do not, and unless you acknowledge that behavior and interrogate it, your decision making will be flawed, and you will likely make inequitable decisions.
One of the symptoms of post-Trump, post-COVID America is people seem free to speak their minds whether one-on-one, on social media or through protest. That can be healthy–like when staff collaborates for better salaries and benefits perhaps through union membership–or unhealthy–when a museum visitor berates a staff member. It also means when decisions are made, it’s likely there will be a reaction, which is all the more reason today’s museum leaders need to understand their own value systems, to align them with those of their organization, and to make sure the two mirror one another.
Last week some readers pointed out that we don’t really know how the Art Institute communicated with its docents, whether it chose to speak with them face-to-face or ended the volunteer program via email. Fair enough. But it’s easy to applaud the dissolution of one program without knowing anything about what will replace it. Would it help if we knew the Art Institute had also revamped its hiring practices so candidates are assessed with a minimum of bias? Would it help is we knew the Art Institute had prioritized BIPOC hiring, onboarding and mentoring?
Workplace equity is critical for everyone. And at the same time, we don’t leave our values, our beliefs, our friendships and our families behind when we enter the workplace each morning. That means museum leaders, whether at the top of the organizational food chain or department heads, need to be endlessly empathetic, and constantly engage in self-reflection, working to ensure individual success along with the collective whole. They need to make challenging the status quo the the beginning, not the end game. In short, systemic change means there are no quick solutions. And they need to understand White people’s antiracist work can leave Black colleagues exhausted. Why? Because somehow it becomes a White thing, necessitating congratulations, acknowledgement, and once again making White staff the focus of the narrative.
Change begins when an all-White volunteer program becomes BIPOC and paid, but it can’t end there. Is it enough that a predominantly White museum feels less bad because it changes the color of its front-facing staff without knowing whether they are safe, seen, and supported? Does a different staff who still bears the burden of a racist museum culture make for a different museum? In a perfect world, antiracist work is a process that hopefully deconstructs the ways White ideologies are prioritized in a museum, linking staff changes to larger internal organizational changes designed to create safe, equitable museum workplaces.
Be well and do good work.
In case you missed it, last week the Art Institute of Chicago “fired” its docents, effectively ending its 60-year old volunteer program. Its intent was to swap its public-facing volunteer staff, replacing them with paid and volunteer BIPOC museum educators. Not surprisingly, the folks with time to volunteer tend to be white women of a certain class. Thus, the 82 remaining volunteers received a letter saying a new model was in the offing where paid educators and volunteers would work together “in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility to participate.” The result was a kerfuffle at numerous levels. Museum thought leaders spoke out. There were Facebook posts, and a days-long discussion on AAM’s Museum Junction. And that was before conservative media–including The Federalist–got wind of what was going on, turning an internal communication from the Institute to its volunteers, into a firestorm of reverse racism. The NY Times quoted Institute Director James Rondeau saying, “Clearly we were not prepared for this to become a discussion of identity politics,” he said. “We are only focused on our mission.”
The Art Institute isn’t the first museum, nor will it be the last, to diversify its volunteers and front-line staff to better reflect its community, and that’s a good thing. Privileged White people talking about art, inventions or living spaces created, made and owned by other privileged White people may be less than meaningful if you’re not White and privileged yourself, and even that’s not insurance against boredom. Instead, it’s not the decision itself that troubles me, but rather the way the Art Institute handled its staff.
What do I mean? Maybe it’s instructive to think about Spring 2020. Remember when the world shut down? We were barely going out or rather we were going out, but only to be outside, breathing air without COVID droplets away from other humans. The rest of the time we worked from home or we didn’t work at all because many, many front-facing museum folk were let go. Boards, museum presidents and directors will tell you staff were dismissed because with no visitation, they couldn’t be kept on the payroll. Remember how many of us deplored the way staff were treated? As if they didn’t matter, as if they hadn’t given a great deal to whichever museum or heritage organization was summarily letting them go. As if at the very moment the world was in crisis, it seemed like a great idea to fire folks via email.
Now forget which side of the Chicago Art Institute debate you’re on–forget for just a moment how important it is to have community based education staffs teaching in their own communities–and ask yourself whether a museum should fire anyone by letter or email much less 82 longtime volunteers? Is that a museum you want to work for? What does transparency mean if it doesn’t mean having the courage to talk to staff face-to-face? When your fellow front line staffers and educators were let go ostensibly because of COVID, the pandemic was an excuse for not talking to staff in person. Can the Art Institute not do a socially distanced meeting? We all say we want organizations that are humane and transparent? Shouldn’t that extend to volunteers?
What would have happened if the Art Institute had brought its volunteers together for a meeting and discussed the changes they want to make? What if they’d offered them the opportunity to partner with BIPOC staff and new volunteers? Would that have been challenging? Yes. Would some volunteers still felt unwanted? Probably. But if those alliances worked, imagine how dynamic they might be. Imagine a White volunteer of a certain age and a Black community teacher speaking to middle schoolers about a painting. Imagine them each engaging students, and treating each other with kindness and respect. In its best iteration, it might be like the verbal version of Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman vs. The Blue Boy After all, isn’t really seeing and talking with someone you don’t know the first step toward empathy and caring? Isn’t that what 21st-century museums need? Isn’t that how systemic change begins or is that just too naive and Pollyanna-ish?
Change is really, really hard, but it needs to be equitable. And, at an organizational level, museums need to stand behind the change they make by being willing to talk things through with staff, whether volunteer or paid. We all want museums to evolve, but successful DEI work isn’t just replacing white volunteers with BIPOC staff. An organization needs to understand its own DNA, acknowledge its faults, and move forward through collaboration. In this case, part of its self-reflection might be helping its longstanding volunteers understand how they–perhaps unwittingly–helped put it in a place that needs changing.
I want to be very clear here: I’m not objecting to the Chicago Art Institute seeking a new model. Docent tours hark back to an age of sage-on-a-stage, of museums that are all-wise, all knowing, and too frequently imperious. This particular docent program is sixty years old and undoubtedly needs disrupting. What I’m objecting to is the way it was done because it echoed the way big museums treat their front line workers. Museums need change. They need staff who reflect their communities in imaginative, smart ways. But they also need staff who feel safe, seen and supported. An organization that can “fire” 82 volunteers by letter can also fire 82 staffers. Systemic change might mean museums working toward changing organizational culture, creating models where staff –volunteer or paid–work together with empathy and respect.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
If you read this blog often you know it’s not autobiographical. In fact, most weeks I try to keep my private life off stage, but today I’m changing things up. To begin, I’m involved in a working group on my campus called “Doing the Work.” It’s an off-shoot of six-month study to help members of our community understand and combat racism wherever we see it. Last year, it was structured on readings, video, and discussion. This year, it’s focused around personal projects on campus in the hopes that we can each influence the spheres in which we work, whether it’s Special Collections (me), the Library, the classroom, residential life, you name it. All that is to say, that I am currently hyper-conscious of my behavior, my words and my choices, trying to re-center a privileged, white outlook toward something more empathetic and wholistic. Most importantly, I’m conscious of what’s missing, since so often here in the genteel northeast, what’s left out is as telling as what’s included.
So that’s the back story, but not the main event/ There are a lot of creepy, wrong things about Facebook, but it’s not entirely without merit since it allows us to hear from colleagues we might only see annually at a meeting. In my world one of those people is Omar Eaton-Martinez, the Assistant Division Chief for Historic Resources in Prince George’s County, Maryland. If Omar and I have met once, it’s a lot, but I grew up in Maryland, and started my career about a billion years ago working for the Maryland SHPO’s office so reading his Facebook posts pulls at my heartstrings. I know the region. I know some of the places although most not well, until last week. Last week Omar posted a video from the Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recent hearing in Allegany County, Maryland. Why is that important? Well, I moved from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland, the county seat for Allegany County, in sixth grade. It’s where I went to middle school, and where I returned after graduate school, and where I had my first full-time job as director of the Allegany County Historical Society.
The Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearing, sadly the first of many, tells the searingly sad story of the October 6, 1907 lynching of Robert Hughes, an 18-year old Black man, arrested for an altercation in a local bar resulting in the death of a White police officer. Awaiting trial in the County jail in Cumberland, Hughes was abducted from the jail, beaten and shot while local officials stood by and allowed it to happen. Needless to say many of the town’s residents came out to watch as if seeing a man killed in front of the courthouse is akin to seeing the circus come to town. Like many of this country’s lynchings, the murderers were never charged, Hughes’ family never received an apology, nor did the town provide funds for Burns’ sister to take his body to Pittsburgh for burial.
Apart from the obvious pain of the story, the sadness in the voices of Burns’ descendants speaking about their family history, here’s what struck me: As the historical society director, why wasn’t I thinking about race in Cumberland, Maryland? And to add insult to injury, all of this took place less than two blocks from where I lived and the Historical Society headquarters. No, it wasn’t the digital age, when I could have Googled a ton of information from my home laptop, but it was there. Where was my head? And here’s what’s even weirder. I didn’t have an easy time in that position. I was fresh out of graduate school, and almost messianic in my zeal to make change. But questions of race, weren’t the questions I was asking. Why? Perhaps I thought I knew the narrative although clearly I didn’t. In the end, I think everyone engaged in re-centering ourselves needs to ask these questions. Not everyone will be brought up short as I was, but everyone needs to look to their pasts and acknowledge what was left undone, unsaid, and unexplored. You can think of yourself as the kindest most empathetic human in the world, but if your world view is stuck on the White channel, you’ll never ask the necessary questions. Maybe you don’t even know what questions you should ask, but start by “doing the work.” Acknowledge the work left undone, the questions left unanswered. If you work for a heritage organization look for the stories left out of the narrative. Who’s not present? Who in today’s BIPOC community can help reconstruct stories that are missing or covered over because while it’s your obligation to make sure the story is told, it’s not always yours to tell.
So, it’s decades late, but kudos to Maryland for creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and for the hard work of historians and genealogists in Allegany County in uncovering this story. And a big thank you to Omar Eaton-Martinez for posting the video.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to pause and reflect, what we see are intersections. That’s what happened to me this week. It’s a year since George Floyd was murdered, 12 months for many of us spent on re-centering, on understanding that seeing ourselves as nice and not racist was never enough, and that in a world where white is “normal” and everything else is “other,” action is necessary for change. And change, however small or local, is still change. So on the eve of the George Floyd anniversary, I had the honor of listening to a group of high school students report from their 20/21 history class. Although, like everything else these days, the presentation took place on Zoom, in reality, it took place at Salisbury School, an independent boys boarding school in northwestern Connecticut, and in local archives, hiking trails and towns in Litchfield County, CT.
If you spend time around high school students, yours or someone else’s, you quickly realize teenage boys and history aren’t always a natural fit. This class was titled “Searching for Slavery in Salisbury,” and taught by Rhonan Mokriski. What I witnessed was the premiere of the student film “Coloring Our Past,” which focuses on local Black history and the Cesar family in particular, but also on the way the boys learned American history in elementary and middle school. After the screening, there was a discussion where the students and viewers like me were joined by members of the Cesar family including their matriarch and family historian, Katherine Overton.
Ms. Overton’s family has the distinction of being able to trace its roots back five generations in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut to Overton’s fifth great grandfather, Timothy, who fought in the Revolutionary War, and Titus, who is buried in Town Hill Cemetery, Lakeville, CT. If you’ve watched any of Henry Louis Gates’ series Finding Your Roots you know how rare it is for a Black family to have a history that doesn’t dead-end in enslavement. The Cesars are that family, landowners, farmers, and business people, who sent Rae Ellen Williams to Howard University in 1936, launching their descendants away from the tiny pocket of Connecticut where they’d lived for generations.
As important as that narrative is, much of it researched by Overton herself, that’s not what made the Thursday evening Zoom so distinctive. First, it was the privilege of listening to Overton’s family. On the Zoom screen were tiny grandchildren, teens who had helped with some of the filming, cousins, sons and daughters. There was a lot of laughter, and a few tears. Even though we were outsiders, we were present for their reaction to a film about their family, a gift to them, but also for us as witnesses. After a year marked by a murder seen around the world, here were 10 minutes of reparation shared when a high school history class attempted to undo the missteps of standard American social studies, not to mention your basic All-American racism and implicit bias.
This week on Krista Tibbet’s “On Being,”former poet laureate Tracy Smith talks about asking white readers to observe, listen, eavesdrop and reflect. One of the things she says is “As a Black person in America — as anyone who’s not white, in America — you know what it feels like to be the unintended audience of something and to have to bend your ears in a certain way to accept and deal properly with a statement that isn’t intended for you but that implicates you in some way. This is a skill. And this is a skill that it’s time for those in the community of whiteness to embrace, because, like I said, I think the salvation of our culture — and I don’t really think that’s an exaggerated term — depends on that kind of expanded awareness of self, of place, of where we are and what we’re doing here together.” I can’t speak for everyone on the Zoom, but I became a listener to a history I had no active part in, and yet I couldn’t help but think how the threads of my own family narrative and others like mine imprinted families like the Cesars.
The second thing that was so powerful was that this was history in action. A lot of museum folk talk about making history real, but too often that means actor-like guides or labels filled with questions rather than facts. I doubt any of the boys in the class will become historians, but I bet 50 years from now they will still be able to recall their feelings when they hiked to George Cesar’s farm site with their classmates and a metal detector or when they placed a Witness Stone dedicated to writer and abolitionist, James Mars on the Green in nearby Norfolk, CT and were greeted by Connecticut’s first Black Congresswoman Jahana Hayes. They didn’t just learn history, they were historians. They were participants.
There is a line in Allen Bennett’s play The History Boys that goes, “How do I define history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another.” This class, their film, the witness stone, and the other place-based work they did, took them away from learning the long list of stories we call history by making them story tellers, changing them from passive to active. Did they get a five on their AP U.S. history? I don’t know, and honestly I don’t care because they have an experience of doing history which is very different from studying for the AP.
I don’t work in a history museum or historic site any more, and since the collection I manage is largely art-based, I rarely do history exhibits. But if there is a lesson here, it’s what experiential educators the world over know: That we remember what we do, more than what we’re told. There are many museums and heritage organizations that help visitors understand history not as something they read on the walls, but in personal ways, making them part of the narrative. Think of Eastern State Penitentiary’s opening question, Old Salem Museum & Garden’s Hidden Town Project or the way Matilda Joslyn Gage’s house chose not to be another suffocating collection of 19th-century furniture, and instead asks visitors to talk about complicated questions surrounding religion, Indigenous people and women’s rights.
Burbling beneath the surface of American public education is an ongoing argument some have termed “the social studies wars,” pitting those who see teaching history as an opportunity to delve into the country’s complicated past, opposite those who think the “The 1619 Project” is dangerous and divisive. No matter who’s right, there is a generation who are abysmally ignorant about democracy in general and American democracy in particular. So many of our museums and heritage organizations, whether the proverbial wealthy white man’s home, the site of a social experiment or a memorial to carnage and disaster, offer us a window into how people thought and what they thought about. Those are bridges to conversation about how we reached this moment, to a group of high school boys, who learned a version of local history that left everyone out who wasn’t white.
At the end of the Searching for Slavery Zoom someone asked Rhonan Mokriski what he thought. He wiped his eyes, struggling to keep his emotions under control. After thanking everyone, from Katherine Overton and her family to his students and his school, he said he thought he saw change. That maybe, just maybe, this generation would be the doers and the change makers. It was a spark of hope at the end of a long year.
Sometimes it’s better to make change where we can then to rail at the world. As museum and heritage organization people, what can we do to follow these students’ example?
I admit it: It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around intersectionality. When Anne Ackerson and I started writing Women in the Museum five years ago, I would have told you all women experience sexism in the workplace. It’s what unites us. Well, maybe, but in retrospect so is the fact that we all walk upright and most of us have two eyes and two ears.
Even though I was taken to task more than a few times by women of color during the writing of Women in the Museum, I don’t think I really understood intersectionality until this summer. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder I heard a Black parent interviewed on NPR. They were talking about giving their children “the talk.” Anyone who has raised children knows parenting provides a wealth of things to worry about. All those worries escalate when children become teenagers, independent beings capable of making spectacularly bad choices. But listening to those parents, I realized my worries while raising two children were minor compared to theirs. So although we are united in parenthood, our experiences are vastly different. Of all the many things I worried about, car accidents, alcohol, bullying, drugs, you name it, I never worried about whether my children would be called out for simply being themselves. They are white, and therefore protected.
The term intersectionality belongs to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a lawyer and civil rights advocate. She introduced it in a 1989 paper presented in Chicago, although she acknowledged it came from generations of Black women writing that, “In every generation and in every intellectual sphere and in every political moment, there have been African American women who have articulated the need to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race. So this is in continuity with that.”¹ Later, she used the metaphor of a traffic intersection, with cars coming from several directions, to describe intersectionality, opining that when an accident occurs, it’s difficult to pinpoint who or what caused it. Just as when a Black woman is talked over, demeaned or harassed at work is it because she’s a woman or because she’s black? Or is it because she’s not in power and someone who’s male is or someone who’s white and male?
There are a lot of museums and heritage organizations hiring Black leaders at the moment, and that’s a good thing, but questions remain: Do organizations do the kind of soul searching they need to do during the hiring process so BIPOC leaders aren’t tokenized or hired to check a box? Here’s what I mean. If a board hires a person of color because it thinks it should, but never addresses its own biases and issues, what happens? The first months may be fine, maybe even the first year, but what happens when implicit bias burbles to the surface? What happens when it’s clear the board’s perception of its first Black director is riddled with preconceptions. The Board may have trouble articulating those feelings because board meetings are not generally the place for feelings. Yet without unpacking what’s happened, both leader and Board begin an alliance based on misunderstanding.
And what if the leader is a woman of color? What if the Board also has issues with gender, issues it’s never copped to? What if, in their heart of hearts, they perceive women as less competent, prone to emotions, possibly more devoted to family than being a director, and maybe not leadership material? That’s a dire picture, but it’s the “and also” of intersectionality. Women sometimes face an uphill battle when it comes to leadership, but women of color must also combat the additional lens of race, that’s often masked in the urbane, left-leaning world of museums. And women’s workplace experiences vary drastically, so boards, HR departments and museum leadership need to do more than congratulate themselves for stepping outside the box and hiring a candidate of color.
One of our Johns Hopkins Museum Studies students remarked this week how important it is to be able to come to work as your whole self. Too true. Some museum staffers have always had that luxury. And that’s the inflection point between diversity and intersectionality. Knowing your staff reflects your community and the world as we know it is important. That’s the cart. But the horse is offering the respect and support for each of those individuals to bring their whole being to work, and to feel supported in what they do. That’s the horse.
As we work to right the wrongs of more than a century of overpowering patriarchal whiteness and classism in museums and heritage organizations, we need to be mindful of not only creating a diverse workplace, but an equitable and supportive one as well. Inviting someone to the table isn’t enough. Sometimes the rules are mysterious, opaque, and strange. We owe it to every creative, diverse soul who works with us to offer them the support and the path, the cart and the horse, to navigate the museum world.
¹New Statesman. Retrieved 10.11.20. https://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could
I don’t usually comment negatively on other writing, but Lee Rosenbaum’s column about the Metropolitan Museum’s 96 retirees was, in my opinion, a little too glib. Mostly, it blithely overlooks the idea that two things can be true at the same time. Collectively, the employees she names have been at the Met a total of almost 300 years. Leaving aside their considerable contributions, they are unusual for their long stays at the museum, an average of 36.5 years each.
But none of that makes Rosenbaum’s comment that “they [the retirees] go down as a soothing palate cleanser after the vitriol from current and former staffers who (perhaps with some hyperbole) have accused the Met and other NYC cultural institutions of “consistent exploitation and unfair treatment of Black/Brown people” and “blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees.” The fact that both these ideas–that the retirees can praise the Metropolitan while current or recently furloughed staff accuse the Met of racism– are true, pretty much sums up the museum world’s current state of mind. In brief, not everyone’s experience is the same, there is no “right” career path in the museum world, and it’s wrong and disrespectful to assume otherwise. The Metropolitan offered this group of privileged white men and women a career home. They worked long and hard and made massive contributions in the world of art history, but their experience isn’t everyone’s, and it is disingenuous to the succeeding generations of employees to suggest it is. To be BIPOC in any storied, patriarchal, gilt-edged culture is a challenge. It’s exhausting, frequently frustrating, and requires a level of daily vigilance, probably unknown to Rosenbaum’s group of retirees.
There are so many things that go into being happy at work. The top four might include: Loving what you do; having a talent for it; being mentored and challenged; and receiving a fair and equitable salary and professional development opportunities. But then there are the hidden qualities: Is your workplace a value-driven culture? Is it a place where equity is a hallmark of work life whether you clean restrooms, arrange flowers or write scholarly catalogues about the world’s most famous paintings? Is it a place that’s kind and supportive regardless of who you are? And last, there are the personal issues. Some of us are optimistic and more resilient than others. And life today–even leaving aside the monster of COVID–is perhaps a teensy more complex than in the early 1980’s when many of the Metropolitan’s retirees started working there. Overlay all of that with an age so uncertain and fractured, and is it any wonder young, BIPOC employees are weary? How can they be sure why they were hired? Was it talent, ambition and creativity or some chemistry of guilt, DEI necessity, and brand development on the part of museums who believe they’re doing the right thing, but truly haven’t a clue, leaving new BIPOC staff to navigate their way through a world of — we want you — but now you’re here, figure it out on your own? Perhaps that’s more complicated than any of us older white folks know?
One last parenthetical note: The Metropolitan won’t be the the first or the last to have waves of Boomers retire as part of COVID retrenchment. Leave aside what they know about content, those retirees carry with them huge institutional history. So if you are a Generation Xer or a Millennial, who’s waited for this moment for what seems a lifetime, remember two things: Some day, in the not too far-off future you will be the ones a younger generation is waiting to move off stage. So help it happen with some grace. Listen for the knowledge and context they’ve accumulated, and work to understand the mistakes they made. It will make your organization a better place. And second, if the older generation wasn’t as kind, equitable or supportive as you needed, it’s your turn now. Be the leaders you wanted.
Kudos and a round of applause go to organizers June Ahn, Rose Cannon, Emma Turner-Trujillo. As someone who’s been an observer and a participant in the museum workplace for a long time, this conference was one of the most thought-provoking I’ve attended. Twenty four hours later, while on my morning walk, I was still ruminating on many of the conversations from the day before. And isn’t that what a good conference should do?
The day opened with a talk by Dr. Porchia Moore. She defined this moment as a point of crisis, a moment of shared trauma, especially for BIPOC museum staff, and she pointed out that the constant harping on “when we can return to normal,” is yet another slap in the face to so many, since “normal” for museums meant a racist, patriarchal, poorly paid, gendered workplace.
As an older, cisgendered white woman, I can’t disagree. There’s no doubt we’ve failed. It’s as if we’ve taken each object, each historic site, each painting, and told half its story. That silk wedding dress, worn by the wealthy landowner’s bride had a story before the wedding itself. Who tended the silk worms, who sacrificed to make the fabric, who shipped the fabric, who made each tiny stitch, who made sure it was spotless, not wrinkled or stained? And who was threatened and harmed if it was? For every object there is a dominant narrative and an untold narrative. If you’re white it’s too easy to revert to the dominant. It’s what we’ve always done, while making some audiences comfortable and disenfranchising others. Clearly to give our collections their full due, we must showcase their interwoven context, giving many narratives an equal chance to be heard.
I am less sure how Death to Museums or perhaps its aftermath, applies to museum leadership. Not because I don’t believe museum leadership needs an overhaul. It does. When Anne Ackerson and I wrote Leadership Matters in 2012 and its revision in 2019, we saw museum leadership clinging to mediocrity as a place of safety. No where is that more evident than in the thousands of mission statements telling the world museums preserve and protect collections. Cryogenic preservation facilities do the same thing, and they don’t pretend to be half as important as museums.
And there is no doubt museum leadership has made a world of bad choices regarding its workforce. Many of those choices–poor pay, anti-union, the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, no HR departments, workplace bullying and other forms of inhumane behavior–have made the news recently, and many are documented and discussed in blog posts here.
But let’s imagine, it’s a new day. Gone are today’s museum boards, peopled with wealthy white men over 55, intermingled with the occasional, acceptable BIPOC. Their annual gifts are gone too as are their connections to wealth managers. So where will the money come from? Will museums follow a European model and be mostly government funded? What does that look like? Are our current federal museum workers happy at work? Is there racism, genteel or otherwise, at the Smithsonian or in the National Park Service? What does it mean to take the King’s shilling? Would museums be subject to the four or eight year cycle of political change that comes with elections? And on a more local level, how will museums run without boards or without a single leader whose role is, at some level, to be the decider?
Maybe I’m naive, but after a lifetime of working with and for, a variety of humans, it matters less to me what an organization’s structure is and much more what kind of people are in charge. Working in a museum ,where decisions are made by a group as opposed to an individual, is no guarantee of a humane, equitable workplace. In other words, to me it’s not the structure as much as it is the people in power.
Good leaders are good leaders whether they govern in groups or alone. I believe at the heart of good leadership is a strong sense of personal values, and an equitable, empathetic understanding and respect for staff, from the ones furthest from the seat of power to the ones closest to it. Any organization without that is an organization headed for peril.
Some museums–albeit not many–used the pandemic to reformulate. Yes, they had to let workers go, but they used the pause to reorganize, bringing workers back to more equitable wages, clear job descriptions and better-written HR policies. Anne Ackerson and I concluded each volume of Leadership Matters with a Leadership Revolution Agenda. Here’s my amended and abbreviated agenda for 2021 and beyond:
Leadership Revolution Agenda
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. If you’re white, recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down.
- Know what you don’t know. Pledge to recognize and fight against your own biases.
- Develop your own leadership practice.
- Figure out if you are an active listener. If not, learn.
- Practice self-care.
- Assist with or take responsibility for leadership training and development activities for your team, your department, your volunteers, or if you’re the lone professional, for yourself.
- Stand up for your colleagues when they become targets. Be a voice for the voiceless. Be an ally and an accomplice.
- Speak up for the counter-narrative whenever it’s absent.
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. Recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down. Apologize and own your organization’s past behavior.
- Acknowledge the importance of all your staff. Pledge to make yours a human-centered museum.
- Build something new. Complete an equity wage review. Pledge to resolve issues of wage imbalance based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
- Give staff a voice. Create space, virtual or otherwise, where staff can bring issues of inequity to the fore without fear of punishment. Pledge to listen and make change.
- Insist upon institutional support of the emerging leader and lone professional, and the diversification of governing boards.
- Don’t maintain the status quo; instead make a difference.
Use this moment and make change.
I want to conclude by honoring and thanking again this weekend’s speakers. They are the future and as complex as it’s clearly going to be, they are a courageous and awe-inspiring group.
Congressman John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer Friday. There aren’t many Congresspeople whose impact on the museum world is measurable. Lewis is one. He was a tireless advocate for the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture [NMAACH], working closely with Lonnie Bunch III, now Secretary of the Smithsonian, who writes “He was involved spiritually and strategically in almost all aspects of the museum.”
NMAAHC makes all of us proud to be in this field. It highlights the gaps and biases in the way American history is taught, told and understood, asking those of us who are white to open our hearts and minds to what we’ve failed to learn and understand, and it celebrates a culture and history long neglected. But apart from all of that is Lewis’ courage. Whether you were his constituent or not, whether you knew who he was or not, he stood up for justice and equality, advocating for the voiceless. There are those who are a steady force, advocating when the rest of us don’t have the courage, speaking out when most don’t think it’s their business. John Lewis was one of those people.
It’s way above my pay grade to think about who AASLH or AAM might honor in the coming year, but if ever there were an individual who deserved a national museum award in his name, it’s John Lewis. Not just for his work with NMAAHC, but because of his courage to speak up. Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of speaking up in the museum field at all. Ever. In fact, 25 or 30 years ago, the young were counseled to let things go, to look the other way so as not to “ruin their careers.” (I was one of those young people.) Their job wasn’t to ruffle feathers. Their job, wherever they were on the museum food chain, was to accept what powerful and monied board members wanted, and make it happen. These days, it feels as though that long period of acceptance, obeisance, and failure to act might be coming to a close. So what better time to honor courage in our field, then to name an award after the person who said, “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.”?
There is so much that’s not right in our field at the moment. A workforce that’s overwhelmingly white, without recognizing it perpetuates not just the symbolism, but the hierarchy of a job sector mired in the previous century; board members who haven’t sorted out that board membership isn’t about privilege but service; a field crippled by poor pay coupled with a monstrous gender pay gap; and leaders who mistake their office as an opportunity to lead badly, while bullying, harassing and failing to act in the face of ethics breaches.
Museums do a lot of good in the world. They are trusted. They are places people want to be. But they can no longer be the beautiful place with the important stuff sitting on the sidelines. They can’t be neutral, and neither can their staffs. What better way to acknowledge this change than by honoring Congressman John Lewis, and those in our field working for the voiceless, whether in their communities or in their own workplaces? Who knows whether an award like this would ever happen. Like I said, it’s way above my pay grade, but in the meantime, we should all be our own John Lewis, speaking up, and standing up, so when our children ask what did you do and what did you say, we’ll have an answer.
This month many of us (the lucky ones) return to work in spaces we left four months ago. Depending on our own health and the health of those we care for, we may return full-time or touch base only intermittently while our real work life continues via Zoom. In either instance, our work lives are fundamentally altered, not just because we’re living through a pandemic, but because communication has changed.
Workplaces run on a hierarchy of communication from formal and serious–the annual letter from the museum president or HR stipulating your terms of employment–to all-staff emails, to more personal emails or Google chats. In our old lives, that hierarchy also included face-to-face meetings, and spontaneous hallway conversations. The latter two are becoming as rare as dial phones. And even when they take place, presumably half our face is masked so only our eyes convey emotion.
Then there’s Zoom. Could we have survived without it these last four months? Heck no. But it’s still challenging. I don’t know about you, but in my former life, I never thought about what direction I looked in staff meetings. My gaze moved naturally between speakers and listeners, and my note taking. But with Zoom, what was once your entire team together in a room is now reduced to faces in squares in their kitchens or home offices with the occasional pet or toddler wandering on screen. So when you speak to the whole, you’re actually speaking to eight individuals in eight individual spaces. It’s distracting, complicated, and occasionally confusing. Sometimes you don’t know what to focus on.
My daughter once had a science teacher whose opening assignment was to ask everyone to write one paragraph describing how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Believing it was an easy assignment, most students dashed off the paragraph in a few minutes. The teacher, however, showed up in class with a loaf of bread, jelly, peanut butter, and knives. Without attributing the author, she read each paragraph aloud while following their directions. The results were hilarious, but devastating. Knives wound up between slices of bread, and jelly or peanut butter were sometimes forgotten entirely. The message was clear: Directions need to be delivered in precise, understandable language or you can’t even make a simple sandwich. Now imagine how complicated actually running your museum, program or department will be when you’re communicating virtually and actually while masked and six-feet apart. Kind of like dancing backwards in high heels.
So…to make sure the sandwiches get made the way you want them, here are some simple suggestions for improved communication in the museum workplace:
- If some or all of your team still works from home, check in frequently. It doesn’t have to be long. A check-in that mimics a stop in an office doorway is fine, asking are you okay or is there anything I can help with?
- Even if they’re brief, set regular meeting times. In a world without much face-to-face contact, it’s important staff have meetings they can count on.
- Given that the post-COVID-world changes in a heartbeat, and ambiguity is practically a watchword, make sure your team knows they can bring you problems as they develop. You may want to consider borrowing an academic tradition and hold office hours. These can be real and held outside if weather permits or on Zoom at the same time each week. That way staff can always find you for a one-on-one that can be handled in under 15 minutes.
- Don’t forget recognition and applause. One of the many reasons life in the pandemic is hard is our daily interaction with colleagues is MIA. And it’s not just personal conversation or office gossip we long for. We miss colleagues telling us what they enjoy about our work, congratulating us when something goes well or giving us a high five. As leaders we need to remember that, and recognize staff achievements–you ran your first marathon alone, wearing a mask or your department’s digital takeover was the best ever–and say congratulations.
- And last, remember empathy. You may be powered up about your organization’s opening, but be mindful not everyone will find the return to work a piece of cake. Some may be worried about loved ones, struggling with childcare arrangements or processing how to deal with racism at work. Keep your door–metaphorical or actual– open and listen.
P.S. Since this spring’s string of racist murders, many students have started Instagram pages where they can reflect on what really went on behind the sunny and artificially diverse photos on school and college web pages. In the same vein, there’s now #changethemuseum. It’s jolting, heartbreaking, and anger inducing. If your organization has an HR department, you might want to share it. And if you are ever about to suggest an employee solve a workplace interpersonal problem on their own, give this page another look just to understand how horrific things can be.
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.