In 2017 Anne Ackerson and I published Women in the Museum. One of our final chapters is titled “Ground Hog Day,” after the eponymous film with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. We needed a title like that because in the years of fighting the gender battle in the museum workplace its problems remain relentlessly unresolved, raising its head, year after year, just like a virus.
Fifty years ago women’s leadership was still a question. Women museum directors were rare, and women leaders were often found in the second spot, being logistical titans all while providing the emotional glue and the soft skills to keep the museum workplace turning over and moving forward.
Today, things are different. There are many more women leaders–and not just white women, but women of color. But the underbelly of workplace gender issues–sexual harassment–is alive and well. For those of you who were off social media last week, the director of the Erie Art Museum, Joshua Helmer, found himself without a job after an article in The New York Times reported that in his previous position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, multiple women had accused him of making inappropriate advances. When Helmer moved to the Erie (PA) Museum of Art in 2018, he continued his predatory pattern. This time involving a museum intern. The incident resulted in a Change.org petition and several articles by New York Times Reporter Robin Pogrebin. Indeed, the week ended with Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, an ex-officio member of the PMA’s board, calling for it to strengthen its harassment policies. This led PMA director, Timothy Rub, to say, ““The mayor is right and as we have indicated, our policies are undergoing close review,” all while 240 members of his staff signed a statement in support of their colleagues and the women at the Erie Art Museum.
Neither the Erie Art Museum nor the Philadelphia Art Museum are unsophisticated organizations, and yet Joshua Helmer somehow victimized women at first one institution and then another. No matter who you are in the museum world–trustee, volunteer, leader, curator, guard, housekeeper, intern, educator–this is your problem. Workplace sexual harassment destroys the social trust that exists back stage in the museum workplace. Museum workers, regardless of their titles, deserve to be safe, seen, and supported.
As we’ve seen, sexual harassment scandals plunge museums and heritage organizations into a world of bad press, not to mention legal complications. So if you are a….
Museum Trustee: If you don’t already know, ask what your organization’s policy is on sexual harassment. Where is it written, how is it available to staff, and who handles complaints? Boards are not immune to bad behavior. As a group, how do you police yourselves? If you don’t have an HR office, where do complaints go? If your organization has an HR office, when was the last time your board or its personnel committee heard from the HR director on this topic?
Museum Leader: Do not say this won’t happen here. It happens everywhere. Review your organizational policy for sexual harassment; check-in with Human Resources and your leadership team. Make sure everyone understands what happens when a complaint is made. If appropriate, role play. No victim should be made to feel what’s happened to her is her fault. Make sure victims are treated with compassion. And further, make sure you know and have thought through how complaints involving the board, significant donors, and/or consultants will be handled.
Museum Worker: Go to bat for your colleagues. Speak up and intervene. If you don’t, no matter how you frame it, you are complicit. Know your organization’s policy; know what to do in the event of an incident. Know what kind of support is available through EEOC, and how your state defines sexual harassment. And know who in your city or town offers pro-bono legal services. And for goodness sake, sign the GEMM pledge.
Sometimes we’re so besotted with our roles caring for artwork, objects and living things, and placing them in dialog with one another that we forget our staff and colleagues. If you’ve been sexually harassed or victimized, it’s difficult, if not impossible to function at work. As a museum leader no one is asking you to serve as staff psychologist, but if a staff member seems “off,” ask whether it’s something work-related. Create an atmosphere where staff feel safe, seen and supported, make sure your policies are clearly written, easily available, and that they provide a road map for anyone experiencing harassment. It’s 2020. Aren’t we done with excuses?
Image: From the infographic, “The Survey: Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace,” 2018, by Anne W. Ackerson and Joan H. Baldwin.
First, an announcement: Leadership Matters will be on vacation for the weeks of Dec. 23 and Dec. 30. But, before we return January 6, 2020, we’d like to hear your wishes for the museum world for the coming year. They can be personal–I want a new job–or organizational–I hope my museum completes its campaign successfully–or field wide–I’d like to see museums take a stand on the gender pay gap. Send them, and any other thoughts you have about the museum field’s future to us here in a comment or directly to our email or Facebook where this is posted as well. Full sentences and punctuation aren’t necessary, just your hopes and dreams for the field.
A lot of museums, indeed a lot of workplaces, struggle with team building and trust, and one of the work-arounds leaders employ is to try to accommodate workers’ various needs. When you have a weeping or furious team member in your office, and a to-do list a mile long, what you want is to solve their problems and get back to your own. So you say yes to leaving Thursdays at three to drive the soccer car pool or to working from home a day a week. Your colleague leaves happy (or at least mollified), and you turn your attention to other things. Except decisions made in the moment to accommodate one frequently come back to bite you. Why? Because work isn’t family.
If we work full time, we spend up to 2,000 hours per year with our colleagues, some weeks more than with families and friends, particularly since time away from work includes sleep. So while many people like to tout work as family, and thus, just as we set the thermostat to 75 when our great aunt visits and serve her martini with four olives, we also try to accommodate our co-workers. But accommodating family is different from colleagues. Say a member of your team tells you she lives a distance from work, and may not be able to arrive on time if it snows. She is part of your front-line staff. On the face of it, that seems like a rational request. But what happens if you say yes? Another person who lives closer may feel a huge sense of inequity. The questions going through her mind are: Why is she privileged over me? Am I not valued? Do I need to look for another job? Is everyone asking for special accommodations and I didn’t know?
If you work in a museum or heritage organization with an HR department, it’s harder to privilege one employee over another because the employee handbook already spells out numerous scenarios–weather, health, funerals, working from home, and jury duty to name a few–and how individuals are compensated. Flouting these can lead to an even more complex mess since you’ll have one individual operating outside the organization’s HR parameters, while others abide by the museum’s rules. That doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t treat employees with respect, empathy and kindness, but everyone should be privileged equally–those with small children, those without, those with long commutes and those who live around the corner. The only ones who should be specially accommodated are those with temporary or permanent disabilities. These requests may include specialized equipment or modifications in work environment.
So…if you’re a leader with a team or a staff….
- Even if your site has fewer than 15 employees and no HR department, create or review your organization’s employee handbook. Make sure it’s written in clear, understandable language. If you can’t understand it, it’s unlikely your employees will.
- Make sure it addresses common HR issues and what your organization will do about them. Kicking the can down the road means you will make decisions as they come up, rather than addressing them organizationally from the beginning. It’s hard to be objective and impartial when you are making decisions in the moment based on a single staff member’s situation.
- Create a personnel committee on the board. It may include the board leadership and/or those with interest and experience in HR.
- Seek advice from your local Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau or HR firm.
- When altering handbook rules, be open and transparent about rule changes.
If you’re a staff member …
- Know your rights. EEOC’s Home Page is a good place to start.
- Find out if there is any kind of HR document–even a Google doc–that governs day-to-day work. If there is, read it.
- Before you approach the leadership, it’s helpful to know if you’re a trail blazer. For example, are you the first employee to ask for paternity leave, jury duty, or a parking accommodation?
- Or conversely, are you one in a long line of staff asking about a particular issue? Knowing whether your organization has a history may help you strategize your request. (Example: your museum’s staff is under 10 FT people. Six have requested maternity/paternity leave in the last year. Nobody’s gotten the same deal.)
A lot of museums and heritage organizations, often small ones, hide behind size (We’re too small) and the non-profit shield (We’re not a business) when it comes to HR issues. Size isn’t an excuse to treat employees inequitably. Do the best you can given your resources. Create policy first–even if it’s a one-page document–so you’re not reacting to individual problems in the moment. Be kind, be a good listener, be empathetic, but most of all be fair.
By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
Barring loss of life, perhaps the most alarming tragedy museums fear is collection destruction. We recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from cherished public repositories of our shared culture. Diligent museums focus considerable attention on protecting the art, artifacts and scientific specimens in their possession.
To be sure, in spite of the best protective measures, losses happen. A few horrible examples include: The thirteen works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War in 2003; the recent fire and destruction at the National Museum of Brazil. Fortunately, these museum catastrophes tend to be exceptional. Statistically, most of the things most museums own are relatively safe. Or so we thought.
In May the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) sold a large painting by the Jewish Russian émigré Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The action was legal and approved by the institution’s board of trustees. At auction the picture realized $43.75M ($50.1M with fees). Where’s the Rothko now? Auction houses, in this case, Sotheby’s, understandably do not reveal bidder information.
Whether by sale, gifts, or trashing, the disposal of museum collections is almost as old as museums. Today unrestricted selling on the open market is highly popular. Or, perhaps it simply enjoys the most notoriety. The SFMOMA incident is only a recent example. This subtraction choice raises a large question in my mind. What preservation responsibilities do museums have for pieces they deaccession? Once something is on the auction block, for example, chances are good it will leave the protected public realm forever, lost as a document held for years in public trust on behalf of past, present and future generations.
The sale of museum collections on the open market seems a civic tragedy. This arena of private commerce is not devoted to preserving things for public benefit. An argument can be made that anyone paying $50.1M for something has a vested interest in keeping it safe. But who knows? The secret world of art wheeling and dealing destroys scores of paintings with varnish and wax relining–no doubt to the horror of artists like Picasso and Braque–or through neglect or ignorance.
It is interesting the gusto with which deaccessioning is now embraced by museums who rarely (ever?) express concern for the physical well-being of what leaves the collection. How does this reflect what Steven Lubar writes in his excellent book: Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present, [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2017, p. 137]. “When museums collect things, they take on ethical obligations not only to the communities those objects come from, or are meaningful to, but also to the objects themselves.” Does this suggest why deaccessioning still elicits loud criticism? Does it suggest why complaints always come from outside the museum world?
Controversies about museum deaccessioning inevitably focus on boards of trustees as they make final departure decisions for pieces deemed no longer a fit. Questions are asked: Why don’t the trustees pony up whatever money is needed in a particular circumstance? Is the museum in financial duress? Why not sell things to another museum, thus keeping the piece and its records altruistically preserved? What recourse do scholars have when seeking information about lost collections? How do donors respond to the loss of their gifts? Aside from a convenient tax deduction, who will donate to a place for which collections are money in the bank to be raided at will?
Years ago I wrote a piece called “Guilt-Free Deaccessioning” for the American Association of Museums’ magazine Museum News (now Museum) about the advantages of deaccessioning by inter-museum transfer. Today I would use a different title: Win, Win, Win, Win Deaccessioning. Why? Because the museum removing an item presumably wins with its departure, the museum getting the object wins by its acquisition, the object wins by surviving, and the public wins with continued access. Inter-museum transfer happens. I hope it becomes a first-choice option rather than an afterthought. It will certainly reduce the growing notion that all museum collections can be purchased.
A Bard College graduate, Steven Miller has been in the museum field for nearly five decades as a curator, director, trustee, writer, critic, and consultant. A curator with the Museum of the City of New York for sixteen years, he subsequently administered and directed five regional history museums. He also taught in several graduate museum studies programs including sixteen years with the Seton Hall University MA Program in Museum Professions. He received a Graduate Certificate in the Principles of Conservation Science, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text, Wiley, 2018; Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018; and How to Get a Museum Job: An Inside Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Deaccessioning is a subject that has long intrigued him.
Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960; 69 x 50 in.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, acquired through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog describing the effect of Devil Wears Prada leaders on their staffs. Today though we’re offering a little air time, not to toxic bosses, but toxic staff. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average American spends 44.4 hours a week at work. That’s 44.4 hours of disruption if you’re dealing with toxic employees. In addition, the Harvard Business Review, which defines toxic employees as folks who engage in behavior that is harmful to the organization or its people, helpfully points out these employees are also expensive. In fact, HBR says their behavior costs the average for-profit business $12, 489, while a superstar worker costs the business $5,303. In museum land where there is rarely money to burn, clearly it’s better to employ superstars.
There are as many types of toxic workers as there are humans. Their behaviors run the gamut from sociopathic harassers to individuals with poor or no time management, to the perennially disorganized, the angry, the victim–don’t worry about me, I’ll just work an extra 20 hours this week– to the party person, and everyone in between.
Unless you started your museum career a week ago, you’ve likely run across your fair share of toxic co-workers. If they’re your colleagues, perhaps you’ve learned to keep your distance or developed work-arounds to circumvent their ongoing behavior issues. But what if you’re the boss, the executive director, the team leader? Then solving these issues is your responsibility. Why? Because ultimately if you have two members of the Education and Engagement team who can barely sit at a table together or one exhibition designer whose time management skills are so poor that it puts everyone else on edge, it’s disruptive. Hugely disruptive. And costly. And no one else wants to be at the table with them either.
So what do you do?
- First, know what you don’t know: Who is the problem and how? How is your team, staff or program suffering? And most importantly, how and when has it impacted work? Has the individual in question suffered a life event that may be causing problem behavior? Can you offer time off or find them counseling? Will that help? And understand, in some cases, it won’t.
- Have any legal lines been crossed? In other words, is the uncomfortable, disruptive behavior the result of harassment, workplace bullying or racist or gender-based stereotyping? If your museum has an HR department you may want to have a conversation about how to protect your employees, but also to make sure your actions don’t make a bad situation worse. Know your state and federal law regarding workplace harassment. You can’t force an employee to report harassment or bullying, but you can suggest it, and you and the victim should document what you’ve seen and/or experienced.
- Assuming no laws were broken, talk to the staff member(s) in question. And for the love of God, do not suggest they need to fix it themselves. Too often people are unaware how they present to others, and they may be genuinely surprised. So provide concrete workplace examples demonstrating where things went off track.
- Listen. Paraphrase, summarize, and reframe what you’ve heard.
- Be clear in your expectations. If you have an HR department, work with them to determine how to tie your expectations and needs to consequences. If you’re dealing with someone with terrible time management issues, and they’ve asked to work from home a day a week, weigh that ask against their work load. Can they meet deadlines? What will happen if they don’t? Do you have time to monitor them to make sure deadlines and check points are met?
- Don’t say you expect X,Y, and Z, and then neglect to check in.
- Document everything you do. Should you have to fire someone, your life will be its own special hell if you can’t document what you say has happened.
- Remember you are not a counselor, psychologist or mediator, and most people don’t change. That said, most of us would rather be happy than sad, and most enjoy feeling valued. A job well done, whether a short term project, or a years-long exhibit planning effort deserves the best team you can muster.
- Understand, the reason you’re involved is because this person’s behavior affects the whole workplace. Support other team members. Let them know they’re valued. Try to help them collaborate without being caught up in whatever baddy-baddness is going on. Be the person who doesn’t indulge in gossip.
- Don’t forget about your own work. You’re still a leader with a million things requiring your attention. Don’t get so deep in the HR weeds you forget about leading.
To begin, if you’re looking for an interesting listen, try Museopunks. This week hosts Suse Anderson and Ed Rodley examine ICOM’s existential crisis over the definition of the word ‘museum’ by gathering voices from around the world. Each of the 11 participants (myself included) muses on the nature and importance of the definition. For those of us at work in museum land it’s an interesting chorus. Take a listen.
This was also the week Anne Ackerson and I talked about gender and leadership with our Johns Hopkins graduate students. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned gender here, but given that we’re a century from the passage of the 19th amendment, it’s appropriate to remember (again) how far we’ve come, and how much work there is left to do. In addition to talking with our students, I also listened to NPR’s On Point where Meghna Chakrabarti and David Folkenflik spoke with three individuals about the fact that 2019 marks the moment when women become the majority in the college-educated workforce.
As a woman and a member of a generation who were trail blazers in the workplace even when we didn’t realize it, I need only speak with our graduate students to understand the breadth and depth of the distance we’ve travelled. The women are acutely aware of workplace gender issues, having suffered the slings and arrows of mansplaining, verbal head-patting, not to mention more pointed harassment. Unlike my generation, many are also woke to the wage gap. For the men, things are different. They are different, and quick to point out that they are not their father’s or grandfather’s generation. Some reference the strong women in their lives, suggesting the way they were raised means they behave differently. And therein lies an issue. They believe their values and behavior will change the museum workplace. I hope they’re right.
Their words were echoed by the On Point interviewees, one of whom suggested part of our problems stem from the Boomer generation. Although I’d like to be more optimistic, it’s hard to believe that once the last Boomer folds her tent and heads for retirement, that the workplace will be cleansed of gender bias. While anything is possible, as far as I know, Target’s toy section is still filled with gendered toys: girls’ toys are pink and sparkly and boys’ toys are camouflage-colored and make noise. Even searching for a toy is a gendered experience. I don’t mean to single out Target, only to point out that unless millennials were raised by unique parents, they are just as likely to suffer gender imprinting as earlier generations, and are as subject as the rest of us to the relentless barrage of gender norms. And woe betide the non-binary child for whom a neat parsing of pink and princess vs. red and soldier does not not fit.
The point is only–and we’ve said this countless times here–workplace equity isn’t about you and your politically correct feelings. Your upbringing and your beliefs are in fact, immaterial. What matters is how you act: How the bucket of impressions and experiences you carry with you takes meaning as it makes its way into the world. No matter how kind, empathetic and understanding you are, if somewhere in your lizard brain, you implicitly believe that men are natural leaders, that informs your decision making as leader and follower. Museum workplace gender bias is still a thing, and change only happens when staff is self-aware, understands their workplace culture, and when museums and heritage organizations actively support staff in all their glorious diversity.
While we’re waiting for perfection:
- Don’t ascribe bias to one generation while not looking to your own as well.
- If you have power, acknowledge it.
- Don’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready for a response that may be at odds with yours.
- Try not to avoid conflict at the expense of honest communication that could clear the air.
- If you are in a leadership position, know yourself and how you present. Ditto for your museum or heritage organization.
- Remember, you make change through action, and your observation is your obligation.
- Be respectful of other’s experience. No matter how informed, intentional and empathetic you are, their narrative may be different, and it takes time to build trust.
Yours for an equitable workplace,
Image: Portland Art Museum
The International Council of Museums may seem like it has about as much to do with your work as New York’s fashion week does with your sartorial choices. In other words, not much. ICOM is literally some far-away group deciding things that have nothing to do with you, a museum leader with a new strategic plan underway, an underpaid and overworked staff, and insufficient funding for just about everything. But wait, maybe it does. Just as Fashion Week has a trickle-down effect on day-to-day wear for the average human, so too does ICOM’s decision making. So while it may seem like a lot of talk about a lot of nothing, ICOM’s proposed new museum definition, and its failure to pass, is actually kind of important.
For those of you for whom ICOM is a new acronym, the International Council of Museums was born in 1946, another child of the post-war baby boom. It’s opening meeting took place in Paris where its first-elected president was Chauncey J. Hamlin, politician, public figure, philanthropist, and president of the board of both the Buffalo Museum of Science and the American Museum Association (now the American Alliance of Museums.) In 2007, 61 years from its founding, ICOM adopted a “new” definition for museums:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
This year, when ICOM members gathered in Kyoto, Japan the plan was to vote on another definition of museums, one that is far more aspirational then previous versions. Spoiler alert: the new definition wasn’t adopted. But for those of you who missed it, here it is:
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.
Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
So why should you care? Well, maybe you can’t. Maybe this week or next you just don’t have the bandwidth to think about the museum field at a global level. But if you do, here are some thoughts about why it might matter to you, toiling away in museum land around the globe.
- First, ICOM’s argument is your argument. You may not have hashed it out on a global stage, but how many of you have discussed Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry’s “Museums are not neutral” campaign with board or staff? And P.S. if you haven’t, you might want to. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to talk.
- Second, since 2007, ICOM has seen museums as “permanent institutions in service of society.” Before we even think about its proposed new definition, that’s an interesting line to parse. How many of you (and your boards) think of your institutions in service to society? And what about your definition of society? Is it inclusive?
- How many of you feel that too many museums, particularly, but not exclusively, American heritage institutions are blissfully disconnected from their communities? If your answer is yes, then the new definition might speak directly to you. It asks you to guarantee equal rights and equal access to collections, and to aim to contribute to human dignity and social justice. What does that mean for curators at fancy robber-baron houses? What does it mean for art museums where by some counts 87-percent of the work is by men, most of them white? What does it mean for your typical early 19th-century kitchen where for years the dangers and drudgery of housework is somehow subsumed in the nifty qualities of flat irons and wash boards?
It seems to me, far from the center of ICOM discussions, that the proposed definition asks two things of us all, one of which is far easier than the other. First, it asks us to stop pussyfooting around and tell our collections’ stories in a transparent, authentic way that connects past with present, telling the whole story even the parts we can’t show because we don’t own the stuff. Second, and this is trickier, it asks us to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Contributing is a loaded word. Is simply doing all the regular museum things–exhibitions, programs, fund raising but better—enough? Or do we need to actually take a stand? And does taking a stand affect development efforts, collecting, programming, and exhibitions? Does it blur the line between individual values and organizational ones? Does it mean we support our staff members who openly protest? And what would it look like? Would it mean that as the local historical museum we stand with our local human rights organization when a member of our community is about to be deported?
You don’t need me to tell you that museum land in the age of Google is different. Is it possible that whether ICOM makes a decision about a new museum definition or not, that all of us need to change? That if we can’t change, the public, who has the entire world in words and images on the their phones, will go somewhere else for information, for history, for tranquility, for a civics lesson, for connection? So regardless of what ICOM does, it’s up to you. Listen. Know what you don’t know. Know what your collection means, not just in a textbook sense, but to your community. Find and make meaningful connections, person to person, object to person, collections to community. Make museums matter.
P.S. In the spirit of bringing everyone to the table the wonderful Maria Vlachou directs us to a Padlet created by Anna Marras with voices from around the world commenting on what museums could and should do prompted by ICOM’s recent meeting.