Held Together by Humans: Museums and a Healthier Workplace

A confession: I adore English television mysteries. Not the kind with the dithering, elderly amateur, but the darker more urban variety. One of the tropes of these dramas is the main characters often suppress a ton of personal feelings to get their job done. They go to work–without guns–this is the UK after all, and deal with the sad, the lonely, and the psychologically messed up. Meanwhile, their marriages fall apart, their children are angry, and their lovers are sick of being neglected for the job. I thought about those characters when I listened to CBS’s recent report on mental health post-Covid. Families and individuals are dealing with unresolved grief, leading to deaths from overdose, resulting in four times the rate of anxiety and depression overall. It’s a full-blown mental health crisis. This week the Centers for Disease Control released a report saying that 4 in 10 adolescents feel persistently sad or hopeless. Arthur C. Evans Jr., head of the American Psychological Association says this will be with us for seven to 10 years, in other words a second pandemic. And I’m pretty sure this segment was taped before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the now ongoing devastation and threat of chemical or nuclear warfare.

What does this have to do with museums? Only this: Museums are held together by humans, who are likely suffering, while also serving communities who also suffer. We’ve been over the laundry list of what’s undone us many times: pandemic, racial injustice, gender inequity, epic inflation, wealth disparity, and now war and a mental health crisis. Is the answer that we’re too busy as Robert Weisberg posits in a recent post? Maybe. Honestly, I’m no longer sure about this or much else. I know many of us are overworked. I know staffs have contracted, and many people are doing two times the work of the pre-pandemic era, and because no one found them breathing into a paper bag in the supply closet, everything is supposedly okay. Being asked to do more for the same crap salary is debilitating. Pay isn’t everything, but salaries are still inequitable. In many institutions leadership makes a gazillion times what the front-of-the-house makes, and yet daily the front-of-the-house workers shoulder a good portion of the community’s anger, yet another facet of the country’s mental health crisis.

I respect Weisberg’s argument, and I love his “Time, Money, People, Resources,” but I don’t share his assurance that busyness is the culprit or at least the only culprit. For me there are too many intersecting circles, each part of an overlapping problem. It strikes me that when field-wide salaries are dismal, the museum workplace promotes to reward. That means you move up the food chain, receiving a bigger salary and a title change because you succeeded in your first position. The problem is that being able in one position doesn’t always translate into being an able at leading people. If the organization needs a leader at whatever level, it should hire a leader, not reward staff by throwing them into the deep end. How would the picture change if museums could acknowledge and reward good work, allowing individuals to stay in their lane, while making more money and perhaps receiving a title change. Logically, that should happen, but it rarely does. We have a culture that teaches us success comes with managing others. (Some state HR laws are written such that an employee’s desire to be salaried as opposed to hourly, hinges, in part, on whether they supervise staff.) In the museum world we don’t train for leadership. So when promotions work, we pat ourselves on the back. When they don’t, we scratch our heads. And sadly, it’s staff who suffer in these circumstances.

In all our moaning about what Covid did to us, and it did plenty, it also taught us that flexibility is a key workplace resource. Not everyone can work away from their museum or heritage organization, but many can. In the first month of Covid we learned how much we could get done from our home offices. But Covid taught us something else. It isn’t just a binary choice between remote vs.on-site employees. It’s an acknowledgement that, particularly for women, flexibility matters. Many have life situations which make flexible hours a necessity. We know the failure to flex meant many women who are also caregivers and parents left the workforce over the last two years. But we don’t need to be workplace thought leaders to imagine that when staff are happy and not worrying about child or elder care, their work is better. If you have an employee who needs to begin work later because of family responsibilities, would it kill you to make that happen? And most importantly, can flex time become not just an individual exception, smacking of favoritism, but an organization-wide trend?

I wonder too, whether in a field like museums where jobs are hard won, if we expect too much from them. They represent huge investments and when they don’t speak our love language daily, we’re convinced they’re not for us. I am the first to admit this field has its share of bad leaders and boards, but even the best job isn’t Nirvana every day, nor should it be. I’ve written about this before, but your job, however intellectually stimulating is not your family. It may include some in your friend group, but hopefully it isn’t substituting for your friends as well.

The Canadian writer/researcher Paul Thistle has done a ton of work on the museum workplace and self-care. In addition to the high expectations and ridiculous pace of many museums, something that comes through loud and clear in his writing is our responsibility to ourselves. Yes, I know it’s often impossible to seek mental health care when you have no insurance or when the one counselor who takes your insurance is miles away, but we need to try, and our organizations need to try too.

Decades ago I remember a conference conversation where having heard a living history site was thinking of interpreting an 18th century workhouse, the cynical and jaded in the group opined we could go there when we “retired” because by that time we’d be so burnt out, role playing someone who had had a breakdown wouldn’t be a stretch. Not funny, but also darkly funny, and an indication that the constant search for perfection, coupled with too little time and too few resources has been a theme in museum work life for decades.

I’ve made a tradition of adding to-do lists at the end of blog posts with ideas for individuals and organizations, but I think this isn’t a one size fits all scenario. So here are some links and resources:

  • If you’re not already reading Dr. Laurie Santos, start. A Yale psychology professor whose classes are consistently oversubscribed, Santos offers practical tips for leading a happier life in her podcast “The Happiness Lab.
  • Read Mike Murawski. Not everyone can let go of the security of full-time employment, but if you need a positive role model for making change, it’s Murawski.
  • If you supervise staff, you may want to read AAM’s 2022 Trendswatch, particularly the chapter on mental health. I am not a fan of putting leadership in the position of acting as a mental health counselor, but I do think it’s important for leaders to model wellness behaviors, and be transparent and open about their own challenges.
  • Remember to lobby for improved healthcare and childcare at the local, state, and national level. It may seem out of your lane, but knowing family is cared for at a price you can afford is a stress reducer.
  • If you’re a reader, try also On Being, NPR’s Lifekit, and The Marginalian, and Henna Inam. And keep in mind, if your stress was a disfiguring rash, you’d undoubtedly see a doctor. If you find yourself beset by stress and mental health issues, try to see a caregiver.
  • If you’re a leader, be careful not to talk about the importance of your front-line/hourly staff unless you are willing to regularly make them part of museum decisions. Their work experience is part of your organization’s DNA. Respect it.

Spring is coming. Take some time to be outside. Sit, walk, run, whatever works for you. Your work will be better for it.

Joan Baldwin


Putting the Dipstick Down on the Museum Workforce

Milchstraßenräuber – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57251229

It’s a month since my last post. In that time Covid and all its attendant problems took a back seat to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To quote Thomas Campbell, Director of the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco in a recent Instagram post, “Against the backdrop of the atrocious Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the appalling suffering it is causing, it seems almost disrespectful to speak of anything else.” A week ago, a quote from the Ukrainian Library Association made the rounds of social media. The Association posted to cancel its annual meeting writing, “We will reschedule as soon as we finish vanquishing our invaders.” How about the rest of us, would we be that brave?

It’s against that background–the idea that in an instant you can be forced to flee home, family, friends, and your known world–that it’s time to put the dipstick down on our own. So what’s the latest on the museum workplace? What I’m reading seems to offer some diametrically opposed messaging. Nationally inflation is at a 40-year high and as of December 2021, 61-percent of us were living pay-check-to-pay check. Among that group, those who are Gen Z’ers, have an average savings is $1,158. On the other hand, LinkedIn News reports that 38-percent of employees in the arts plan to leave their jobs in the next six months, along with 37-percent of those working in recreation and travel. I think it’s safe to assume some individuals in either group are museum folk.

These two data lines don’t necessarily seem to intersect unless we believe poor pay makes us more mobile, and maybe it does. Couple that with AAM’s survey of museums post-Covid where some 73-percent of respondents reported that thanks to PPP funding, their staffs were back at pre-March 2020 capacity, although hourly positions continue to be hard to fill. That group may overlap with the 38-percent of employees planning to switch jobs. They were the most discounted at the height of the pandemic, and, since they couldn’t work at home, the first to be let go, so it’s no surprise they aren’t rushing to return, and hopefully have found work elsewhere. Not to mention yesterday’s stabbing at MoMA. It redefined, in the most horrible way, the reason we call them front-line workers, and the risks they take in dealing with the public.

I want to pause here and say that when AAM released its Trendswatch report in the winter of 2021, I wrote a post expressing concern that it had missed the boat when it came to women. I felt women deserved more of a mention since they were disproportionately affected by Covid. Not that it’s all about me (it’s not), but it was such a relief (and a pleasure) to find AAM’s new Covid survey devotes time specifically to the pandemic’s effects on women and women of color.

So, so far, we know what we know: We’re struggling, everything costs more, 40-percent of us lost income during Covid from which we’ve likely not recovered. Women, who account for 51-percent of the museum workforce, bore a greater increase in responsibilities as staffs contracted. They also report they are less optimistic, more burned out, and, although the survey didn’t put it this bluntly, in many cases their poor compensation is overlaid by the gender pay gap. In addition, we’re still working through a lot of post-Covid fear and weirdness at returning to work or returning to work in person, and yet many museums are open or extending hours to something resembling life pre-pandemic times.

So clearly another shoe will drop. And apparently it’s the same old shoe: race, gender, and class aka income disparity, a subject highlighted in AAM’s post-Covid survey. In addition to its Covid data, AAM is also partnering with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and AAMD to try to understand how or whether the field has moved the needle on staff diversity. As Mellon puts it, “More than a marker of progress to date, this data serves as a tool for the future—whether quantifying the challenges we still face, establishing a baseline against which to measure impact, or equipping museums with the insight they need to structure and implement pipeline-building programs.” Mellon acknowledges that while there has been progress, it’s uneven. I would add that it’s uneven because too often museum boards, and in many cases their leaders, feel that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Many of them see their institutions as fine. Maybe not perfect–more money would be nice–but fine, and what’s fine to those at the top of the food chain, is often untenable to those further down.

So what’s to be done? Clearly the work begun on diversity and gender in the summer of 2020 remains unfinished. AAM, AAMD, the Mellon Foundation, the American Association for State & Local History (AASLH) and the National Council on Public History (NCPH) are all gathering data, but the randomness of equitable and humane work conditions remains a problem, a problem that is most acute for women and particularly women of color. I’ll close with the same suggestions I made a year ago:

  • Does your organization post its values statement so visitors, donors, tradespeople, trustees and staff know where it stands on issues of DEI and specifically gender equity?
  • Does your organization list salaries when posting positions? Within the institution, are your salary levels transparent?
  • Does your museum offer equitable professional opportunities and mentoring?
  • Does your museum have a policy on employee participation in public protest for gender equity and other forms of social justice?
  • Have you completed an equity audit of your institutional salaries?
  • Have you reviewed your human resource policies and procedures to reveal and address discriminating behavior?
  • Are you confident, that an employee with a problem or a grievance can navigate your organization, and be treated equitably and fairly?
  • Do you offer sexual harassment training along with DEI training in your workplace? And is your organization clear on its definition of sexual harassment, and how such cases are handled?
  • Got time for a podcast? Listen to HBR’s Women at Work.

See you next month. In the meantime, be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Taking Murawski’s Lead: 22 Ideas for Change

Jean-Jacques MILAN – Created by Jean-Jacques MILAN, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12728

Wednesday I was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room scrolling through email when an announcement for George Washington University’s Museums Today popped up. The title was 1,000 Ways to Reshape the Future of Museums with Mike Murawski, author of Museums as Agents of Change. I registered on the spot, which seemed appropriate since one of the things Murawski has encouraged his readers to do is reflect on their own relationship with change. Change is not something I adore, but encouraged by Mike’s writings and others, I am trying to live more in the present and not always anticipate the future as its own special brand of disaster.

Promptly at 6 p.m. Murawski appeared on screens around the globe. He opened by asking us to breathe while reflecting on an ancestor, mentor or guide who’d been important to us in our journey. He followed up by reminding us that for him (and for me too) museums are human-centered. I am old enough to remember when that would have been considered a completely wackadoodle thought. The immediate response would have been about the primacy of collections, their importance, and their meaning. A decade or more ago, museum humans’ only role was to be the air beneath the wings of the collections they served. A noble cause, but ultimately futile because it is humans–as care givers, people who see, people who love, people who bring their own stories, people who transform things–are the ones who make collections do their work.

As the talk continued Murawski reminded us to be disrupters, to celebrate the questioners among us, and to–where we can– break down hierarchies within our own institutions. So in that spirit, here are 22 ideas for creating change in 2022. What would you add? What would you delete? Share them here or with Mike.

  • Consider cross-training both as a way to augment staffs decimated by COVID and by plummeting budgets, and as a way to increase understanding and empathy across your staff.
  • Prioritize your HR policy: Does it reflect your organization’s values? If not, why not? Does it reflect life in 2022?
  • Put your organizational values front and center. Are they something the staff knows about, talks about, lives and breathes? If not, why not?
  • If you’re among the many museum folk preparing to advocate for the field in front of state or federal legislators, consider letting them know how important the American Families Plan will be to your organization in terms of parents, families and caregivers who make up your staff.
  • If you’ve never done a gender equity audit, consider doing one now. Women make up slightly more than half of museum staff nation wide, and the gender pay gap remains a critical and unsolved problem.
  • Model praise for questioners and creative thinkers.
  • Always say thank you.
  • Support your colleagues. Build empathy.
  • Support going outside. It’s 4 degrees where I am, but when it’s appropriate, take your meetings on a walk or out-of-doors.
  • Take a page from Murawski’s book and begin a meeting with a breath. Or more than one.
  • Nurture creativity by looking at time. Are you and your colleagues always rushed? Are you ever encouraged to sit and think? If not, can that change?
  • Make sure planning meetings include your colleagues across the spectrum so doers, not just deciders, are in the room.
  • Work to make discussion equitable.
  • Stand up and advocate when a colleague is bullied or harassed.
  • Consider how your organizational values connect with your larger community? Does your museum help with issues around citizenship, food insecurity, childcare, or the environment? What would that look like?
  • What work have you done recognizing historical and implicit biases ingrained in your catalog, in the narratives dominating your collections, and in the presumption of privilege permeating your organization?
  • How does your museum or heritage site work against neutrality? When was the last time you took a stand?
  • How is your museum or heritage site working to recenter its whiteness? See also La Tanya Autry’s recent article for more questions.
  • How do new ideas germinate at your museum or heritage site? Is it an easy path or a risky one? Does everyone from security and housekeeping to curators understand how to broach an idea?
  • Is your staff is safe, and do they know what to do if they’re not.
  • Are your colleagues are seen?
  • Are they are supported?

Be well. Be kind. Do good work, and do good at work.

Joan Baldwin


Why a Hiring Freeze Isn’t Always the Answer

Barfooz, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22120

There is a saying that we’re all dying, just maybe not today. Something similar might be said about the nonprofit/museum workplace, that we’re all looking for a new job, just maybe not today. Unless you see retirement’s taillights gleaming in the distance, I would hazard a guess that everyone else has their periscope up more than they’d like to admit. It’s a way of day dreaming, of trying on new professional identities. Is that museum really as pleasant as it looks in the photos? Is living there a lot more expensive? Could I do the job? Could I move? What about my partner, children, parents? Is it reasonable to think about a new job in the middle of a COVID spike?

But the fact that a lot of us look casually or seriously isn’t the point. It’s what drives the looking: curiosity, better pay, new goals, a change in a partner’s position are likely a few of the positives. People also seek new jobs because they’re miserable. Maybe they are harassed or bullied at work; maybe their work is monumentally boring or maybe they work for a control freak where their only creative choice is choosing lunch. In fact, if we believe Resume Builders recent report, 23-percent of currently employed individuals plan to find a new job in 2022. Another 9-percent already have new jobs, while an additional nine-percent will retire. That’s 41-percent of sturm und drang, which is a lot of workplace churn.

And then there is this: In addition to all the other ways it’s complicated the museum workplace, COVID has tightened budgets to the point where many people do their original job, plus bits and pieces from staff who resigned or retired, leaving current staff with a constant feeling of whiplash. There is a direct connection between the speed with which those additional tasks become permanent and a staff member’s ability to perform them well. Succeed and they are yours forever. Fail, and you’ll get additional tasks as leaders spitball work at the overtasked. Funny thing though, these random tasks are most often assigned to the so-called rising stars, the driven, the scarily competent.

Then why do the leadership–otherwise known as your organization’s deciders–always seem surprised when those same scarily competent people look elsewhere and leave? Do they really think having a job that’s like a daily game of Jenga is the way to entice talented employees to lean in? Have the deciders forgotten that overloading current staff–even if it’s only until COVID is over–means they may loose staff in whom they have an investment? How does it make sense to have a multitude of tasks that need filling, but say you’re in a hiring freeze, and yet it’s the addition of those same tasks that cause current staff to look for work elsewhere, putting the entire HR picture into a kind of death spiral? Where’s the logic in not being able to hire for work that needs to be done, but allowing that to put you in a position where you loose staff with training, institutional history, and talent precisely because you’ve overloaded them? And it’s not like hiring doesn’t cost. At a minimum, it’s a time suck. Even doing 75-percent of a search on Zoom, you still need to bring finalists to your heritage organization or museum, and that costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. And then there is the time current staff invest in searches, in mentoring, in training, and onboarding. Time taken away from their already overloaded to-do lists.

So what do I think the deciders should do? Well, in a perfect world, communicate up so trustees understand the organizational employment picture. Make sure they’re clear about the costs associated not just with hiring, but in keeping talented, engaged, creative, competent staff. Make sure they understand that not hiring brings its own costs, and further, that an individual who is depressed and dissatisfied because their job mutated because of a staff freeze isn’t a bad person. Wanting to do what you were hired to do isn’t a character flaw. I’m not saying one conversation or even a series of conversations is a panacea, but at least when you have those conversations you’ll have something to report when you communicate down or across to your colleagues and leadership team. And that’s key. You’re asking for sacrifice in a situation that’s gone on for two years and shows no sign of let up. Your colleagues need to understand that a) the shared sacrifice applies equitably (even to the leadership), and b)what the organization’s plans are for moving forward.

  • If you have an HR person, consider involving them in discussions regarding future planning. Ditto your CFO. There is more to both of those jobs than the bottom line and benefits.
  • Make sure your board and your CFO understands a hiring freeze can lead to loosing staff, and what a talent drain means in terms of both overall expenses and your brand. If you emerge from the COVID years, a pale imitation of your former self, unable to hire the talent you once had, will the hiring freeze be worth it?
  • Emphasize or re-emphasize your organization’s core values. Does the combination of freezing some positions while overloading others fit your organizational value statement? If not, this might be the moment to talk about it openly and transparently.
  • Is your hiring freeze global or does it apply only to new positions? Whatever decision you make, be transparent about it, and stand by it. If you suggest it only applies to new positions, and then refuse to back-fill an existing position, your ability to maintain trust can be sorely damaged. Why should staff believe you moving forward?
  • Your staff and your colleagues aren’t stupid. Explain the why. If you’re an organization whose endowment grew during COVID, and yet you’re still tightening your belt, explain why. Again, trust your staff to listen and ask questions.
  • Be authentic, truthful and honest. Offer a future check-in. If the bulk of your money comes in between May-September, set a meeting now for early October to update colleagues on staffing.

COVID continues to damage the workplace as it damages families and individuals. If there is any lesson to come out of this period, it’s that we need to be truthful with ourselves, those close to us, and our workplace colleagues about our capabilities both individual and organizational.

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Trying to Plan in the Unsettling of COVID 2.0

John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA – Chaotic Wave 2009, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64289851

I want to begin this post with a brief comment about this blog. It’s called Leadership Matters after my book with Anne Ackerson of the same name. If you’re a regular reader you know this blog isn’t only for people in leadership positions, nor is it written only for folks who believe in leader-modeled leadership. Instead, it is for humans who understand change begins with you, no matter where you are in the museum food chain or as Halla Tómasdóttir, former Icelandic presidential candidate put it, “”There’s a leader inside every single one of us, and our most important work in life is to release that leader.”

*******

Those of you who know me or who read this blog weekly, know I suffer from a bit of an organization streak. I love lists. The strikeout feature gives me chills. My love language is planning. I am happiest when it feels like the future is laid out, and might actually move according to plan.

In the workplace, these attributes sometimes win you kudos because you appear organized and forward thinking. In some cases that may be true. You finish the project on time. You come in under budget. You don’t drive your colleagues mad by changing your mind every few seconds and never having a plan. You are orderly. You may be this person or you may know this person. If so, you should have no trouble imagining what COVID has done to them, myself included, because COVID is the great unsettler.

I have two exhibits waiting in the wings. One which focuses on generosity and justice, with a nod to Darren Walker, and another explores the color blue as mood, hue or symbol through the work of 24 contemporary artists. Needless to say, COVID lurks in the background of both like a fault in the earth’s plates. From paint, to plexiglass, to gas prices, to the very presence of other humans–And what artist doesn’t want or expect an audience for their work?–to staffing, there’s literally nothing COVID hasn’t messed with. If you’re a planner, COVID redefines the word disruptive. You find yourself planning not just for one future, but for many. If this happens, I will do this, but if something else transpires, I need to do that.

The Generosity and Justice exhibit was supposed to follow our school community’s Martin Luther King Day activities. The day, traditionally one of no classes, dedicated to exploring the man, his mission, and Black culture as a whole, was derailed by a post-winter-break quarantine. Changing a date in the age of COVID means working around completely unreliable schedules because thanks to the Omicron variant, at any moment one or more staff could test positive while not feeling actually sick. So what do you do? You plan for all the possibilities you can imagine, and the future becomes not a path ahead, but a hydra headed beast.

I think we’re way past the age of the hero leader, the lone individual who works everything out in the sanctity of her office before sharing decisions with her staff. Successful museum leaders in the age of COVID are the ones who say “I help lead the blah de blah Museum,” not “I run the Blah de Blah.” In a world that’s continually changing no single human can master everything they need to know. They depend on a team to navigate the volatile nature of the pandemic world. So what does that mean for people like me who adore planning for the future, and really love having those plans work out? I think it means:

  • Living firmly in the present because no matter how much you want the future to comply with your wishes it likely won’t. I mean did we ever think there would be a time when our loved ones could be hospitalized and die without our being there?
  • Working to protect our teams so they feel safe.
  • Working with our teams, creating a variety of answers to every problem so we can pivot, maybe not happily, but easily, knowing there isn’t one path, but several.
  • Acknowledge our mistakes speedily and publicly to earn trust and thus increase colleague’s feelings of safety.

And for those, like me, who live for checking the box, living a little more in the present, with all its possibilities, might not be the worst thing.

Be well, get boostered, keep your colleagues safe, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Raising the Wellness Flag in 2022

By Jan Jacobsen – http://www.worldpeace.no/THE-WHITE-FLAG.htm, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3601988

We’re only a few days into the New Year and already it’s deja vu all over again. In fact, if I were cleverer this is the moment to cue the music and hear “COVID is Here to Stay,” to the tune written by George Gershwin and made famous by Tony Bennett and Diana Krall. I mean doesn’t it feel like….???

In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay
But COVID is here to stay.

It’s hard to believe this winter could be more difficult than the spring of 2020, but it may be. This week I read an NPR article quoting Gaurav Suri, a computational neuroscientist at San Francisco State University who studies how humans make decisions. Suri says humans are tuned to make decisions around stability, not surrounded by rapid-fire change. No kidding. And you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know uncertainty makes us anxious. That, coupled with the real-life possibility of giving or getting the COVID virus, makes life super stressful.

How are museum and heritage organization leaders supposed to lead when everyone is constantly on edge? How can we keep work from becoming a relentless marathon of worry and anxiety as we spend days trying to do our jobs, often in new ways, while trying not to get or spread the virus? There are likely a million different answers to that question, but one might be to make 2022 a year for workplace wellness.

Not everyone can follow the Cincinnati Art Museum’s lead and press pause, but it is a great example of how an organization prioritizes staff health and wellness. It’s especially farsighted since it now appears many organizations will need to either reduce visitation or close entirely this month. CMA is closed from January 3-12 and staff is fully compensated. According to the article, the museum suggests employees “choose to reconnect with family or work in a food bank, this pause allows us to grow individually while we all grow collectively.” Awesome, right? Not only because it acknowledges what staff gave their community over the past 18 months, but because it says CMA prioritizes staff well being, not just as productive museum educators, exhibit designers or shop sales assistants, but as good-hearted humans.

Maybe you can’t institute an organizational wellness pause. Maybe no one would listen even if you suggested it. So…. what can you do instead? First, start with yourself. As a leader, do you model wellness and self care? Think about how hard it might be for staff to ask a leader (you) for time off when you arrive early, stay late, send after-work emails, and seem permanently stressed. So start by modeling personal self care coupled with some sharing and transparency.

Sharing doesn’t mean an exhaustive account your toddler’s gruesome stomach virus, you and your partner’s lack of sleep, or how food makes you vaguely nauseous, yet you still soldier on. Instead, it might mean saying “I have a sick child, an exhausted partner, and for the next two days I’ll be leaving early. Please let me know if you find yourself in a similar position.” And remind everyone that the rules from when they were in day care or kindergarten still apply: Even if you don’t have COVID, stay home for 24 hours after a fever or vomiting.

Think about taking meetings out of doors, while walking, if possible. Many of us work in beautiful places. Encourage your team to take 15 minutes a day to walk–inside or out–to change perspective or feel the sun on their face. Even walking to a favorite gallery or room in a heritage site and doing some slow looking can help break the relentless cycle of stress, more stress, crabbiness, repeat. If it helps, encourage staff to listen to music. Some organizations have a room for quiet study, where staff can retreat when they need uninterrupted me-time to re-focus and regenerate. And encourage staff to share anxiety-coping ideas with one another. For example, begin a meeting by asking everyone to share an app, a tool, a practice for stress relief that works for them. Supporting one another is increasingly important as the workplace fluctuates between home and office, causing the personal and professional to overlap in ways it didn’t prior to the pandemic.

I say this often, but if you lead an organization, as opposed to a team, when was the last time you looked at your HR policy? Sometimes small changes mean a lot. Does your policy offer personal time off (PTO) as opposed or in addition to sick time? Offering sick time as the only way NOT to come to work is different from providing personal time-off. PTO gives employees the agency to make their own decisions, something every adult needs. Granted paid sick time off is better than no time off, but why should an HR plan encourage employees to be less than truthful? And if it’s a choice between coming to work feeling stressed over leaving a sick family member or losing pay, what do you think employees do? They come to work stressed and quasi-sick. They aren’t their best selves, and they open the door to making others sick, not just with COVID, but with everyday viruses as well.

Whether you’re dealing with staff who are clinically ill, caring for others, or weary and stressed, you need some self-understanding. To return to neuroscience, remember what Brené Brown says about connection: “Shame is the fear of disconnection,” and we feel shame when we think we have to explain we’re not up to the task. Brown says we all feel that we’re not enough. We’re not thin enough, fit enough, smart enough, cool enough, and on and on. Yet people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worth it. Some how they learned vulnerability makes them beautiful and necessary. Brown reminds us we can’t treat others with compassion if we don’t treat ourselves compassionately. If you haven’t heard her Ted talk on vulnerability, start your New Year with that. Start with not being certain, start with being compassionate, start with being whole-hearted. It won’t end COVID, but it will help take your team through what promises to be another challenging year.

So…begin 2022 by making sure your HR policy provides a structure for empowerment on the part of your employees. If you’re into New year’s resolutions, make one about finding the courage to access the vulnerable part of you, and give it a little daylight. And then take that courage and compassion and pay it forward. Your colleagues, your team, your staff will thank you, and they will pay it forward too.

Be well. Stay safe. Get your booster. Wear your mask. Do good work, and despite the mess the world is in, or maybe because of the mess the world is in, I hope 2022 is a year full of creativity, kindness, and compassion for all of you.

Joan Baldwin


The Last Post (for 2021) & Three Words for 2022

In 10 days 2021 will be in the history books and we will be living 2022. At the moment though, with Omicron duplicating, it feels like a meaner, angrier version of 2020 where every choice demands serious thought. Should I go? Should I stay? Are they vaccinated AND boostered? How much do those home tests cost? What was my life like the last time prices were this high? And on and on.

Today, I went back and read my final post from 2020. In it, I laid out five ways I hoped to make change in the coming year. They were:

  • Be the point person for a director search that starts by recognizing implicit bias, conducts an equitable search, resulting in a diverse, creative candidate who challenges us in new ways.
  • Continue to diversify our collections, art, photography and rare books, through acquisition and in cataloguing language.
  • Continue to shift our organizational lens so white privilege isn’t always center stage.
  • Grow empathy.
  • Nurture creativity.

Although I don’t feel hugely successful, I did, weirdly, succeed in at least three out of five. We hired a new leader, someone who’s smart, kind, empathetic and supportive. Having worked for someone who was none of those things, I can tell you it makes a huge difference. I continue to work at acknowledging and then shifting my own white privilege so the lens is more inclusive and empathetic. I try daily to nurture my own and other’s creativity while also being empathetic. Creativity needs time, however, and some days it feels as though it is trapped on a container ship off the coast. The area of change that’s proved hardest is diversifying our collections mostly because turning that wheel means money. Our donors are often older, white and male, making them not always enthusiastic about building collections that are non-white and female. Nevertheless, it remains a written goal, and one that’s easy to point to when we’re offered a gift.

Over this year, I’ve written about workplace bullying and crying at work specifically for women because I believe they are sometimes caught in COVID’s crosshairs in ways men are not. I wrote about taking grief to work because this has been, and remains, a deeply sad year for me. I also wrote about creativity and trust, and I wrote about Nina Simon, who remains a she-ro for me mostly because she has the courage to walk away from all this museum stuff and write a novel. At least I think that’s what she’s doing because periodically I answer her probing questions on Twitter about one of her characters who seems to be about my age.

It’s time to say something about the coming year so here is my hope: My hope is that every museum leader, whether they lead a program or an organization, whether they lead 1.5 people or the equivalent of a small town, can, when they’re alone, say honestly and truthfully, “My staff is safe, seen and supported.” If that’s not true, if there are tiny things that need to be changed or great gaping holes, my hope is they make that sentence a truth in 2022. If your staff is safe, they are not harassed and bullied. Should they be, because you can’t control everything, you will have implemented processes to support and help them. If they are seen, they know you believe in them, in the person they really are, not some artificial version of themselves. And if they are supported, they are mentored, encouraged, and given space to be creative, no matter their assigned tasks.

If you–because you are important too–and your staff are safe, seen and supported, the constant gnawing need for self care will also lessen. It won’t be perfect. Life rarely is, but it will be a long way toward better. So think about what you need to do to move the needle toward those three simple words: safe, seen, supported.

I’ll close this end-of-year post with a poem. Given the space we’re currently in, we probably should read more poetry, and the title is fitting. In the meantime, be well, take care of those you love, and I’ll be back here in 2022.

Joan Baldwin

Instructions on Not Giving Up

Ada Limón – 1976-

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.


Can We Talk Together About Museum Work? Soon?

Beercp – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9537466

I took a week off to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, and I’m back to make my annual ask for a museum world work summit. I’ve asked before. In March 2021, I used this blog to write a letter to Laura Lott and John Dichtl, presidents of AAM and AASLH respectively, but to date, nothing. It’s no secret that the world of museum work is a mess, and it’s popular to blame it on COVID, but is that the whole answer?

This week I listened to economist Lane Windham on It’s Been a Minute. Windham teaches at Georgetown and is is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor . She argues that we’re living through a worker rights revival. Economists also call it the “great resignation,” where people left low-wage jobs with no benefits, and then because of COVID, chose not to return, in some cases waiting employers out. But, while COVID may have been the reason to quit low-wage, no-benefit jobs–after all if your crap pay won’t cover after-school care and there’s no school, why stay?– Windham suggests their anger dates back to 2018/19 with a wave of strikes when, for example, 500,000 teachers and other workers took to the picket lines. She also points out that many of today’s strikers are women, reflecting mass entry of women into the workforce in the 1980s and 90s–women of color at Amazon and nurses at Kaiser Permanente for example–as well as women’s interest and leadership in unions.

I acknowledge that I am part of a group of museum folk who use social media to otherwise moan about the world of museum work. I guess crying into the Internet void is soul-soothing in a way, but it doesn’t move the needle, which is something I’m increasingly focused on. (When you work with high school students you want to model ways to create change that go beyond emotions.) And there are a lot of us talking and Tweeting about museum work from many different sectors around the globe. What would happen if–for example– you put Maria Vlachou, Aletheia Whittman, Franklin Vagnone, Monica Montgomery, Porchia Moore, Lonnie Bunch, and Elizabeth Merritt together with Darren Walker (Ford Foundation), Lane Windham (Georgetown) and Amy Costello (NPQ)? What ideas about the future of museum work might come out of a summit like that? What changes might they propose about board training? About leadership training? About the gender wage gap? About DEI training?

The museum work world isn’t simply a corporate giant employing massive numbers of worker bees à la Amazon. It’s complex. And yes, museums are more like other non-profits than big business, but I would argue, museums are still unique. They mix often hyper-educated folk with wealthy trustees, charged with hiring a single individual to run the organization. Then the trustees step back, re-focusing at regularly scheduled intervals to oversee mission and money, and leaving the director/president to hire/fire and lead teams that may range from a paid staff who could all fit in an SUV, to organizations with workforces as large as small towns. And that’s before we incorporate volunteer groups many of whom play an important–although increasingly charged–role in today’s museums. If you consider this picture also includes a group of leaders –at the director level and below–who may have had little training, mentoring or experience in actually leading humans, much less in creating policies for a transparent, equitable, empathetic workplace, you have a recipe for disaster i.e. a simmering pot of worker unrest.

Recently some of social media’s museum thought leaders have suggested museum directors need to solve these problems. While there are many steps an individual can take to make themselves a better leader, starting with a huge dose of self-awareness to check their own hubris and bias, I think it’s probably not an individual director’s role to ride into a board meeting with a flaming sword. How many directors need to have their careers crushed on issue of principle? How many self-sacrificing fights between director and staff have to happen? It’s almost always the director who loses. How many open positions do there have to be before organizations realize museum directors aren’t the board’s handmaidens, and that the board/director relationship must be cooperative and collegial?

One last thought: Sometimes you can’t solve a problem until you pull it out and examine it. I’m currently using Aletheia Wittman’s work on Institutional Genealogy for a project I’m working on. Her work is a clear, critical framework for assessing organizational history, for trying to understand, how your museum or heritage organization got to where it is today. What would happen if you gave that framework to our mythical group above and asked them to look at museum work as a whole, to open all the closets, bring out the skeletons, lift up the rocks, and get out all the dirty laundry so we can understand where we’ve come, where we might have lost our way, and how to find a more equitable path? Just a thought.

Be well, be kind and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Are For-Profit Values Disrupting the Museum World?

WiseWoman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45292057

There’s no doubt we live in a divisive time: The vaccinated versus the unvaccinated, Red versus Blue, environmentalists versus climate deniers, the uber-rich versus everyone else? And for many workers it’s Striketober. Where is the museum world in all this angst and anger? With the release of AFSCME’s Accountability Report on Museums last week, it seems like these divisions are lapping at our shores. As Christy Coleman tweeted when she Tweeted the link to the AFSCME report: “It’s not a good look.” Too true. In fact, it’s living proof that phrase Museums Aren’t Neutral, usually suggesting a value-driven turn for the greater good, has another darker side.

If you missed seeing the AFSCME report, you should read it. It’s the reason boards hire gazillion-dollar law firms to keep their staffs from unionizing because once that door opens, unions like AFSCME publish reports like this one. What it lays bare is the kind of behavior we hope isn’t happening, but clearly is: That a number of very big, very wealthy museums took PPP money available in the pandemic’s wake, and then rather then using it to keep their staffs intact, they let their lowest paid staff go, emerging a year later with their endowments unscathed. In fact, the report suggests that some of the qualifying museums could have withstood the loss of visitation due to pandemic closings, without receiving PPP at all, but collecting it allowed their endowments to grow. How did that happen? Well, remember when we all went into hiding early in 2020? The markets took a deep dive then too, which may account for the circle-the-wagons approach at many of the big well-endowed museums. But three months later, with stimulus checks written and the hunt for a vaccine underway, it bounced back and stayed that way. The labor market, however, did not recover. In January 2020 unemployment was at 3.5-percent, the lowest it’s been in forever. A year later, unemployment had climbed to 10-percent, with a huge drop in women’s employment and an ongoing hit to the travel, entertainment, and culture industries. Who works there? Oh yeah, museum folks.

Here are some examples from the AFSCME report: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, despite ending FY 2020 with a $2.3 million surplus and receiving $3.3 million in PPP loans, laid off 97 workers during the pandemic. Then there is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the leadership made headlines in 2020 for looking the other way in the face of sexual harassment while spending thousands of dollars on a union-busting law firm to fight their workers’ organizing effort, received a $5.1 million PPP loan. Not surprisingly, PMA turned around and let 127 workers go during the pandemic. And then there’s the Boston’s Museum of Science that had too many employees to qualify for the first round of PPP. How do you fix that? Let half of them go and then get a PPP check for $4.7 million this year.

Scott Fitzgerald once quipped, “The rich are different from you and me,” and Hemingway is supposed to have responded, “Yes, they have more money,” but when you read AFSCME’s report, it does seem as if those differences have permeated the big institutions, resulting in behavior that, from the outside at least, appears valueless at the very moment when museums cry out for values. While AFSCME’s report puts the country’s larger museums under the microscope for taking PPP with one hand, while letting staff go with the other, it makes clear they were not alone in reducing staff during the pandemic. The report underscores that while almost all museums reduced staff hours–affecting 43-percent of the workforce who lost approximately $21,191 per person– 53-percent of the country’s museums reduced staff positions as well. Since women occupy 50.1-percent of the workforce, and since many women and women of color occupy hourly and frontline positions, museum women took a particularly hard hit.

If you could gather board members together from the museums highlighted in the AFSCME report, what would they say? Would they tell you what they do with their museum’s endowment is the board’s business? Would they respond that their primary duty is fiduciary, meaning they protect their museum’s endowment at all costs? And would they add, they are well-endowed for a reason? Maybe. But is it possible to hold onto your values, protect your staff, AND protect your endowment? And what happens when directors accept 7-figure positions? Do their values change? Is it easier to lay off staff you rarely see or interact with? Maybe. Although in fairness, Museum of Science President Tim Ritchie ,who received PPP funding after reducing staff, also reportedly took a 50-percent pay cut. One of the points the report makes is that over the last 25 years, as government support for museums lessened, the influence of rich donors grew, writing “This heavy reliance on rich donors allows wealthy individuals to essentially ‘buy’ a board seat and then dictate the museum’s priorities and control its finances.”

AFSCME’s wrote its report, not simply for the greater good, but to promote its work as a voice for unionized workers. Some might argue that is the greater good, but it’s worth pointing out that its position is not without bias. AFSCME wants us to know it helped museum workers during the depths of the pandemic and beyond. One of the examples it gives is the Buffalo (NY) Zoo where it bargained for zoo workers when leadership wanted to increase their healthcare costs by 30-percent.

So what does all this mean? If big museum boards, driven by Wall Street, choose museum presidents and directors, isn’t it likely they will select candidates whose attitudes towards race, gender and class resemble their own? If so, what’s the likelihood they will select people who who will speak for hourly workers, for women, and people of color?

How do museums use the power they have for good? Wilkening Consulting’s 2021 Survey tells us that after friends and family, museums are among the country’s most trusted institutions. And a percentage of the public seems comfortable with museums as little islands of neutrality, presenting facts, figures and data. That said, the group not included (at least not by name) in the survey is museum workers themselves. Maybe that’s part of the issue? Maybe once you’ve seen how the sausage is made, it’s hard to be neutral? If you know your museum operates with an ad-hoc attitude toward HR issues, lets racist and sexist workplace comments slide, gives its leadership giant raises while providing none for staff or increasing their healthcare costs, how do you trust the place you work for? It seems to me, one of the hardest things today’s museum leaders must do is demonstrate the same concern and values they show for their collections and communities to the people who work for them.

Be well, be kind, stay safe.

Joan Baldwin


Kudos, Questions, and Humility: A Week in Review

First Kudos: To Mike Murawski for his new book, Museums As Agents of Change, released this week and available through Routledge. A co-founder of Museums are not Neutral, Murawski is a change maker himself, which is just one of the reasons this book is important.

Second, a shout out to AAM. In February I wrote a post complaining about how AAM’s newly-released Trendswatch had sidestepped the ways the pandemic harmed working women globally, and specifically women in the museum world. This week while scrolling through an AAM newsletter, I came across a link to Supporting Women in the Workplace During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. It takes a big-hearted organization to course-correct, so thank you to AAM for providing resources for 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. And if women’s issues within the museum world concern you, join Gender Equity in Museums or GEMM.

Third, a bravo to my friend Frank Vagnone: If museum directors had fans like boy bands, I would be lined up post-concert to see Frank, president and CEO of Old Salem, Inc. Thoughtful, smart, and someone known to push the envelope on occasion, Vagnone writes the blog Twisted Preservation. This week he posted about the need to see COVID for what it is–not an 18-month stop between normal and new normal–but an inflection point that will leave many organizations devastated and fundamentally changed. If you’re a museum or heritage organization leader, you should read his post, and maybe use it as a point of discussion with your board.

***************************

And the deaccessioning debate continues: I am struck by the way this debate has become a binary choice. You’re either for it–a progressive–or against it or at least cautious about it–a traditionalist. And like all things in 2021, deacessioning is personalized, becoming a lens with a bifurcated view of the art museum world because, let’s face it, history and science museums aren’t making millions deaccessioning.

Lee Rosenbaum went so far as to metaphorically pit Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, opposite Phillipe de Montebello, former director of the Met, writing that Bedford is among “the new crop of museum directors and curators [who] have embraced social and political progressiveness as a primary part of their mission.” Rosenbaum suggests that “inclusivity and social relevance are laudable” but cautions “patience so museums don’t trash the time-honored achievements of past professionals.”

Where to start? Maybe with the idea that as I said a few weeks ago, deaccessioning is a tool in a tool box, a necessary one, but one that in order to wield successfully, needs a deep collection, a degree of wisdom and sophistication on the part of curators and museum leadership, and a strong community understanding. Second, that it’s possible for smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking organizations to hold two (or more) ideas in their heads at the same time–pruning and shaping the collection to help it better speak to the wider community–while also trying to create an equitable workspace that honors the values museums profess to support. Perhaps communities of color and museum staff are tired of waiting for museums who are afraid of trashing the time-honored path representing the way we’ve always done it?

When did putting community–whether that is your security guard’s hourly pay or your local community’s access to your collection– become a bad thing? Is it okay as long as it doesn’t privilege BIPOC artists over established white, male artists? Shouldn’t we all be modeling ofbyforall.org’s five steps for change? And how will change happen if our first act is to rush to the barricades defending what cannot change?

AAMD is like an exclusive gentleman’s club from the 1950’s. It costs money to belong, when you’re inside it seems powerful, but in reality its enforcement powers are limited. According to The New York Times, a recent vote on whether to codify the relaxed deaccessioning rules of COVID lost 91-88 with 48 members abstaining. Perhaps the 48 abstainers sided with MoMA’s Glenn Lowery who suggests this type of decision making shouldn’t happen in the middle of a crisis. And despite vaccines, and the falling number of COVID cases, we are still in a crisis.

***************************

And a lesson in humility: One of the lessons of leadership is that we continue learning. Always. Every day. And the day you stop, you should pack it in, and head for your rocking chair and your memories.

I manage a small collection inside a small, intentional community or a boarding school. Like any lone ranger, I wear the title “curator,” but many other hats –educator, registrar, packer, exhibit designer–as well. Our campus is still officially closed, but last week we hung an exhibit of 22 portraits, part of a project for our 9th and 10th-grade studio art students. Each student will select a portrait, reckon with it, react to it, and create a new work in response. When complete, the student work, curated and selected by their classmates, will hang in dialog next to the collection work. So far so good.

I finished the week with the show hung, but not the labels. I was tired, a lame excuse in retrospect, but nonetheless true, so I reasoned the labels could wait until Monday. Here is one of the portraits, a dual image of Mary Birch Coffing of Salisbury, Connecticut with Jane Winslow also of Salisbury.

Mary Birch Coffing, 1782-1865 with Jane Winslow, a free Black woman, 1825-1872, by Edwin White, American, 1817-1877, oil on canvas, on loan from the Salisbury Association, Salisbury, CT.

In leaving the labels for another day, I forgot about my audience. I forgot they needed context, and most of all, in believing they could wait, I disrespected them. So when they reacted Friday evening about the portrait above via email and social media, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. They were concerned. They wanted information. By Saturday morning I’d reckoned with my own blindness and all the labels were up. Further, we’d reached out to students and offered to talk about the show as a whole, and the Coffing/Winslow portrait in particular.

The lesson for me was not just how a lone ranger needs to push through and finish what was started. It was about the obligation to empathize, to put oneself in the position of one’s audience, and try to imagine what tools are necessary to make their own judgements, to have their own dialog, their own reckoning. That’s all art asks of us: to be there; to be fully present for more than the 20-seconds most of us devote to standing in front of a painting. If that’s what we want from our viewers, then we have to give them a place to start that’s truthful but not opinionated, that leads to dialog not misunderstanding, and most of all that is respectful.

The good news is I know I’m still learning. I hope you are too.

Joan Baldwin