Museum Leaders: The Words You Use

Words Matter

This week a colleague posted the following on social media: “Five words to use when describing what others would call a bitch: Formidable, assertive, dominant, powerful, decisive. I proudly claim all of those attributes. Screw the bitch one.” Since it’s Women’s History Month and also the time of year when many of you will either be doing performance reviews or participating in them, we thought we should focus on language, gender, and performance.

You may believe you’ve got this particular issue covered. You wore red on International Women’s day; your museum is all over Women’s History Month; you’ve gotten approval from your board to revise your organization’s personnel policies with an eye toward mitigating gender bias. And the vast majority of your staff–particularly in education and collections– is women. What more can you do?

The answer is plenty. While the list above is laudable, a lot of gender bias happens unconsciously which is why it deserves more work, particularly when it comes to language. Are you aware, for example, that in a 2014 study of tech industry performance reviews  women were far more likely to receive critical feedback then men–71-percent vs. 2-percent? Worse, the criticism was associated with perceived personality traits. In other words, even when men and women both received suggestions for improvement, and, after all, that’s in part what performance reviews are about, those for women were tied to perceived behavior. They included words like bitchy, bossy, brash, abrasive and aggressive. To the woman on the receiving end that translates to “improve your staff presentations and, by the way, stop being so (insert-your-adjective-here.)”

And let’s be clear: Women are not immune to unconscious bias so this isn’t a male leadership versus a female leadership thing. Women also tend to evaluate men on their potential rather than behavior, offering constructive criticism, while being supportive. Women’s evaluations, whether done by men or women, tend to be more focused on behavior causing the women being evaluated to prove themselves again and again. What this means is women are evaluated by the way they have done something while men are evaluated by their capacity to improve.

And bias isn’t something that only rears its head in relation to others. When I asked permission to use the opening quote, I discovered that its author, Ilene Frank, Chief Curator at the CT Historical Society, had actually used the word bitch about herself. She explained it this way: “I had a moment the other day where, after making a comment that needed to be made, I felt bad about the tone I used and the force with which the statement came out. No one criticized me for it, but I felt bad. I texted my girlfriend and wrote ‘I think I was just a bitch.” To which she, in her wisdom, responded, “How about assertive?'”

Here are some suggestions for combatting workplace bias throughout the performance review season:

If you’re a leader:

  • Review your staff assessments for the last several years. Make a list of the adjectives you use for men, versus women. Is there are difference?
  • If your staff is large, you may want to repeat the exercise breaking down assessments by age, race and LGBTQ. Remember, you’re not looking for Title IX violations; you need to identify your own way of “seeing.” Who is your tone gentler with? Who is it easier to be direct with? Why?
  • We’re going to assume all your employees receive annual performance reviews, and have access to them. If not, think about fixing that.
  • At the end of the day or the week,  as you reflect, refine, and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about yourself. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

If you are a staff member:

  • Review your own assessments. Look for the places where you feel you were judged on personality, gender, race or age, rather than performance.
  • If there are adjectives that bothered you in a previous review, and still bother you, write them down. If those words are used again, feel free to smile sweetly and ask your director if she would like to choose another word or whether that is a word she would apply to–for example–an older, straight man?
  • If you report to more than one individual, you may want to ask about the possibility of a 360 review from your multiple direct reports. Studies show that more and varied feedback helps level the playing field.
  • At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about your self. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.

Tell us about bias at your museum, unconscious or not.

Joan Baldwin


Museums and the Balance of Power: Some Things to Think About

balance-of-power

This week many museum directors were in Washington, D.C., taking part in Museum Advocacy Day. They walked the Capitol’s corridors seeking support for museums, botanical gardens, zoos and heritage organizations. They were there to be persuasive. For many, it can’t have been an easy sell.  With the NEH and NEA in the Republican party’s crosshairs, it’s a challenging political climate to say the least.

But in the midst of all the hand shakes, story telling, and persuasive chatter, 204 miles to the north, the Metropolitan Museum released a statement announcing Thomas Campbell’s resignation effective June 30. The former tapestry curator who won the directorship in 2009 is leaving. It seemed abrupt. It also seemed as though it were all about Mr. Campbell. Counterintuitively, his resignation arrived in a year when the museum saw record visitation, and huge praise for digitizing 400,000 images and making them available to the public. In his statement, Campbell wrote, “I am especially proud that our visitor base is the largest and most diverse in the Museum’s history. At the same time, we are on track to be financially stable and have a solid strategic path forward.” A paragraph from the Met’s Board Chair, Daniel Brodsky, followed, praising the museum’s record visitation, its robust exhibitions, and its expansion with the Met Breuer.

Reading Campbell’s words and those of Mr. Brodsky, you would hardly know there had been what amounts to a palace coup.But for anyone looking between the lines it’s clear that Tom Campbell’s exit was choreographed down to the last step. From the outside, we can’t know what went wrong. Governing an organization that is bigger than many small towns can’t be easy though. While his successes are clear up to and including a lovely, tightly written plea on the power of the NEA published in The Times,  as the week dragged on his colleagues and the press dissected his failings as well.

But the point of this post isn’t to judge Tom Campbell at all. The point is that for the foreseeable future he will be the director who resigned from the Met, and the trustees? Well, they will still be trustees. And that, for all you directors out there should be a warning as big as “Surrender, Dorothy” in the Wizard of Oz. You can be friendly with trustees, but except in rare cases, you are not their friend. You can always be cast as the lightning rod. If you think for a minute that Tom Campbell ramped up the Met’s digitization program, took over Met Breuer, and lured Sheena Wagstaff away from the Tate to Met Breuer,  on his own without the board’s oversight, you are living on another planet. George Goldner who led the Met’s prints and drawings department for 21 years was blunt in his assessment of the trustees role. “It is unconscionable that the pension of a person making $60,000 a year is cut through no fault of his or her own, whereas senior board members, who must in part take responsibility, have borne no part of the blame or burden.” (And for all of you out there who look to the Met as the Harvard of museums, note the $60,000 a year reference.)

So here are five take aways if you’re a director or a board member:

  • Don’t say this is a big museum problem, and it can’t happen to me. This is a lesson in director/trustee relationships writ large.
  • If you are a board member, this is a gentle reminder that while you are not compensated for your work, it is work, and deserves your undivided attention. Remember, your failure to act, to speak up, or to govern results in actions that may adversely affect both the organization and its staff.
  • Both directors and board members need to listen to each other. Really listen. If you’re an executive director and you receive mixed or vague messages, meet with your executive committee. Ask for a clarifying conversation. Iron out the problems before they metastasize.
  • If you are frequently confounded and confused by your board, perhaps the conversation should begin by clarifying roles and responsibilities.
  • As a board member, make sure your board has a defined process for evaluating your director’s job performance. Take it seriously. It’s not a judgement of the director so much as it is an acknowledgement of how director and organization mesh. You can’t participate, if you don’t understand your organization.

Navigating rough water is easier when boards and directors work together. Tell us how your organization’s board and staff meet challenges.

Joan Baldwin


Developing Museum Champions Through Advocacy

 

museum-advocacy

This guest post coincides with AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. It is a perfect time to highlight the importance of year-round advocacy for individual museums and the museum field.

Developing Museum Champions Through Advocacy

By Karen A. Witter

Do you have museum champions in your community, city council, school board, state legislature, and Congressional delegation? Would people speak out immediately if something were proposed that would adversely impact your museum? Do you have relationships with elected officials at all levels of government? Is advocacy part of your institutional culture?

Advocacy involves communicating what your museum does and why it is important. Ongoing advocacy helps build a stronger institution. Now more than ever, elected officials at all levels of government need to understand the value of museums to their constituents. All kinds of issues are at play in Congress and State Houses across the country that could impact museums. A myriad of organizations are advocating for their interests; museums also need to be heard.

Advocacy is often compared to donor cultivation…get to know elected officials, just as you get to know donors, before you ask for anything. However, I am convinced that advocacy is also similar to disaster planning – being prepared in case proposed actions would adversely affect your organization. In a time of crisis, you need champions who already understand the value of your organization.

If we want people to support museums as essential assets in large and small communities across our country, we need an ongoing and concerted effort to convey the value of museums. We need national, regional, and state associations to advocate on behalf of the museum field, and we also need individual museums and museum professionals at the grass-roots level to support that effort. The people museums serve can be highly effective as advocates. Just as museums ask individuals to become donors, we need to ask constituents to be advocates.

Creating a culture of advocacy starts at the top, but staff at all levels, board members, volunteers, constituents, and the many people who value museums all play a role. Embrace advocacy as another tool in your toolbox to build a stronger organization. Do simple things, but do them often to create a culture of advocacy.

First, don’t ever think, “that will never happen”. No one expected the governor of Illinois to shutter the 138-year old Illinois State Museum for 9 months and terminate the entire senior management team. It will take years for the museum to recover.

Cultivate relationships before you need anything. Maintain long-term relationships, and cultivate new ones. Don’t take anyone for granted. Don’t write anyone off. Communicate regularly. Say thank you when appropriate. Send a letter to newly elected officials who represent people you serve. Congratulate them on their election and invite them to visit. Offer to be a resource as they navigate their new role.

Be a part of your community not apart from your community. Are your staff, board members, leadership team, and director well known among your business community, education sector, arts community, and with elected officials? Encourage staff to get involved in the community where they can apply their expertise.

Compile and tell your stories continuously. Engage people’s hearts with stories of how your museum makes a difference. Museum educators can collect stories about your museum’s impact on student learning. Museum registrars and curators can provide stories that reveal the significance of your collections and what compels people to donate objects to your museum. Board members and volunteers can describe what motivates them to support your organization.

Share these stories with elected officials and community leaders. Send pictures of elected officials’ constituents visiting your museum. Ask others to share their experiences with elected officials. Ask visitors to write letters to the editor and post comments on social media. Find simple ways to let elected officials know how you serve their constituents.

• Document the impact of your museum with facts and figures. Develop an economic impact statement and educational impact statement for your museum. Collaborate with other museums in your community to demonstrate your collective impact. See the American Alliance of Museums’ web site for a template and sample statements .

Develop an annual advocacy plan. Create a simple plan by outlining a few things that can be done each month, and involve staff, board members, and volunteers.

Learn more about how to engage in advocacy. If you think advocacy is someone else’s job or are not comfortable with advocacy, step out of your comfort zone and attend advocacy sessions at conferences and sign up for advocacy webinars. If you are in a leadership role but don’t think there is the time or resources to support advocacy, learn more about how to participate in advocacy efforts with a modest investment. There are ways to support AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day without going to Washington, D.C. The AAM web site provides easy ways to lend your voice.

Make advocacy a strategic priority. There’s far too much at stake for museums to sit on the sidelines. Ask what your organization is doing to advocate for your museum and the museum field, and volunteer to participate. Be an advocate for advocacy.
Karen A. Witter is a part-time museum consultant who worked in Illinois state government for 35 years. She is a former natural resources policy adviser to the Governor, cabinet-level state agency director, and associate director of the IL State Museum. She is a past president of the Association of Midwest Museums and frequent presenter about advocacy at state, regional, and national museum association conferences.
kawitter13@gmail.com
linkedin.com/in/karenawitter

She will be presenting a free AASLH webinar, Everyday Museum Advocacy, on March 6.


Museums & Social Media Literacy

social-media-literacy

Guest Post by Jennifer Riddell

Embracing social media literacy:

Integrate it meaningfully with your museum’s work, content and interpretation goals

The digital, networked museum has been slow to evolve and adoption of interactivity, open-source content and social media has been reluctant.  In the early days (that is, within the last decade) a museum’s social media function was usually handled by web staff who established institutional accounts, sometimes with fuzzy support and direction from executive leadership. Under the “create once, publish everywhere” mantra, social media content was drawn from pre-approved marketing/communications material and the organizational website and redirected through social media platforms. The publicity value, as well as means of connecting with newer generations of museum goers and supporters, solidified the business rationale for the function and for dedicated social media staff.    

In 2017, we will arrive at the 10th anniversary of the debut of the iPhone and the transformation of our mobile phones into networked visual communication devices. iphones and their progeny supercharged the development and uptake of social media, enabling people and organizations to establish an ongoing online presence. Today, 79% of internet-using U.S. adults are on Facebook, which has seen increased growth in recent years, while the next most popular platforms, Instagram (32% of adults online) and Twitter (24%), hold steady. Further, many people use their phones as a primary means of accessing the internet. Analytics reveal more visits to some museum websites via phone or tablets than computers.

As the social media landscape grew, and with the rise of analytics and evaluation, proactively planned social media calendars and platform complementarity became necessary to managing the output, which would hopefully drive engagements and broader dissemination of the content. A performance announcement can go out on Twitter, alongside a calendar post and invitations on Facebook, where an attendee streams it live, all of which may be followed by Instagram posts and Flickr uploads.    

But how and why does social media matter to those of us who are not museum social media managers, web designers, or tech/backend experts? How does it relate to those museum professionals whose work revolves around engaging visitors with collections and exhibitions through interpretation, educational programming, visitor service and the like?
Thinking about social media as another channel for engagementwith the same compelling narratives, quality of content, and relevant messaging that you develop and plan to support your interpretive and core valuescan help frame a better understanding of it. Often museum professionals have little interaction with institutional social media if it is not a formal element of their work (although they may be personal users). I think it is increasingly important to get a handle (pun intended) on social media from whatever rung in your organization that you occupy senior level on downas it develops and evolves into an indivisible component of visitor engagement and a means of knowing more about your community.

“Now that we have visitors on board, where do we want to take them?”

Social media amplifies the reach of exhibitions and programs, and provides opportunities for patrons to respond, which, in turn, increases engagement. Social media also offers significant opportunities for creativity and innovation in collection and exhibition interpretation, exploring ideas about what museums are for, and how visitors connect and form their own communities around and with them.   

In the last decades, museums centralized visitor experience, alongside the traditional functions of collections stewardship and scholarship. Interpretive practices increasingly utilize storytelling, creative and relevant engagement, visitor participation, and multiple visitors’ voices. Successful and authentic social media practice embodies these qualities as well. In other words, it is part of the work you are already doing in your museum. Technology or your belief that you have no idea how Twitter or Instagram works shouldn’t inhibit you from using social media into interpretive messages or programs. Your focus is still content.

Gaining social media literacy helps you to see opportunities for its use. All staff should be empowered and encouraged to be a part of the social media wave since inclusivity (see Tate’s “digital as a dimension of everything” strategic plan) ultimately yields richer and more diverse content. Don’t forget that a museum’s staff is also part of its community, and their connections and interests alone magnify the presence of the museum many times over.

“Brand ambassadors, content managers, evangelists”

Many descriptions of social media describe an organization’s social media manager as its brand ambassador. This is an important role that should be informed by and serve as a hub for professional networks across your museum and beyond. For example, inside the museum (virtually or physically) visitors’ interests are no longer confined to exhibition spaces; they are curious about the life of the museum behind the scenes. Social media allows you to show visitors what the work of the museum is about, and authorize staff to speak and respond in their own voices about what they do. Not many people outside museums know what a curator does. For that matter they don’t know about the roles of conservators or frame-makers either. It is also key to be alert to the possibilities presented by exhibitions and programs. In one museum, curators of a photography exhibition wished to connect with people who might have archival family photos of a similar theme. This type of project is a natural fit for social media outreach and fosters real participation and exchange.   In these examples, it is not necessary to even know how to tweet, but just to recognize that an opportunity for engagementand suitable platformexists.

Externally, social media connects museums in real time with their communities. Examples could include local artists, other arts organizations, schools, non-art organizations, and enthusiastic local repeat visitors and supporters. They welcome avenues for a more vital and personal connection with your institution. If you stage a performance or sponsor an artist lecture, how might social media be used to offer a closer look at the performer’s life, process, ideas, etc.? Context can inflect and enrich your programming and demystify artistic practice. Crowd-sourcing questions, a community art project, or challenging your social media followers to see your collections in a new way encourages people to voice their own interpretations and understandings. No one has a lock on interpretation and visitors are goldmines of stories that, in turn, serve to validate others’ experiences.  

Getting your social media literacy off the ground

  1. Develop clear social media usage policies and guidelines

Social media policy and guidelines should be integrated into the organization’s internet usage policy. The social media component should cover the mechanics of who establishes, maintains, and accesses what accounts, how content will push or pull from other sources, staff professional and personal interaction with museum social media, and legal and ethical considerations. Consider how social media policy and guidelines reflect the larger mission of your organization and the established policies around communications and conduct.

  1. Get the basics from social media staff

Partner with your organization’s social media staff to understand the mechanics of posting (scheduling, pushing from one platform to another, live tweeting, analytics, content parameters, etc.). Ask them to explain in their own words the uses, audiences, pros and cons of different platforms from their perspective. There is no secret sauce. An understanding of basic principles will encourage museum staff to utilize their social media of choice to shape, collaborate and support the organization’s larger interpretive goals.

  • Don’t feed content through social media platforms like so much wood through a wood chipper. Adapt it to meet user’s needs and expectations in each platform.
  • Help empower internal networks so that when timely and interesting stories arise social media channels news from different parts of the museum.
  1. Sign up

You may have a Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, but try Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Pinterest. Start following some individuals and organizations that you like. Make a few posts. The goal is not specific skill development per se, or to become a social media star, but to just understand the basic functions. Participate in a twitter chat. Follow live tweeting of an event. Create an Instagram story. There is a degree of crossover between the personal and professional that is generally a part of using social media, so delineate your participation accordingly. Begin to observe the voice and functionality of different streams of social media information.

  1. Unpack the rationales and mission-based reasons for the use of social media in your organization

Beyond an imperative to simply have a social media presence, what can it accomplish, and what are the priorities? Does your social media presence align with what you’re doing elsewhere in the museum? Goals such as extending collection interpretation, reaching new audiences, redefining organizational identity, or promoting greater accessibility should be defined and broken down into actionable measures. Think about how social media allows you to engage in conversations locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. Not everything about social media is virtual, and successful social media campaigns/memes, and hashtags elicit action and awareness around an issue or topic.

        5. Social is non-hierarchical

Acquaint yourself with social media influencers in your community interested in your museum or related subject matter. They can be your advocates whose authentic voices and imprimatur lend a different kind of credibility to the authority a museum already possesses. Some influencers are already part of your organization, with active profiles in or outside the museum sphere. Being open to what social media may set in motion or introduce can be embraced as part of the learning, enjoyment, and connection that the museum experience can engender.

Jennifer Riddell works in museum interpretation and is communications co-chair for the Washington, DC chapter of ArtTable.

 


Your Museum and Professional Development: Should You Care?

staff-development

Some of you will read this post’s title and start laughing. Professional development funds are often the poor step children of organizational budgets, quickly whacked when finances are under siege. Yet in our ongoing quest to have museums and heritage organizations take their staff seriously–not just we can always depend on you to open the doors seriously, but you are the change agent(s) and we value that (seriously)–Leadership Matters believes in professional development.

Last week Fast Company did a piece on Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report. Admittedly, this is all workplaces and museums are only a tiny minority, but guess what? Fifty-five percent of American workers aren’t in love with work. They don’t hate their jobs either, they’re just indifferent. Why, you ask? Workers cited their bosses as poor communicators, and not just about work stuff. They felt management failed to explain a job’s benefits, and one of the principle benefits listed was professional development. The article suggests that unlike other more intangible workplace qualities, lousy or inexplicable benefits make employees leave. And leaving costs organizations money.

As a museum leader, you and your board of trustees want a stable, happy staff firmly entrenched with the 45-percent of American workers not trolling job announcements for greener pastures or better benefits. That means being an organization that demonstrates care and concern about employee growth, for conservators, curators, museum educators, and everyone else on your staff. And why does that matter? First of all, because of what it says. A clear and equitable employee development program says: We value you. Whether you are the lone ranger director provided with enough funding to take a course or go to a regional or national meeting or a member of the development office sent to learn the latest donor program, it is an ongoing way of saying thank you, an explicit demonstration of trust, and staff actually care if leadership takes a genuine interest in their future.

Who should get professional development funds? Well, in a perfect world, just about everyone. Museum leaders get more because their positions demand more, and the board and everyone else expects them to think and act at the speed of light. But wouldn’t it be nice if even the non-exempt staff who meet, greet, and instruct had the opportunity to go to a regional or local meeting once a year, to take an online course or work with a group like Museum Hack? So if your organization’s professional development program is lame or doesn’t exist, here are five things to think about:

  1. Boards need to understand that when it comes to staff, the best of the best seek self-improvement. They tend to leave organizations who make professional growth difficult or impossible.
  2. Professional development program budgets need to be transparent and equitable, meaning all exempt staff receive X and all non-exempt staff receive Y. And a gentle reminder, it’s not helpful if the museum leader seems to have unlimited professional development funds, while other staff have to go through a request and approval for every ask.
  3. Don’t hide behind the “we don’t have time for that” excuse. You are not curing cancer. You are a museum. You are an idea factory. If you can’t afford to let a staff member leave for three to five days, then you have other issues.
  4. It is helpful if professional development experiences are hinged to something at work, otherwise it is easy for them to become out of body experiences with nothing to do with work. As a leader, when you agree to staff attending a meeting, program or online training, talk about how that experience will integrate into the workplace on the back end. Be mindful that “What I did on my trip to AASLH” can be mind numbing for staff left behind, so make sure these interactions are intentional, directed, and, to use a sports metaphor, move the ball up the field.
  5. Boards and museum leaders want staff who can adapt. Employees who engage in learning on an ongoing basis adapt more readily than those who don’t. What does an organization have to lose?

Tell us how your organization sustains professional development.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


The Thin Ice in Your Museum Leadership

thin-ice

It’s winter in New England, and in the wake of multiple storms, it’s hard not to think about snow and its dangerous cousin, ice. It falls off roofs, sends trucks spinning, and encases your car in armor. And yes, since we’re talking about museum leadership here, ice makes a pretty perfect metaphor.

Ice is all the things you can’t prepare for. You prepare for snow, but the temperature goes up just enough and the heavens deliver sleet. Some of you might say a huge percentage of your job is dealing with things you can’t prepare for: the steady-as-a-rock employee who tells you she needs six months of FMLA to resolve a family medical crisis; the unexpected leak that cascades two floors flooding the museum store; the fundraiser that seemed so brilliant in concept, but felt weirdly flat in actuality. Ice isn’t always visible, making it that much more treacherous. You pound down the sidewalk, your head on today’s to-do list and suddenly you’re flat on your back. And then there’s everybody’s favorite: thin ice, the surface that makes you think you can ’til you can’t.

There is a necessary watchfulness about good leadership. As a museum director you’re not just the visionary, you are the doer. In the event of catastrophe, your role is not sky-is-falling hysteria, but rather, a sense of purpose and a plan B. And a plan B means being the person who gets it done.  How many of you have had a boss who talked a blue streak, but nothing ever happened? How many of you have worked or work in museums or heritage organizations where strategic plans languish in digital folders, where meeting minutes don’t contain action items, where annual performance reviews seem like out-of-body experiences? If so, you’re working for someone who can’t plan, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if your organization ends up on the ice.

Good leaders look ahead. They plan. They even plan for moments when their plans go awry. And they do stuff. It’s hard to inspire your staff when as director your life seems like a constant whirl of coffees, lunches and cocktails. Not that all those things aren’t important, but museum staff–indeed every type of staff–needs to know what their boss does. So here are five things museum leaders can do to aide planning, help with transparency, and maybe, steer the museum ship clear of the ice.

  1. Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
  2. Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
  3. Does your organization publish–in a Google doc, on a white board, in an email–a list of deadlines so staff know when projects are due across the organization?
  4. Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or  full staff?
  5. Do you regularly post-mortem all your big projects, share the results, and decide how to change going forward?

Sixteen more days and it will be March. Tell us what you’re doing to stay off the ice, metaphorically and otherwise.

Joan Baldwin


Museum Leadership in Trumplandia

earth-day

If we were sitting in a darkened theater, watching film of the last 10 days we might actually laugh because some things seem so absurd. There is an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass quality to what are now known as “alternative facts.” But we aren’t in a movie theater; this seems to be life as we’re getting to know it. So with that in mind, here are some bullet points about museum leadership in Trumplandia.

  • Know your community. Embrace them all. Even the ones you as a leader might not easily befriend. Don’t preach to the choir. Be the place–whether through programming, exhibits or education programs–where everyone is acknowledged as someone who matters.
  • Know your collections. If you are master of a collection that reflects generations of white privilege, turn it on its head. Think about the work of Titus Kaphar and invite your city’s artists, photographers, and people to react to your collections. Find a way to say we may be the result of privilege, but as an institution we don’t behave that way.
  • Know your staff. How can you preach institutional open-mindedness if the staff break room tolerates cruel remarks or inequity. Make sure your institutional culture models how you want your museum to be in the world.
  • If you haven’t addressed your HR policy in a while or, God forbid, you don’t have one, use this moment. This is a world where the White House tells some of its staff to “dress feminine,” so make sure you have defined, know, and believe in your institutional policies. And while you’re at it, review your museum’s values statement.
  • Think about your Internet Use Policy. If you don’t have one, you have work to do. This is a time where change can happen in the second it takes to press the return button on a keyboard. How do you want staff to separate their work selves from their online selves?
  • Based on what you know about your community, collections and audience, talk with your board. Understand and internalize how political and engaged it wants the museum to be. Think about where and how you can push the envelope and what that will mean for you, your staff, and your institution. If you are active with social justice or political organizations separate from your museum, and are likely to be photographed, quoted or interviewed as part of your volunteer work, consider sharing that information ahead of time.
  • Be self-aware. Consider the necessity of self-editing. Which is more important to you: your right to free speech at a museum event or enraging a potential donor who doesn’t share your views? When in doubt, channel your inner Michelle Obama, and remember, “When they go low, we go high.”
  • Last, museums are such marvelous places. They can and should reflect their communities. Be the place that offers quiet in a world of tumult, welcomes everyone in a world of identity checks, treats its staff with kindness and equity, provides facts not alternative narratives, and encourages curiosity and engagement. Here’s an example for all of us from Cornell University’s Olin Library. Without taking a position, in the clearest possible language, it makes its point.

If there ever was a time for museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens to push mediocrity aside and be the best they can be, this is it. Let us know how you are coping and changing in 2017.

Joan H. Baldwin