“Fetishizing Silence” No More

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A confession: I don’t like Twitter. In fact, I find it visually distressing. I know that’s not the point, but as a result, I don’t tweet, and only check Twitter haphazardly. All that’s preamble to saying that this week I found the link for LaTanya Autry’s Social Justice & Museums Resource List on Twitter.  Yes, it’s been around and growing since 2015, so I guess that’s a lesson I should visit Twitter more often.

Now I’ve found it, a huge thank you to Autry who likely has a gazillion other things she could be doing rather than putting this list together. But there it is, a labor of love, and ours to read, absorb, use, amend, edit and add to. And by being open and editable by anyone, the list is a model for the change we all hope is on its way in museums and in the museum workplace.

Another and perhaps more important thought about Autry’s list is this: If you’re having a particularly bleak week or month–it is February after all–think about what this list means for the museum field. Try and imagine Autry, or anyone else for that matter, creating it a decade ago. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened, but it didn’t. There wasn’t any appetite for it, and the field–except at the margins– was content being its benign, patriarchal, misogynist, racist self.  Even the list’s vocabulary highlights change. Take the verb “decolonize,” which by the way, wasn’t added to the Oxford English Dictionary‘s new word list until 2018. The earliest pieces on the list using “decolonize” date to 2016. And yet, today the word is everywhere.

None of that means there wasn’t good work being done 10 years ago or that there weren’t folks saying that the emperor had no clothes, but museums and heritage organizations weren’t the most woke job sector. Are we there yet? Good Lord, no. But have things changed? You betcha.

If Autry’s 47-page list isn’t enough, she’s also one of nine new interviewees for the revised edition of Leadership Matters due out this fall. That group of nine is a powerful band of humans with a lot to say. While we utilized the same criteria looking for new interviewees as we did for our original book in 2012–equity and variety in race, gender, geography–six years made a huge difference both in the what people were saying, the work they do, their willingness to merge personal and organizational values, and their belief that the days of a single, preeminent, white, binary narrative superseding all others is OVER.

Do I sound too Pollyanna-like? Maybe, particularly when you compare this post to last week’s. But if I do, it’s because I’m old enough to remember a time when discussion of any of these issues often resulted in a conversation that went something like, “You might want to think about what you just said. This is a small field and you don’t want to damage your chances of moving ahead.” Sean Kelly from Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), and another of our nine interviewees, used the phrase “fetishizing silence” in a radio interview recently. He was talking about the way ESP administrators used an unholy quiet to inspire penitence, but that phrase could just as easily apply to the way the museum world approached workplace grievances, racists remarks, and sexual harassment. If you deny it’s happening and fail to provide appropriate avenues to file grievances, you can almost pretend all is right with the world.

Scanning the articles on this list, it feels like we are in the middle of a sea change. Maybe not everywhere, but enough so there is a new normal. And for anyone suffering from “otherness,” anyone who needs support, ammunition, a sisterly voice, a shoulder at the barricade, it offers aid, examples, history and context. Use it, add to it, keep change happening.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Changing Tides by Ellis O’Connor

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Museums and Investing in Social Responsibility

Not Neutral

Thursday I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Although I wore my “Museums are not neutral” T-shirt,  I’m not sure anyone noticed. The topic of museum neutrality, however, is one that interests us here at Leadership Matters because it intersects directly with how museum directors lead, and the role museums and history organizations play in their communities.

Museum neutrality has been in the wind for a while now. For some it means, museums should openly take a stand on issues of community or national interest. For others, it means museums should use their scholarship to refute false narratives in an age of post-truthiness.

A notable example of a museum taking a stand took place last winter when the Trump administration banned travel and rescinded visas from seven majority-Muslim nations. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), usually a-political, responded by removing work by Picasso and Matisse and hanging paintings by living artists from the banned countries. And just in case MoMA’s selfie-taking audience missed what was going on, it labeled each newly-displayed painting with the following lines, making it crystal clear where it stood on the travel/immigration debate.

This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.

Given MoMA’s size, wealth, and presence in the art world, it’s likely that Glenn Lowry and his senior staff took more than a few minutes to decide how to respond to the travel ban. And given what we heard from Shankar Vedantam, National Public Radio’s Social Science correspondent this week, that’s a good idea.  Vedantam reported on the risks CEO’s take when they invest in social responsibility. And based on the researchers he interviewed, doing good with corporate profits can be bad.  Here’s why: In the corporate world everything points towards making money. No surprise there. And community aid, activism, diversity initiatives, and support for education don’t get the product out the door. Nonetheless, they do generate a lot of good will, and that should be good for the corporation, yes? Not necessarily.

Vedantam interviewed Timothy Hubbard who teaches at Notre Dame University. He and two colleagues studied what these types of community investments mean for CEOs’ careers. In a nutshell, here’s what Hubbard said, “We see this double-edged sword where if the firm is doing well, investments in corporate social responsibility can buffer a CEO from dismissal. But on the other hand, if there’s negative financial performance, it can really set the CEO up for a situation where they could likely be terminated.”

We aren’t aware of any work on whether acts of social responsibility by museum leadership shortens an executive director’s tenure, but since many museum board members come from the corporate world, it’s worth bearing in mind. Nonetheless, there is a difference between taking a stand, and taking a stand relating to facts, collections and the truth. Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, a CEO of the Gates Foundation, was also interviewed on NPR this week.  Desmond-Hellman makes the point that,”Scientists can’t be ivory tower,” adding that “What we’re really hearing from people is I no longer trust authority.”

She suggests that scientists (and we would argue curators, conservators, museum educators, and directors) need to be part of the public dialog. She asks her fellow researchers when was the last time they attended a PTA meeting, Cub Scouts, your church, synagogue or mosque, adding “If we’re not part of that dialog, soon science won’t matter.” (And maybe history or culture?) She points out that in an age when the public relies more on emotion and personal belief than scientific evidence, then there’s a problem.

We believe first and foremost that museums have to understand their communities, and their entire community, not just the largely white, heterosexual, wealthy community who wanders their galleries and attends openings. But how do museums decide when and how to take a stand? Is what’s relevant to the director important to the community? And how about the board? As a director, if you take a stand will it matter to the people you’re trying to support? Does not being neutral mean being a good citizen, and how should an organization be a good citizen? How do museums engage their communities while being transparent?

Tell us what you think.

Joan Baldwin