Decolonizing is the word of the moment. Symbolizing action, the old ways swept aside, as everyone left outside the museum narrative steps forward; it’s a powerful verb. For more than a year, we’ve witnessed decolonization at a multitude of levels from venerable European museums beginning the process of returning antiquities to countries once deemed too ‘backward’ to care for anything, much less their own patrimony, to American art museums mining collections for work by women and people of color long banished to storage or never purchased in the first place, and historic sites grappling–often for the first time–with the through-line of slavery. With that as back drop, it’s no surprise that the decolonization discussion finally turned toward money. Specifically, an argument’s been made that how money’s made, and where it comes from, impacts gifts to the museum, which impact the organization itself. And not in a good way.
The best-known example of this is Warren Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney’s board in July 2019. Kanders, who served as the Whitney’s board co-chair, joined the board in 2006, donating more than $10 million in his 13-year tenure. But Kanders is not alone. The Sackler family of Purdue Pharma is also persona non grata. Although their name is tied to spaces at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, Harvard’s Sackler Museum, and the Guggenheim’s Education Wing, museums–including the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Natural History have all decided they will no longer accept gifts from the Sacklers.
With all of this as background, in its summer issue of Museum Magazine, AAM published an article titled “Decolonizing Development,” by Chong-Anna Confora. In it Confora writes, “Decolonization is social justice, anti-racist work. In order to decolonize fund development, we must ask ourselves: What organizational practices can we dismantle that center whiteness and reinforce white supremacy through fund development?”
There is a lot here to grapple with. On the one hand a part of you–maybe not your noblest part–wishes you had an endowment big enough to turn down a gift like the ones the Kanders and Sacklers gave. On the other hand, taking money made by companies whose values you abhor may make you cringe. What should you do? Are there board members in your own organization who are consistently generous, but whose money comes from unsavory or conflict-ridden endeavors? And since we’ve opened that door, where is your organization’s endowment invested? Are those investments conflict-ridden as well?
If you are like many museum leaders, you may serve an organization built on the generosity of people whose values and opinions might distress you were you to meet them today. And yet there you are, darkening the same door that symbolizes white supremacy as Confora calls it. You may literally owe your livelihood to a group of white men’s careful investing. Your organization may have been the beneficiary of charity, which Confora underscores as different from justice. Charity, she says, quoting the Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Hayes, is often hierarchical, where the giver has all the power and the receiver very little. Justice, she writes, “is an ongoing process of rebalance, of achieving the equality that everyone is entitled to.”
Are you confused yet? Flailing between what feels like moral bankruptcy and the fear of plain old garden variety bankruptcy? Well you should be. And I don’t have any answers, only some thoughts. Here they are:
- First, if you haven’t read the inimitable Darren Walker on the politics of donors and museums, do so.
- Next, as we’ve said so often here, remember we’re all human, and change is difficult. Simply decreeing that something ought to be, won’t make it happen, even in the face of a pyrrhic victory like seeing Kanders resign. (Under other circumstances, the Whitney’s board would hardly be the poster child for narrow-minded, white, Waspy privilege.)
- Grapple with the fact that your values and belief systems may not be your board’s. Does that make any of you bad people? Is it your job as a museum leader to bring the board ’round to your point of view? Or is your job to serve your organization? If the latter, in slowly re-centering your organization, might its values change? Understand then, there is a difference between individual values and collective ones. As Darren Walker writes, “It’s relatively easy to talk about destroying a system. It’s harder to build and sustain one. While I appreciate protests, those of us who are focused on solutions can’t be distracted by extreme perspectives.”
- If you are going to set your flag on the moral high ground with big money as the enemy, make sure you know what you don’t know. Shaming one board member as a climate change villain while running a less than green museum campus might be a bridge too far. Not to mention that without major gifts you will need five times as many small ones, and will you investigate their sources as well?
Despite the fact that people like me blather weekly about museum leadership, museums and heritage sites are run by boards, who raise new money, supervise the investment of old money, and set the organizational tone and culture. If you want to make change, make friends and allies on your board. Board Source’s latest report reveals that in 2016 84-percent of boards were white and yet only 24-percent said that demographics is important in recruitment despite the fact that 79-percent of executive directors said that a diverse board advances mission.
So….in a nutshell:
- Help your board to change. Help them understand the need for diversity, and the role implicit bias plays in the non-profit workplace, including the board.
- Make sure your board understands the racial wealth gap and the gender pay gap, and that they understand that money is not the only way board members build organizations.
- Work on patience. Real change develops from human-to-human interaction in service of a common goal–your museum.
The International Council of Museums may seem like it has about as much to do with your work as New York’s fashion week does with your sartorial choices. In other words, not much. ICOM is literally some far-away group deciding things that have nothing to do with you, a museum leader with a new strategic plan underway, an underpaid and overworked staff, and insufficient funding for just about everything. But wait, maybe it does. Just as Fashion Week has a trickle-down effect on day-to-day wear for the average human, so too does ICOM’s decision making. So while it may seem like a lot of talk about a lot of nothing, ICOM’s proposed new museum definition, and its failure to pass, is actually kind of important.
For those of you for whom ICOM is a new acronym, the International Council of Museums was born in 1946, another child of the post-war baby boom. It’s opening meeting took place in Paris where its first-elected president was Chauncey J. Hamlin, politician, public figure, philanthropist, and president of the board of both the Buffalo Museum of Science and the American Museum Association (now the American Alliance of Museums.) In 2007, 61 years from its founding, ICOM adopted a “new” definition for museums:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
This year, when ICOM members gathered in Kyoto, Japan the plan was to vote on another definition of museums, one that is far more aspirational then previous versions. Spoiler alert: the new definition wasn’t adopted. But for those of you who missed it, here it is:
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.
Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
So why should you care? Well, maybe you can’t. Maybe this week or next you just don’t have the bandwidth to think about the museum field at a global level. But if you do, here are some thoughts about why it might matter to you, toiling away in museum land around the globe.
- First, ICOM’s argument is your argument. You may not have hashed it out on a global stage, but how many of you have discussed Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry’s “Museums are not neutral” campaign with board or staff? And P.S. if you haven’t, you might want to. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to talk.
- Second, since 2007, ICOM has seen museums as “permanent institutions in service of society.” Before we even think about its proposed new definition, that’s an interesting line to parse. How many of you (and your boards) think of your institutions in service to society? And what about your definition of society? Is it inclusive?
- How many of you feel that too many museums, particularly, but not exclusively, American heritage institutions are blissfully disconnected from their communities? If your answer is yes, then the new definition might speak directly to you. It asks you to guarantee equal rights and equal access to collections, and to aim to contribute to human dignity and social justice. What does that mean for curators at fancy robber-baron houses? What does it mean for art museums where by some counts 87-percent of the work is by men, most of them white? What does it mean for your typical early 19th-century kitchen where for years the dangers and drudgery of housework is somehow subsumed in the nifty qualities of flat irons and wash boards?
It seems to me, far from the center of ICOM discussions, that the proposed definition asks two things of us all, one of which is far easier than the other. First, it asks us to stop pussyfooting around and tell our collections’ stories in a transparent, authentic way that connects past with present, telling the whole story even the parts we can’t show because we don’t own the stuff. Second, and this is trickier, it asks us to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Contributing is a loaded word. Is simply doing all the regular museum things–exhibitions, programs, fund raising but better—enough? Or do we need to actually take a stand? And does taking a stand affect development efforts, collecting, programming, and exhibitions? Does it blur the line between individual values and organizational ones? Does it mean we support our staff members who openly protest? And what would it look like? Would it mean that as the local historical museum we stand with our local human rights organization when a member of our community is about to be deported?
You don’t need me to tell you that museum land in the age of Google is different. Is it possible that whether ICOM makes a decision about a new museum definition or not, that all of us need to change? That if we can’t change, the public, who has the entire world in words and images on the their phones, will go somewhere else for information, for history, for tranquility, for a civics lesson, for connection? So regardless of what ICOM does, it’s up to you. Listen. Know what you don’t know. Know what your collection means, not just in a textbook sense, but to your community. Find and make meaningful connections, person to person, object to person, collections to community. Make museums matter.
P.S. In the spirit of bringing everyone to the table the wonderful Maria Vlachou directs us to a Padlet created by Anna Marras with voices from around the world commenting on what museums could and should do prompted by ICOM’s recent meeting.
How much time do you want for your progress? James Baldwin
One of the panels I participated in at AASLH’s 2019 Annual Conference was on pay. Titled “Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum,” it offered participants small group discussions through the lens of race, gender, salary negotiation, and emerging careers. In the end, however, many of the discussions came back to questions of inadequate pay, and what to do about it individually and organizationally.
Museums and heritage organizations aren’t known for their excellent salaries. In fact, given that a master’s degree is the de rigueur entrance ticket for most positions, compared to other fields also requiring graduate degrees, the museum world lags behind. And as we’ve said many times here, poor pay and lousy benefits create a workforce that is stressed rather than focused, competitive rather than collegial, not particularly diverse, and constantly looking for better opportunities rather than devoted to their current organization. All those things–stress, inter-personal competition, lack of diversity, and job seeking are money losers for employers, and yet when asked about regrettable salaries, boards and museum leadership often respond that they can’t. They just can’t. They’re doing the best they can, and frankly, if you don’t like your salary, there’s the door.
When we presented the “Advocating for Equity” panel we were lucky to have two museum directors in the room. There may have been more, but those two self-identified. One worked with his board to create an endowment for salaries which will come into its own in 2020. The other is just beginning the process. Listening to both of them, one thing was clear: adjusting salaries on a grand scale isn’t something you’re going to solve in a couple of meetings. The director who has already raised the endowment underscored the patience and restraint the project took. His board is large, and not all agreed salaries were a problem, but for this director and his board leadership, the salary question had become a moral question. He didn’t like the idea that smart, creative, double-degreed, 30-year old members of his front-line staff were forced to live with their parents because their salaries wouldn’t stretch to an apartment in his city. For the other director, who works at a very wealthy institution with an enviable endowment, his concerns were as much about equity as simple raises, but here too, morals and values play a part. Although his institution is still in the planning stages, he indicated that in all likelihood raises would be phased in, with the first ones going to those who make the least. Again, a judgement call.
Are you mentally eye rolling? Is there a little voice in your head saying, “They’ll never, ever go for it. And is this what I want to build my leadership on? What about the new wing? What about Mrs. Buckets of Money? She likes building. She even has an architect.” All that’s probably true. There are plenty of one-percenters who’d rather give to build than endow people. And yet it’s people who will animate, care for, and program Mrs. Buckets of Money’s yet-to-be-built building. Here are some things to ponder when thinking about moving the needle on pay:
- Increasing pay takes planning. Know what you don’t know. Who sets pay? How often are salaries adjusted? Have your organization’s salaries kept pace with inflation, the field, other similar fields? When did they start to lag? Why?
- Unless you’re a founding director, you inherited a pay scale. When was the last time you looked at your entire pay scale from grounds, cleaners, and security to the top? Assuming you have an HR department and/or a CFO, work together to create a spreadsheet of all job titles (no names), education, race, gender, length of service, and hourly rate. What does it tell you?
- Using your newly-created spread sheet, you’ll know whether you have a gender or race pay gap. Is that a moral issue for you or your board? Remember, raising inequitable salaries perpetuates bias we need to leave behind.
- Know what it costs to live in your area. Know the median rent. Know the living wage.
- If you lead a large and/or urban institution, has your board discussed its concerns regarding unionization? Again, have you done your homework? What will the union offer that you’re not providing? Could you provide it? Does staff asking for a union trust your museum’s leadership? If not, why not?
- If you’re a leader, sound out your board. Are there some members who agree your organization’s pay is abysmal and it should do something? Are they willing to make change?
- Last, is your board comfortable with moral questions? Pay isn’t just about money. Pay represents so many other things: It represents where you are in the institutional decision-making process; It represents who you rub shoulders with; It determines where you can live, the car you drive, and how fast you pay off student debt; It provides a sense of self-worth. Boards are traditionally made up of wealthy people who support an institution by donating money, knowledge about money, connections, intelligence and decision-making experience. When it comes to salaries, your job may be to remind your board what they don’t know–about student debt, about the cost of living in your locale, about how your museum or heritage organization fits into your community’s job picture, and most importantly, about the gender/race pay gap.
These discussions aren’t easy. Change is always hard. But this is about museums wanting to create equitable workplaces where women of color — from Latinx who make 53 cents for every white man’s dollar to American Indians who make 58 cents, and Black women who make 61 cents* — make the same amount for the same job as a white man. Museums and heritage organizations may waffle about taking a stand on community issues, even on historical or cultural issues, but how about starting inside, with your own workforce? How about taking a stand for them? Invest in your staff. They pay you back every day.
*American Association of University Women, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap.”
Image: From Marabou at the Museum, “Money Makes the Museum Doors Open: Museum Funding 101,” September 6, 2018.
If leaders were cartoon characters, they’d have heads topped with arrows instead of hair. Why? Because whether they mean to or not, leaders exude direction. They are points on the organizational compass. And when direction isn’t clear there are plenty of folks in the hallway, around the coffeemaker or after meetings to interpret what has or hasn’t been said. That’s a preface to what follows, meaning I may not be correct. After all, I’m only an observer.
If you couldn’t attend last week’s meeting of the American Association of State and Local History in Philadelphia, it was a good one. Anchored by the indomitable Eastern State Penitentiary, and the city’s other national historic sites, not to mention its many museums, the conference drew a large crowd. The theme was “What Are We Waiting For?” but the subtext was certainly history’s importance in understanding the present. It was there in the keynote, moderated by Sean Kelly, Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, and featuring Susan Burton, a Los Angeles-based writer and prison reform activist whose memoir details a 20-year cycle of addiction, pain, sadness and prison, and Dr. Talitha LeFlouria, a University of Virginia associate professor, and author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, where the arrow pointed directly from centuries of enslavement to decades of mass incarceration. And it was also there in Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s myth-toppling speech about George Washington’s obsessive search for his runaway slave Ona Judge. And, I’m sure it was there in the many panels, tours, and countless conversations as conference attendees struggled, argued, and supported one another in connecting past and present. If you want to interpret those directional signals, what you might say is the complacent, white, male narrative of the past is disappearing, replaced by a host of other black and brown voices, from individuals who’ve been here months, and those whose past stretches back to enslavement or others whose land was stolen, and they lived out their days on reservations.
For me though there was another signal: The four panels and one workshop that addressed women in the history museum workplace. Anne Ackerson and I have written and spoken about this topic for almost seven years, and in that time there were more than a few moments when getting one panel on women’s issues for AASLH or AAM seemed like an achievement. So maybe I’m reading too much into this, but finding AASLH President John Dichtl in a panel titled “#MeToo: AASLH, NCPH and the Field” was a sea change. Perhaps it’s AASLH’s size and more cohesive membership, but its leadership is clearly listening to women’s issues in the field. When asked to post salary ranges in their job announcements, AASLH did. And their willingness to open the annual meeting to discussions about women’s leadership, sexual harassment in the field, and pay equity tells me they’re acknowledging that while the heritage organization/history museum workplace might not be Nirvana, they want to make it better.
So, here’s a thank you: Thank you for a great conference. Thank you to AASLH’s leaders and planners for changing the narrative; thank you for publicly acknowledging the consequences of workplace harassment, and gender pay inequity. Thank you to the male leaders who showed up to represent at four of the five sessions. Kudos to all the women who spoke, especially those brave enough to reveal personal stories.
One final plea though: Do something with what you learned. Commit to personal change. Be kind. Support one another. Don’t do it because someone’s different than you. Do it because you are colleagues. If you are a leader, and haven’t addressed the gender pay gap in your organization, do an equity audit. See how bad things are. If you don’t have a values statement or a statement about the kind of behavior you expect in your museum or heritage site, write one. Don’t wait ’til next year to hear it another time and realize 12 months went by and you didn’t move the needle at all.
Make change now. Do it as individuals, do it as organizations. To quote Enimini Ekong, Superintendent of Nicodemus National Historic Site and Chief of Education and Interpretation at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, “Your observation is your obligation.” So for goodness sakes look and then act.
Since we wrote about museum salaries and the populist spreadsheet created to empower employees, we should also mention there’s a second spreadsheet for interns. Together, they offer museum workers at all stages of their careers badly needed information.
As of this weekend, the intern spreadsheet had over 200 entries. Sadly, the column where you’re supposed to post salary or stipends is peppered with zeros. If you are an undergraduate, graduate student or a professor in one of the many museum or public history graduate programs, either add to this list yourself or encourage students to do so. And if you’re an employer, particularly if you are a museum director, you may want to share both lists with your HR department and/or with your board. For emerging professionals there are enough roadblocks to a museum career without committing three months of your life to work for free. Let’s end the myth that museum employees come to work every day satisfied with their salaries or their internships. Not all do. Museum directors and boards need to understand that smart, creative, hard working staff need more than a living wage. And we know many don’t even get that, but that’s a different post OR if you’re coming to AASLH’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, join us Friday @ 4 pm for Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum.
Speaking of museum boards, last week we wrote about an audience member violating organizational values. This week we want to extend that discussion by asking how values play out on boards of trustees, and what happens when an individual’s moral compass moves in a different direction than the organization they serve. For those of you who missed it, this was the week Adhaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer and U.K. resident, spoke about her resignation from the British Museum’s board. In a piece on the London Review of Books blog, she wrote: “My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.” Holy smokes! Have you ever yearned for a trustee like Soueif?
If you said yes, be honest: Who is easier? The trustee who never misses a meeting, who Skypes in, shows up, and gives consistently? Or the trustee with feelings and opinions, the one who deftly unmasks pretense, the one whose giving capacity is great if quixotic? In terms of the group, who is more valuable? Is it a struggle to keep the trustee with feelings engaged, and what do you lose when, like Soueif, she leaves?
In an article written almost 30 years ago, Miriam Wood describes board behavior as cyclical. After the “Founding Period,” boards move through three distinct phases, Supermanaging, Corporate and Ratifying before the whole cycle begins again. Obviously we can’t know much about which phase the British Museum’s board is in, but if I had to guess, I’d say Ratifying. Julia Classen writing for NonProfit Quarterly described that phase like this: Unlike the previous phases, the board in a Ratifying Phase may not be as cohesive a group, and members may not know each other very well. They are less likely to be spending much time thinking about the organization beyond the 30 minutes preceding each meeting. In sum, the board is functional but largely disengaged from the organization.
We know from the Web site that the Museum has 25 board members. Happily, they post their minutes online although since they only meet four times a year, the most recent minutes are from December 2018. Only five of their members are appointed by the board itself, the other 20 positions are the purview of the Prime Minister or nominations from the presidents of other British arts and cultural organizations. They are leading artists, economists, historians, and captains of industry. The board includes seven women (eight before Soueif’s resignation) including three women of color.
If you read Soueif’s piece, it’s clear she loves and admires the British Museum. Somehow though the other 24 board members were waltzing while Soueif was committed to interpretive dance. A bad metaphor perhaps, but you get the gist. She clearly states that public institutions have moral responsibilities in relation to the world’s ethical and political problems. And she recounts how three years ago she tried to get the board to discuss its relationship to the oil giant BP, questioning how its underwriting of exhibits flies in the face of environmental concerns. In the end, she said she realized that the museum deemed money (and therefore BP) more important than the concerns and interests of an as yet largely untapped audience of Millennials and children.
Perhaps many of you have wrestled with biting the hands that feed you. In fact, that came up in last week’s post when audience members who’d paid to attend a gala benefit behaved horrifically to a woman of color. But how do you (and presumably your board chair) deal with a board member who’s out of step? Some thoughts:
- Boards are people not monoliths. No matter how tired or overwhelmed you are, address problems–disengagement, anger, frustration– when you see them. If it’s not your place, then take what you’ve observed to the board chair.
- Meet with the board member in question. Listen. Is she right? Perhaps she needs someone else to make her case? Are there reasons to accommodate her or is the board in the wrong phase of growth to make the shift she wants?
- Make sure your board is unified when it comes to organizational values. In an age when any museum can be called out in an instant over social media, it’s more than a good idea to make sure the board circles ’round to the organizational value statement on a regular basis. The leadership blogger Jesse Lyn Stoner provides a handy test to see whether board, staff and volunteers are on the same page.
- Be careful not to banish the one person who will say the emperor has no clothes. She may be the only board member willing to voice dysfunctional behavior. Think hard before letting her go.
- Boards, like staff, should exemplify diversity, not for the photo op, but for their ideas, and directors and board chairs should encourage healthy debate. If your board member’s frustration results in scapegoating, and the group turns on its own, the bigger more important issues won’t go away. Identify them, and talk.
We’re entering the dog days of summer. Stay cool and stay in touch.
First, a thank you to everyone who responded to last week’s post. Leadership Matters doesn’t receive a ton of comments so last week was a happy surprise. Many of you–especially Millennials and Gen-Xers– thought your point of view was missing, and sent examples. Clearly there’s more to say on generational collaboration and conflict in the workplace. We’re working on it, but if you’re drawn to this subject, and you’d like to write a guest post, let us know. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
While questions of intergenerational workplace collaboration continue to simmer, we’d like to talk about a different sort of leadership challenge. This came to our attention through Laurie Norton Moffat, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. (Parenthetically, we should add something: Over the years we’ve ranted about how museum leaders need to read (and listen) widely–absorbing poetry, podcasts, science, philosophy, long-form journalism, novels, you name it—because it makes you more empathetic, broadens your perspective and helps you connect the dots in many unexpected ways. Moffat is that person. If what she posts on social media is a taste of what’s on her bedside table, screen and other devices, she’s an example to us all.)
This week Moffat posted an op-ed piece by Pamela Tatge, director of Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA. For those unfamiliar with “The Pillow” as it’s known locally, it is home to America’s longest running dance festival. Tatge’s piece details the interaction of a woman of color and members of the Pillow’s opening gala audience. Needless to say, it wasn’t good. The interactions were demeaning, objectifying, and horrifying. In fact, as Tatge reports, it’s a wonder the patron stayed for the whole event. What’s interesting here is Tatge’s reaction. First, let me say that everything I know about this incident is in her piece. There is nothing on the Pillow’s website, and only two dismaying follow-up letters in the Berkshire Eagle.
If a member of your audience insulted another visitor, how many of you would bare your organizational soul in the newspaper? The Pillow’s experience brings to mind the incident at Boston’s MFA in May where middle school students were subjected to racist comments by security guards and other visitors. In that case, reading between the lines, one of the most horrifying things was the sense that the museum might not have acknowledged what happened had the teacher not come forward on Facebook. In the end, the MFA revoked the visitors’ membership and banned them from the museum. In addition, it says it plans to provide additional training for guards in how they engage with visitors inside and outside the Museum.
One of the places organizations turn in crisis is their value statement. And while Jacob’s Pillow is curiously silent about Tatge’s piece on its own web site, it’s clear her actions were rooted in the Pillow’s Value Statement, which includes the following:
We encourage a broadly diverse group of individuals to participate in our programs and join our Board and Staff, and insist on being inclusive of all peoples regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic background, physical or mental ability.
We listen carefully, take the time to reflect on our successes and challenges, admit when we do not know something, and are accountable for our actions; recognizing that a crucial part of our role is to mentor the next generation of artists, arts administrators, and production staff.
Of the many issues on your 2019 leadership plate does audience behavior keep you up at night? What can and should a museum leader do to forestall racist behavior or hate speech in its galleries or heritage site? Is Tatge’s transparency the way to go?
Not that we haven’t written about this before, but here are some things to think about when your audience attacks its own:
- Use your value statement. Presumably you all–board, staff, volunteers–played a part in its creation, and live it day-to-day. Where else can your patrons read the values statement besides the web site? How often do board and staff talk about it? Is it clear to your visitors that your museum has a code of conduct?
- Silence is death. Don’t fetishize silence. Not saying anything will land you in a world of trouble. It will also make a mockery of your carefully crafted values statement. If you believe in something, stand by it, but have a plan.
- Think ahead. What steps should you take to ensure the right messaging in the event of controversy or crisis related to your organization and its values? Role play possible controversies to make sure your organization reacts as a team.
- Show some humility. Even if you aren’t the cause of the hurt, the hate speech or the racist comments, you are the venue in which they happened. Own what’s yours. If you hosted a cocktail party at home and one of the guests insulted another, you’d apologize wouldn’t you?
- Talk about these issues with your board. It’s easy to say what a museum or heritage site should do, but how (and when) does a board choose to discipline its audience, the very audience that is its lifeblood?
- Does your museum have a clear and easy way for visitors to let staff know when something bad happens? Once you say what you stand for (see the first bullet point), you have to provide the opportunity to express how the experience measured up. Help your staff learn to listen and respond accordingly.
A decade ago the glittery object among museum thought leaders was the idea of museums as a third space. As a concept–the museum as neutral ground where people gather and interact–is laudable if slightly utopian. But if the last 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that saying you’re the third space won’t work with a community clamoring for you to take a stand, to believe in something, and when appropriate, to say something. Hopefully museum staff, boards and volunteers agree on their common values, but your audience? It’s the wild card, the known-unknown you must court, charm, and cultivate. And what happens when the audience values don’t align with institutional values? If a visitor related an experience like the one Pamela Tatge heard, what would you do?
Image: The National Liberty Museum
This is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story. How many of you did your due diligence, meeting with your constituencies and creating or revising mission statements for your museum or heritage organization? And when written, and everyone–trustees, staff, community, and volunteers– participated, did you feel a frisson of happiness that you’d done the right thing? That momentary sense of getting your organization where it should be?
Now, how many of you read the story about the Wayfair protests this week? Maybe, like me, you only know Wayfair as a business that clogs your email, one that apparently presumes you buy “home goods” as often as you buy groceries. But this week it made the news, and those of you who are leaders would do well to pay attention. In brief, Wayfair sold approximately $200,000-worth of beds to BCFS, a nonprofit, that supplies the Department of Health and Human Services’ border facilities for unaccompanied minors.
When Wayfair employees learned about the sale, they contacted management. Subsequently more than 500 employees signed a letter asking Wayfair to cease selling to BCFS and any other nonprofit doing business with border facilities. Wayfair leadership declined to stop the sale. In turn, hundreds of employees protested outside its Boston headquarters, garnering national news coverage. What was most interesting was hearing protesters repeat Wayfair’s mission statement, saying Wayfair should live up to the company promise that “everyone should live in a home they love.” One of the protesters added,“We don’t want to profit off of being complicit in human rights violations.”
If you’re eye-rolling here, think how this might translate to the sometimes staid world of museums and heritage organizations. Think it couldn’t happen to you? Remember last spring’s demonstrations at the Guggenheim, protesting donations from the Sackler family? Or the protest when MoMA honored a Bank of America CEO whose company funds private prisons, and the Decolonize This Place protests at the Whitney? You may say, well that’s New York where there is more money and more activism than in your community. Maybe true. But for all the head-down, thumb-tapping, addictive qualities of the Internet, it’s also hugely democratizing. Protests, disagreements and opinions ignite quickly. In an hour your organization can move from every-day complacency to under siege. To add to that, a recent study tells us that staff just aren’t as cowed as they used to be. Employees, particularly Millennials are 48-percent more likely to be workplace activists than either Gen-Xers or Boomers. They have opinions and they aren’t afraid to share them.
So how should you prepare and/or respond? Where are the chinks in the armor of your mission statement versus your organizational actions versus your board’s actions or your investment portfolio? Hint: the answer is not assuming it won’t happen. It might. And if you’re a leader, you need to prepare for praise and protest. Ask yourself:
- What’s your mission and does everyone understand it?
- Does your staff keep abreast with news in your community? If you haven’t already, for goodness sake follow Colleen Dilenschneider and Susie Wilkening. Use their data and wisdom to help understand your community.
- Do you know your supporters and what they believe in?
- Think ahead. What steps might you take to ensure you have the right messaging in the event of controversy or crisis related to your organization and its mission? Role play possible controversies to make sure your organization will react as a team.
- Has your board ever discussed whether there’s a line in the sand that would make it take a public stand?
- How would your board react to your staff participating in a protest? Of their own? With another organization?
- Is your organization able to react quickly? There’s little time to gather your peeps to strategize. If a board member’s caught in a personal or corporate scandal, if a staff member has a DUI or your organization accepts a gift from someone whose politics are at either end of a political spectrum, are you ready? Who’s your point person?
Last, know your organization, and make sure everyone else from trustees to volunteers does too. Know why it matters. If the community loves you, understand why because the more you’re loved, the higher a community’s expectations, and the more you have to lose.
Image: Members of Decolonize This Place and its supporters rally in the lobby of the Whitney Museum, Courtesy of Artsy.