Nothing changed this week, and yet everything did. Pandemic numbers continued to climb, all while public health officials predict the worst is still to come. Lines for food banks grew as the number of unemployed multiplied. Museums and heritage organizations made headlines with massive layoffs of front line staff. Midst it all, those of us lucky enough to work from home, found our worlds simultaneously shrink to the size of our houses or apartments and expand to the farthest reaches of the world as we spend more and more time online.
This week I’ve been thinking about separation. As museum folk, our livelihood depends on our interaction with things — paintings, documents, buildings, living things or objects. Suddenly, we’re apart. Apart from the stuff we care for, caring that comes in many forms, through leadership, advancement, scholarship, education, conservation or transportation. Whatever our role, we’re separated. And in this case we’re separated not just from the heartbeat of our museums or heritage sites, we’re separated from colleagues, our human communities, volunteers, tiny children, bigger children, budding artists and scientists, families, and elders.
Is there such thing as a good separation? How do you manage disconnection yet stay attached? How many novels, plays and movies take shape when one character announces they must leave, but they’ll be back? How do relationships deepen between absent friends? Does absence may the heart grow fonder?
And what sustains us through a separation? It used to be letter writing. Now, not so much. Are separations also defined by how we choose to fill the absence?
This week I read a wonderful piece by John Stromberg, director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum to his community. Stromberg talks about the Hood’s commitment to art “by all, for all.” But more exciting to me is his open acknowledgement that however empathetic and caring the Hood’s exhibitions were, now the museum is closed, he acknowledges his staff must pivot. He writes:
As the Hood Museum staff continues to transition to our new digital work format, we are challenged to revitalize and update a key tenet of what we do: putting individuals in direct contact with original works of art and each other. How do we move forward without the physical proximity that has been critical to our practice? Can digital means replicate the intimacy of face-to-face dialogue about today’s most pressing issues?
So must separation incorporate a willingness to change and grow?
Then there is the Philbrook Museum of Art whose relationship with its community, both virtual and actual is a marvel, thanks in part to the leadership of Scott Stulen, a multi-talented artist who admits his directorship is about putting community building into “overdrive.” Who doesn’t want to know a place that in a matter of days changed its tagline to “Chillbrook Museum of Staying Home, Stay Home, Stay Social” as if this were just another day in the life. The Philbrook’s website makes you believe all your emotional and intellectual needs are in hand. Whether it’s listening to podcasts, hearing a tiny concert or participating in a children’s art class, it’s clear that separated or not, the museum percolates along, even for those of us who’ve never been to Tulsa, OK. This week the Philbrook put its money where its mouth is, announcing it is expanding its edible garden in order to support the food bank. How could anyone forget a place that offers so much for so many, and who manages to be winsome, and serious, musical and witty, all at the same time? Maybe a good separation is about enhancing what’s already there, making it richer in the absence of human contact?
Although Old Salem Museum and Gardens closed ahead of some North Carolina museums and heritage sites, the door was barely shut before it launched #wegotthis, a series of online events that included the History Nerd Alert and the Old Salem Exploratorium. About a week ago, it began transforming its historic gardens into Victory gardens to support the city’s Second Harvest Food Bank. That prompted another online series called Two Guys and a Garden. In addition Old Salem has put its head pastry chef back to work producing 50 loaves of bread a day for the food bank, while its head gardener offers videos on seed starting. Does giving back make an organization more memorable? Is it easier to ask, once you’ve given?
Last, but not least, Raynham Hall Museum, The Frick (What’s not to like about Friday cocktails with a curator?) and the Tang Teaching Museum: All used Instagram before the pandemic, but since COVID-19, they’ve ratcheted things up, speaking directly to their audience, making connections between collections and past epidemics, illness, inspiration, art and spring. And there are many more museums and historic sites you know who, despite separation, are enriching connections, building bridges, and creating new audiences.
So what makes a difficult thing like separation doable? Ah…wait for it….because maybe it’s similar to museum life back when things were normal: How about honest, authentic communication that builds outward from mission and collections to connect with community? Opportunities abound for learning the “how-to’s” of social media, but knowing your own site, and your own community, and translating your organizational DNA to images, video, tweets and Instagram, that’s on you. Because when the separation is over–and it will be–how will your organization be remembered? As the site that closed its doors and then 10 weeks later woke up like Rip Van Winkle? Or as the online friend who made people laugh, taught them some stuff, and helped out the community?
 Scott Stulen, “When an Artist Becomes a Director,” American Alliance of Museums, May 17, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2020.
Image: Chillbrook (Philbrook) Museum Instagram post, “Our cats are lonely and would love to hear from you. Write them a letter and they’ll write back. 🐾”
As COVID-19 moves across the country, every sector of the museum workforce feels the pandemic’s power from the still employed, but working from home, to the temporarily suspended, to the recently let go. Every day museums and historic sites announce closures and massive layoffs, leaving many to wonder how museums will recover. One sector not much has been written about is independent consultants. Not museum employees who consult sporadically, but the group who work independently across the field in collections, education, governance, art handling and more. They work from job to job, shouldering the full costs of benefits, building careers while offering services many museums and heritage organizations need, but can’t afford on a full-time basis.
Being a consultant means you need to take work when it’s offered because a month from now when your calendar opens up the offer may have evaporated. It means your rates need to account for your business expenses, Social Security benefits and health care. It means working from home, punctuated by travel is your normal. And it means your access to COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program is delayed ’til April 10. Amidst the tidal wave of museum layoffs and closures, we checked in with a group of consultants to see how they’re doing. Here are their voices:
Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you? Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
If you’re a museum leader, you may have heard you’re supposed to build a team on trust. Perhaps you read that here last week. You may also hear that leaders need vision. If asked, you may respond, you’ve got vision. Every day. And yet, things keep going awry. So here’s a question: Have you thought about the fact that you’re part of the team? That’s not as flip an ask as it sounds. After all, whether you step in and work side-by-side with your staff, chat with them daily or fill in when someone’s sick isn’t really the point. The point is you. Are you the change you want to see or are you just mouthing the words?
Sometimes when we’re the leader, we think we don’t have to change. After all, we’re the visionary. We’re the idea-maker. We can already envision the team, department or museum in its new guise. And yet, when we don’t see the change we expected from our team, who gets blamed? The team. If you were a psychologist, you’d attribute that behavior to self-serving bias, “the tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors.” Museum leadership is more than just will and skill; it’s also about personal change that mirrors and reflects the organization and the behavior you expect and want from staff.
Say you’re meeting with your front of the house staff about behavior at the reception desk. There have been complaints, one from a board member, that staff isn’t focused enough on visitors. There’s too much chatting, which has a tendency to veer toward whining. All that might be true, but before you sit down with staff, do a self-check. What is your behavior like around the reception desk? Is it the place you catch up on the group to-do list? Do you meet people there and then head to your office? In short, are you modeling the change you want? If not, don’t meet with staff right away. Work on your own behavior first. If you stop by the reception desk, do it intentionally. Introduce yourself to visitors. Welcome them to your museum or heritage site. Engage them for a moment. Stop buzzing by with little logistical details that take staff’s mind off their principal role: to make visitors feel welcome and comfortable. In other words, show don’t tell.
Once you’ve put your personal change in motion, you may want to start your next team meeting by explaining what you’ve done and why. Describe the problem as you saw it–a noisy, sometimes off-putting reception desk where it was hard for visitors to get the information they needed to navigate the site. Explain how you started with yourself first, and a personal check-in. Talk about the results. Without your disruptions, the front of the house staff is more focused. Then be really brave and ask what else you can do differently. Listen. Say thank you. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about your organization, and more particularly the visitor’s introduction to your site.
At the next meeting, ask staff whether they continue to see change. If not, why not? What’s holding them back? Use this pattern of self-reflection, discovery, re-evaluation, and recalibration for change museum-wide. And always encourage staff to begin with self-reflection.
Given Leadership Matters’ ongoing posts about the need for equitable treatment of museum workers, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the Tenement Museum, the most recent of New York City’s museums to have its education, retail, and visitor services staff unionize. This is the third time the Tenement Museum’s staff has tried to join Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers), the union that is also home to workers at Bronx Museum of the Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and New-York Historical Society. Since collective bargaining just began, it will be awhile before staff knows whether their issues with overtime compensation, low wages, and no health insurance will bear fruit. Whether pay equity and closing the gender pay gap is also on the table isn’t known.
In the wake of Thanksgiving and the National Public Radio’s crowd-sourced poem I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness, and particularly kindness in the workplace. Much has been written about kindness, and not just by philosophers or poets, but scientists. Turns out that the same peer pressure that makes us flock to a particular Netflix show, buy the same cell phone or dine at the same eatery is what scientists call conformity. It has its bad side, like when you’re underage and everyone else is drinking ’til they puke so you do too. But conformity isn’t always associated with bad choices or our acquisitive natures.
Jamil Zaki is a professor of Neuroscience at Stanford, and he studies the way kindness and empathy spreads. He and his colleagues knew that people imitate others’ positive actions. They knew, for example, that if children or co-workers see someone turn out the lights to save energy or carefully recycle, they imitate that person’s actions. But Zaki wanted to know whether the spirit that powers turning out the lights could spread too, and if it did, what it would look like. To make a long story short, the answer is yes.
Why does this matter? And what does it have to do with museums? It matters because museums are workplaces and because they deal with the public every day. Museums are places to engage and learn, but they also make people happier, in part because experiencing something positive tends to stick with us longer than the momentary buzz from buying a new gadget. But imagine if, in addition to the happiness of learning and engagement, you also experienced a random act of kindness from a museum staff member. Say someone held the diaper bag while you opened your umbrella or offered your elderly aunt a chair and a glass of water. And what if your executive director not only picked up random bits of trash, but was known to work at the local food bank, donate time from her personal days off, take a staff member’s job when she’s ill? A saint you say? Maybe, but according to Dr. Zaki’s studies, your director’s positive behavior diffuses and spreads over time. In fact, it acts as a prompt for behavior throughout a given workplace which will trend toward the positive rather than the negative. Who wouldn’t want that?
That means there is actually evidence to back up the old saw about getting more flies with honey than with vinegar. It means as a leader your behavior really matters. Over time, you can, in fact, be a game changer. Not all staff can afford to work at the food bank or give their PTO to others, but Zaki’s studies show that positivity spreads in other ways. Yeah, right you say, people don’t change. But Zaki’s experiments show that in a group conformity is important. When we engage with the group in a positive way, our brains show the same patterns as if we had experienced a reward.
For those of us on the east coast, we’re a month from the shortest day of the year. Some of us leave for work in the dark and return in the dark. So isn’t this a good month to experiment with positive conformity at your museum or heritage site? Be an influencer because apparently it really works. And if you want to know more about Dr. Zaki, here he is on TedxTalks speaking about empathy, his new obsession.
Yours for a kinder workplace,
What do Helen Mirren, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Rachel Maddow, Michelle Obama, parents, partners, and a former boss or two have in common? Oh, and we can’t forget some of the museum field’s leading lights like Kathy McLean, Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Arnold Lehman.
What, or more precisely, who, is their common thread?
They are just some of the people our Leadership Matters interviewees spoke about when Joan and I asked them to talk about their positive role models. The role model question is a key one, we think, because the answer often provides surprising insight into a person’s values and aspirations.
Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes in her 2013 article, “We All Need Role Models to Motivate and Inspire Us,”
As adults, we tend to give little thought to the idea of having a “role model,” as we regard this to be a quality that children seek from the adults in their lives. However, if you stop and consider who most influences you now, and why, you’ll no doubt agree that the people you admire now are giving you your most important life lessons.
Role models can be positive or negative. They all teach us, good or bad, and the positive ones inspire us. They’re mirrors by which we can examine our own strengths and weaknesses, measure our abilities and desires, and clarify our choices. Role models can change our outlook and encourage us to reach our own potential.
Why did some of our interviewees choose the role models they did?
For Ilene Frank, Chief Curator and COO at the Connecticut Historical Society, Joan of Arc lived a life by values and a belief system, “plus she’s a woman in armor and a sword.” Helen Mirren’s work ethic, authenticity, and flexible talent are key elements for Janet Carding, Director at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Michigan Science Center CEO and President Tonya M. Matthews cites Martin Luther King’s ability to deliver a message in context and Michelle Obama as a role model for African American female leadership. Parents, siblings, and partners provided life lessons, stability, encouragement, and a work ethic for many of our interviewees, including Jennifer Kilmer, Director of the Washington State Historical Society and Bob Burns, Director of the Mattatuck Museum. For Van Romans, President of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, Abraham Lincoln’s ability to diffuse tense situations with stories and humor are leadership competencies worth emulating.
Who are your role models and what do they say about you?
Anne W. Ackerson