A confession: I adore English television mysteries. Not the kind with the dithering, elderly amateur, but the darker more urban variety. One of the tropes of these dramas is the main characters often suppress a ton of personal feelings to get their job done. They go to work–without guns–this is the UK after all, and deal with the sad, the lonely, and the psychologically messed up. Meanwhile, their marriages fall apart, their children are angry, and their lovers are sick of being neglected for the job. I thought about those characters when I listened to CBS’s recent report on mental health post-Covid. Families and individuals are dealing with unresolved grief, leading to deaths from overdose, resulting in four times the rate of anxiety and depression overall. It’s a full-blown mental health crisis. This week the Centers for Disease Control released a report saying that 4 in 10 adolescents feel persistently sad or hopeless. Arthur C. Evans Jr., head of the American Psychological Association says this will be with us for seven to 10 years, in other words a second pandemic. And I’m pretty sure this segment was taped before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the now ongoing devastation and threat of chemical or nuclear warfare.
What does this have to do with museums? Only this: Museums are held together by humans, who are likely suffering, while also serving communities who also suffer. We’ve been over the laundry list of what’s undone us many times: pandemic, racial injustice, gender inequity, epic inflation, wealth disparity, and now war and a mental health crisis. Is the answer that we’re too busy as Robert Weisberg posits in a recent post? Maybe. Honestly, I’m no longer sure about this or much else. I know many of us are overworked. I know staffs have contracted, and many people are doing two times the work of the pre-pandemic era, and because no one found them breathing into a paper bag in the supply closet, everything is supposedly okay. Being asked to do more for the same crap salary is debilitating. Pay isn’t everything, but salaries are still inequitable. In many institutions leadership makes a gazillion times what the front-of-the-house makes, and yet daily the front-of-the-house workers shoulder a good portion of the community’s anger, yet another facet of the country’s mental health crisis.
I respect Weisberg’s argument, and I love his “Time, Money, People, Resources,” but I don’t share his assurance that busyness is the culprit or at least the only culprit. For me there are too many intersecting circles, each part of an overlapping problem. It strikes me that when field-wide salaries are dismal, the museum workplace promotes to reward. That means you move up the food chain, receiving a bigger salary and a title change because you succeeded in your first position. The problem is that being able in one position doesn’t always translate into being an able at leading people. If the organization needs a leader at whatever level, it should hire a leader, not reward staff by throwing them into the deep end. How would the picture change if museums could acknowledge and reward good work, allowing individuals to stay in their lane, while making more money and perhaps receiving a title change. Logically, that should happen, but it rarely does. We have a culture that teaches us success comes with managing others. (Some state HR laws are written such that an employee’s desire to be salaried as opposed to hourly, hinges, in part, on whether they supervise staff.) In the museum world we don’t train for leadership. So when promotions work, we pat ourselves on the back. When they don’t, we scratch our heads. And sadly, it’s staff who suffer in these circumstances.
In all our moaning about what Covid did to us, and it did plenty, it also taught us that flexibility is a key workplace resource. Not everyone can work away from their museum or heritage organization, but many can. In the first month of Covid we learned how much we could get done from our home offices. But Covid taught us something else. It isn’t just a binary choice between remote vs.on-site employees. It’s an acknowledgement that, particularly for women, flexibility matters. Many have life situations which make flexible hours a necessity. We know the failure to flex meant many women who are also caregivers and parents left the workforce over the last two years. But we don’t need to be workplace thought leaders to imagine that when staff are happy and not worrying about child or elder care, their work is better. If you have an employee who needs to begin work later because of family responsibilities, would it kill you to make that happen? And most importantly, can flex time become not just an individual exception, smacking of favoritism, but an organization-wide trend?
I wonder too, whether in a field like museums where jobs are hard won, if we expect too much from them. They represent huge investments and when they don’t speak our love language daily, we’re convinced they’re not for us. I am the first to admit this field has its share of bad leaders and boards, but even the best job isn’t Nirvana every day, nor should it be. I’ve written about this before, but your job, however intellectually stimulating is not your family. It may include some in your friend group, but hopefully it isn’t substituting for your friends as well.
The Canadian writer/researcher Paul Thistle has done a ton of work on the museum workplace and self-care. In addition to the high expectations and ridiculous pace of many museums, something that comes through loud and clear in his writing is our responsibility to ourselves. Yes, I know it’s often impossible to seek mental health care when you have no insurance or when the one counselor who takes your insurance is miles away, but we need to try, and our organizations need to try too.
Decades ago I remember a conference conversation where having heard a living history site was thinking of interpreting an 18th century workhouse, the cynical and jaded in the group opined we could go there when we “retired” because by that time we’d be so burnt out, role playing someone who had had a breakdown wouldn’t be a stretch. Not funny, but also darkly funny, and an indication that the constant search for perfection, coupled with too little time and too few resources has been a theme in museum work life for decades.
I’ve made a tradition of adding to-do lists at the end of blog posts with ideas for individuals and organizations, but I think this isn’t a one size fits all scenario. So here are some links and resources:
- If you’re not already reading Dr. Laurie Santos, start. A Yale psychology professor whose classes are consistently oversubscribed, Santos offers practical tips for leading a happier life in her podcast “The Happiness Lab.“
- Read Mike Murawski. Not everyone can let go of the security of full-time employment, but if you need a positive role model for making change, it’s Murawski.
- If you supervise staff, you may want to read AAM’s 2022 Trendswatch, particularly the chapter on mental health. I am not a fan of putting leadership in the position of acting as a mental health counselor, but I do think it’s important for leaders to model wellness behaviors, and be transparent and open about their own challenges.
- Remember to lobby for improved healthcare and childcare at the local, state, and national level. It may seem out of your lane, but knowing family is cared for at a price you can afford is a stress reducer.
- If you’re a reader, try also On Being, NPR’s Lifekit, and The Marginalian, and Henna Inam. And keep in mind, if your stress was a disfiguring rash, you’d undoubtedly see a doctor. If you find yourself beset by stress and mental health issues, try to see a caregiver.
- If you’re a leader, be careful not to talk about the importance of your front-line/hourly staff unless you are willing to regularly make them part of museum decisions. Their work experience is part of your organization’s DNA. Respect it.
Spring is coming. Take some time to be outside. Sit, walk, run, whatever works for you. Your work will be better for it.
First, the announcement: In December this blog will be a decade old. As I’ve said more than a few times, it was started to support and augment the original publication of Leadership Matters. Later, when I worked for an epically bad leader, it helped me unpack workplace problems, and later still when I became an interim leader, it served as another type of sounding board. When I started this blog, I was literally alone. Yes, there were leadership blogs written for the business community, but there were few, if any, about the museum workplace. In fact, a decade or more ago, I would argue the field was actively engaged in NOT talking about working conditions.
Thankfully, that has changed. Today it’s a relief to share space with writers like Mike Murawski (Agents of Change,) Robert Weisberg (Museum Human,)and Paul Thistle from the country that’s friendly, foreign, familiar and near, and many more, including all those who confine their opinions to the Twitterverse, as well as organizations like Museum Hue, National Emerging Museum Professionals, and @changethemuseum. Together, I believe we all help change the culture of silence in the museum workplace. So with this good company, I’ve decided to take a tiny step back. Beginning February 14, Leadership Matters, will appear monthly on the second Monday of each month.
In keeping with my own pursuit of change–accepting, learning, growing–I realize there are other things I’d like to do on a weekend besides worrying my thoughts about museum leadership into a six-hundred word piece. So I’ll be here this week, next week, and then, going forward, monthly.
And now to some thoughts on work. Long ago, in another lifetime, I was a ballet dancer. Like many girls I took daily classes while trying to decide whether I had the courage and talent to move from avid student to something more. Clearly I didn’t, but that’s not the point. Ballet dancers–at least female ones–are used to pushing themselves beyond what’s normal. They are the people choreographers make pieces “on” as opposed to “for.” Their teachers and choreographers push and push, and feet bleeding, muscles aching, they take it.
I thought about that this week when I realized I’d reached the proverbial wall. Shouldn’t I know better? Yes, but since the beginning of January I had said yes repeatedly, often to things outside my workplace lane, and the result? It was too much and my work was suffering. And let’s not even talk about work/life balance.
There is some kind of masochistic pride in overwork, and like many workplace behaviors, I believe it’s gendered. Women are used to “doing it all.” They are the finders, the doers, the schedulers, the nurse, and while I’m sure there are households where work is equitably shared, they are often cook, maid, and primary child, pet, and elder minder as well. Those same skills show up in the workplace, where no matter their job description, women fulfill roles as schedulers, planners, cleaner-uppers, and counselors, all while trying to preserve enough brain space for a few big thoughts.
Let me pause here to acknowledge my own position of privilege. I’m White, reasonably well-paid, my children are launched, and I have a solid benefit package. So my hitting the wall is a hang nail compared to what some women cope with. McKinsey’s January report on Burnout for Women in the Workplace reports that the rate of burnout between women and men has almost doubled since last year. The Report also says that despite their own increasing weariness, women take action more consistently than men to fight it, all while–at the corporate level, at least–delivering results, but at a great personal toll. It would be nice to know how these trends and behaviors play out in the museum world, but even with a workforce that’s 50.1-percent women, the field seems disinterested in spending money on knowing what its workforce thinks.
If you’re a woman and a woman leader, what can you do?
- Keep talking. Speak with your colleagues–particularly women– your direct reports and those up the workplace food chain– about what you’re experiencing.
- If you’re a leader, acknowledge women who do extra work, whether it’s workplace housekeeping, mentoring and counseling or logistics and planning.
- Look at your HR policy. Policies aren’t one and done, they need to grow along with your team and your organization. If it’s been awhile, work on your HR policy.
- Acknowledge how the current health crisis may propel your organization into a talent crisis, and what the costs might be.
- Many museums want to diversify their workforces, but be alert to how being the only BIPOC woman can put a new hire in a space of otherness that as White on-boarders you never even thought about. Learn–which is a process, not something you get from reading an article–how to be an ally. Be a mentor, open doors, and explain the Byzantine rituals and culture of your organization.
- When you lobby this month for your institution and museums in general, remember to mention how important societal supports are for working women, like maternity/paternity leave, childcare, and oh, how about the gender wage gap?
1.8 million women have left the workforce since the beginning of the pandemic. As far as I know, until the Bureau of Labor Statistics comes out with its 2021 numbers this spring, we won’t know how the museum world has been affected. But you might. You might be a woman or know a woman, who’s feeling like this world she struggled to enter has let her down, and she doesn’t have the best-job-ever any more. What can we do to change that?
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
There’s a blizzard here in the northeast this weekend, and it’s hard to think about anything except comfort food, a heat source, and a good book. But despite the relentless wind, blowing snow, and the fear we may lose power, it’s time to say something, and ironically it’s something about moving forward despite the circumstances.
Self-care and wellness permeate the online world of information exchange, preaching to the choir as it reminds us what a huge emotional and mental health toll three years of COVID has taken. I’m about to add to that. If you’re a regular reader you know that since the New Year, I’ve been a bit obsessed with change. In considering change, I’ve also thought about what holds us back, individually, organizationally, creatively, physically and emotionally. What keeps us in place when we find ourselves paralyzed, procrastinating, and frozen, unwilling to disrupt the current moment, which, while maybe not perfect, is at least familiar? Sailors call this “being in irons,” when a boat turns into the wind and stalls. The sails luff and you’re stuck. It’s not good. The only way to move is to turn so the wind hits you sideways, into the sails.
So what can we do to feel the wind in our sails again? And more importantly, why are we holding back? Well, the short answer is probably COVID. Along with being a pandemic, COVID was also a change agent, highlighting faults, issues and problems in the museum world and in society at large. Maybe you remember your college literature classes where the novels were filled with change agents. Frequently, a character left or arrived, their addition or absence acting as a destabilizer. Characters went to war, were enslaved, ran away, or found themselves somewhere new. The point being that movement often prompts behavioral change.
But back to real life. For some, COVID provided an opportunity to move. Having discovered we could work remotely, if we were lucky, we moved sometimes in the company of family or friends. Some found new jobs. The act of physically separating took us away from old habits, offering, whether we realized it or not, a new beginning. If you experienced this, you may find yourself a year later, already looking back on the original lockdown as a hinge point. By providing time you never meant to take, by putting you in a new environment–even if that meant 40 hours a week at home instead of in the office–it offered a chance to think, and perhaps to think differently. But now, for what seems like the third or fourth time, we’re beginning again. How can we use what we learned and not hold back?
- Take some precious time and think deeply about the last two years: What did you learn? What do you want to hold onto? What habits hold you back? Is your volunteer work suddenly more meaningful than your career? Ditto your COVID hobby? Can you nurture it rather than see it subsumed by work?
- Did you learn to work more mindfully? Maybe you had to create space between your playroom, the kitchen table and the sink to work, and because uninterrupted time was at a premium, you had to plan. You may want to read this, yet another reason to let go of your devices for 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of your work day.
- Shed Load: Borrow from the power companies, and learn to shed load. For many, the pandemic underscored what is really important as opposed to what seems important, both at home and at work. Try letting go of what’s not.
- Can you take the creative time you had at home to work? How would your colleagues react if they were encouraged to take time every day to think without devices in the room? Is that possible?
- Did you discover new subject areas during COVID? Did you read astronomy and Rumi when you used to only read history or material culture? What can you do with that? Recently I read a piece in The Atlantic called Your Bubble is Not the Culture by Yair Rosenberg. My favorite line is “But when critics lose sight of why most people consume culture, they start missing what makes most things popular. In their search for significance, they forget about the fun.” The same could be said about curators, yes? Can we just be regular folks and put collaboration ahead of significance, working collaboratively with our communities to build bridges between collections and community? We might discover our bubble isn’t our community’s bubble, and low and behold we might find the wind in our sails.
Be well, be kind, do good, and do good work.
We’re only a few days into the New Year and already it’s deja vu all over again. In fact, if I were cleverer this is the moment to cue the music and hear “COVID is Here to Stay,” to the tune written by George Gershwin and made famous by Tony Bennett and Diana Krall. I mean doesn’t it feel like….???
In time the Rockies may crumble
Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay
But COVID is here to stay.
It’s hard to believe this winter could be more difficult than the spring of 2020, but it may be. This week I read an NPR article quoting Gaurav Suri, a computational neuroscientist at San Francisco State University who studies how humans make decisions. Suri says humans are tuned to make decisions around stability, not surrounded by rapid-fire change. No kidding. And you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know uncertainty makes us anxious. That, coupled with the real-life possibility of giving or getting the COVID virus, makes life super stressful.
How are museum and heritage organization leaders supposed to lead when everyone is constantly on edge? How can we keep work from becoming a relentless marathon of worry and anxiety as we spend days trying to do our jobs, often in new ways, while trying not to get or spread the virus? There are likely a million different answers to that question, but one might be to make 2022 a year for workplace wellness.
Not everyone can follow the Cincinnati Art Museum’s lead and press pause, but it is a great example of how an organization prioritizes staff health and wellness. It’s especially farsighted since it now appears many organizations will need to either reduce visitation or close entirely this month. CMA is closed from January 3-12 and staff is fully compensated. According to the article, the museum suggests employees “choose to reconnect with family or work in a food bank, this pause allows us to grow individually while we all grow collectively.” Awesome, right? Not only because it acknowledges what staff gave their community over the past 18 months, but because it says CMA prioritizes staff well being, not just as productive museum educators, exhibit designers or shop sales assistants, but as good-hearted humans.
Maybe you can’t institute an organizational wellness pause. Maybe no one would listen even if you suggested it. So…. what can you do instead? First, start with yourself. As a leader, do you model wellness and self care? Think about how hard it might be for staff to ask a leader (you) for time off when you arrive early, stay late, send after-work emails, and seem permanently stressed. So start by modeling personal self care coupled with some sharing and transparency.
Sharing doesn’t mean an exhaustive account your toddler’s gruesome stomach virus, you and your partner’s lack of sleep, or how food makes you vaguely nauseous, yet you still soldier on. Instead, it might mean saying “I have a sick child, an exhausted partner, and for the next two days I’ll be leaving early. Please let me know if you find yourself in a similar position.” And remind everyone that the rules from when they were in day care or kindergarten still apply: Even if you don’t have COVID, stay home for 24 hours after a fever or vomiting.
Think about taking meetings out of doors, while walking, if possible. Many of us work in beautiful places. Encourage your team to take 15 minutes a day to walk–inside or out–to change perspective or feel the sun on their face. Even walking to a favorite gallery or room in a heritage site and doing some slow looking can help break the relentless cycle of stress, more stress, crabbiness, repeat. If it helps, encourage staff to listen to music. Some organizations have a room for quiet study, where staff can retreat when they need uninterrupted me-time to re-focus and regenerate. And encourage staff to share anxiety-coping ideas with one another. For example, begin a meeting by asking everyone to share an app, a tool, a practice for stress relief that works for them. Supporting one another is increasingly important as the workplace fluctuates between home and office, causing the personal and professional to overlap in ways it didn’t prior to the pandemic.
I say this often, but if you lead an organization, as opposed to a team, when was the last time you looked at your HR policy? Sometimes small changes mean a lot. Does your policy offer personal time off (PTO) as opposed or in addition to sick time? Offering sick time as the only way NOT to come to work is different from providing personal time-off. PTO gives employees the agency to make their own decisions, something every adult needs. Granted paid sick time off is better than no time off, but why should an HR plan encourage employees to be less than truthful? And if it’s a choice between coming to work feeling stressed over leaving a sick family member or losing pay, what do you think employees do? They come to work stressed and quasi-sick. They aren’t their best selves, and they open the door to making others sick, not just with COVID, but with everyday viruses as well.
Whether you’re dealing with staff who are clinically ill, caring for others, or weary and stressed, you need some self-understanding. To return to neuroscience, remember what Brené Brown says about connection: “Shame is the fear of disconnection,” and we feel shame when we think we have to explain we’re not up to the task. Brown says we all feel that we’re not enough. We’re not thin enough, fit enough, smart enough, cool enough, and on and on. Yet people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worth it. Some how they learned vulnerability makes them beautiful and necessary. Brown reminds us we can’t treat others with compassion if we don’t treat ourselves compassionately. If you haven’t heard her Ted talk on vulnerability, start your New Year with that. Start with not being certain, start with being compassionate, start with being whole-hearted. It won’t end COVID, but it will help take your team through what promises to be another challenging year.
So…begin 2022 by making sure your HR policy provides a structure for empowerment on the part of your employees. If you’re into New year’s resolutions, make one about finding the courage to access the vulnerable part of you, and give it a little daylight. And then take that courage and compassion and pay it forward. Your colleagues, your team, your staff will thank you, and they will pay it forward too.
Be well. Stay safe. Get your booster. Wear your mask. Do good work, and despite the mess the world is in, or maybe because of the mess the world is in, I hope 2022 is a year full of creativity, kindness, and compassion for all of you.
In 10 days 2021 will be in the history books and we will be living 2022. At the moment though, with Omicron duplicating, it feels like a meaner, angrier version of 2020 where every choice demands serious thought. Should I go? Should I stay? Are they vaccinated AND boostered? How much do those home tests cost? What was my life like the last time prices were this high? And on and on.
Today, I went back and read my final post from 2020. In it, I laid out five ways I hoped to make change in the coming year. They were:
- Be the point person for a director search that starts by recognizing implicit bias, conducts an equitable search, resulting in a diverse, creative candidate who challenges us in new ways.
- Continue to diversify our collections, art, photography and rare books, through acquisition and in cataloguing language.
- Continue to shift our organizational lens so white privilege isn’t always center stage.
- Grow empathy.
- Nurture creativity.
Although I don’t feel hugely successful, I did, weirdly, succeed in at least three out of five. We hired a new leader, someone who’s smart, kind, empathetic and supportive. Having worked for someone who was none of those things, I can tell you it makes a huge difference. I continue to work at acknowledging and then shifting my own white privilege so the lens is more inclusive and empathetic. I try daily to nurture my own and other’s creativity while also being empathetic. Creativity needs time, however, and some days it feels as though it is trapped on a container ship off the coast. The area of change that’s proved hardest is diversifying our collections mostly because turning that wheel means money. Our donors are often older, white and male, making them not always enthusiastic about building collections that are non-white and female. Nevertheless, it remains a written goal, and one that’s easy to point to when we’re offered a gift.
Over this year, I’ve written about workplace bullying and crying at work specifically for women because I believe they are sometimes caught in COVID’s crosshairs in ways men are not. I wrote about taking grief to work because this has been, and remains, a deeply sad year for me. I also wrote about creativity and trust, and I wrote about Nina Simon, who remains a she-ro for me mostly because she has the courage to walk away from all this museum stuff and write a novel. At least I think that’s what she’s doing because periodically I answer her probing questions on Twitter about one of her characters who seems to be about my age.
It’s time to say something about the coming year so here is my hope: My hope is that every museum leader, whether they lead a program or an organization, whether they lead 1.5 people or the equivalent of a small town, can, when they’re alone, say honestly and truthfully, “My staff is safe, seen and supported.” If that’s not true, if there are tiny things that need to be changed or great gaping holes, my hope is they make that sentence a truth in 2022. If your staff is safe, they are not harassed and bullied. Should they be, because you can’t control everything, you will have implemented processes to support and help them. If they are seen, they know you believe in them, in the person they really are, not some artificial version of themselves. And if they are supported, they are mentored, encouraged, and given space to be creative, no matter their assigned tasks.
If you–because you are important too–and your staff are safe, seen and supported, the constant gnawing need for self care will also lessen. It won’t be perfect. Life rarely is, but it will be a long way toward better. So think about what you need to do to move the needle toward those three simple words: safe, seen, supported.
I’ll close this end-of-year post with a poem. Given the space we’re currently in, we probably should read more poetry, and the title is fitting. In the meantime, be well, take care of those you love, and I’ll be back here in 2022.
Instructions on Not Giving Up
Ada Limón – 1976-
More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
So it’s been a few weeks, in fact, almost a month since I last wrote. I like to think that if this blog has any redeeming qualities, one is consistency. So apologies for the radio silence. These pages were never meant to be self-revelatory. They were created to support the publication of both editions of Leadership Matters (2013 and 2019), and as such, be a springboard for the discussion of all things leader-like in museum land. But sometimes life just comes at you, slamming you in the face with your own worst thing. And that’s what happened to me. The specifics don’t matter so much except to say of the several cataclysmic things that can happen in a lifetime, this was one.
My experience made me think of what Lisa Lee, Director of the National Public Housing Museum, said in her Leadership Matters interview. When I asked her about work/life balance, her response was pure Lisa Lee. She underscored that siloing our energy and thoughts isn’t productive, that our lives aren’t binary, meaning work versus home. She added “At the museum we pretend we’re not grappling with other issues, but we’re human beings all day.” That seemed like an important statement to me when I heard it the first time, and equally important today as I prepare to return to work. I can’t shut off my grief the moment I walk into my office or my first meeting. I have to look it in the face, carry it with me, and move forward.
One of my “sheroes” is Brené Brown. Her short film on the difference between sympathy and empathy is pretty stellar. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, because all good leaders should understand that what you say isn’t as important as simply being present and reminding the person who’s hurt that you recognize pain, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself, and you’re by their side. And it isn’t about you. Nothing is worse than a hurting colleague comforting the comforter. Nor is there some unwritten scale of dire events that ranks human reaction. It’s not a worst experience contest. As a leader, your job is to respect what happened to your colleague and empathize, not weigh a pet death versus chemotherapy or a car accident. Life is hard, and we all meet challenges differently.
Brené Brown always says presence trumps perfection. There is nothing about being a museum leader that makes you a people fixer, so don’t try. Today a colleague asked if she could stop by, and when I said yes, she simply wanted to tell me she was there for me–big or small–lunch companion, after-work walk, chair to sit and rant in. It was incredibly kind, and my only job was to realize she’s on my side. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that this colleague is someone I can trust because she’s willing to sit with me at my lowest. I know I can go to her office and weep if I need to, and she will share the space, metaphorically and actually.
The American workplace, which is the only workplace I know even a little about, is not a place where emotions are on parade. We’re not supposed to yell (well, men can, but that’s another post), nor are we supposed to cry (especially if we’re women), because crying means you’re emotional which is sometimes code for hormonal or menopausal which is definitely bad or wait, maybe just human? Sometimes checking our emotions at the door, and locking up our grief just isn’t possible because, as Lisa Lee reminds us, we’re human.
So 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have written this post. Maybe I would have suggested that we need to button up those emotions, park them at the door, and just get on with it. But in a world of climate change, systemic racism, pandemic fears, and gender discrimination, not to mention all the bad stuff that besets us individually, I don’t think that’s the workplace any of us want to work in any more. We need to know we can be our real selves–or at least as real as we choose to reveal–because it’s only in environments where trust flourishes that we, whether leaders or staff, feel safe, seen and supported.
Be well and be kind.
For those of us who live near Western Massachusetts, the Berkshires loom large. Long a cultural phenomenon, it’s an area beloved for its good food, good coffee, great music, theatre, and, of course, museums. This February, however, a new voice from the 413 area code appeared on Instagram. A cousin of @changethemuseum, @ChangeBerkshireCulture debuted on Valentine’s Day. Posting pastel hearts with messages like “I love you as much as museums love empty promises about prioritizing diversity,” it was clear from the get-go the writers were angry. There is now a collection of almost two dozen. Many posts are disturbing. Some name names–not people, but institutions–so it would be impossible for Berkshire museum leaders not to wince, but at a meta level, what’s most upsetting is these posts indicate a disregard for staff, and a deep vein of workplace discontent. But wait, you say, I don’t work in the Berkshires, and besides my staff isn’t like that. Are you sure? Do you check in regularly? And when you do, if you ask the questions, do you want to hear the answers?
Two things to think about, both for yourself and your team: The idea that there is work and there is everything else in your life, and the two are separate, is nonsense. It’s all your life, and some days are more messy and more complicated than others, but the notion that when you’ve reached some pinnacle of success you’ll have time for yourself–to swim, to walk, to meditate, to read–and until then you suffer, is also nonsense. The second thing to consider is that it’s not your job to make your staff or team members happy. You can’t. That’s their job.
So what’s the answer? Clearly, a half hour up the road from me is a group of distressed, angry current and former museum workers. Here are some things to think about. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve likely heard some of them before, but here goes:
- Not surprisingly, a number of the @changeberkshireculture posts are COVID related, questioning how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ rules have or have not been applied. As we’ve said a million times here, COVID exacerbates just about everything, so acknowledge it. Ignoring it, increases staff stress. For front-facing employees, it’s hard to be upbeat when you’re worried whether the group you are greeting is playing by the rules. For staff working at home and on site, work may feel as though it never ends and the stress build-up is very real. Does your organization have a COVID task force? Does it include staff from all levels? Do they update staff (and you) regularly? A staff who understands why a museum is doing what it’s doing may be less anxious, and less frightened of job loss if the museum is transparent from the beginning.
- Update your job descriptions. With COVID layoffs many staff took on additional jobs. Acknowledging the extra work is a much-needed measure of transparency. No, it doesn’t put food on the table, but coupled with a genuine thank you, it’s kind, and that’s something we can all use. Further, it confirms extra work took place, which could convert to a raise when things right themselves,.
- Update your disaster plan. Many of us have taken our organizations through fire and flood, but if COVID taught us anything, it taught us that disaster comes in unexpected forms. Does your disaster plan include a pandemic? Do those plans include how-to’s, not just for leaving collections untended, but for how staff will be down-sized if that’s necessary? The perception from some of the posts in @changeberskhireculture is that plans were entirely quixotic, reactive, and rarely equitable.
- And speaking of equitable, what about your workplace? You can’t make your staff happy, that’s their job, but you can create an equitable workplace from the top down. When employees perceive that others are privileged in ways they are not, it leads to anger and dissatisfaction. Conduct a workplace equity audit. Doing so will help your museum or heritage organization think about how you hire, how you mentor and promote, whether your current HR policies invite implicit bias, and how your museum is governed, and the culture it creates.
- Stop worrying about happiness. Maybe whether we’re happy at work isn’t the question. Happiness, after all, isn’t a virtue, and yet we treat it as such. How often has someone stopped and told you to smile as if that would fix everything? Perhaps what we should strive for is a staff who is content because content staff think deeply about their work, approach it with enthusiasm, and look for creative answers to questions.
- Last, remember Nina Simon’s words from last week that prioritizing the safety and welcome of people with less access to power, means you are working for equity and inclusion.
There is something shaming and hugely wrong in asking staff, many of whom need to be intensely positive for visitors, not to be negative or complain, when so much about their workplaces is murky, inauthentic, and inequitable. That’s what comes through in @changeberkshireculture. And that’s what needs fixing. @changethemuseum and @changeberkshireculture are enough to scare anyone away from the field. We’re in a challenging time, and because of these challenges, we need to be mindful about those who work for and with us, and to constantly ask who we are empowering and why.
Try making one decision for equity and kindness this week and see what happens.
Remember your pre-COVID-19 life when you wished you could just stay home and work? How peaceful it would be, how much work you’d get done if only you weren’t at work distracted by meetings, angsty colleagues, or workplace deadlines. Well, be careful what you wish for. Now we’re caught in a devilishly dystopian movie with no end in sight, a little workplace angst seems like heaven.
Many of us have completed our first week of either government or self-imposed isolation. For those of us lucky enough to collect a salary while working from home, it has its moments. Everyone uses Zoom like a pro, bouncing from meeting to meeting as we struggle to stay on point, while small children and dogs step into the picture. But there’s no doubt there’s a price to pay, and social isolation is the least of it.
So after five days, what do you as museum leaders know? There’s the obvious: that collections managers and curators’ work transfers home a lot easier than that of your front line staff. But how about protecting as many of your workers as you can, and while acknowledging layoffs are horrible? Then there’s social media: those of you who have a robust platform may no longer feel as though it’s the icing on the cake, but the main course. And of course, there’s the money: If you didn’t understand your museum’s endowment portfolio two weeks ago, you may be getting a crash course–no pun intended–in stock market physics; that some of this country’s leading philanthropies are already banding together to help support museums and heritage organizations. And the advocacy piece: We owe Laura Lott, Elizabeth Merritt, and the AAM staff thanks for leading the museum world’s advocacy effort on Capitol Hill. Fingers crossed, it pays off.
For many museums the Metropolitan is a kind of a bellwether the same way New York’s fashion world influences dress months later in the heartland. So when the Met announced that even if it were to open again in June, it will face a $100 million loss, it was enough to scare the crap out of many smaller museums and heritage organizations. Even the Met, with its $3.6 billion endowment, has only guaranteed salaries through early April while it studies how to navigate the coming months. Its plan, though, is interesting: Short term, it’s paying salaries and those who can work from home are; beginning in April it will use furloughs, layoffs and retirements in addition to shifting spending from funds associated with programming, acquisition, and travel to keep the museum operational. The hope is it will re-open some six months after the virus began in the U.S. with reductions across the board. (Not shared is whether Max Hollein or Daniel Weiss will take pay cuts for the duration of the crisis. #sharethewealth) So the model is short term, pay those who can work; figure out what you can jettison; shift funds you won’t need, and plan on opening a trimmed down version of yourself in two to four months. The more egalitarian among you may choose to take pay cuts, but that’s for you and your board to work out. There is by the way already a place to aggregate staff layoffs in the wake of the virus. Cold comfort, I know, but as more information amasses, you will have a sense of what other organizations are doing.
For those of you who are now thoroughly depressed, we hope you read Colleen Dilenschneider’s piece on COVID-19 and intended as opposed to actual visitation. As always with Dilenschneider, it is a clear and weirdly hopeful piece. She writes that as of March 13 the public was staying away because they were self-isolating or museums were closed or closing, but long-term, their intent is to return. Could a lack of discretionary income affect that? Yes. But do people need the beauty, the knowledge, the third space museums provide? Yes.
As my friend Franklin Vagnone, President of Old Salem Village writes,
“As museum leaders we must be thinking ahead of this to April 2021. What do you want to be? Who do you want to serve? How will you use your resources to achieve that goal? It’s not the time to be nostalgic for what we lost, we must embrace the butterfly that will grow out of this imposed cocoon.”
In closing, we want to thank history museums and archives who are already starting to collect reminiscences about the pandemic for future generations. We want to thank museum IT and social media folk who keep us entertained and in touch through Instagram, short videos and virtual visits. We want to thank conservators everywhere who donated equipment to first responders, and funders who recognize that museums (and all non-profits) are businesses too and need support as well. We want to acknowledge living history sites who are turning their history gardens over to raise food for community food banks.
And last, we want to send thoughts of encouragement and strength to our colleagues around the world affected by COVID-19, and especially all the museum people in Italy who are in the midst of such a desperate struggle.
Be strong and stay in touch with each other. Email your professional friends and colleagues and set up a Zoom call today. Don’t wait. Talk.
Image: The Mercury News
Here in the United States we’ve entered the time of year known as “The Holidays,” a mash-up of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and Santa Claus that stretches from Halloween to after New Year’s Day. For many museum folk it’s an action-packed time of year. Will the annual appeal prove how much people love our organization? Will the various holiday parties yield new community connections? How much will the board cut the proposed budget? Will you get that foundation grant? There’s a lot. And that’s just work. This is also a time of year for family. Little children are permanently excited, bigger children exhausted from finishing exams and college applications, and adult children torn between wanting to come home and not wanting to come home. And there you are caught in the middle, again.
It’s definitely time for a little self-care. I’m about to make a completely non-scientific statement and say that in general museum staff are willing to sacrifice a lot for work. As a job sector we arrive early, stay late, and work from home, all while being paid less than we deserve. In 2016 Elizabeth Merritt, Vice President, Strategic Foresight & Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance for Museums, wrote an article called The Museum Sacrifice Measure, which I consider one of the best and most interesting pieces of writing about the museum workplace ever. If you haven’t read it, you should. And even though the field has changed infinitesimally in the last several years, much of what Merritt suggests is still true. That we’re a field with high bars–an expensive graduate degree, unpaid internships and time-consuming volunteer jobs, and an oversupply of overqualified people who are by and large underpaid. Those characteristics, Merritt says, sometimes make us entitled, stubborn and resistant to change. I would argue they also make us a teensy bit masochistic.
So before you agree to work both the fundraiser and the day after Christmas, not because you want to, but because you can, think about yourself for just a tiny second.
Are you getting enough sleep? The Centers for Disease Control reports that one third of us get less than the recommended seven hours per night. If you are parenting a small human there may be a reason for that, but if you’re not, what can you do to get more sleep? Lack of sleep impairs brain function, concentration and productivity, all of which you use at work. Skip Netflix. Try going to bed an hour earlier.
When was the last time you exercised? I do not mean running to the train or across your museum campus because you are late, nor do I necessarily mean a full-on, spandex- laden gym workout, I mean an hour or so dedicated to nothing more than you walking or swimming at a decent pace. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that may leave you feeling happier, more relaxed and less anxious, and in a side benefit, it boosts your energy, while also helping you sleep better. Measure a half mile, put the baby in her stroller or the dog on her leash, lace up your walking shoes, and go. Do it for yourself, not the baby or the dog. And don’t just do it once.
Take 60 minutes for yourself. This isn’t 60 minutes of extra sleep or that hour of walking, this is an hour for you. Meet friends for coffee or drinks. Laugh ’til your side hurts. Watch a sad movie and weep through the ending. Go to the library and pick out new books or sit quietly and gaze at glossy magazines. Get a manicure. Draw. Cook something just for you. Experiment with a new cocktail. Whatever it is doesn’t matter. What does matter is giving yourself permission to press pause.
Think about making some bigger changes. It’s roughly two weeks ’til 2020. A new year is a traditional time for change, personal resolutions, diets, exercise. Many of you know Seema Rao as the person who took over Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0. But before that Rao wrote a book called Self Care for Museum Workers. If you don’t own it, you should. And if the thought of reading a book, even one that might help you, makes you want to scream, read this piece she wrote for AAM almost a year ago. In it, she lays out a simple, clear plan to help you make incremental changes in your life. Try it.
Change is a big deal. A lot of people never manage it. They go through life crippled by everything that’s holding them back. If you’re reading this, you likely work somewhere in the museum/cultural professions. You may not make enough money, you may not have your dream job (yet), you may work more than one job or you may just feel as if you do. Control what you can control. Change what you’re able to change. Shed load where you can. Take care of yourself for yourself. Everyone around you will benefit.
Leadership Matters will be on vacation for the weeks of Dec. 23 and Dec. 30. Before we return January 6, 2020, we’d like to hear your wishes for the museum world for the coming year. Send them, and any other thoughts you have about the museum field’s future to us here or directly to our email or Facebook where this is posted as well. Full sentences and punctuation aren’t necessary, just your hopes and dreams for the field.
Best wishes for happy holidays, time with family and friends, and a very happy New Year.