Think about this: Think about a woman staff member at a medium-sized regional museum. Like many, post-COVID, she’s over-worked, doing her pre-pandemic tasks, plus new ones. In addition, she’s also taken on a new role supporting a part-time HR department where she listens to staff with issues involving possible gender and race discrimination. When necessary, she reviews what’s happened to staff, ranging from socially awkward conversations to potentially criminal behavior. She’s competent, organized, compassionate, but increasingly overwhelmed. Not only is she doing too much, but the HR support she’s offered has opened a floodgate of response. That’s good–staff trust her–so they confide, but bad because the more word gets around, the more people come to see her. Her boss is a white man. He’s smart, genial, and genuinely wants to do the best for his colleagues. So far so good. Except as months go by, the woman felt increasingly stressed. Finally, she approached her leader to ask whether she could take something off her plate. Her boss acknowledged she had reached her limit. One look at her face would tell you that. His response? A beautifully crafted email to her front-facing colleagues explaining she is overwhelmed, and asking whether they could step in for her over the next month or two. She felt torn, both profoundly disappointed, and not really helped.
Asking your colleagues to step in for you is what happens when you have to drive your partner to chemo or a family member is in ICU. This makes it sound like the employee a) didn’t know her own mind when she agreed to her workload or b) is too fragile to carry if off. In a time when a lot of employees are nervous about losing their jobs, now is not the moment to make staff feel inadequate. And make no mistake, this scenario is overlaid with gender: the “good girl” employee and the benevolent male boss.
Sometimes leaders aim to fix feelings rather than the decisions that caused them. Any leader worth their salt knows they need to be empathetic, but in empathizing, they often go for the quick fix–let’s get the crying staff person to stop weeping, let’s give the parent who just lost their day care a break or the elderly staff person who hates night driving a change in hours. In any of those scenarios, the leader might feel as if they’ve solved a problem, and the staff member as though they can manage in the short term, but their colleagues, not so much.
In your urge to “help” an employee have you ever solved an immediate issue while leaving overarching, structural issues unresolved? Would the better course for the characters in the opening story have been for the leader to empathize, but not try to fix the employee’s problem, and instead work on the organizational problems? How could this fable have worked out better for both staff member and leader?
If you need to tell your leader you’re overwhelmed:
- Don’t blame yourself for being overwhelmed. You want to do well, but you can’t if you’re not doing your best.
- Strategize before your meeting. Making the conversation your museum, not you, may help guide your leader to make a change rather than a quick fix.
- Come up with some alternate solutions for the organization. In our example, the staff member could suggest that while there might not have been a need for full-time HR in the beginning, data now points to making HR full time.
- Last, what are ways, short of quitting your job, that you can support and care for yourself in a situation like this?
If you’re the leader:
- Resist the temptation to make a quick fix, recognizing that a short-term fix for one may breed long term discomfort for others.
- Consider who you’re meeting with. If, as in our scenario, it’s an employee who’s dedicated, smart, kind and curious, think about all the ways they support the museum from minuscule to huge. Before deciding you’ve given them too much, think about possible organizational changes you might make. Begin with the notion that competent people shouldn’t be overloaded with tasks simply because they are competent. Doesn’t that enable the less competent in their disorganization?
- Consider talking to other members of your leadership group, and taking the temperature on overwork.
- Be transparent with other staff about changes you make.
Be kind, be equitable, and do good work.
nevil zaveri – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nevilzaveri/2211600979/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29855988
We’ve all had enough Zoom, but weeks ago I agreed to be part of a panel discussion. I was one of four museum women asked to speak about gender in museums for a group of museum interns. I had a difficult week so when our Friday morning planning session rolled around I logged on without much thought about what might happen except a group of women slicing the intersectional pie regarding gender and race in the museum workplace. I anticipated a kind of cut and dried divvying up–five minutes on the gender pay gap, 10 minutes on sexual harassment, overlaid with time spent on museums as a pink collar profession, and on and on, while also trying not to make a field these interns might someday join sound too horrific. And besides, I thought I could encourage them to join the Gender Equity in Museums Movement, always a good thing.
I was wrong on all fronts. From the get go, our moderator was more interested in our own narratives and what we’d learned from them, then tidbits about navigating the museum workplace. After introductions and some background on the intern group, it suddenly occurred to me we’re wise, and if we suddenly turned the clock back, what would we say to our 22-year old selves? And that’s where we started. One of the panelists recalled how she’d chosen the path most expected. Each time the road forked she selected the way forward that seemed conventional and secure. Would she do that again? No. We talked about letting life, fate or some force beyond our control make choices for us. One of us recalled how when the worst thing happens–and maybe each of us has our own worst thing–it not only fills us with sadness, but it reframes all the small stuff. Even a world-wide pandemic isn’t quite as devastating when you’ve already visited your own pit of grief. We talked about how it felt to be bullied at work and the inexorable damage sexual harassment visits on a career. We referenced the fact that too many of us see a career’s beginning as a long, slow climb toward some pinnacle of success off in the distance, but how for many women there’s not a direct path, but a series of zigs, zags, sharp slopes, and the occasional deep dive. And one of us reminded the group that we’re all victims of other people’s imaginations, that trying endlessly to fit ourselves into someone else’s conception of us is exhausting, and headache-making.
So what made this such a breathtaking hour? I can’t speak for everyone, but not knowing one another might have helped. There was no posturing. There was humor and openness. There was a willingness to read the room in its weird Zoom squares. There was generosity, and thanks. There was, I think, grace.
One of the participants characterized museums as being the kid–probably the white, privileged kid– at the back of the room behaving like a jerk, but who never gets caught. And if he does, he deflects, letting us know it was simply a mistake, not in any way a series of deliberate choices that leave women of color navigating racism, all women navigating harassment and gender bias, and collections too often reflecting curators’ biases rather than communities they represent.
So here’s my take away: If we could come to work and leverage a little grace in our workplace what would that look like? I have filled these pages with how important it is for museum staff–indeed any staff–to be safe, seen, and supported. Grace nurtures empathy and compassion so colleagues feel valued and cared for. Those values breed happiness, which turns on creativity. And who doesn’t want all of that?
Grace is the place where wisdom, humor, empathy and compassion intersect. It is a practice, and museum workplaces could use more of it.
One of the reasons I enjoy teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program is that each semester I learn things. This week, one of our students suggested museums aren’t a monolith. Specifically, he said, “Unlike Amazon and most companies, museums do not have a blanket statement for organizational culture.”
It’s a statement I might have skipped right over, and yet when I stopped to think about it, it’s startling. Think about all the talk over the last nine months about the ways museums should or must change. We’ve heard people say museums should be more invested in their communities. The sentence “Museums are not neutral” is practically a meme. We’ve read that museums must be held accountable, and they should close the gender salary gap, making salaries equitable. We’ve watched as old and distinguished organizations grapple with their racist and colonial roots. And on and on, each cry for change suggesting that museum culture is a single thing. But is it? Or is it a whole with many distinct parts?
There are rules museums hold in common, ethics and practices they uphold, but there are still an infinite number of differences, as museums sites and heritage organizations, each with its own culture, navigate daily life. Remember the ICOM kerfuffle over a new museum definition and the hackles it raised? And that was what the world’s 55,000 museums believe they do, not what they actually do, not the cultures they create, the communities they foster, the many buildings, objects, paintings, or living things they hold in trust.
Those who read this blog regularly know my devotion to NPR. Friday, in a StoryCorps interview, a Massachusetts man described hosting Thanksgiving dinner for strangers for 35 years. As extraordinary as that is, it’s not why I bring it up. Instead, it’s his philosophy. NPR quotes him saying, “I can’t fix the country or the world or even the town, but I can brighten my own corner.” Without sounding too Pollyanna-like, maybe this is the solution to the museum world’s post-COVID systemic racism/classism issues. Maybe all of us who blog, speak, write, and post should posture a little less and do a little more, not nationally, but in our own corner.
So….if you are a museum leader, here are half a dozen changes you might set in motion, but please add the ones that better fit your museum.
- Look for ways your organization makes whiteness the norm. Commit to an end of “othering” non-white humans in language, collections, cataloging, the museum calendar.
- If you don’t have a DEI Committee, form one. Too small? Gather with other community arts organizations or museums and form one together. Who knows what will flower?
- Accept that talking about these issues may make you, your board, staff and volunteers uncomfortable.
- Figure out what being “not neutral” looks like for you. Your non-neutrality may be very different from your sister museum’s down the road.
- Don’t make changes in a vacuum. Be transparent. Involve your community.
- Create an organizational action statement for 2021. Post it on your web site. If 2020 was a year of pain and disruption, make 2021 the year of change for the good.
And if you are a museum follower, here are five things you might do as an individual:
- Understand racism isn’t just police brutality that happens outside your workplace. Know how and where it rears its head in your organization.
- Speak up when you witness racist issues at work. Ditto for issues of gender or intersectional issues of race and gender.
- We all make mistakes. Forgive yourself.
- Believe your colleagues when they describe racist, misogynistic or bullying behavior. Be empathetic. Offer your help.
- Examine your work, and pledge to change words, policies, and programming that don’t uphold an equitable museum.
None of us needs to be reminded we’re living through an unbelievably tough time. After a horrific spring, COVID has the country in its clutches again. Many museums that just returned to a new normal may need to close again. And many in the museum world are out of work. About the only thing COVID can’t stop is discussion, reflection and planning for a time post-vaccine when heritage organizations, science centers, and museums everywhere open again. Instead of pontificating about change, let’s post the ways our own organizations model change, and the ways we as individuals brighten our own corners. After all, when COVID ends, who doesn’t want museums that are kind, creative, empathetic, dynamic community partners?
Leadership Matters will be on hiatus Thanksgiving week. I hope you have a safe, socially-distanced gathering. I’ll be catching up on reading, Zooming with family, and walking with my dog Scout.
COVID-19 and antiracism have pulled the bandaid off so much in American life, exposing and highlighting inequity after inequity. So it’s no surprise, museum leadership is under fire as well. It’s an emperor-has-no-clothes moment as staffs call out directors, boards remove directors, and directors sometimes behave just horribly. As a result many have called for a new kind of leadership, less paternalistic, less hierarchical, more collaborative; you know, the kind of unimaginably perfect working environment we all think we want.
But what does less hierarchical really look like? What if there is no leader, just a leadership team? Sounds great, right? Everybody plays to their strengths and happily gets the work done. But what happens in a crisis when decisions must be made quickly? What if the team can’t come to consensus? Or what if other members of the staff quickly learn to play one member of the leadership team against another to ensure decisions go their way?
Another issue about team governance versus individual leadership is that the team needs to be highly disciplined and self-motivated. Otherwise one member–likely the compulsive one, who’s still answering emails at night– is sure to shoulder more work than the others. While this may work temporarily, in the long term it’s bound to fail as it requires too much of one individual without the requisite compensation. And speaking of compensation, there are many in the museum world who expect and occasionally demand a straight glide path to their “top spot.” In disrupting that pattern, a leadership team can produce a situation where members aren’t mentored properly, and consequently struggle to move out and up.
On the positive side, when problems don’t need to migrate to the top office, decision making can be swift. In addition, by removing the traditional high-paying director’s position in favor of the more egalitarian leadership team, boards eliminate the huge friction-causing problem of a museum president who makes many thousand times more than their lowest-paid full-time staff. And last, by its very nature a team may engender more risk taking, more creativity and entrepreneurship that a traditional director/president supported by department heads.
So where’s the hitch you ask? Why isn’t everyone doing this? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest two answers: First, the museum world is traditional, hierarchical and patriarchal. Based on AAM’s 2017 Board Source survey, 55-percent of the people who make leadership decisions for museums are white, male board members over the age of 50, and their knowledge base and comfort level is all about the hierarchy. Second, and probably most important, is in order for the leadership team model to work, everybody on it has to act like a leader. No surprise here, but in my humble opinion, leadership is often an absent ingredient in too many museums and heritage organizations. In many museums it’s proffered sometimes as a reward and sometimes as a career full-stop when in fact it is anything but. Leadership is a practice, a way of behaving within an organization. Being a museum director or president asks you to be the primary person who leads, but not the only person who acts like a leader.
Yes, there are museums and heritage organizations where people have big salaries, chic clothes, the right languages, the right degrees, and fancy perquisites, but in the end, a huge part of being a good leader means being a people person. It means being someone who understands it’s not about you or about the content that brought you to the field in the beginning, but instead about the team you lead, and the people and careers you nurture. The absence of leaders who actually care about staff creates institutions where bullying is rife, where hot-shot attorneys are hired to defeat unionization, where sexually harassed women are told to go work things out with their co-workers is a horrific and bothersome bi-product of this absence of leadership.
Museums are made up of people. Whether those skills coalesce in a team of five with no top spot or in a single, much-revered individual, they are still absolutely necessary in creating humane institutions where staff take risks, think creatively, and trust one another. Because guess what? Leadership matters.
Author photo, taken at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe, N.M., artist unknown
There is a whole lot of blame going on in the museum world with plenty directed at museum trustees. Where are their voices as the pandemic and the racism awakening unleash a Pandora’s box of anger? Anger at the irony of museum leadership releasing statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter while watching staffs decimated by COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs? Of museums sitting silent, serene and closed while women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA staff reveal that life inside isn’t so perfect?
Those of you who regularly read Leadership Matters know my antipathy to Twitter. But, though I rarely tweet, I do read, and recently there have been a a lot of comments about the need for a new sort of museum governance. (Can I pause here and say, how much I appreciate @MuseumsandRace’s series of questions on complicity. If you haven’t read them, you should. And if you need to spark staff or board discussion, use them.) But back to a new governance model. Many questions were raised by @TylerGreenBooks. He points directly at art museum trustees, suggesting art museums act like corporations not charities (his word), and that their boards are made up of folks whose major qualification for board membership besides money is “that they shop for art.” In fact, nonprofits, including museums, are corporations, just of a different type.
Tyler Green also suggests art museum boards are “bereft of experts with knowledge and experience related to the charity’s mission” while adding that “wealthy trustees give the minimum institutionally required board dues, and go along to get along.” Is that true? I have no way of knowing. And given the huge variety, even among American art museums, it seems a massive generalization. However, AAM’s 2017 Museum Board Leadership Report tells us that 2/3 of museum directors say their boards have a positive impact on job satisfaction. Should we believe them? Or have they crossed some economic divide, setting them far from the world of their hourly staff? The Report also tells us the vast majority of museum boards don’t assess their own performance, a concerning fact given that it’s likely boards presume there’s a world of assessment going on inside the museums they govern. And it also offers this nugget: “Board members believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions, but they fail to prioritize action steps to advance these priorities.” That was three years ago. Has that trend continued? If yes, maybe @TylerGreenBooks is correct, but for an entirely different set of reasons.
A year ago, AAM launched its Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion initiative, bringing 51 museums and $4 million dollars together national initiative to diversify museum boards and leadership. That was the same time the Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker wrote, “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” (The Ford Foundation is one of the initiative’s three supporters.) Walker says museums have veered too far in appointing trustees whose only defining characteristic is unimaginable wealth. He suggests that board diversity can’t be seen as a compliance issue, but instead must be a key transformative step. Is the answer museums without boards? How would that work, in a country where the vast majority of museum funding comes from private donation? Or is the answer better boards? And who watches the watch dogs?
This week Darren Walker wrote another opinion piece for The Times titled, “Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege?” It is directed at the world of the one-percent Walker now inhabits. He suggests, “The old playbook — giving back through philanthropy as a way of ameliorating the effects of inequality — cannot heal what ails our nation. It cannot address the root causes of this inequality — what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’” He asks what those with power and privilege are willing to give up?
It seems to me this is a crucible moment for museum boards of trustees, a moment that demands action, because the righteous anger and discontent aren’t going away. And as Maxwell Anderson put it so succinctly in his recent essay for Apollo, “The privileging of endowment balances before the pandemic seems to many a short-sighted goal, resulting, as it did, in knee-jerk layoffs,” and a sense that once again in museum land, it’s money before people.
Museum boards have particular power; they fund, guide and determine an organization’s DNA. But the old ways aren’t working any more. Systemic, and in many a museum’s case, genteel racism, aren’t problems you can throw money at and hope they go away. Boards need to pause and figure out how to respond, acknowledging their responses affect not just their community–however that’s defined–but the staffs who are the lifeblood of America’s 35,000-plus museums. And before we’re all too smug, maybe this question–What are willing to give up?– is one all of us white museum folk need to answer. Our responses may be different than a board member’s, but all of us need to reflect on how we have been complicit and most importantly, how we will change.
Because making #BlackLivesMatter can’t happen without change. And change needs to come from the top.
The rocking and rolling of the museum world continued this week. At least three museum directors left their positions, and multiple organizations, including Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Peabody Essex and the Georgia O’Keefe museums, announced they would undergo staff reductions. Museums are often the trailing indicator in economic crisis and now it’s clear even for those able to open how many visitors won’t come, and how bad the balance sheets will be.
Through it all tributes and solidarity for Black Lives Matter crowd social media. They are well intentioned, but I’m reminded of that writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” and I wish I knew what museums are actually doing to change the unredeemed, genteel racism that pervades so many of our institutions. Because the real work, the work that matters to staff of color, and ultimately to visitors of color, happens far from social media. So here are some thoughts:
- The Gender Pay Gap: I first wrote about the gender pay gap on this blog in 2014. Since then I’ve written 10 columns about it. If museum leaders were to do one thing to demonstrate they really believe Black Lives Matter, it would be closing the pay gap. Black women are paid 61-percent of what non-Hispanic white men are paid. That means they need to work 19 months to equal every year of white male employment. That is inexcusable. And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 55-percent of working black women are mothers, many primary wage earners. That means their wealth gap has a significant impact, not just for them, but on their families. If your museum hasn’t already graphed your staff salaries by race and gender, perhaps that should be on your to-do list. With that information in hand, you can work to level the playing field. Anything less supports the genteel racism the museum field has tolerated for more than a century.
- Collections: We know from last year’s Williams College study that art collections in US museums are 85.4-percent white and 87.4-percent by male artists. We know that gender and race equity in science research is an ongoing problem and likely influences how science is presented to the public. And we know the inclusion of additional narratives, whether race, gender or both, are frequently a problem for traditional heritage sites dominated by white, male narratives. And then there is decolonization, a particular problem for collections that once saw themselves as encyclopedic, accepting and exhibiting objects from indigenous cultures while eliminating their voices and stories. Not every museum can follow the Baltimore Museum of Art’s lead, selling work by men, to grow the percentage of women artists, and women artists of color, in their collections. Changes like that take money, yes, but also extensive planning. Do the planning now, and re-write the narrative. Why? Because Black Lives Matter.
- The DEI Position: If you’re museum is lucky enough to have a Diversity position in this age of recession and furloughs, there’s still work to do. White museum leadership, boards, staff, and volunteers still need to grapple with their own roles and their own behaviors. And if you don’t have a DEI position, for the love of God, don’t burden a staff person, who also happens to be black, with that role. They’re navigating their own path as part of the 11-percent of black museum staff nationally. They don’t need to be a spokesperson for racial identity without compensation.
- The Other Pay Gap: The Bureau of Labor Statistics, who tabulates who’s working in the museum field and what they make, tells us our median compensation is $49,850 or roughly $24 an hour. In other words, we’re not a high-paying field. One of the by-products of the COVID-19 layoffs and furloughs is worker protests. In New York City, Minneapolis and elsewhere we’ve seen museum workers using an organization’s 990 forms to publish executive compensation numbers in contrast to hourly, front-facing staff pay. Many of those staff have graduate degrees and yet their take-home pay is perilously close to Federal poverty lines. If a museum director makes $750,000 with benefits, but her front-facing staff makes $12/hour with no benefits, is her pay too high or is their pay too low? Isn’t it time museums as a group talked about this and grappled with a recommended ratio? Boards aren’t usually fans of unions, and yet the reason staff join unions is because they need and want a living wage and benefits.
Talk is cheap. For organizations and individuals what you do is in many ways more important than what you say. If your organization believes Black Lives Matter, than show your staff and your community the steps you plan to take. Be the organization you say you are.
It’s three weeks since George Floyd’s murder, and public protests continue. In some states the virus escalates, while in others museums and heritage organizations begin a slow reawakening after the pandemic shut down. Last week, many museum writers and thought leaders posted reading lists, suggestions and commentary, asking those of us who are white (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that was 83-percent of museum workers in 2019.) to stop being so complacent. To make change. To understand not being overtly racist isn’t enough. Despite the overwhelming amount of information coming at us, it’s critical we engage. Trying to understand the ever-changing rules for opening after the virus is one thing, but now we’re battling two foes, COVID-19 and systemic racism.
As we set up the bowling pins again, but differently, I would like to throw something else in the mix. You’re likely familiar with “Museums are not neutral.” Created by Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry in 2017, it raced across social media as the catch phrase for individuals, museums and heritage organizations who understand their role as active, not passive, engaged not isolationist. So here’s my question: Does clinging to museum neutrality come from the same place as white people who declare they’re not racist? Don’t both ideas–the idea that a museum isn’t apolitical and the idea that without doing anything illegal or overt you can still engender and support racism–challenge our comfortable complacency, and our desire to stay motionless and opinion-less?
It’s always easier to say it’s not me, believing someone else will do the heavy lifting. You have a team to lead, a museum to run, an exhibit to design. Yet every single choice we make in service to the public is charged. From who sits around the board table, what the staff looks like, to our exhibit subjects, the ticket price, and how front-facing staff is trained, we choose. And those choices include and exclude, people, ideas, and possibilities. Isn’t choosing not to be a neutral museum a little like choosing to no longer be complacent in a racist society? Both choices ask us to understand how we got here. And both ask us to act.
So as you open the museum you closed three months ago, think about talking, listening, and learning.
LEARN: Know what you don’t know. Read, and then read some more. If you haven’t read James Baldwin since college, it’s time. And read what black women have to say. This week I read Dr. Porchia Moore’s post for Incluseum. It’s about mapmaking and we fragile white folk who can’t see the forest for the trees. I also read Rea McNamara’s “Why Your Museum’s BLM Statement Isn’t Enough,” and my colleague Carita Gardner’s piece on ways out of complicity. You’ll likely find pieces that speak to you, but don’t just read for a week or two. Make reading outside your bubble a practice.
LISTEN: Listening, as opposed to waiting to talk, means hearing what staff and colleagues say. Try to understand your staff’s experience with the museum field and with your organization may be different than yours. If your organization is located in a white, suburban neighborhood, your colleagues of color may pass through a series of gauntlets unknown to you just getting to work every day or going out on a lunchtime errand. You need to hear and understand those experiences around race precisely because they’re not yours.
TALK: Provide space and time for staff and colleagues to talk together. No, you’re not a therapist, but your staff needs to process what’s happened and be a party to opening a museum that’s different from the one you closed. A month ago that might have meant becoming an organization with a more robust virtual presence. Now we mean a museum that knows its own values, ready to be an active citizen. We mean a museum where staff of color feel free to challenge content because it’s inequitable, unfair or a narrative is missing. All of this means talking.
Change is hard, but this is long overdue. Social media is the low-hanging fruit of change. Systemic racism requires systemic change, and it’s individual change that creates organizational transformation. We’ve put this off for too long, and the 11-percent of Black museum colleagues are weary, angry, and beyond frustrated waiting for us to catch up. Let’s act now to create a museum world that’s more diverse, no longer has a gender pay gap (which adversely affects women of color), and where artists, scientists, and historians of color are equitably celebrated.
Liz Lawley from Rochester, NY – Rooster 3, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3769073
It’s been an emotional week. We can rail against social media’s pervasiveness all we want, but the video of George Floyd’s murder forced us to look and be present. Suddenly it’s no longer possible to believe things aren’t that bad. They are. So from our living rooms, online, in parks, highway overpasses, or courthouse squares, alone and together, we began the work of ending systemic racism. Floyd’s death is only the latest in a long line of crimes stretching back to Emmett Till and beyond. And for those of us who’ve been happily ensconced in our white, liberal bubbles, perhaps there is a connection between our complacency and the eight minutes and 45 seconds that ended Floyd’s life.
So where are museums in all of this? Some are entirely present and forces for good in their communities, but some seem to believe hashtags function as a value statements. They don’t. I live in the northeast within an easy drive of many museums and heritage sites. In an admittedly anecdotal survey I scrolled the websites of a dozen art, history and general museums within 50 miles of me. What was I looking for? First to see if any of last week’s events had made it to their webpages. Second, to see if any had a values statement. Why does that matter? Maybe the public wants something more right now? Maybe the world cares as much about how a museum acts as it does about its role as collections steward. A mission statement tells the public what you do; a vision statement spells out who you want to be, but a values statement tells your staff, your trustees, your volunteers and your community how your organization behaves. And it affirms the behavior your organization expects at your site.
So, what did I discover? Only one organization had a values statement front and center on its webpages. Five of the 12 had new statements regarding George Floyd’s murder, systemic racism, and their beliefs. The remaining sites were unchanged. I understand that altering an organizational webpage isn’t as easy as changing your socks, and that many organizations utilize Twitter and Instagram for instant communication, but I don’t understand the absence of values statements. In a world where people are unkind, domineering, rude, and sometimes unlawful in our workplaces and sites, how does it hurt to say up front, “This is who we are. This is how we behave, and this is how we expect and hope you will behave too.”
Is a values statement a panacea in connecting a white, privileged museum or heritage organization to its wider community? No. Would it help? Maybe. Crafting a values statement asks your organization to focus not only on mission, but on engagement. Maybe mission statements aren’t enough any more? Perhaps museums need to be good citizens as well as good stewards.
A lot of wiser folks than I have written about the ease and superficiality of responding to a national crisis with a hashtag. If you haven’t already, you should read Mike Murawski’s post from this week. In it, he quotes Madison Rose whose response to #BlackoutTuesday was clear, concise and powerful. The questions she poses would make excellent fodder for discussions surrounding the creation of values statements. You may also want to read Vu Le’s brilliant “Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the white moderate that Dr. King warned us about?” In his piece, Vu suggests too many nonprofits are governed by white moderates whose emotional, financial and civic investment in the middle of the road prevents action. (That moderate sensibility did not, I might add, prevent them from furloughing hundreds of women and staff of color during the opening weeks of the virus. The point being, when they want to act decisively, they can.)
If a collective values statement seems a better choice than the social media equivalent of “thoughts and prayers,” talk with your staff. If your organization sees itself as apolitical, what does that look like in action, and most importantly, what does it look like for someone in your community? Does being neutral mean in times of community crisis a museum or heritage organization’s role is essentially unchanged? Or is there a civic role for your museum? And if yes, what might that look like? If your organization already has an active community role, can it be enhanced? And how can museums gently and explicitly let visitors know their sites are places hallmarked by kindness?
If George Floyd’s death stands for anything, perhaps it should mark the moment we re-centered, demonstrating that black lives matter, and creating more humane, value-driven organizations and museum workplaces.
People can cry much easier than they can change. James Baldwin
At the best of times leadership is a journey over peaks and valleys. Now is not the best of times. As of May 20 each of the 50 states began the slow march, from closed to open, towards some sort of post-COVID normalcy. As a result, museums and heritage organizations are also opening their doors. And museum leaders, like leaders everywhere, begin the summer with a boatload of new problems as worries over social distancing, appropriate cleaning, reliable testing, and devastating financial loss overlay the normal organizational problems of visitation, capital improvements, programs, and staffing.
And into all of this, there’s the question of personal fear. On a given day, leaders and staff may struggle with their own issues surrounding failure, criticism or discrimination, but COVID-19 adds something new. After months of self-isolation, Zoom meetings, and the comfort of your home cocoon, returning to work may be scary. Yet as a leader, whether of a tiny heritage site or a large science or art museum, need to work through these new fears and move organizations forward because COVID-19 has a legitimacy our own personal demons lack. Having killed 100,000 plus, it’s a diabolical enemy, deadlier than our personal angst about clowns, airplanes, or speaking in public. So how do you move forward while keeping your anxieties in check?
- Trust your team: If ever there was a moment to learn leadership is about collaboration, this is it. Yes, you’re the leader, whether of the program, team or museum, but trust those working under you. Grant them the autonomy and authority to make decisions without running every bit of minutiae up the organizational ladder. Utilize the diversity and skill of your leadership group by having them create or expand teams to address major organizational problems in the post-COVID landscape.
- Protect your staff: They know your collection, care for and love your site, and hold its institutional history. Yet some may have coped with separation, illness, and death or huge financial loss. Acknowledge what they’ve gone through. Create a leadership group whose charge includes protecting staff as well as visitors, recognizing that some staff deal with the public daily while others not so much. Side note: If you ever wondered about creating an organizational values statement, now might be the moment to write one. Being transparent about organizational beliefs will support both staff and your wider community.
- Be as transparent as possible: Fear of the unknown is a real thing. If you name it, whether it’s the monster under the bed or the fear of cleaning public restrooms, it lessens its power. Communicate clearly. Let staff and visitors know what you don’t know, and also what you’re trying to do to ameliorate problems.
- Frame the questions: By asking big questions with the most elastic borders, you’ll get the most information. When team discussion drifts into the weeds, delegate someone to identify the minutiae and find the answers. Don’t waste the group’s time theorizing about things better left to those who do them every day.
- Reflect, and reflect again: Panic and fear makes us want to act quickly. While it’s hard to learn new organizational patterns in the midst of crisis, ask your museum leadership team for data as opposed to anecdotes. Then, reflect on what’s worked so far, and more importantly what didn’t. Hold each new piece of knowledge against the particularities of your museum or your site. Make decisive, but measured decisions.
Last, you’re probably as weary as I am of hearing that “we’re all in this together.” But like it or not, we are. And we’re all scared and anxious together too. And it’s not just the virus. Museums and heritage organizations will reopen not just in a post-virus world, but also on the eve of a national election in a country newly scarred by racist behavior. We must be empathetic individually and collectively, building community by offering space for reflection, discussion and understanding as we move forward. And last, but not least, if your team is onto a good thing, whether about fear or another COVID-19 issue, share it this week through the brilliant and virtual #museumsurvivalkit.