Recently I read an Emerging Museum Professionals posting. The writer had invested time and money in a graduate degree in Museum Studies. Covid blocked her path. Then her thesis was rejected. In the meantime, she’d found museum work. She asked whether she should finish the thesis or abandon her degree. Her respondents were divided on the answer, but everyone seemed to agree that investing in a degree is a big deal, and a lot of time and money to leave on the table. This post isn’t really about the need for graduate degrees–that’s another discussion.
It is about that golden moment when you find a field where everything seems right. Charmed by what lies ahead, you imagine yourself doing work that seems important and interesting. Then, grad school ends, and you are thrust into the world. If, like the EMP writer, you’re lucky enough to be hired or already have a museum position, soon your narrative is subtly different. You are no longer a solo traveler; instead, you are part of a larger organization whose needs and values are paramount. How do you know if you’re hitching your wagon to an organization whose values are similar to your own? How much do your own values matter? After all, they’re paying you to be a registrar or an educator or a curator, not wax philosophical about ethics, right?
But what happens when that same organization, the one that chose you out of all those applicants, does something that feels wrong, implicitly or tacitly, sweeping you up in behavior you can’t condone? In that honeymoon moment when you’re courted for the position you’ve always wanted and everyone is on their best behavior, it’s often hard to read a museum’s values. We live in a fractious, divided society where everything from race to faith to medicine to climate change pushes friends and colleagues apart in a heartbeat. Did you ask the right questions? Were there red flags you missed?
If you’re involved in the museum world at any level, you’re likely aware of the Montpelier Controversy. In brief, Montpelier, President James Madison’s 2,600-acre Virginia estate, once home to an enslaved population of 300, spent most of its years with an all-white board. In 2021, Montpelier announced its board would share governance with representatives from Montpelier’s Descendants Committee. All seemed well until earlier this year when the overwhelmingly White board amended its bylaws, seemingly refusing to recognize or collaborate with the Descendants Committee. Subsequently the CEO and the Board fired five full-time staff who supported the merger. When I started this piece, 11,000 people had signed a petition asking Montpelier to seat new Descendants Committee board members immediately. More recently, after being openly chastised by the National Trust, the Board, Montpelier’s Board voted to approve a slate of candidates put forward by the Descendants Committee.
Montpelier is a dramatic example of a heritage organization off the ethical rails, and the Montpelier Five are undoubtedly the poster children for a values/museum workplace clash. After all, getting fired for your beliefs certainly takes the uncertainty of whether to stay at a job that seems to compromise your north star. But what if your experience is less dramatic, but challenging nonetheless? In a field where jobs are hard won, few are privileged enough to pack it in over a values clash. And yet….where do you draw the line between your personal values and the organization’s?
- Start by acknowledging that all of us have different values.
- If you haven’t already, consider your organization’s history. How did it get to be the place it is? Where are its values most evident? To do this, you may want to look at Aletheia Whitman’s Institutional Genealogy pdf.
- Is what you’re struggling with a value conflict or a personal conflict? Admittedly the two can overlap, but fixing them means untangling one from the other. Don’t go to leadership with a value conflict only to rant about how you’re being bullied. Being bullied is wrong, and creates a horrific work climate, but it’s not a value conflict.
- Take baby steps: Try and suss out how the the behavior that is bothering you came to be. Was this an on-the-fly decision or the product of weeks of discussion?
- Are you alone or one of many? There is a value in numbers if you plan to approach leadership about a values issue.
- Is it one issue or is it the organizational culture?
- Pause and consider what you believe and how far you’re willing to go. Ultimatums lead to ultimatums.
- Think deeply about where the line in the sand is for you. Are you willing to walk away?
- You can’t know ’til you know: Discuss your concerns with museum leadership.
- If leadership won’t or can’t hear you, does your workplace have employee support for whistle blower complaints or concerns?
Many museums and heritage organizations have emerged from the last three years better organizations. They’ve become partners rather than pontificators, empathetic rather than my-way-or-the highway, collaborators in understanding who we are in the today’s world. Change isn’t easy though even at the most woke organizations. Part of your due diligence during the hiring process is to try to suss out your organization’s ability to grow and change. Does it match your own? If you move at a different pace, are you willing to be an outlier, a Joan of Arc? Not all of us are willing or able to try and lead an organization out of a values morass. What are you willing to sacrifice?
Be well. See you in June.
If you saw any social media last week, you’re aware that recently more than a few museum directors left their positions. It’s a disturbing trend, and while tempting to blame on COVID, as if life minus the pandemic was ducky, we know that’s not true. COVID threw open a Pandora’s box of problems, but the seeds were sown a decade or more ago. With that in mind, how long can the field move forward, without acknowledging what’s going on backstage in museum offices? How much lipstick can the museum pig wear?
Change threatens the weakest points, and sadly, museum leadership and governance has been wobbly for a while. Why? There are a number of reasons, but before going there, let’s acknowledge how COVID makes each of us vulnerable individually and personally, leading to a nationwide level of workplace stress. Nothing is as we knew it. Many jobs were lost. Many were sick, and more than 600,000 lost their lives, meaning at least twice that number come to work grief-stricken. Childcare was affected, and now with the Delta Variant, parents need to calibrate risk on a daily basis, balancing children’s need for school, over the risk of exposure. My point is only as the museum workplace reaches a boiling point, we would do well to remember that for the last 20 months nobody’s had their eye on the proverbial ball.
But back to the other epidemic: the one where museum directors walk out the door. Let’s start at the top. Not for the first time in these pages I’m going to suggest that along with COVID there is an epic level of poor governance at the board level. Don’t believe me? Spend an hour on Instagram reading @changetheboard or on Facebook looking at Your Thriving Nonprofit, and you’ll see what I mean. Differing state regulations governing nonprofits, a general lack of understanding regarding what nonprofits do, combined with an epic level of misunderstanding about a board’s role, as well as poor board onboarding, leaving us with board members who see their roles, not as something for the collective and organizational good, but as an opportunity to behave tyrannically. So instead of partnering with their board in running an organization, museum leaders with wayward boards spend too much time in training and education. Who looses? Museum staff and their communities.
Next up poor training and preparation for leaders. Again, if this is something you don’t believe, take a gander at @changethemuseum or @changeberkshireculture or read Dana Kopel’s excellent Unionizing the New Museum a sick-making tour through the New Museum’s reluctant journey to unionization. This blog is dedicated to the idea that leadership is a thing unto itself, not a reward for dedicated service; nor is it the payoff for doing well in your original museum job. Leadership doesn’t depend on content knowledge and scholarship the way a curator’s role may, but instead flourishes with “soft skills,” that are now the hard skills, meaning museum leaders must be good communicators, people who are empathetic, courageous, and visionary.
Then there’s the money challenge. I work on the outskirts of the museum field, but my organization’s strong endowment means I don’t worry about our big dreams. But I’m not the point. Too many in museum and heritage organization staff work hard just to keep organizations afloat, much less to implement their wishlists. It’s why museum leaders need courage, vision, and the communication skills to persuade community leaders whether they are fancy one-percenters or small city business people that what they do is for everyone, and most importantly why it’s for everyone.
Last, and by no means least, is the museum world’s long history of systemic gender, class, and race issues. We have a lousy pay structure built around issues of race and gender, forcing too many women and women of color to tread water professionally. Beyond the HR issues, our institutions are riddled with systemic racism in ways the overwhelmingly white staffs aren’t doing the work to acknowledge. You can’t become the activist museum Mike Murawski talks about unless staff and community collaborate so the barriers come down. Diversifying staff is not the whole answer. There is parallel work to do on the part of the we’ve–always–done–it–that–way staff and leadership.
So what’s the answer? Some thoughts….
- Making sure leadership training is something all museum leaders have access to either as part of graduate school, later or both.
- Making sure board members understand their roles. As lame as some of the sexual harassment online training is, it does spell out the legal landscape. Maybe board members need a 20-minute online class they must pass before signing on?
- By building museums that are value driven.
- By believing that museums are really for people. And what do people need? Love, caring, kindness, museums that are humane, human-centered, and empathetic.
- Working toward museums and heritage organizations that don’t exploit the dedication many emerging professionals give to the field.
- Recognizing wellness as a thing, and burnout not as a term, but a condition. Non-profit does not mean museum employees should toil in some 21st-century imitation of a 19th-century mill.
- Last, if you want something hopeful to read, take a look at this, first Tweeted by the inimitable Linda Norris. Working for Trevor White sounds like it might be a little bit of alright.
Be well and be kind.
Last week I spoke with a young woman. She contacted me because she was dealing with a situation of sexual harassment at work, and she didn’t know what to do. What she recounted was an all-too familiar scenario of a female museum employee being harassed by an older, wealthy, white man. This man does not work for her museum, but his wealth makes him important. He has donated before, and her museum anticipates he may again, so her organization wants him treated with kid gloves. Her team leaders, her director, and even HR, asked her to look the other way, to essentially take one for the team. In the meantime, she is supposed to come to work, do her job, do it well, all while waiting for this individual to appear on Zoom as part of a public program, to send her notes at work, and otherwise insert himself in her life in a predatory, sleazy and unwelcome way.
I have no doubt that at some point this young woman will leave her job because her museum has made it clear this individual’s money and his giving potential are worth more than her well being. I hope she doesn’t leave the field, but I wouldn’t blame her if she did. Would you stay if your museum tacitly asked you to prostitute yourself in exchange for a gift? And not even an actual gift, for the potential of a gift. And most damning of all? The director of her museum, and her direct reports are women. There is a sense that the power of the sisterhood should prevail, but perhaps access to money and power trumps empathy and understanding. And please don’t say it’s not like that. It IS like that, and most importantly, that’s what it feels like to be her right now, and no employee in a museum or anywhere else should feel they need to compromise their values and their selfhood to do their job.
I wish this were the first time I had heard this story, but it’s not. When Anne Ackerson and I completed the manuscript for Women in the Museum, we began speaking about women’s issues in the museum workplace at national and regional meetings. In fairness, #MeToo and Ronan Farrow were still a year away. At the time, though, we heard stories of the proverbial board member who sat next to the young, female director at meetings so he could touch her, and none of his fellow board members interfered. We heard about a wealthy male donor who coupled his predatory attitude with racist remarks to a young BIPOC employee. When she looked to her direct reports for support, it was the same story. He was too important to chastise. And we heard about a young woman working in advancement who was told explicitly by her bosses to dress a certain way when she visited older, male donors. We heard about BIPOC staff asked to trade sex for a better position, and about a newly-professional employee cyber-stalked by trustees.
Many of you reading this are horrified, and rightly so. Some of you may say, well, that’s not my institution. Maybe, but do your employees know where to go and how to navigate claims of sexual harassment? Some of you may feel we’re past all that, suggesting the issues we are dealing with today are issues of systemic racism. True, but it’s systemic racism mixed with power and hierarchy, and the thing about many of these incidents is they aren’t about attraction between equals. They depend on one party using power and fear to coerce and intimidate the other. Two things to remember: gender harassment isn’t like a childhood disease society had once and got over. It’s always there. And second, for women of color, it’s another layer of insult. So where are you in all of this? What would you do if your museum had to decline a substantial gift because accepting it meant putting staff at risk?
Many of the museums that end up in the news because of racist or sexist behavior get there because at the center, at their very core, there’s no sense of what they believe in. I’m not talking about mission. If you’re going to ask for money, either public or private, you better be able to express what it is you do for the public and why, but funders don’t ask about organizational values. They don’t ask what happens if a young BIPOC staff on the front lines of a heritage organization is berated by a visitor. They don’t ask what happens if a young shop assistant is on the receiving end of inappropriate comments or if a curator is asked about her social life by a much older donor. They don’t ask about the behavior your museum won’t tolerate on its campus, and how you handle visitor, donor or staff behavior that collides with your organizational conscience. In short, they don’t ask about the way your museum moves in the world. Because twinned with your core mission is a sense of values–for some museums it’s written, for a few it’s made public–that makes it clear that on your site, within your buildings, your staff is safe, seen, and supported.
If you Google “museum values statement” mostly what you get is a few blogs–not this one, although I’ve written about this before–and examples of how museums are valuable to their communities. That’s fine, but museums and heritage organizations are communities of people working for the same goals. Shouldn’t they stand behind the same core of beliefs for 40+ hours a week? Will that stop a 60-something man who feels it’s his prerogative to sexually harass young staff members? No,but organizationally, will it give you something to stand behind when you tell them to stop.
For all museum employees who suffer because coming to work places you in the harassment crosshairs, take care of yourself first. Make sure you have support, from family, friends and a counselor to unpack what’s happening. Once again, if you are the victim of workplace sexual harassment, know the law:
- Federal law covers workplaces with more than 15 employees. For workplaces with fewer than 15 employees, state law applies.
If sexual harassment is an ongoing problem at your museum or heritage organization, join Gender Equity in Museums Movement and the 620 folks who’ve signed the pledge. Think how differently the story that begins this post might be if the young woman’s colleagues had signed the pledge. Sexual harassment is intersectional. Working to eliminate it from your museum or heritage organization stops power from being used as a weapon or to quote LaTanya Autry “Normal is broken; normal is oppressive; normal hurts.”
Stay well and stay safe,
MB-one – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76476300
Museums have reached a crisis point. Directors continue to lose their positions. Many front line staff are gone, perhaps forever. Staff have been underpaid, threatened, harassed, and bullied. As a result, some have unionized. ‘Midst it all is a growing movement calling for dismantling museums as we know them. No more directors, new types of funding models, and most importantly an end to museum boards. So this week Leadership Matters writes to board members to say it’s time to step up, lean in and get busy.
Dear Museum Board Members,
It’s wrong to generalize and group board members from the United States’ 35,144 museums together, but truthfully, whether you govern a gigantic museum like the Metropolitan or a tiny historical society, you do the same thing. While there are differences in scale between being a New York City museum board member and serving on a board in a rural town, you are likely the important, wealthy folk in your particular community. But service is probably the operative word here. Just like the director and the staff, board members serve the institution, and this week, this month, is the moment for you to raise your voices. Museums need you. Your museum needs you.
You may have joined the board because a friend asked or because you have an interest in the museum or heritage organization’s subject, but once you’re a member, your obligation is to its health and safety. You may see the board as primarily responsible for protecting the museum’s assets, but it’s bigger than that. Collectively you understand the museum’s DNA, its values and its culture. You set its tone, hire its director, and know the community it serves.
So what have you done while the museum world rocks and rolls its way across such a choppy sea? How has the COVID belt-tightening affected your bottom line? Has your museum laid off staff? Has that affected staff diversity? Has it affected programming? And what has your museum done for its community during the pandemic? Do you have a community garden? A homework help program? Offer space for the food bank? Since George Floyd’s death has your board met to talk about racism and bias in your museum? Is that something that is important to your museum and to your community? Statistics tell us that 84-percent of American board members are white, male and over 55. That doesn’t make you bad people, but it might make discussing racism challenging. Can you find someone to help your board talk about that?
Perhaps you know all this? Perhaps you’ve been absurdly busy since March 15. But if not, here are five things to ponder as you steer your museum into the future:
- Lead a Value-Driven Organization: Hardly a week goes by without a museum being called out for bad behavior. Directors behave like dictators, curators harass staff, institutions have non-existent HR departments or personnel policies, and board members express surprise when people retaliate. Staff join unions because they are weary of inequitable pay. They sue because they’re tired of going to work–work they love–to be bullied and harassed. If none of these things have happened on your watch, congratulations, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune. Ask yourself what you’ve done this week, this month, this year to create a value-driven organization. Does your museum have a values statement? Does it have a personnel policy? Does your staff feel safe, seen, and supported? Even if you don’t believe that’s your job, surely it is your job to protect the organization’s reputation and its assets by keeping it out of the press and the courts? Governance that’s value driven will never take you down the wrong path.
- Take Responsibility and Apologize if Necessary: AAM tells us people trust museums, that the public considers them more reliable than books, teachers or family narratives. And yet, organizations are only people, and sometimes people mess up. Whether you deaccessioned in a clumsy way and insulted your community, whether you’ve bumbled along in a genteelly racist way insulting members of your community, whether you failed to listen to whistle blowers and permitted inappropriate or illegal behavior, sometimes the board, speaking for the museum, must apologize. It’s what adults do. So when and if you need to apologize, don’t hide. Say you’re sorry and for the love of God, change the behavior that led to the incident in the first place.
- Know Your Museum’s Staff: You may have joined the board because of your love of the museum’s subject matter, your interest in history, science or anthropology, and that’s important. But make no mistake, it’s your museum’s staff that is the organization’s life-blood. Without them, all of them, the museum is a giant warehouse. When was the last time you spoke to your museum staff? Not the fancy curators who care for your favorite collections, but the front-facing staff. Years ago, at my organization we had a trustee who always chatted with us. He was a person with a famous name, and a distinguished career, who spoke multiple languages, but he engaged. Often a week or more after the board was on site, those of us who talked to him would receive a postcard telling us how much he’d enjoyed the conversation. Speaking for myself, it made me feel seen, and acknowledged for the work I do. As we weather this storm of a pandemic, recession and social and political upheaval, it is imperative that you realize your decision making affects people, not just the rise and fall of the endowment.
- Take BIPOC and Gender Issues Seriously: If you’re a white man or woman of privilege, you may think a lot of what you hear about race and gender is more whining than reality. Before you dismiss it, talk to your museum staff. Talk to the guards. Talk to the folks who clean your restrooms or transport art work or greet visitors and ask about their experiences. Listen to what they say. Women, women who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and BIPOC museum folk in general, aren’t delusional. Their lives really are different than those of us who are white and privileged, because they are hallmarked by a level of racist and sexist behavior that would astound you. Does your organization protect its female-identifying and BIPOC staff? Do you know? If you don’t, you need to find out. If they have no way to report racist or sexist behavior, your organization is heading for a cliff.
- Leadership Matters: We have said this so many times on these pages, but it really matters who leads your organization. Hiring a director isn’t a task to be handed off to a search firm. It’s not a task to rush through. It’s a learning experience for you and your fellow board members. So much depends on the person you hire. They are the bridge from you to the staff and from the organization to the wider world. Their values have to match yours. Collectively you must respect them, and they you. Just like the board, they must also be a value-driven individual who believes in people, listens with empathy, who has vision, courage and discipline. And that’s on a good day without a pandemic and recession. And remember, a good fit is a good fit. Experience isn’t a panacea. Plenty of people have been in the museum field a long time, and yet they’re terrible leaders. If you find the qualities you need in someone young, don’t let that deter you. Talk about how you might invest in that person through training, mentoring, and leadership development, and hire them.
Museums matter. Your service to museums matters. You can’t be the best board member if you don’t recognize, acknowledge and plan for the myriad changes happening in the museum world. Being part of a small organization doesn’t give you permission to do a mediocre job. Do your best. Support your staff. Make your museum a humane institution. Make it known in your community as a compassionate, creative player.
Kudos and a round of applause go to organizers June Ahn, Rose Cannon, Emma Turner-Trujillo. As someone who’s been an observer and a participant in the museum workplace for a long time, this conference was one of the most thought-provoking I’ve attended. Twenty four hours later, while on my morning walk, I was still ruminating on many of the conversations from the day before. And isn’t that what a good conference should do?
The day opened with a talk by Dr. Porchia Moore. She defined this moment as a point of crisis, a moment of shared trauma, especially for BIPOC museum staff, and she pointed out that the constant harping on “when we can return to normal,” is yet another slap in the face to so many, since “normal” for museums meant a racist, patriarchal, poorly paid, gendered workplace.
As an older, cisgendered white woman, I can’t disagree. There’s no doubt we’ve failed. It’s as if we’ve taken each object, each historic site, each painting, and told half its story. That silk wedding dress, worn by the wealthy landowner’s bride had a story before the wedding itself. Who tended the silk worms, who sacrificed to make the fabric, who shipped the fabric, who made each tiny stitch, who made sure it was spotless, not wrinkled or stained? And who was threatened and harmed if it was? For every object there is a dominant narrative and an untold narrative. If you’re white it’s too easy to revert to the dominant. It’s what we’ve always done, while making some audiences comfortable and disenfranchising others. Clearly to give our collections their full due, we must showcase their interwoven context, giving many narratives an equal chance to be heard.
I am less sure how Death to Museums or perhaps its aftermath, applies to museum leadership. Not because I don’t believe museum leadership needs an overhaul. It does. When Anne Ackerson and I wrote Leadership Matters in 2012 and its revision in 2019, we saw museum leadership clinging to mediocrity as a place of safety. No where is that more evident than in the thousands of mission statements telling the world museums preserve and protect collections. Cryogenic preservation facilities do the same thing, and they don’t pretend to be half as important as museums.
And there is no doubt museum leadership has made a world of bad choices regarding its workforce. Many of those choices–poor pay, anti-union, the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, no HR departments, workplace bullying and other forms of inhumane behavior–have made the news recently, and many are documented and discussed in blog posts here.
But let’s imagine, it’s a new day. Gone are today’s museum boards, peopled with wealthy white men over 55, intermingled with the occasional, acceptable BIPOC. Their annual gifts are gone too as are their connections to wealth managers. So where will the money come from? Will museums follow a European model and be mostly government funded? What does that look like? Are our current federal museum workers happy at work? Is there racism, genteel or otherwise, at the Smithsonian or in the National Park Service? What does it mean to take the King’s shilling? Would museums be subject to the four or eight year cycle of political change that comes with elections? And on a more local level, how will museums run without boards or without a single leader whose role is, at some level, to be the decider?
Maybe I’m naive, but after a lifetime of working with and for, a variety of humans, it matters less to me what an organization’s structure is and much more what kind of people are in charge. Working in a museum ,where decisions are made by a group as opposed to an individual, is no guarantee of a humane, equitable workplace. In other words, to me it’s not the structure as much as it is the people in power.
Good leaders are good leaders whether they govern in groups or alone. I believe at the heart of good leadership is a strong sense of personal values, and an equitable, empathetic understanding and respect for staff, from the ones furthest from the seat of power to the ones closest to it. Any organization without that is an organization headed for peril.
Some museums–albeit not many–used the pandemic to reformulate. Yes, they had to let workers go, but they used the pause to reorganize, bringing workers back to more equitable wages, clear job descriptions and better-written HR policies. Anne Ackerson and I concluded each volume of Leadership Matters with a Leadership Revolution Agenda. Here’s my amended and abbreviated agenda for 2021 and beyond:
Leadership Revolution Agenda
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. If you’re white, recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down.
- Know what you don’t know. Pledge to recognize and fight against your own biases.
- Develop your own leadership practice.
- Figure out if you are an active listener. If not, learn.
- Practice self-care.
- Assist with or take responsibility for leadership training and development activities for your team, your department, your volunteers, or if you’re the lone professional, for yourself.
- Stand up for your colleagues when they become targets. Be a voice for the voiceless. Be an ally and an accomplice.
- Speak up for the counter-narrative whenever it’s absent.
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. Recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down. Apologize and own your organization’s past behavior.
- Acknowledge the importance of all your staff. Pledge to make yours a human-centered museum.
- Build something new. Complete an equity wage review. Pledge to resolve issues of wage imbalance based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
- Give staff a voice. Create space, virtual or otherwise, where staff can bring issues of inequity to the fore without fear of punishment. Pledge to listen and make change.
- Insist upon institutional support of the emerging leader and lone professional, and the diversification of governing boards.
- Don’t maintain the status quo; instead make a difference.
Use this moment and make change.
I want to conclude by honoring and thanking again this weekend’s speakers. They are the future and as complex as it’s clearly going to be, they are a courageous and awe-inspiring group.
Congressman John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer Friday. There aren’t many Congresspeople whose impact on the museum world is measurable. Lewis is one. He was a tireless advocate for the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture [NMAACH], working closely with Lonnie Bunch III, now Secretary of the Smithsonian, who writes “He was involved spiritually and strategically in almost all aspects of the museum.”
NMAAHC makes all of us proud to be in this field. It highlights the gaps and biases in the way American history is taught, told and understood, asking those of us who are white to open our hearts and minds to what we’ve failed to learn and understand, and it celebrates a culture and history long neglected. But apart from all of that is Lewis’ courage. Whether you were his constituent or not, whether you knew who he was or not, he stood up for justice and equality, advocating for the voiceless. There are those who are a steady force, advocating when the rest of us don’t have the courage, speaking out when most don’t think it’s their business. John Lewis was one of those people.
It’s way above my pay grade to think about who AASLH or AAM might honor in the coming year, but if ever there were an individual who deserved a national museum award in his name, it’s John Lewis. Not just for his work with NMAAHC, but because of his courage to speak up. Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of speaking up in the museum field at all. Ever. In fact, 25 or 30 years ago, the young were counseled to let things go, to look the other way so as not to “ruin their careers.” (I was one of those young people.) Their job wasn’t to ruffle feathers. Their job, wherever they were on the museum food chain, was to accept what powerful and monied board members wanted, and make it happen. These days, it feels as though that long period of acceptance, obeisance, and failure to act might be coming to a close. So what better time to honor courage in our field, then to name an award after the person who said, “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.”?
There is so much that’s not right in our field at the moment. A workforce that’s overwhelmingly white, without recognizing it perpetuates not just the symbolism, but the hierarchy of a job sector mired in the previous century; board members who haven’t sorted out that board membership isn’t about privilege but service; a field crippled by poor pay coupled with a monstrous gender pay gap; and leaders who mistake their office as an opportunity to lead badly, while bullying, harassing and failing to act in the face of ethics breaches.
Museums do a lot of good in the world. They are trusted. They are places people want to be. But they can no longer be the beautiful place with the important stuff sitting on the sidelines. They can’t be neutral, and neither can their staffs. What better way to acknowledge this change than by honoring Congressman John Lewis, and those in our field working for the voiceless, whether in their communities or in their own workplaces? Who knows whether an award like this would ever happen. Like I said, it’s way above my pay grade, but in the meantime, we should all be our own John Lewis, speaking up, and standing up, so when our children ask what did you do and what did you say, we’ll have an answer.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about gender and the museum world, and as we enter week nine of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about:
First, if you think sexual harassment in the museum world is over, because everyone’s working from home or furloughed, it isn’t.
We’re undoubtedly looking towards a post-COVID future where job competition will be furious. Anxiety never brings out the best in people, and stringent budgets combined with a tight job market does not lend itself toward a humane workplace. Just last week Art News reported on sexism and racism allegations at the Akron Museum of Art. The article, which suggests the museum’s Executive Director Mark Masuoka and another senior administrator, Jennifer Shipman, were responsible for allowing an atmosphere of discrimination to flourish. And remember the news at the Erie Museum of Art when the board realized who it had hired? That was only four months ago. The good news is that in both cases it was the boards, not museum leadership, who seem to appreciate the dire consequences of a troubled workplace. For Akron, there are allegations that management used the pandemic to eliminate whistleblower employees who had previously complained about sexual harassment. People who are threatened will deflect any way they can, using the it’s–not–me–it’s–the–pandemic excuse. But workplaces that were humane before COVID-19 will remain humane. Those that weren’t are likely to be challenging places to work especially if you’re a woman. Side note: Without wading into the politics of Tara Reid’s complaint against presidential candidate Joe Biden, there is a lesson in her narrative for all women in today’s workplace. If you are sexually harassed at work or even if something unsettling happens to you, write it down. In pen, on paper, with dates for each and every incident, the old fashioned way. You may not be ready to talk, you may not have processed what’s happened to you, but get your thoughts down in the moment, and put them in a safe place.
Second, there is no doubt this pandemic hit women harder than men.
Economists quipped that the 2008 Recession was a Mancession because some 70-percent of job losses happened to men. This time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit women hard. In fact, women haven’t experienced a double-digit unemployment rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began reporting job loss by gender in the 1940s. April’s rates for women were 16.2-percent. We can’t say what the job loss is for museum women because curiously of all the folks reporting, from AAM to the regional service agencies, no one seems to be collecting data based on gender. What does that tell you?
We do know two things, however: First, much as we’d like to think the museum workplace is different from regular offices filled with cubicles and Steve Carell-like characters, it’s not. So if the national data tells us women working in the hospitality and recreation industries are the worst hit, it’s likely museum women are too. In addition, we know that 40-percent of households earning less than $40,000 experienced at least one job loss in March. The BLS tells us museum employees have a median salary of $48,000, so how do you think museum women fared? In addition, it’s women who shoulder the brunt of child or elder care, home schooling and many home chores. According to a recent survey by Syndio, 14-percent of women thought about quitting their jobs in the last two months simply to relieve the pressure of being teacher, day care coordinator, working person, and household manager.
Last, what did the pandemic teach us, and what could we possibly change as we try to ready museums and heritage organizations to open in a socially-distanced world with a vicious virus lurking in the background?
First, we know that pre-COVID-19, women made up 50.1-percent of all museum workers. We also know that in the museum world’s highly pink-collar employment, men and women cluster on gendered lines, with women filling education departments, while men are more often grouped in exhibit design, leadership, and plant operations. And we know the same problems that plague the national employment market, bedevil the museum world: There is a gender pay gap; health insurance–if it’s offered–is tied to employment; childcare is ridiculously expensive; many employees do not receive paid sick leave; and many women (and some men) would benefit by more flexible hours to accommodate family responsibilities.
So, as you restart your organizational engines, here are some things to remember about women returning to your workplace:
- Working from home doesn’t have to be confined to pandemics. Within your organizational culture, how can virtual work be structured so employees working from home still feel connected to your organization? How about flextime? Often women are responsible for getting a family–children or elders–ready to begin the day. Breakfasts, lunch to go, dressing and commuting to school, daycare or appointments take time. Would it help women (or primary parents) in your organization to begin and end the work day at times that support their schedule while still providing the organization with the agreed upon time?
- Women are paid less. You don’t have to believe me. Read AAUW and the Center for American Progress. Isn’t it time your organization did an equity pay audit, and raised women’s salaries?
- How many organizations let frontline staff go during the virus because within the organizational culture they have one skill set? Can you change your museum culture so that all hourly staff are cross trained? How would things look if hourly staff had a primary task, say, elementary school tours, coupled with a secondary task working elsewhere, not just in emergencies, but always?
- Daycare is frighteningly expensive. According to the Center for American Progress, the average cost of infant daycare in the United States averages $1,230/month, and for a preschool child, $800/month. What are the demographics of your staff? Are many of them parents? When you hear griping about salaries remember some of them may shoulder childcare costs equal to a mortgage. In an ideal world, large museums would have their own daycares. Failing that, would your museum consider a partnership with a local day care? Your education department provides an agreed upon amount of programming, and your staff get a discount.
- One thing the pandemic has taught us: viruses spread and sick people should stay home. Staff without paid time off are either forced to take unpaid leave or to come to work sick. Even before COVID-19, illnesses at work affect large numbers of staff. According to Kaiser Health News, “The lower likelihood of paid sick leave for part-time workers has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely than men to hold part-time jobs…… Nine in ten (91%) workers in financial activities have paid sick leave, compared to less than half of workers in leisure and hospitality (48%) and accommodation and food services (45%).” The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers with less than 500 staff to provide two weeks paid leave for sick employees, and two-thirds regular pay for those caring for someone who’s sick. If you don’t already offer paid time off, is that something you can institute?
Environmentalist Bill McKibben says the dumbest thing we can do post-COVID is to set up the bowling pins in exactly the same way. How will you make change in your workforce, and how will it support 50.1-percent of your staff?
Stay well and stay safe,
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employed persons by detailed industry, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. 2019. bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm. Accessed May 18, 2020.
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
What a week it has been. A pandemic, a stock market dive, a national state of emergency, and oh yes, a presidential primary. As we look ahead, many of us find our normal work world contracting. Conferences have been cancelled. Face-to-face meetings postponed. We’re trading office hours for work from home, conducting meetings via Zoom, and keeping our distance when out and about in the world.
As grim and scary as the news has been, in many ways, this situation is what leadership is all about. A crisis forces you to examine your organization from 37,000 feet. Like a chess player, you realize moving one way makes this happen, moving another initiates a different set of circumstances. And you make choices. With your team, you figure out how to proceed while being the best museum or heritage site you can. No one wants a national emergency, but if you ever needed to understand why leadership is a daily practice, not a goal, this is it. And if you’re prepared, your organization will echo your behavior.
One of the things that comes to the fore in a crisis, is how your team thinks. You’re probably aware who among your colleagues is a big-picture thinker and who quickly wallows in details. Use those skills. Everyone likes to succeed, and if you play to people’s strengths, you’ll get better, faster results.
Through it all, remember your staff. Your whole staff, not just the leadership team. As far as I know collections can’t catch COVID-19. People can. This is the moment to be the leader who acted humanely, the person who advocated for paid time off for hourly staff who may not have any, the person willing to adjust HR’s policy on telecommuting rather than assuming it just leads to colleagues watching Netflix in their bathrobes. This is the time to re-write the rules particularly if it protects the very staff who serve the organization. So protect your people by putting their health first.
About a month ago, before the world turned upside down, Caroline Baumann, then director of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum abruptly resigned. Baumann’s resignation was sudden, arriving with absolutely no information. A week later, there was more context. She was outed ostensibly by a whistleblower and charged with conflict of interest around the circumstances of her 2018 wedding. First, the Smithsonian suggested Baumann’s dress, from designer Samantha Sleeper, which retailed for $3,000 cost Baumann $750. Getting a special occasion dress at a bargain price isn’t an ethical breach, but the Smithsonian and the whistleblower accused Baumann of providing Sleeper with a free ticket to a Cooper Hewitt event. In addition, it was suggested that the location of Baumann’s wedding ceremony (not the reception) was also a quid pro quo as she received it for free from a Long Island non-profit and then subsequently offered them meeting space for their board meeting.
There are a few leadership lessons here. The first is if you’re a director it isn’t just conflict you need to be mindful of, but also the appearance of conflict. Second, as important as it is to have whistleblowers, they too can be flawed individuals, and looking for conflict is easier if you’re already angry at your museum. I’m not suggesting this particular whistleblower was disgruntled, but it’s one more thing leaders need to bear in mind, and if there is no appearance of conflict, there’s no way a whistleblower can misuse the process. Next is the lesson that no matter what role you play as museum director–whether it’s a city the size of Manhattan or a small town–there needs to be a firewall between your personal life and your work life. Baumann claims the Cooper Hewitt’s PR consultant encouraged her to “shed light on her personal life.” This resulted in the Cooper Hewitt highlighting Baumann’s wedding.
The last, and for me the most interesting, is the glaze of gender politics over Baumann’s resignation. The Cooper Hewitt lost six trustees who resigned in anger, a boatload of money from each of them, and a 19-year employee who had risen to be director, and who outwardly had done an exemplary job. The failed novelist in me has tried again and again to imagine this scenario happening to a man. It’s not impossible, but it is unlikely.
Is it possible that while the Smithsonian followed its necessary protocols, its investigation wasn’t without bias? Was there implicit bias on the part of the investigators and the inspector general leading to a less than nuanced outcome? It’s likely we’ll never know. What we do know is women leaders walk a different path than their male counterparts. As Kaywin Feldman concluded in her 2016 AAM keynote: “Our society will not benefit from the leadership of female museum directors, across all types of museums, of all sizes, until museum boards are more cognizant of their internal biases, and tendency to dismiss female leadership styles.”
Image: Anchorage Daily News
Museum leaders and unions are an oil and water combination. Unions and museum boards even more so. When the Guggenheim staff began its negotiations with the International Union of Operating Engineers in 2019 its director, Richard Armstrong, reportedly wrote, “I do not want to work with a third party who has very limited experience in the museum field, and whose membership is largely in the heating and air-conditioning and construction industries.” An unfortunate sentence, encapsulating snobbery, the wealth gap, and the rarified view from the museum bubble in just 32 words.
According to Bloomberg Law, there were 40 museums with union staff in 2019. Many union members work at urban organizations where a ridiculously high cost of living and ridiculously low hourly wage create a perfect storm of dissatisfaction. If you combine the museum world’s insistence that the job sector’s ticket for admission is a costly master’s degree with the field’s emphasis on a more diverse workforce, it’s clear what a house of cards we’ve built. In the ongoing union/not-union debate we all owe Art +Museum Transparency thanks for saying the emperor has no clothes. They brought you the Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency 2019 spread sheet (that, BTW, sparked other nonprofit industries to follow suit and was prompted by Kimberly Drew’s talk 2019 AAM talk ), and can be counted on to use their social media platform to decry poor pay and poor treatment of museum workers.
If you’re a museum leader, what scares you about unions? Is it the thought of actually having to discuss hourly compensation with a union negotiator, someone who talks salaries and benefits for a living? Is there a secret part of you, like the Guggenheim’s Armstrong, who believes union reps can’t possibly understand museum culture? Are you afraid to stand up for frontline staff with your board? Or do you believe you don’t need to pay your frontline workers because somehow there will always be a ready supply of retiree volunteers and desperate interns, willing to move through your galleries being knowledgable for the price of a few volunteer events or a great recommendation?
If you lead a museum, and the thought of unionization makes you anxious, consider what it’s like to earn a master’s degree and make $15 an hour. Please do not say we all have to start somewhere. We do, but in some of America’s biggest cities, cost of living long ago outstripped minimum wage. And does your museum or heritage site have a gender — or a racial — wage gap? If yes, what have you done to help close it? Unionization isn’t Nirvana, but according to the AFL-CIO its women members have a smaller gap than non-members, and the union itself is campaigning for #Paycheck Fairness Act. We are still waiting for the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2019, but last year the field was 49.5-percent women. Isn’t this the moment to take the pay equity seriously?
As a museum leader, how often do you meet with your hourly staff? And how transparent are you and your board about their wages and benefits? If you don’t want to bargain with a union, work toward creating a humane workplace with the understanding that an organizational culture predicated on secrecy around such corporate keystones as compensation ultimately affects wage growth and morale. Put together a compensation committee where exempt and non-exempt staff from across your museum or heritage organization meet with board members on a regular basis. Help everyone know what they don’t know. Help staff and board members understand what equity means, what your organization can afford, and what might happen elsewhere in the budget if the wage gap were fixed. And know by doing so, you’ll face hard conversations, as Susan Dominus writes in her New York Times article, “Breaking the Salary Sharing Taboo”:
Open discussions of pay lay bare some of the basic contradictions that govern so many workplaces, which claim to embrace their workers like family while insisting, all the while, on professionalism and discretion. They are communities whose members care about one another and yet also know that their respective right to belong is based on their utility, perceived or actual. To ask a co-worker her salary — especially one who has worked at an institution for years — opens up deeper, unsettling questions. How valued are you in this community? Are you more valued than I am, or beyond what I perceive as your worth? Or have you undervalued yourself, been timid, clueless, exploited?
Here’s a place to start: Employee Compensation: 2020 Best Practices for Nonprofits
Unions are appealing because staff want a voice, want to be taken seriously, and compensated fairly. How often do historians and pundits comb through the past and point to the seeds of what happens decades later, saying see, “It was already here.” Museums who arrive in the mid-21st century with an old hierarchical model, and a huge wage gap between director and public-facing staff, may find themselves sitting down with union reps more often than they’d like. Why? Because museum staff has found its voice.
How many times has this blog ended with a plea for clear, transparent communication?The answer is too many to count. If you want staff support, if you want to lead the best museum your town or city’s ever experienced, you need everybody’s buy-in. From the fanciest board member to the housekeeping staff, they serve your organization. Give them the opportunity to talk about why, and compensate them accordingly.
P.S. I recognize the 2020 conference season for museum people is well underway, and that barring disruption by COVID-19, hundreds of us will gather to meet and talk in the coming months. That said, isn’t it time we made 2021 the year of the museum worker because isn’t it time we spoke face-to-face about compensation, benefits, unions, workplace harassment, and the gender pay gap?
Image: The Globe and Mail