Thursday I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Although I wore my “Museums are not neutral” T-shirt, I’m not sure anyone noticed. The topic of museum neutrality, however, is one that interests us here at Leadership Matters because it intersects directly with how museum directors lead, and the role museums and history organizations play in their communities.
Museum neutrality has been in the wind for a while now. For some it means, museums should openly take a stand on issues of community or national interest. For others, it means museums should use their scholarship to refute false narratives in an age of post-truthiness.
A notable example of a museum taking a stand took place last winter when the Trump administration banned travel and rescinded visas from seven majority-Muslim nations. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), usually a-political, responded by removing work by Picasso and Matisse and hanging paintings by living artists from the banned countries. And just in case MoMA’s selfie-taking audience missed what was going on, it labeled each newly-displayed painting with the following lines, making it crystal clear where it stood on the travel/immigration debate.
“This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”
Given MoMA’s size, wealth, and presence in the art world, it’s likely that Glenn Lowry and his senior staff took more than a few minutes to decide how to respond to the travel ban. And given what we heard from Shankar Vedantam, National Public Radio’s Social Science correspondent this week, that’s a good idea. Vedantam reported on the risks CEO’s take when they invest in social responsibility. And based on the researchers he interviewed, doing good with corporate profits can be bad. Here’s why: In the corporate world everything points towards making money. No surprise there. And community aid, activism, diversity initiatives, and support for education don’t get the product out the door. Nonetheless, they do generate a lot of good will, and that should be good for the corporation, yes? Not necessarily.
Vedantam interviewed Timothy Hubbard who teaches at Notre Dame University. He and two colleagues studied what these types of community investments mean for CEOs’ careers. In a nutshell, here’s what Hubbard said, “We see this double-edged sword where if the firm is doing well, investments in corporate social responsibility can buffer a CEO from dismissal. But on the other hand, if there’s negative financial performance, it can really set the CEO up for a situation where they could likely be terminated.”
We aren’t aware of any work on whether acts of social responsibility by museum leadership shortens an executive director’s tenure, but since many museum board members come from the corporate world, it’s worth bearing in mind. Nonetheless, there is a difference between taking a stand, and taking a stand relating to facts, collections and the truth. Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, a CEO of the Gates Foundation, was also interviewed on NPR this week. Desmond-Hellman makes the point that,”Scientists can’t be ivory tower,” adding that “What we’re really hearing from people is I no longer trust authority.”
She suggests that scientists (and we would argue curators, conservators, museum educators, and directors) need to be part of the public dialog. She asks her fellow researchers when was the last time they attended a PTA meeting, Cub Scouts, your church, synagogue or mosque, adding “If we’re not part of that dialog, soon science won’t matter.” (And maybe history or culture?) She points out that in an age when the public relies more on emotion and personal belief than scientific evidence, then there’s a problem.
We believe first and foremost that museums have to understand their communities, and their entire community, not just the largely white, heterosexual, wealthy community who wanders their galleries and attends openings. But how do museums decide when and how to take a stand? Is what’s relevant to the director important to the community? And how about the board? As a director, if you take a stand will it matter to the people you’re trying to support? Does not being neutral mean being a good citizen, and how should an organization be a good citizen? How do museums engage their communities while being transparent?
Tell us what you think.
This guest post coincides with AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. It is a perfect time to highlight the importance of year-round advocacy for individual museums and the museum field.
Developing Museum Champions Through Advocacy
By Karen A. Witter
Do you have museum champions in your community, city council, school board, state legislature, and Congressional delegation? Would people speak out immediately if something were proposed that would adversely impact your museum? Do you have relationships with elected officials at all levels of government? Is advocacy part of your institutional culture?
Advocacy involves communicating what your museum does and why it is important. Ongoing advocacy helps build a stronger institution. Now more than ever, elected officials at all levels of government need to understand the value of museums to their constituents. All kinds of issues are at play in Congress and State Houses across the country that could impact museums. A myriad of organizations are advocating for their interests; museums also need to be heard.
Advocacy is often compared to donor cultivation…get to know elected officials, just as you get to know donors, before you ask for anything. However, I am convinced that advocacy is also similar to disaster planning – being prepared in case proposed actions would adversely affect your organization. In a time of crisis, you need champions who already understand the value of your organization.
If we want people to support museums as essential assets in large and small communities across our country, we need an ongoing and concerted effort to convey the value of museums. We need national, regional, and state associations to advocate on behalf of the museum field, and we also need individual museums and museum professionals at the grass-roots level to support that effort. The people museums serve can be highly effective as advocates. Just as museums ask individuals to become donors, we need to ask constituents to be advocates.
Creating a culture of advocacy starts at the top, but staff at all levels, board members, volunteers, constituents, and the many people who value museums all play a role. Embrace advocacy as another tool in your toolbox to build a stronger organization. Do simple things, but do them often to create a culture of advocacy.
• First, don’t ever think, “that will never happen”. No one expected the governor of Illinois to shutter the 138-year old Illinois State Museum for 9 months and terminate the entire senior management team. It will take years for the museum to recover.
• Cultivate relationships before you need anything. Maintain long-term relationships, and cultivate new ones. Don’t take anyone for granted. Don’t write anyone off. Communicate regularly. Say thank you when appropriate. Send a letter to newly elected officials who represent people you serve. Congratulate them on their election and invite them to visit. Offer to be a resource as they navigate their new role.
• Be a part of your community not apart from your community. Are your staff, board members, leadership team, and director well known among your business community, education sector, arts community, and with elected officials? Encourage staff to get involved in the community where they can apply their expertise.
• Compile and tell your stories continuously. Engage people’s hearts with stories of how your museum makes a difference. Museum educators can collect stories about your museum’s impact on student learning. Museum registrars and curators can provide stories that reveal the significance of your collections and what compels people to donate objects to your museum. Board members and volunteers can describe what motivates them to support your organization.
• Share these stories with elected officials and community leaders. Send pictures of elected officials’ constituents visiting your museum. Ask others to share their experiences with elected officials. Ask visitors to write letters to the editor and post comments on social media. Find simple ways to let elected officials know how you serve their constituents.
• Document the impact of your museum with facts and figures. Develop an economic impact statement and educational impact statement for your museum. Collaborate with other museums in your community to demonstrate your collective impact. See the American Alliance of Museums’ web site for a template and sample statements .
• Develop an annual advocacy plan. Create a simple plan by outlining a few things that can be done each month, and involve staff, board members, and volunteers.
• Learn more about how to engage in advocacy. If you think advocacy is someone else’s job or are not comfortable with advocacy, step out of your comfort zone and attend advocacy sessions at conferences and sign up for advocacy webinars. If you are in a leadership role but don’t think there is the time or resources to support advocacy, learn more about how to participate in advocacy efforts with a modest investment. There are ways to support AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day without going to Washington, D.C. The AAM web site provides easy ways to lend your voice.
• Make advocacy a strategic priority. There’s far too much at stake for museums to sit on the sidelines. Ask what your organization is doing to advocate for your museum and the museum field, and volunteer to participate. Be an advocate for advocacy.
Karen A. Witter is a part-time museum consultant who worked in Illinois state government for 35 years. She is a former natural resources policy adviser to the Governor, cabinet-level state agency director, and associate director of the IL State Museum. She is a past president of the Association of Midwest Museums and frequent presenter about advocacy at state, regional, and national museum association conferences.
She will be presenting a free AASLH webinar, Everyday Museum Advocacy, on March 6.