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.
If I were Randy Rainbow I’d begin this post with a clever song about my ongoing crush on the Philbrook Museum. But I’m not. My singing is cringe worthy, although my crush is real. How can you not love an organization that writes about post-pandemic life like this? “The museum we closed will not be the museum we open.”
Yesterday I heard an NPR interview with a Boston doctor. He explained ER visits are down because many people will endure pain rather than expose themselves to the virus. He suggested ERs have to learn to do two things at once: Be familiar, caring places we’re not afraid to go for stitches or a broken limb, but also be the entry point for Coronavirus patients. It occurred to me that may also be true for museums. Museums need to do two things at once as well: the familiar in-person experience and a whole other multi-leveled virtual one.
More than 20 years ago the Internet dissolved library walls. Suddenly physical space didn’t matter. Walls were porous because information was everywhere, from the books you checked out, to whatever you found on the library’s computers and databases, to ultimately, your laptop and cell phone. As devices became increasingly sophisticated, so did librarians, not because they no longer believed in the power of books (they do, passionately), but because they knew we needed guides through the wild world of the digital universe. To an outsider, the library pivot felt pretty seamless, shifting from a place where access only happened in the traditional reading room to an all-enveloping library where the focus is on you and your access to information. How did museums miss that boat? Where were they when the shift to the digital universe happened?
Clearly, some folks got on board, which brings us back to the Philbrook. Under normal pre-COVID circumstances, a resident of Connecticut (me), would not likely know much about a museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But I discovered the Philbrook on Instagram several years ago where it already possessed a lively social media universe rooted in its site and collections. In a piece written for AAM, Philbrook President Scott Stulen describes the museum’s closing: “On March 13th, a cross-departmental group assembled. We had just cancelled the opening to our new exhibition that evening and met to actively respond to the expected (and unexpected) challenges ahead. This group quickly mobilized the entire staff, guided by the priorities to ensure the safety of staff and the public while stabilizing the museum financially. There was also a realization that our mission to connect the community to art and gardens was not on pause, it was just moving to new platforms.”
The Philbrook, along with many other museums and heritage organizations, understands museum collections have a power beyond the sanctity of space. It wants you to visit, but equally important, the Philbrook seems to want you to know them, virtually and actually, their values, their beliefs, even the museum cats. And they don’t see their virtual collections and exhibits as some sort of junior varsity version of themselves. Rachel Cohen wrote “What We Miss Without Museums” for last week’s New Yorker. Cohen talks about her life pre-children, visiting the Metropolitan weekly. She is a master of slow looking. Yet after she became a parent and regular museum visits were more difficult, she started to take pictures, creating her own virtual exhibits. She writes, “Every day, I use a few of my photos of artwork to write an entry for an online notebook. I’ve been keeping the notebook on and off for years, but now I do it urgently, sending messages in bottles to friends and strangers, trying to offer what I’ve stored, what I miss.”
I wonder two things about museums in the post-COVID universe: Will the ones who survive be the ones who saw themselves as more than repositories? And will the ones who survive successfully be those who recognize the collections’ energy to serve audiences in a multitude of ways, not because we’re in a pandemic, but because it’s the smart thing to do? And in doing it well, will they acknowledge museums too have no walls? Nothing can replace standing in front of your favorite painting, seeing a living creature or sharing space with an object of historic significance, but is it a binary choice? Is an actual visit the only choice? Or is there another that’s different, but equally important?
This week Wilkening Consulting posted an infographic about virtual museum content and the public. Among the things it points out is that most adults don’t look to museums as a virtual source. Can that change? Wilkening reports her respondents are still looking for hope, for escape, to understand the pandemic experience, and to make connections while maintaining social distance. Raise your hand if you don’t at least have something hopeful you can offer.
As states loosen pandemic restrictions, medical experts warn it may be a year or more before we return to something like our old lives. So as museum leaders and followers how will we ride out the next 12-18 months?
- In times of crisis it’s easy to fall into the trap of the hero/shero, but is any of us capable of having all the answers? Don’t we need one another? Be the leader who values interdependence.
- Work with your staff to build a collaborative model where your museum is more than the keeper of the rare and the special.
- Understand your organization’s DNA. Know your organization well enough to make gentle fun of it.
- Take care of your staff. They are your museum and they can help move it forward from the COVID-19 pause.
- Know your community. Ask it how you can help?
- Don’t stop connecting.
Nothing changed this week, and yet everything did. Pandemic numbers continued to climb, all while public health officials predict the worst is still to come. Lines for food banks grew as the number of unemployed multiplied. Museums and heritage organizations made headlines with massive layoffs of front line staff. Midst it all, those of us lucky enough to work from home, found our worlds simultaneously shrink to the size of our houses or apartments and expand to the farthest reaches of the world as we spend more and more time online.
This week I’ve been thinking about separation. As museum folk, our livelihood depends on our interaction with things — paintings, documents, buildings, living things or objects. Suddenly, we’re apart. Apart from the stuff we care for, caring that comes in many forms, through leadership, advancement, scholarship, education, conservation or transportation. Whatever our role, we’re separated. And in this case we’re separated not just from the heartbeat of our museums or heritage sites, we’re separated from colleagues, our human communities, volunteers, tiny children, bigger children, budding artists and scientists, families, and elders.
Is there such thing as a good separation? How do you manage disconnection yet stay attached? How many novels, plays and movies take shape when one character announces they must leave, but they’ll be back? How do relationships deepen between absent friends? Does absence may the heart grow fonder?
And what sustains us through a separation? It used to be letter writing. Now, not so much. Are separations also defined by how we choose to fill the absence?
This week I read a wonderful piece by John Stromberg, director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum to his community. Stromberg talks about the Hood’s commitment to art “by all, for all.” But more exciting to me is his open acknowledgement that however empathetic and caring the Hood’s exhibitions were, now the museum is closed, he acknowledges his staff must pivot. He writes:
As the Hood Museum staff continues to transition to our new digital work format, we are challenged to revitalize and update a key tenet of what we do: putting individuals in direct contact with original works of art and each other. How do we move forward without the physical proximity that has been critical to our practice? Can digital means replicate the intimacy of face-to-face dialogue about today’s most pressing issues?
So must separation incorporate a willingness to change and grow?
Then there is the Philbrook Museum of Art whose relationship with its community, both virtual and actual is a marvel, thanks in part to the leadership of Scott Stulen, a multi-talented artist who admits his directorship is about putting community building into “overdrive.” Who doesn’t want to know a place that in a matter of days changed its tagline to “Chillbrook Museum of Staying Home, Stay Home, Stay Social” as if this were just another day in the life. The Philbrook’s website makes you believe all your emotional and intellectual needs are in hand. Whether it’s listening to podcasts, hearing a tiny concert or participating in a children’s art class, it’s clear that separated or not, the museum percolates along, even for those of us who’ve never been to Tulsa, OK. This week the Philbrook put its money where its mouth is, announcing it is expanding its edible garden in order to support the food bank. How could anyone forget a place that offers so much for so many, and who manages to be winsome, and serious, musical and witty, all at the same time? Maybe a good separation is about enhancing what’s already there, making it richer in the absence of human contact?
Although Old Salem Museum and Gardens closed ahead of some North Carolina museums and heritage sites, the door was barely shut before it launched #wegotthis, a series of online events that included the History Nerd Alert and the Old Salem Exploratorium. About a week ago, it began transforming its historic gardens into Victory gardens to support the city’s Second Harvest Food Bank. That prompted another online series called Two Guys and a Garden. In addition Old Salem has put its head pastry chef back to work producing 50 loaves of bread a day for the food bank, while its head gardener offers videos on seed starting. Does giving back make an organization more memorable? Is it easier to ask, once you’ve given?
Last, but not least, Raynham Hall Museum, The Frick (What’s not to like about Friday cocktails with a curator?) and the Tang Teaching Museum: All used Instagram before the pandemic, but since COVID-19, they’ve ratcheted things up, speaking directly to their audience, making connections between collections and past epidemics, illness, inspiration, art and spring. And there are many more museums and historic sites you know who, despite separation, are enriching connections, building bridges, and creating new audiences.
So what makes a difficult thing like separation doable? Ah…wait for it….because maybe it’s similar to museum life back when things were normal: How about honest, authentic communication that builds outward from mission and collections to connect with community? Opportunities abound for learning the “how-to’s” of social media, but knowing your own site, and your own community, and translating your organizational DNA to images, video, tweets and Instagram, that’s on you. Because when the separation is over–and it will be–how will your organization be remembered? As the site that closed its doors and then 10 weeks later woke up like Rip Van Winkle? Or as the online friend who made people laugh, taught them some stuff, and helped out the community?
 Scott Stulen, “When an Artist Becomes a Director,” American Alliance of Museums, May 17, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2020.
Image: Chillbrook (Philbrook) Museum Instagram post, “Our cats are lonely and would love to hear from you. Write them a letter and they’ll write back. 🐾”
As COVID-19 moves across the country, every sector of the museum workforce feels the pandemic’s power from the still employed, but working from home, to the temporarily suspended, to the recently let go. Every day museums and historic sites announce closures and massive layoffs, leaving many to wonder how museums will recover. One sector not much has been written about is independent consultants. Not museum employees who consult sporadically, but the group who work independently across the field in collections, education, governance, art handling and more. They work from job to job, shouldering the full costs of benefits, building careers while offering services many museums and heritage organizations need, but can’t afford on a full-time basis.
Being a consultant means you need to take work when it’s offered because a month from now when your calendar opens up the offer may have evaporated. It means your rates need to account for your business expenses, Social Security benefits and health care. It means working from home, punctuated by travel is your normal. And it means your access to COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program is delayed ’til April 10. Amidst the tidal wave of museum layoffs and closures, we checked in with a group of consultants to see how they’re doing. Here are their voices:
This week I had “lunch” with my friend Franklin Vagnone, president of Winston Salem’s Old Salem Village in North Carolina. Frank had finished his first virtual (and emotionally draining) meeting at 8:00 am, so for him noon felt like late afternoon. As someone who was a museum leader in Philadelphia and then New York City through 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, he’s not unfamiliar with leading in crisis. But like many museum leaders in the age of COVID-19, his Thursday began with planning for temporary layoffs for hourly staff. The layoffs are necessary because they allow staff to collect unemployment until the country emerges from the pandemic and Old Salem rights itself. Vagnone isn’t alone. Last week layoffs were announced by the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, Seattle’s Science Center, and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, Science Center and Please Touch Museum, in addition to Colonial Williamsburg, San Francisco’s MOMA and undoubtedly many more. Sadly, the group most affected is the most vulnerable: part-time employees, many without benefits. As another friend put it, “Suddenly work is like trying to wash the dishes only the kitchen sink is missing and the water’s turned off.”
AAM’s President and CEO Laura Lott estimates that since the crisis began, museums collectively have lost $33 million a day. And whether planned or not, the museum world responded with 33,000 messages to Congress supporting AAM’s crisis request for $4 billion dollars, an amount which sent Fox and Friends into gales of laughter as if the arts weren’t a business, and a home-grown one at that. In the end, thanks to AAM’s tireless work, museums and arts organizations were included in the bill although not at levels that make them whole. You can find a full description here, including the full bill if you’re so inclined.
So what should you as a museum person, leader, or organization do?
As an individual:
- Take care of yourself and your loved ones.
- Maintain social distancing. Wash your hands. COVID-19 dislikes soap and water.
- If you’ve been laid off, don’t delay, apply for unemployment.
- If you’re working from home, there are many sites to support you, Here are a few good articles from last week: The Muse; Museum 2.0; The Atlantic.
- Stop looking at your screen. Take a walk. Do the reading you always meant to do, but put off.
- Plan for the future. Try to imagine, what things you want to keep and nurture, and what things you’ll change in a post-COVID-19 world.
As leader of a team or a department:
- Take care of your people. This will end, and re-hiring is costly. Protect staff in whatever way you can. If temporary layoffs while maintaining health insurance works for your museum, do it.
- Make sure everyone–board members, staff and volunteers–has the tools to communicate. Help them learn to stay in touch.
- Sort out communication methods that are most equitable. Offer tutorials to everyone, and encourage your team or department to talk with one another on a regular basis.
- Treasure your IT and social media team and build bridges between them and your program.
- Talk to your community, whether through email, Instagram or Facebook let them know you’re there.
As a Museum Leader:
- Thank your Congressional representatives.
- If you’re not an AAM member, join now. Its COVID-19 information is worth the individual membership if you can’t afford more. Ditto your regional museum service organization.
- Take care of your people. This will end, and re-hiring is costly. Protect staff in whatever way you can. If temporary layoffs, while maintaining health insurance works for your museum, do it. Don’t let HR make decisions because that’s the way it’s always done. We moved out of the world we knew about two weeks ago.
- Think about your organization’s virtual life. If you can create “A Minute with the Curator” or “A Walk with the Farm Horse” videos they may generate an audience that will outlive the virus. We’ve all watched Tim, the head of security at the National Cowboy Museum. Perhaps you have someone on your staff who’s equally charming and authentic, but never heard from.
- If you have under 500 employees, you’re eligible for a small business loan to make payroll or pay health insurance.
- Remember in the midst of the bleakness to have hope. I’ll close where I began with Frank’s video to his community.
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” President Barak Obama, Iowa Caucus Speech, 2008.
Stay in touch with each other and stay safe.
Image: Franklin Vagnone, President of Old Salem Village, from his message about #WeGotThis
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
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
I don’t know about you, but when I am besieged with obligations, meetings, and deadlines, I make lists. Over time the lists become a bit of a joke because things that weren’t accomplished one week don’t always move forward to the next. Instead they occupy a sort of list purgatory, haunting me as I go about my days. You may have a better way of organizing things. Your lists may be digital. Perhaps you’re more efficient, but however you make your way through your tasks, there is always a certain satisfaction in the strike-through, marking something as done, finished, complete, and off your plate for a while.
But then, and maybe this doesn’t happen to you, there is another sort of list. It’s the list from 30,000 feet. It’s always with me, a reminder of ways of being, things I need to focus on, ways I need to be more intentional. This week Anne Ackerson and I read papers from our Johns Hopkins University students regarding leadership at museums, zoos, and heritage organizations undergoing challenge and change. As I read them–many discuss museums that have been in the news for one thing or another–I am struck again, by how complex leadership is, how many moving parts there are, and how important it is that the personal integrate with the organizational.
As I’ve said here about a million times, reflection in leadership is key. So in that spirt, here are 10 things on my 30,000-foot leadership list for this fall.
- Remembering to pause: whether it’s going outside for 15 minutes for a walk; sitting with a non-work friend over coffee; laughing. Life isn’t all work.
- Understanding my organization’s origin story: Acknowledging the work, gifts, and goals of those who came before me, while moving forward in a world that’s changed and changing, and creating a way to make the two work together.
- Listening: Spending part of every day, not waiting to speak, but actually listening.
- Remembering not to judge: Trying to make my go-to be to understand, to empathize, and to be present rather than to judge.
- Acknowledging accomplishments: You’ve all probably read about Anne’s accomplishment jar. I am thinking about creating a team accomplishment jar where our program can acknowledge its best moments over the course of the year. Some times it does take a village.
- Making my observations my obligation: Standing up for injustice, for inequity, for the minor–the constant interrupter in staff meetings who rides herd over more reserved colleagues–to the major–the colleague who’s bullied or harassed.
- Looking for the through-lines, whether in history, race, gender, environment and class: I work with a collection created by white men in a different age, for a different age. I need to re-center, educate, and through acquisition bring community and collection into alignment.
- Give back to the field: In many ways I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve managed to make a living, to use my imagination, to work in beautiful places, surrounded by interesting collections. I must always give back, pay it forward, and help those following behind.
- Make sure everyone’s at the table: From the board to the front-line staff, make sure we represent our communities. And then do my best to make sure all voices are heard equitably, whether in an exhibition or a staff meeting.
- Values permeate the workplace too: While values are important in the front of the house–see #7–they are also important in our workspaces. Leaders content to ignore inequitable pay and benefits are leaders perpetuating the worst kind of patriarchal system. See #6.
Your list may be different, but I hope you have one. Having one fuels forward movement and change.
Yours from 30,000 feet.
If leaders were cartoon characters, they’d have heads topped with arrows instead of hair. Why? Because whether they mean to or not, leaders exude direction. They are points on the organizational compass. And when direction isn’t clear there are plenty of folks in the hallway, around the coffeemaker or after meetings to interpret what has or hasn’t been said. That’s a preface to what follows, meaning I may not be correct. After all, I’m only an observer.
If you couldn’t attend last week’s meeting of the American Association of State and Local History in Philadelphia, it was a good one. Anchored by the indomitable Eastern State Penitentiary, and the city’s other national historic sites, not to mention its many museums, the conference drew a large crowd. The theme was “What Are We Waiting For?” but the subtext was certainly history’s importance in understanding the present. It was there in the keynote, moderated by Sean Kelly, Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, and featuring Susan Burton, a Los Angeles-based writer and prison reform activist whose memoir details a 20-year cycle of addiction, pain, sadness and prison, and Dr. Talitha LeFlouria, a University of Virginia associate professor, and author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, where the arrow pointed directly from centuries of enslavement to decades of mass incarceration. And it was also there in Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s myth-toppling speech about George Washington’s obsessive search for his runaway slave Ona Judge. And, I’m sure it was there in the many panels, tours, and countless conversations as conference attendees struggled, argued, and supported one another in connecting past and present. If you want to interpret those directional signals, what you might say is the complacent, white, male narrative of the past is disappearing, replaced by a host of other black and brown voices, from individuals who’ve been here months, and those whose past stretches back to enslavement or others whose land was stolen, and they lived out their days on reservations.
For me though there was another signal: The four panels and one workshop that addressed women in the history museum workplace. Anne Ackerson and I have written and spoken about this topic for almost seven years, and in that time there were more than a few moments when getting one panel on women’s issues for AASLH or AAM seemed like an achievement. So maybe I’m reading too much into this, but finding AASLH President John Dichtl in a panel titled “#MeToo: AASLH, NCPH and the Field” was a sea change. Perhaps it’s AASLH’s size and more cohesive membership, but its leadership is clearly listening to women’s issues in the field. When asked to post salary ranges in their job announcements, AASLH did. And their willingness to open the annual meeting to discussions about women’s leadership, sexual harassment in the field, and pay equity tells me they’re acknowledging that while the heritage organization/history museum workplace might not be Nirvana, they want to make it better.
So, here’s a thank you: Thank you for a great conference. Thank you to AASLH’s leaders and planners for changing the narrative; thank you for publicly acknowledging the consequences of workplace harassment, and gender pay inequity. Thank you to the male leaders who showed up to represent at four of the five sessions. Kudos to all the women who spoke, especially those brave enough to reveal personal stories.
One final plea though: Do something with what you learned. Commit to personal change. Be kind. Support one another. Don’t do it because someone’s different than you. Do it because you are colleagues. If you are a leader, and haven’t addressed the gender pay gap in your organization, do an equity audit. See how bad things are. If you don’t have a values statement or a statement about the kind of behavior you expect in your museum or heritage site, write one. Don’t wait ’til next year to hear it another time and realize 12 months went by and you didn’t move the needle at all.
Make change now. Do it as individuals, do it as organizations. To quote Enimini Ekong, Superintendent of Nicodemus National Historic Site and Chief of Education and Interpretation at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, “Your observation is your obligation.” So for goodness sakes look and then act.