In 2017 Anne Ackerson and I published Women in the Museum. One of our final chapters is titled “Ground Hog Day,” after the eponymous film with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. We needed a title like that because in the years of fighting the gender battle in the museum workplace its problems remain relentlessly unresolved, raising its head, year after year, just like a virus.
Fifty years ago women’s leadership was still a question. Women museum directors were rare, and women leaders were often found in the second spot, being logistical titans all while providing the emotional glue and the soft skills to keep the museum workplace turning over and moving forward.
Today, things are different. There are many more women leaders–and not just white women, but women of color. But the underbelly of workplace gender issues–sexual harassment–is alive and well. For those of you who were off social media last week, the director of the Erie Art Museum, Joshua Helmer, found himself without a job after an article in The New York Times reported that in his previous position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, multiple women had accused him of making inappropriate advances. When Helmer moved to the Erie (PA) Museum of Art in 2018, he continued his predatory pattern. This time involving a museum intern. The incident resulted in a Change.org petition and several articles by New York Times Reporter Robin Pogrebin. Indeed, the week ended with Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, an ex-officio member of the PMA’s board, calling for it to strengthen its harassment policies. This led PMA director, Timothy Rub, to say, ““The mayor is right and as we have indicated, our policies are undergoing close review,” all while 240 members of his staff signed a statement in support of their colleagues and the women at the Erie Art Museum.
Neither the Erie Art Museum nor the Philadelphia Art Museum are unsophisticated organizations, and yet Joshua Helmer somehow victimized women at first one institution and then another. No matter who you are in the museum world–trustee, volunteer, leader, curator, guard, housekeeper, intern, educator–this is your problem. Workplace sexual harassment destroys the social trust that exists back stage in the museum workplace. Museum workers, regardless of their titles, deserve to be safe, seen, and supported.
As we’ve seen, sexual harassment scandals plunge museums and heritage organizations into a world of bad press, not to mention legal complications. So if you are a….
Museum Trustee: If you don’t already know, ask what your organization’s policy is on sexual harassment. Where is it written, how is it available to staff, and who handles complaints? Boards are not immune to bad behavior. As a group, how do you police yourselves? If you don’t have an HR office, where do complaints go? If your organization has an HR office, when was the last time your board or its personnel committee heard from the HR director on this topic?
Museum Leader: Do not say this won’t happen here. It happens everywhere. Review your organizational policy for sexual harassment; check-in with Human Resources and your leadership team. Make sure everyone understands what happens when a complaint is made. If appropriate, role play. No victim should be made to feel what’s happened to her is her fault. Make sure victims are treated with compassion. And further, make sure you know and have thought through how complaints involving the board, significant donors, and/or consultants will be handled.
Museum Worker: Go to bat for your colleagues. Speak up and intervene. If you don’t, no matter how you frame it, you are complicit. Know your organization’s policy; know what to do in the event of an incident. Know what kind of support is available through EEOC, and how your state defines sexual harassment. And know who in your city or town offers pro-bono legal services. And for goodness sake, sign the GEMM pledge.
Sometimes we’re so besotted with our roles caring for artwork, objects and living things, and placing them in dialog with one another that we forget our staff and colleagues. If you’ve been sexually harassed or victimized, it’s difficult, if not impossible to function at work. As a museum leader no one is asking you to serve as staff psychologist, but if a staff member seems “off,” ask whether it’s something work-related. Create an atmosphere where staff feel safe, seen and supported, make sure your policies are clearly written, easily available, and that they provide a road map for anyone experiencing harassment. It’s 2020. Aren’t we done with excuses?
Image: From the infographic, “The Survey: Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace,” 2018, by Anne W. Ackerson and Joan H. Baldwin.
Twelve days into the new decade, and so much has happened. Last Monday the museum world reacted to President’s Trump’s threatened bombing of Iranian cultural sites with responses from AAM, AASLH, AAMD, and even social media from the circumspect Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was the week’s beginning. By week’s end, The Times had published an article on Joshua Helmer, once employed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now director of the Erie Art Museum. In a #MuseumMeToo moment, Helmer is accused by both current and past colleagues of sexual harassment.
I had planned to write about white people trying to do the right thing, but before we go there, I need to say something. The Joshua Helmer scandal not only generated a social media storm, but a Change.org petition demanding Helmer’s firing. Meanwhile, Friday, the Erie Art Museum released the following statement,”The Erie Art Museum Board of Directors takes seriously all allegations of misconduct. Prior to offering Mr. Helmer the position at the Erie Art Museum, the Board, with the help of an employment consultant, conducted due diligence including background checks. No issues were identified during our due diligence.”
The subtext here is a board who says it did its research. If the complaints about Helmer are true, then it sounds as though the board is shifting blame to its recruitment firm or the Philadelphia Museum of Art for failing to divulge what they knew. But here’s what’s really bothering me: In 48 hours the Helmer firing petition garnered over 2,000 signatures. GEMM–Gender Equity in Museums Movement–has its own page on Change.org, a pledge to stop sexual harassment in museum workplaces. In six weeks it has yet to amass 500 signatures.
Why is it so easy to sign the Helmer petition, but not the GEMM pledge? Does encouraging Helmer’s firing make you feel like you’re doing something? Does it take the onus off you, and put it where it seems to belong? For centuries powerful people have used authority to coerce sexual favors and harm the less powerful. Yet sexual harassment remains an ongoing problem in the museum workplace. Imagine, for a minute, if the GEMM pledge had been around when Helmer left the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Could employees who signed it remain silent as a purported harasser left for a new position? It’s each of us who makes change. Not “them,” whoever “they” are. And we make change by changing our behavior. Sign the GEMM pledge. Don’t wait. Do it today.
So what I really meant to write about is this: In my ongoing journey recognizing the limitations and boundaries of my own whiteness, sometimes I hear stories that speak to the way we as white humans think we’re doing the “right” thing, but it backfires majestically. Let’s imagine there’s a white development officer and a curator who’s a woman of color. The curator knows of an eminently successful young, black businessman who’s just sold his company for $30 million. She follows him on social media, knows he’s a collector, and has met him at a social event. She discusses this with the white advancement officer who’s aware of the businessman’s success. She asks the museum to approach him because her upcoming show will include several artists he collects. She’s hoping for additional underwriting for her exhibit and maybe an acquisition fund for artists of color. Instead, the development officer asks her to reach out first. In his world, it’s better if the businessman is approached by a) someone he sort-of knows, and b) by someone of color. He may also be scared–scared he’s not culturally astute enough–and he’ll say something wrong, and he doesn’t want to be wrong. The curator of color is angry because to her the optics look terrible. The collector isn’t a small business owner. He’s a gazillionaire who’s just sold to a multi-national corporation. Why shouldn’t he be treated like any other 1-percent entrepreneur?
What’s wrong here? Well, a lot, but definitely a failure to communicate. The white advancement officer is unable or unwilling to confess he feels ignorant, something he’d do in a heartbeat if the prospect were an international, and there were a language barrier. In addition, he’s comfortable letting the curator of color carry the burden of race. She, on the other hand, reads the situation from the black entrepreneur’s point of view and suspects he’ll be insulted if he isn’t treated like every other big giver the museum approaches.
So where does leadership come into all of this? Good leaders understand their own limitations and vulnerabilities. Humbling themselves in front of colleagues, admitting what they don’t know, and asking for help come naturally. When we’re all being our best selves–admittedly a daily struggle–we need to model great leader behavior: stop worrying about judgement, stop worrying about control, stop writing the script for others, and instead communicate and collaborate. What if the advancement officer admitted a gift from this young entrepreneur would be a first from a non-white donor, and he was scared of messing it up? What if he asked for the curator’s help and collaboration instead of turning the ask back to her? What if she felt she could say, I am not the spokesperson for my entire race? And further, what if, as a woman of color, she also didn’t need to worry about being characterized as brash and pushy?
There are a number of ways this story could have gone. I offer it only to point out how our narratives hem us in. Understanding our own parameters enough to know what we don’t know, and having the courage to be vulnerable are leadership practices we all need to develop.
To begin, we want to thank everyone who reads and supports Leadership Matters. Since 2013, it’s grown from 823 views in 26 countries to 63,523 views in 186 countries last year. It’s an honor to write for you, to meet you at conferences, and to hear from you, and we wish you all the best for 2020 and the decade to come.
Before the holidays we asked for your hopes and wishes for the museum world this year. We weren’t overwhelmed with responses, but we did receive these two awesome wishes.
- I wish for sustainability and everything that entails—a society that values culture, institutions and human diversity, wages and benefits that reflect the training and experience held [by] my museum workers, and safe and equitable work spaces. Kristy Griffin-Smith
- Challenging systemic biases that are so ingrained we often can’t see their true impact. Karen Mason-Bennett
No surprise, we have some wishes of our own. Some echo the two above, a few don’t.
- We wish museums and heritage organizations could collectively acknowledge climate change as a key issue for global museum life in the next decade. As the University of Manchester wrote in 2018, “Museums represent key sites for climate change education, engagement, action and research. There are over 55,000 museums worldwide. They represent an existing infrastructure. Many museums are already connecting their work with climate change education, research and management.” Like many issues that “feel” political, this is not one you should ignore in the hopes others–perhaps bigger, better-funded museums–will do something about it. This problem belongs to us all, and if we don’t collectively own it, we can’t possibly help remedy it. From the way you ask visitors to dispose of trash, to decisions regarding capital improvements, to the context you offer around historical and scientific questions, museums have a climate change role. Like so many issues, not playing a part in this one is, in fact, taking a side. Don’t be neutral. If you feel you don’t know enough, assemble a team of advisors. After all, if 17-year old Greta Thunberg can be an international climate change activist, you can probably create a plan–beginning with small, sustainable changes– for your museum or heritage organization.
- We want museums to acknowledge the ways they disadvantage various demographics. You may believe decolonization is a word for big-city museums. It’s not. Instead, consider it as hierarchical, outmoded thinking, privileging one group over another in explicit and implicit ways. For some of us it’s habit, a habit we hope museums will work to break in the coming year, maybe by experimenting– only exhibiting work by women or women of color or by sending the organization’s youngest staff to conferences instead of its older team leaders or by changing traditional label narratives or, frankly, the labels themselves. Do it until what is outside the box feels normal and every day. Don’t get me wrong: Museums need people of privilege. They are generous, many to a fault. But museums can’t act as though a white, predominantly male, narrative is the only one of importance, and everybody else is other than. So make 2020 the year you shake things up.
- Women are now 50-percent of the museum workforce in the United States. Women’s problems are human problems, and it is not a woman’s job to solve them. (Believe me, if that were possible, it would have happened ages ago.) Our wish? That in 2020 museums and heritage organizations, led and supported by their service organizations, will end the museum field’s gender pay gap, and pledge to stop sexual harassment in the museum workplace. (You can do your part by signing GEMM’s Pledge now.)
- Leadership matters. No kidding. A lot. We wish museums, heritage organizations graduate programs, and boards of trustees would recognize leadership is a key ingredient in creating strong, sustainable organizations. We understand many museums, particularly larger ones, need recruitment firms, but the museum hires the recruiters, not the other way around. Are you comfortable with firms who tell female candidates what to wear, but not male ones? Are you comfortable with firms who preselect based on their vision of what your museum should be? Whether you’re a board member or a museum leader, don’t leave hiring decisions to others who may not understand your organization’s DNA. And remember, boards with the courage to step outside the white male box, hiring people of color and LGBTQ candidates to fill the top spot, change more than the director’s position. They show their communities what community means.
The new year is a time we all pledge to be better humans, change our habits, exercise more, eat healthier, meditate. A week ago, we published the top Leadership Matters posts since 2013. Sadly, the one that garnered the most views was “The Silent Treatment (and What to Do About It,” followed closely by “Workplace Bullies.”What does that say about the museum workplace? So among all your other behavior changes for 2020, let’s make this a year of kindness. If you’re a leader, remember what it was like when you worked for an ogre, and be someone different. If you’re a follower, be the person you wish your leader were–or, if you’re lucky–the person your leader is. Bottom line: exercise a little kindness to each other, our communities, our planet.
First, an announcement: Leadership Matters will be on vacation for the weeks of Dec. 23 and Dec. 30. But, before we return January 6, 2020, we’d like to hear your wishes for the museum world for the coming year. They can be personal–I want a new job–or organizational–I hope my museum completes its campaign successfully–or field wide–I’d like to see museums take a stand on the gender pay gap. Send them, and any other thoughts you have about the museum field’s future to us here in a comment or directly to our email or Facebook where this is posted as well. Full sentences and punctuation aren’t necessary, just your hopes and dreams for the field.
A lot of museums, indeed a lot of workplaces, struggle with team building and trust, and one of the work-arounds leaders employ is to try to accommodate workers’ various needs. When you have a weeping or furious team member in your office, and a to-do list a mile long, what you want is to solve their problems and get back to your own. So you say yes to leaving Thursdays at three to drive the soccer car pool or to working from home a day a week. Your colleague leaves happy (or at least mollified), and you turn your attention to other things. Except decisions made in the moment to accommodate one frequently come back to bite you. Why? Because work isn’t family.
If we work full time, we spend up to 2,000 hours per year with our colleagues, some weeks more than with families and friends, particularly since time away from work includes sleep. So while many people like to tout work as family, and thus, just as we set the thermostat to 75 when our great aunt visits and serve her martini with four olives, we also try to accommodate our co-workers. But accommodating family is different from colleagues. Say a member of your team tells you she lives a distance from work, and may not be able to arrive on time if it snows. She is part of your front-line staff. On the face of it, that seems like a rational request. But what happens if you say yes? Another person who lives closer may feel a huge sense of inequity. The questions going through her mind are: Why is she privileged over me? Am I not valued? Do I need to look for another job? Is everyone asking for special accommodations and I didn’t know?
If you work in a museum or heritage organization with an HR department, it’s harder to privilege one employee over another because the employee handbook already spells out numerous scenarios–weather, health, funerals, working from home, and jury duty to name a few–and how individuals are compensated. Flouting these can lead to an even more complex mess since you’ll have one individual operating outside the organization’s HR parameters, while others abide by the museum’s rules. That doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t treat employees with respect, empathy and kindness, but everyone should be privileged equally–those with small children, those without, those with long commutes and those who live around the corner. The only ones who should be specially accommodated are those with temporary or permanent disabilities. These requests may include specialized equipment or modifications in work environment.
So…if you’re a leader with a team or a staff….
- Even if your site has fewer than 15 employees and no HR department, create or review your organization’s employee handbook. Make sure it’s written in clear, understandable language. If you can’t understand it, it’s unlikely your employees will.
- Make sure it addresses common HR issues and what your organization will do about them. Kicking the can down the road means you will make decisions as they come up, rather than addressing them organizationally from the beginning. It’s hard to be objective and impartial when you are making decisions in the moment based on a single staff member’s situation.
- Create a personnel committee on the board. It may include the board leadership and/or those with interest and experience in HR.
- Seek advice from your local Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau or HR firm.
- When altering handbook rules, be open and transparent about rule changes.
If you’re a staff member …
- Know your rights. EEOC’s Home Page is a good place to start.
- Find out if there is any kind of HR document–even a Google doc–that governs day-to-day work. If there is, read it.
- Before you approach the leadership, it’s helpful to know if you’re a trail blazer. For example, are you the first employee to ask for paternity leave, jury duty, or a parking accommodation?
- Or conversely, are you one in a long line of staff asking about a particular issue? Knowing whether your organization has a history may help you strategize your request. (Example: your museum’s staff is under 10 FT people. Six have requested maternity/paternity leave in the last year. Nobody’s gotten the same deal.)
A lot of museums and heritage organizations, often small ones, hide behind size (We’re too small) and the non-profit shield (We’re not a business) when it comes to HR issues. Size isn’t an excuse to treat employees inequitably. Do the best you can given your resources. Create policy first–even if it’s a one-page document–so you’re not reacting to individual problems in the moment. Be kind, be a good listener, be empathetic, but most of all be fair.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I hope you all read the letter from Esme Ward, director of the Manchester Museum (UK), published in Museum-ID Magazine. In it, Ward turns the fear-bound notion of returning objects brought or given to museums around the world from one of de-contextualization to one of connection. My favorite quote:
At their best, though perhaps all too rarely, museums can be spaces for identity-forming and truth-telling. They can ask “what is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves?” I believe that repatriation shifts the processes, language and thinking of the past towards a context of possibility and action for the future. Our museums can become places of genuine exchange and learning, reconciliation, social justice and community wellbeing.
You may think, nice, but that’s not my organization, but first, be sure. If you curate the collection of a wealthy white male, did he or his family travel? What did they bring home? Or if you manage collections in a general museum–the kind that functioned as a visible National Geographic for a small community–are you comfortable with the collection’s origin stories? But even more important, how can you as director, curator, or collections manager, shift the process, creating collaboration rather than a one-sided scenario where your organization puts a community’s stuff under vitrines and then tells their stories.
As you know I am not a Twitter fan, but this week I read a string of tweets prompted by @JuliaKennedy who asked for people’s most controversial opinions on the museum world. Her followers didn’t hold back. Comments ranged from ways museums discriminate against the disabled, to keeping too much old stuff, to decolonization. No surprise, there were any number of increasingly angry words about museum pay or the lack thereof, including unpaid internships, and fees to participate in museum volunteer programs. If you couple that with recent articles on museums and unions it’s a forest fire of discontent. Beginning with the Marciano Art Foundation, which became the poster-child for bad HR when it fired dozens of its front-line staff after they announced they planned to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME), to The New Museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, all now have staff who are union members.
Called a “movement not a trend,” by Artnet, the wave of unionization acknowledges the field’s wealth gap, which is most acute in the country’s large urban museums where front-line staff work for minimum wage and few, if any, benefits, while their directors may make 40 times that amount. Yes, the directors have huge, complex organizations to run. Yes, they do their jobs well. The judgement isn’t necessarily about them as humans. The judgement is about the gap, and the expectation that one person is compensated so well while everyone else should just be happy to be there, working an extra job or two to pay their student loans on the master’s degree the field requires as its entrance ticket.
Faced with unionization, leaders across the board, responded that museum culture is “special” and something unions can’s possibly understand. Mmmm. Really? Or is it just easier to ignore front-line staff’s issues rather than have a union force museum leadership to the table? This should be a warning call for all museum leaders. Yes, unionization is to-date confined to major urban organizations on the two coasts. But the problem of low salaries is endemic. You need only look at the Salary Spreadsheet created last spring. It now lists 3,652 postings from administrative assistants to assistant directors and more, and few are salaries you can gloat about.
As leaders isn’t it time you protect your investment in staff? They are, particularly if you also pay healthcare and some form of retirement, a huge portion of your annual budget. Assuming they’re good at what they do, don’t you want them to stay, to not spend idle hours at work trolling job sites, to be happy, to be creative? How can you not invest in them? Everybody wants a diverse workforce. It mirrors the communities we live in, and creates a better product, but a diverse workforce means museum staff is no longer the trust-fund generation or the my-partner-makes-six-figures-generation-so-I-can-afford-to-work-for $28,500-and-no-benefits.
Once again I call upon AAM to follow in the footsteps of the American Library Association whose professional companion organization, Allied Professional Association ALA-APA, adopted a minimum salary for professional librarians of $41,000 in 2007. (Side note: eight state library associations have their own minimums.) Why is this so hard?
Museum employees are the lifeblood of AAM, AASLH, and the state and regional museum service organizations. No one’s asking you to police salaries, only to stand with staff in acknowledging that the work we do, which is often awesomely wonderful, is worth more than we’re paid.
Images: Screenshots of responses to @JuliaKennedy’s invitation to share “most controversial opinions on the museum world”
Photo by Robert J Weisberg
To begin, I want to announce Gender Equity in Museums Movement’s (GEMM) Pledge to End Sexual Harassment in the Museum Workplace. GEMM released the Pledge November 12. It is available on its website and on Change.org. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 338,000 museum employees in the United States. In 2018, 49.5-percent were women. Based on the two surveys conducted in 2018 by Anne Ackerson and me, and a second by nikhil trivedi and Aletheia Wittman, roughly 49-percent of those identifying as women reported experiencing verbal or sexual harassment at work. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a shockingly high percentage.
Signing the pledge takes a few minutes. It asks signers to, among other things, refrain from sexist language, to be open to dialogue about museum workers’ concerns and needs, and to create and nurture workplaces free of sexual assault and understanding of consent. Maybe you’re not someone who signs things, maybe you believe sexual harassment doesn’t happen in museums or maybe you think it’s simply not your problem. The museum workplace is many things: It’s creative, sometimes inclusive, dynamic, frequently stressful, achingly beautiful, and filled with many big and small moments of discovery and learning. Sexual harassment doesn’t belong there. You are only one person out of 338,000, but by signing, you tell the world, and most importantly your co-workers, you will do your part. Join GEMM in pledging to help end workplace sexual harassment in museums and heritage organization. And don’t save it for later, do it today.
Last week I gave the keynote at the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) meeting in Philadelphia. It was an honor and a privilege, but like any new experience, it made me think. Many of the attendees came from large museums–large enough where the curator or collections manager doesn’t wear a different hat depending on the day. Based on the crowd, many are women, and many are white. That doesn’t make them bad people, but they might be ground zero for the museum world’s old-school hierarchical leadership. Other front-facing departments–education, development, leadership–have diversified more quickly, but this world, on which so much depends–if you can’t find an object, it doesn’t matter how special a curator you are–is in some ways landlocked, caught in a century-old tradition of women caring for and organizing stuff.
That made me think for possibly the umpteenth time about leadership and hierarchy. When you think about diversity, what do you think of first? Be honest. Do you think about race? Gender? Age? You have heard me say–probably too often–how important it is to have everyone at the table, and yet creating a staff who represents your community is a challenge, but say you’re successful. Say your department is like a little utopian United Nations. Say they range from Millennials who tolerate Boomers, Christians who work along side Muslims, men who work respectfully with women, gender fluid folk with resolutely cisgender. But you’re all in the same department. How does an organization’s internal segregation and stratification affect the product, the idea making, the program, the exhibit?
None of this may apply if you work at a small museum. You may see your frontline staff daily, and they may also function as security. But what if you’re part of a larger organization? How often do you talk with staff outside your department about a project that affects them? Do you speak as equals or as one staff explaining its needs to another? All I’m suggesting is diversity and inclusion is more than just outward appearances. It’s more than the Instagram-able group around the table. It’s making sure varied constituencies across the museum or heritage organization have a voice. Maybe it bothers you that there are always folding chairs in your newly-redesigned admission area? Were your frontline staff part of the architects’ focus groups? How about your volunteer coordinator? Did anyone mention what percentage of your visitors are retired? That’s a banal example, but it speaks to how listening to many voices from across an institution makes it a better place. And breaking down hierarchical barriers is another avenue to creating a diverse and healthy workplace.
So….the intentional museum flattens hierarchies and contributes to diverse idea-building by allowing staff at all levels to:
- disagree with one another
- be themselves in the workplace
- contribute to the best of their abilities