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
By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
Barring loss of life, perhaps the most alarming tragedy museums fear is collection destruction. We recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from cherished public repositories of our shared culture. Diligent museums focus considerable attention on protecting the art, artifacts and scientific specimens in their possession.
To be sure, in spite of the best protective measures, losses happen. A few horrible examples include: The thirteen works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War in 2003; the recent fire and destruction at the National Museum of Brazil. Fortunately, these museum catastrophes tend to be exceptional. Statistically, most of the things most museums own are relatively safe. Or so we thought.
In May the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) sold a large painting by the Jewish Russian émigré Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The action was legal and approved by the institution’s board of trustees. At auction the picture realized $43.75M ($50.1M with fees). Where’s the Rothko now? Auction houses, in this case, Sotheby’s, understandably do not reveal bidder information.
Whether by sale, gifts, or trashing, the disposal of museum collections is almost as old as museums. Today unrestricted selling on the open market is highly popular. Or, perhaps it simply enjoys the most notoriety. The SFMOMA incident is only a recent example. This subtraction choice raises a large question in my mind. What preservation responsibilities do museums have for pieces they deaccession? Once something is on the auction block, for example, chances are good it will leave the protected public realm forever, lost as a document held for years in public trust on behalf of past, present and future generations.
The sale of museum collections on the open market seems a civic tragedy. This arena of private commerce is not devoted to preserving things for public benefit. An argument can be made that anyone paying $50.1M for something has a vested interest in keeping it safe. But who knows? The secret world of art wheeling and dealing destroys scores of paintings with varnish and wax relining–no doubt to the horror of artists like Picasso and Braque–or through neglect or ignorance.
It is interesting the gusto with which deaccessioning is now embraced by museums who rarely (ever?) express concern for the physical well-being of what leaves the collection. How does this reflect what Steven Lubar writes in his excellent book: Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present, [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2017, p. 137]. “When museums collect things, they take on ethical obligations not only to the communities those objects come from, or are meaningful to, but also to the objects themselves.” Does this suggest why deaccessioning still elicits loud criticism? Does it suggest why complaints always come from outside the museum world?
Controversies about museum deaccessioning inevitably focus on boards of trustees as they make final departure decisions for pieces deemed no longer a fit. Questions are asked: Why don’t the trustees pony up whatever money is needed in a particular circumstance? Is the museum in financial duress? Why not sell things to another museum, thus keeping the piece and its records altruistically preserved? What recourse do scholars have when seeking information about lost collections? How do donors respond to the loss of their gifts? Aside from a convenient tax deduction, who will donate to a place for which collections are money in the bank to be raided at will?
Years ago I wrote a piece called “Guilt-Free Deaccessioning” for the American Association of Museums’ magazine Museum News (now Museum) about the advantages of deaccessioning by inter-museum transfer. Today I would use a different title: Win, Win, Win, Win Deaccessioning. Why? Because the museum removing an item presumably wins with its departure, the museum getting the object wins by its acquisition, the object wins by surviving, and the public wins with continued access. Inter-museum transfer happens. I hope it becomes a first-choice option rather than an afterthought. It will certainly reduce the growing notion that all museum collections can be purchased.
A Bard College graduate, Steven Miller has been in the museum field for nearly five decades as a curator, director, trustee, writer, critic, and consultant. A curator with the Museum of the City of New York for sixteen years, he subsequently administered and directed five regional history museums. He also taught in several graduate museum studies programs including sixteen years with the Seton Hall University MA Program in Museum Professions. He received a Graduate Certificate in the Principles of Conservation Science, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text, Wiley, 2018; Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018; and How to Get a Museum Job: An Inside Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Deaccessioning is a subject that has long intrigued him.
Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960; 69 x 50 in.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, acquired through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
My program is searching for a director. As a result, we are currently led by an interim with many other responsibilities. That could have been an awful choice, but we’ve actually benefitted. Here’s why: He’s so busy his time with us must be efficiently managed. As a result, we have suddenly emerged from the meandering, Seinfeldian, nothingness of our former meetings to gatherings that are very focused and blissfully short.
According to the Harvard Business Review for-profit leaders spend up to 23 hours a week in meetings. How horrific is that?And when does anyone get any actual work done? Leadership Matters speaks frequently about the need for diverse voices around the staff table, for equitable discussion, for differing points of view, but how are your meetings discussions? Or are they simply audio book versions of someone’s to-do list?
We all want a better museum workplace, so here are Leadership Matters‘ 10 tips for better meetings:
- Know who needs to be in the room. Just because there are five or 10 people on your leadership team, does everyone need to meet every week?
- And speaking of weekly meetings, do you need them or does your meeting schedule date to some time before email? Consider experimenting with your meeting schedule.
- Make sure your meetings point forward not backward. Meetings are not an opportunity to rehash the week in minute detail. Looking back is helpful if you’re tweaking something to move forward.
- Agendas are like mini-strategic plans. The people around the table should know why they’re there and where they are going. That means crafting your agenda carefully.
- Meetings are not a stage. If leaders (or anyone else) hog the floor, staff cease to speak up. It’s that simple. And you end up talking to yourself.
- Meetings are an opportunity to be fully present. Unless someone on your museum staff is secretly hiding their career as a high-powered surgeon, there is likely no reason they can’t live without their phone for 40 to 60 minutes. Put a basket in the middle of the table or ask staff to turn their phones off and place them face down.
- Start and end on time. Be respectful of your staff’s time and their other obligations, and stick to the allotted time table. If you’re presenting anything that involves IT, for the love of God, set it up ahead of time and test it. No one wants to wait while you experiment with something that’s not working.
- Don’t expect staff to be creative just because you ask. If you want your colleagues to focus on a particular question or problem during a meeting, use a flipped classroom approach and send them whatever materials they need to prepare ahead of time.
- Staff isn’t family. I know there is a school of thought that says colleagues should be like family, but be mindful that’s not a sentiment shared by all staff. Birthdays and holidays or what staff did over vacation are probably better left in the break room.
- Learn to listen. If you’re a leader, you spend a lot of your workweek in your own head, thinking, questioning, moving organizational puzzle pieces around. You also likely move at a frantic pace. Use your meetings to touch base with colleagues. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t ask empty questions. Ask real ones. Listen to the answers, and welcome push back. At the end of the day, you all serve the same organization, and you all want it to be the best it can be.
Yours from meeting heaven,
This week I spent time with a consultant. She’s visited us before so we know her well. She’s wise and kind, but also direct. Her role is to provide us with a programatic review in preparation for hiring a new director in 2020. At one level it has a Fiddler on the Roof quality–you know, “Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match, find me a find, catch me a catch–” but as with any possible hire, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation too.
Part of that work is to make sure we understand our job descriptions, and how they co-join, creating a strong program. In our conversation she pointed out something so simple I can’t believe I never thought about it. First, she said our job descriptions were empty, anemic things. Then she asked whether we felt valued. We hemmed and hawed, answering sort of and maybe. Bear in mind, there were only three of us in the room. We’re the happiest team members: we love our work; we work well together; we get stuff done, and yet, we struggled with this question. Then she tied the two ideas together, suggesting the former — our bland and formulaic job descriptions, coupled with a general miasma of misunderstanding over what we do and what we’re capable of — left us under-valued. Fortunately, we’re self-directed, confident, and like I said, happy, so the question of value hasn’t been a huge issue, and yet, once she drew our attention to it, it’s hard to un-see.
So all of you out there in museum land: What about your sense of value and self-worth? Who tells you you’re doing a good job? And when was the last time you read your job description? Was it just before your potentially useless annual review when you tried to figure out how far you strayed from the way your position was originally advertised?
As a leader you report to someone higher up even if it’s your board, and you certainly have people reporting to you. If you feel valued, and value those working for and with you, stop reading. If you’re not sure, before you eye roll and say something about leaders are not counselors and your employees’ self worth is their problem, think about this: hiring costs money as does training. People need value and meaning in their lives, and if they can’t find it in your museum, there may be a larger problem.
So if you’re a museum leader, consider the following:
- Make sure your goals and expectations are clear: Write them down and rank them. That way employees, especially front-line employees who are the museum’s public face, don’t have to choose between competing expectations.
- Build a culture that acknowledges good work: sometimes it’s a simple thank you; another day it’s cider doughnuts for the team; or maybe the salaried staff takes the hourly staff’s jobs for an afternoon for work well done. Find your own way to say what your staff does matters.
- Increase staff visibility: When you have the opportunity, toot your team’s horn. Talk about what they do and why it has value. And make sure everyone’s contribution is acknowledged at the completion of an exhibit, program or campaign.
- Consider what you can do: Workplace wellness is one of the top concerns cited in Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends survey of for-profit businesses, not to mention the numerous articles and posts in museum-related publications. Think about instituting an on-site health screening, a wellness challenge, or a paid hour a week of wellness time for employees to use. If museum leadership puts wellness on the table, that permits everyone to be concerned. Working a 12-hour day isn’t an option because–oh, you’re valued–and you need time away to re-charge and re-group.
And if you’re a staff member who’s under-appreciated:
- Talk to your boss. Does she know what you’re doing outside the lines of your job description? Bring your list of recent accomplishments. Does your job description need editing based on what you’re doing?
- This isn’t kindergarten and getting a gold star won’t give your work meaning. That comes from you. Carve out time for personal reflection, daily or weekly or even monthly. What went well? What gave you satisfaction? Pat yourself on the back when you get a win.
- Are your skills wasted? Is there a gap between your job description and your talents? If yes, talk to your boss. Maybe it’s time to alter your job description.
- And if not, know when it’s time to move on. People who love their work and their job, find meaning and value in what they do almost every day. There are a billion reasons to tell yourself you can’t change jobs. Do you tell yourself you should quit, but somehow looking for another job always moves to the bottom of the list? Figure out why, and then move toward something new and better.
In a few weeks it will be Thanksgiving when we gather with friends and family to say a collective thank you. Don’t wait ’til then. In fact, don’t wait. Tell your colleagues, your staff, and your board when they matter. Let them know they’re valued. Who knows maybe next time they’ll return the favor?
To begin, if you’re looking for an interesting listen, try Museopunks. This week hosts Suse Anderson and Ed Rodley examine ICOM’s existential crisis over the definition of the word ‘museum’ by gathering voices from around the world. Each of the 11 participants (myself included) muses on the nature and importance of the definition. For those of us at work in museum land it’s an interesting chorus. Take a listen.
This was also the week Anne Ackerson and I talked about gender and leadership with our Johns Hopkins graduate students. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned gender here, but given that we’re a century from the passage of the 19th amendment, it’s appropriate to remember (again) how far we’ve come, and how much work there is left to do. In addition to talking with our students, I also listened to NPR’s On Point where Meghna Chakrabarti and David Folkenflik spoke with three individuals about the fact that 2019 marks the moment when women become the majority in the college-educated workforce.
As a woman and a member of a generation who were trail blazers in the workplace even when we didn’t realize it, I need only speak with our graduate students to understand the breadth and depth of the distance we’ve travelled. The women are acutely aware of workplace gender issues, having suffered the slings and arrows of mansplaining, verbal head-patting, not to mention more pointed harassment. Unlike my generation, many are also woke to the wage gap. For the men, things are different. They are different, and quick to point out that they are not their father’s or grandfather’s generation. Some reference the strong women in their lives, suggesting the way they were raised means they behave differently. And therein lies an issue. They believe their values and behavior will change the museum workplace. I hope they’re right.
Their words were echoed by the On Point interviewees, one of whom suggested part of our problems stem from the Boomer generation. Although I’d like to be more optimistic, it’s hard to believe that once the last Boomer folds her tent and heads for retirement, that the workplace will be cleansed of gender bias. While anything is possible, as far as I know, Target’s toy section is still filled with gendered toys: girls’ toys are pink and sparkly and boys’ toys are camouflage-colored and make noise. Even searching for a toy is a gendered experience. I don’t mean to single out Target, only to point out that unless millennials were raised by unique parents, they are just as likely to suffer gender imprinting as earlier generations, and are as subject as the rest of us to the relentless barrage of gender norms. And woe betide the non-binary child for whom a neat parsing of pink and princess vs. red and soldier does not not fit.
The point is only–and we’ve said this countless times here–workplace equity isn’t about you and your politically correct feelings. Your upbringing and your beliefs are in fact, immaterial. What matters is how you act: How the bucket of impressions and experiences you carry with you takes meaning as it makes its way into the world. No matter how kind, empathetic and understanding you are, if somewhere in your lizard brain, you implicitly believe that men are natural leaders, that informs your decision making as leader and follower. Museum workplace gender bias is still a thing, and change only happens when staff is self-aware, understands their workplace culture, and when museums and heritage organizations actively support staff in all their glorious diversity.
While we’re waiting for perfection:
- Don’t ascribe bias to one generation while not looking to your own as well.
- If you have power, acknowledge it.
- Don’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready for a response that may be at odds with yours.
- Try not to avoid conflict at the expense of honest communication that could clear the air.
- If you are in a leadership position, know yourself and how you present. Ditto for your museum or heritage organization.
- Remember, you make change through action, and your observation is your obligation.
- Be respectful of other’s experience. No matter how informed, intentional and empathetic you are, their narrative may be different, and it takes time to build trust.
Yours for an equitable workplace,
Image: Portland Art Museum
Decolonizing is the word of the moment. Symbolizing action, the old ways swept aside, as everyone left outside the museum narrative steps forward; it’s a powerful verb. For more than a year, we’ve witnessed decolonization at a multitude of levels from venerable European museums beginning the process of returning antiquities to countries once deemed too ‘backward’ to care for anything, much less their own patrimony, to American art museums mining collections for work by women and people of color long banished to storage or never purchased in the first place, and historic sites grappling–often for the first time–with the through-line of slavery. With that as back drop, it’s no surprise that the decolonization discussion finally turned toward money. Specifically, an argument’s been made that how money’s made, and where it comes from, impacts gifts to the museum, which impact the organization itself. And not in a good way.
The best-known example of this is Warren Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney’s board in July 2019. Kanders, who served as the Whitney’s board co-chair, joined the board in 2006, donating more than $10 million in his 13-year tenure. But Kanders is not alone. The Sackler family of Purdue Pharma is also persona non grata. Although their name is tied to spaces at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, Harvard’s Sackler Museum, and the Guggenheim’s Education Wing, museums–including the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Natural History have all decided they will no longer accept gifts from the Sacklers.
With all of this as background, in its summer issue of Museum Magazine, AAM published an article titled “Decolonizing Development,” by Chong-Anna Confora. In it Confora writes, “Decolonization is social justice, anti-racist work. In order to decolonize fund development, we must ask ourselves: What organizational practices can we dismantle that center whiteness and reinforce white supremacy through fund development?”
There is a lot here to grapple with. On the one hand a part of you–maybe not your noblest part–wishes you had an endowment big enough to turn down a gift like the ones the Kanders and Sacklers gave. On the other hand, taking money made by companies whose values you abhor may make you cringe. What should you do? Are there board members in your own organization who are consistently generous, but whose money comes from unsavory or conflict-ridden endeavors? And since we’ve opened that door, where is your organization’s endowment invested? Are those investments conflict-ridden as well?
If you are like many museum leaders, you may serve an organization built on the generosity of people whose values and opinions might distress you were you to meet them today. And yet there you are, darkening the same door that symbolizes white supremacy as Confora calls it. You may literally owe your livelihood to a group of white men’s careful investing. Your organization may have been the beneficiary of charity, which Confora underscores as different from justice. Charity, she says, quoting the Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Hayes, is often hierarchical, where the giver has all the power and the receiver very little. Justice, she writes, “is an ongoing process of rebalance, of achieving the equality that everyone is entitled to.”
Are you confused yet? Flailing between what feels like moral bankruptcy and the fear of plain old garden variety bankruptcy? Well you should be. And I don’t have any answers, only some thoughts. Here they are:
- First, if you haven’t read the inimitable Darren Walker on the politics of donors and museums, do so.
- Next, as we’ve said so often here, remember we’re all human, and change is difficult. Simply decreeing that something ought to be, won’t make it happen, even in the face of a pyrrhic victory like seeing Kanders resign. (Under other circumstances, the Whitney’s board would hardly be the poster child for narrow-minded, white, Waspy privilege.)
- Grapple with the fact that your values and belief systems may not be your board’s. Does that make any of you bad people? Is it your job as a museum leader to bring the board ’round to your point of view? Or is your job to serve your organization? If the latter, in slowly re-centering your organization, might its values change? Understand then, there is a difference between individual values and collective ones. As Darren Walker writes, “It’s relatively easy to talk about destroying a system. It’s harder to build and sustain one. While I appreciate protests, those of us who are focused on solutions can’t be distracted by extreme perspectives.”
- If you are going to set your flag on the moral high ground with big money as the enemy, make sure you know what you don’t know. Shaming one board member as a climate change villain while running a less than green museum campus might be a bridge too far. Not to mention that without major gifts you will need five times as many small ones, and will you investigate their sources as well?
Despite the fact that people like me blather weekly about museum leadership, museums and heritage sites are run by boards, who raise new money, supervise the investment of old money, and set the organizational tone and culture. If you want to make change, make friends and allies on your board. Board Source’s latest report reveals that in 2016 84-percent of boards were white and yet only 24-percent said that demographics is important in recruitment despite the fact that 79-percent of executive directors said that a diverse board advances mission.
So….in a nutshell:
- Help your board to change. Help them understand the need for diversity, and the role implicit bias plays in the non-profit workplace, including the board.
- Make sure your board understands the racial wealth gap and the gender pay gap, and that they understand that money is not the only way board members build organizations.
- Work on patience. Real change develops from human-to-human interaction in service of a common goal–your museum.
The International Council of Museums may seem like it has about as much to do with your work as New York’s fashion week does with your sartorial choices. In other words, not much. ICOM is literally some far-away group deciding things that have nothing to do with you, a museum leader with a new strategic plan underway, an underpaid and overworked staff, and insufficient funding for just about everything. But wait, maybe it does. Just as Fashion Week has a trickle-down effect on day-to-day wear for the average human, so too does ICOM’s decision making. So while it may seem like a lot of talk about a lot of nothing, ICOM’s proposed new museum definition, and its failure to pass, is actually kind of important.
For those of you for whom ICOM is a new acronym, the International Council of Museums was born in 1946, another child of the post-war baby boom. It’s opening meeting took place in Paris where its first-elected president was Chauncey J. Hamlin, politician, public figure, philanthropist, and president of the board of both the Buffalo Museum of Science and the American Museum Association (now the American Alliance of Museums.) In 2007, 61 years from its founding, ICOM adopted a “new” definition for museums:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
This year, when ICOM members gathered in Kyoto, Japan the plan was to vote on another definition of museums, one that is far more aspirational then previous versions. Spoiler alert: the new definition wasn’t adopted. But for those of you who missed it, here it is:
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.
Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
So why should you care? Well, maybe you can’t. Maybe this week or next you just don’t have the bandwidth to think about the museum field at a global level. But if you do, here are some thoughts about why it might matter to you, toiling away in museum land around the globe.
- First, ICOM’s argument is your argument. You may not have hashed it out on a global stage, but how many of you have discussed Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry’s “Museums are not neutral” campaign with board or staff? And P.S. if you haven’t, you might want to. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to talk.
- Second, since 2007, ICOM has seen museums as “permanent institutions in service of society.” Before we even think about its proposed new definition, that’s an interesting line to parse. How many of you (and your boards) think of your institutions in service to society? And what about your definition of society? Is it inclusive?
- How many of you feel that too many museums, particularly, but not exclusively, American heritage institutions are blissfully disconnected from their communities? If your answer is yes, then the new definition might speak directly to you. It asks you to guarantee equal rights and equal access to collections, and to aim to contribute to human dignity and social justice. What does that mean for curators at fancy robber-baron houses? What does it mean for art museums where by some counts 87-percent of the work is by men, most of them white? What does it mean for your typical early 19th-century kitchen where for years the dangers and drudgery of housework is somehow subsumed in the nifty qualities of flat irons and wash boards?
It seems to me, far from the center of ICOM discussions, that the proposed definition asks two things of us all, one of which is far easier than the other. First, it asks us to stop pussyfooting around and tell our collections’ stories in a transparent, authentic way that connects past with present, telling the whole story even the parts we can’t show because we don’t own the stuff. Second, and this is trickier, it asks us to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Contributing is a loaded word. Is simply doing all the regular museum things–exhibitions, programs, fund raising but better—enough? Or do we need to actually take a stand? And does taking a stand affect development efforts, collecting, programming, and exhibitions? Does it blur the line between individual values and organizational ones? Does it mean we support our staff members who openly protest? And what would it look like? Would it mean that as the local historical museum we stand with our local human rights organization when a member of our community is about to be deported?
You don’t need me to tell you that museum land in the age of Google is different. Is it possible that whether ICOM makes a decision about a new museum definition or not, that all of us need to change? That if we can’t change, the public, who has the entire world in words and images on the their phones, will go somewhere else for information, for history, for tranquility, for a civics lesson, for connection? So regardless of what ICOM does, it’s up to you. Listen. Know what you don’t know. Know what your collection means, not just in a textbook sense, but to your community. Find and make meaningful connections, person to person, object to person, collections to community. Make museums matter.
P.S. In the spirit of bringing everyone to the table the wonderful Maria Vlachou directs us to a Padlet created by Anna Marras with voices from around the world commenting on what museums could and should do prompted by ICOM’s recent meeting.