Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

What is a museum – and what goes in it?

As students and museum professionals, we are constantly revisiting the question of, “What is a museum?” We ask it of ourselves and of the visitors we serve – a quick search on Youtube, for example, yields such entertaining videos as What is a Museum? from The Brain Scoop and Ask the Kids: What is a Museum? from The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

I gathered a few more answers to the question this week as I taught summer camp at the Dallas Museum of Art. Titled The Museum of ME!, this camp introduced children ages 6-8 to different museum jobs and how exhibitions are created (thanks for the inspiration, Tufts course on Exhibition Planning!). By the end of the week, campers took on the roles of curator, designer, conservator, registrar, preparator, and educator as they developed and fabricated their own mini museums.

To start us off right, our very first activity was a big camp brainstorm to come up with a collective understanding of, “What is a museum?” Each camper and teacher drew a picture of something they believed “goes” in a museum, which we then taped to a big butcher paper drawing of an imaginary museum. You can see some of the responses below – each is a tiny representation of our museum interests and priorities. A few might even make you laugh.

Unsurprisingly, my contribution was… summer camp!

What might you add to our museum? What is a museum to you?

Moves Toward Transformative Climate Change at the MFA

Transformation creates opportunities and problems that call for collective interpretation: What are we about? Who are we? What is important? What are our priorities?

(Eckel & Kezar, 2003a)

In May of 2019, a story of racist behavior directed at students of color at the MFA Boston broke on news sites across the internet. Seventh graders from Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy, a charter middle school in Dorchester, MA, reported being targeted by racist speech from MFA staff and visitors and racial profiling by security. In the weeks since, the MFA has conducted investigations into the events, banned the visitors who made racist comments, opened discourse between museum and Davis Academy leadership, and organized community roundtables to begin the healing process.

Toward a More Inclusive MFA details the MFA’s responses to the Davis Academy visit and updates regarding MFA efforts regarding inclusion in the institution at large. Such transformation takes time and needs certain elements to foster change among individuals and at the institutional level. The five elements needed for transformative climate change as identified by Eckel & Kezar (2003b) are senior administrative support, collaborative leadership, flexible vision, faculty/staff development, and visible action. How have MFA efforts aligned with these five elements?

1. Senior Administrative Support

MFA leadership has been involved in these efforts from the beginning. Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the MFA, has been quoted often in stories from news sites. Museum-issued statements have come jointly from the chiefs of each department at the MFA. Makeeba McCreary, Chief of Learning and Community Engagement at the MFA, reached out to Davis Academy leadership herself to start the reparative process and has organized a series of roundtables on inclusion and race among educational and non-profit leaders in the Boston area.

2. Collaborative Leadership

As all information regarding this process is coming from MFA leadership, it appears that all of these measures are mandated by MFA leadership. Whether staff at different levels have had or will have input into the process is unknown. However, MFA leadership has openly collaborated with the community on this issue. They have been engaged with Davis Academy leadership since the incident and have opened discourse with community members regarding inclusion and racial equity.

3. Flexible Vision

Because museums serve the public at large, it behooves them to leave the specifics of “who for” and “how” open-ended. This way, museums can (theoretically) respond to trends with greater agility. The MFA does not have a clearly defined vision statement; instead, the mission is supplemented with statements in the MFA 2020 strategic plan and inclusion statements in Toward a More Inclusive MFA. In this time of action, MFA leadership should consider revisiting the mission. It was written in 1991 and, while flexible, it is old and places primary emphasis on caring for the collection. The idea is not to bring the focus so far away from collections, as Chet Orloff warns against in “Should Museums Change Our Mission and Become Agencies of Social Justice?” (Orloff, 2017); rather, it is to explicitly express that visitors are as valued as the objects within the museum’s walls.

4. Faculty/Staff Development

Among the first measures announced by the MFA were staff trainings on conflict resolution and unconscious bias. Trainings were scheduled for June and July and some have already been completed. Similar volunteer trainings are being scheduled, but the timeline there is unknown. Information on follow-up sessions is unavailable, but the MFA has also noted that they contracted external consultants to “expedite and evolve” ongoing training in which all staff is required to participate. (“Toward a More Inclusive MFA,” 2019)

Before the Davis Academy visit, the MFA had already been working toward diversifying its staff through new recruitment methods, including adding paid teen internships and mentorship programs. Further steps toward enabling individuals from diverse backgrounds to earn a meaningful, sustainable living at the MFA include raising wages, adding full-time entry-level positions (and therefore benefits), and changing the requirements of and language in job descriptions. The Design Museum Foundation offers an excellent example of inclusive language in a job posting:

We know there are great candidates who may not fit into what we’ve described above, or who have skills we haven’t thought of. If that’s you, don’t hesitate to apply and tell us about yourself. We are committed to diversity and building an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and ages. We especially encourage members of traditionally underrepresented communities to apply, including women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

(“Marketing Manager – Foundation,” n.d.)

5. Visible Action

Towards a More Inclusive MFA is updated weekly with notes on completed trainings, results from investigations, and responses to news stories. People can also subscribe to the MFA email list to receive notice of updates as they happen. Some change can already be seen and heard in the museum more staff has been added to the galleries and school groups entrance. They have also changed the greeting used for school groups to be more welcoming and to avoid confusion with hurtful speech.

It goes without saying that the road toward healing and toward a more inclusive MFA will be long and challenging. The efforts so far are promising in terms of meeting the recommended elements for transformative climate change, though there is always room for improvement.

What are your thoughts on the matter?


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Talking the Talk: Next Steps for the Salary Spreadsheet

You may have seen the Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency spreadsheet: a Google sheet of (at the time of this posting) nearly 2000 museum salaries from around the world. The nature of the data for each submission varies, but most entries include the name or type of museum, individual’s role and department, location, starting and ending salary, benefits, and required degree. Some individuals have also provided their gender and race. The bulk of the submissions come from museum professionals working in the United States, but the sheet also includes entries from countries such as Brazil, France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

Kimberly Rose Drew (@museummammy) shared her story of undercompensation at the 2019 AAM Annual Meeting & Expo

Michelle Millar Fisher, an assistant curator in the European decorative arts and design department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and colleagues created the spreadsheet to encourage transparency across the field after being inspired by Kimberly Rose Drew’s story of how she learned she had been undercompensated for her work at The Met. They may have also been inspired by a similar spreadsheet created weeks earlier by Alison Green of Ask A Manager for the same purpose: to “take the mystery out of salaries.”

At this point, the spreadsheet has grown 1800% since its first day and the story has been picked up by news sites such as Artnews, Artnet, Business Insider, Nonprofit Quarterly, and others. Fisher expressed her hope to Artnews that the spreadsheet “… encourages a conversation between coworkers… If you don’t do it, everything stays the same. Sometimes it takes just one tiny action. Solidarity is the only way to effect great change.”

Where do we go from here? What can you do?

  1. If you haven’t yet, look over the spreadsheet. It’s grown from a 100-entry sheet of mainly curatorial submissions to a nearly 2,000-entry behemoth of positions in administration, collections, digital, education, operations, security, visitor services, and other departments. If you’re interested in downloading a copy of the data, you may be able to obtain one by emailing the contact provided on the front page of the sheet.
  2. Submit your own entry. The spreadsheet has been locked to preserve its data, but you can (and should!) add your information through this Google form. While it has grown impressively, we’re still nowhere near a full picture of the field.
  3. Be open with your colleagues. Workplace etiquette has long dictated to keep mum about one’s salary, but silence perpetuates the status quo. Transparency about salaries and benefits exposes both institution-based and field-wide inequities.
  4. Speak up. In a NY Times article about the Ask A Manager spreadsheet, Liz Dolan of the podcast “Safe for Work” and formerly of the marketing teams for Nike and the Oprah Winfrey Network suggests “[asking] for regular raises, noting that the earnings compounded over time [are] considerable.” She also notes, “Sometimes you have to be first and that is the scary part… It’s important to build that confidence.” Whether you are applying for or already in a museum job, use the data from this spreadsheet and other resources such as annual wage surveys to bolster your ask for pay you deserve. (You can find additional pay-related resources under Tab 3: Other Resources on the spreadsheet.)
  5. Team up. Asking for change can be intimidating. Lean on and lend your support to colleagues if you or they decide to speak up.
  6. Share up. Transparency is important; action on the the information provided is doubly so. Share the spreadsheet and other salary data with the people with pockets (or paying power): museum leadership, board members, HR, you name it. They need to understand that this is an issue to be taken seriously, and – hopefully – with our voices combined, we may move the needle.

The Politics of Seeing

A Sign of the Times by Dorothea Lange, 1934

Hopefully summer time is going swimmingly for everyone, whether you’re in internships, jobs, or are relaxing. For museum-goers, popping into an exhibit or two (or thirty) during the dog days is a favorite past-time. And that’s exactly how I kicked off my summer, by visiting the Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeingexhibition in Nashville at the Frist Art Museum.

The difference from last summer to this one is that I have a year of museum studies under my belt, and now I am looking at exhibits with a critical (albeit, novice) eye. Here is my shameless plug and a challengeto anyone reading: send in an exhibit critique this summer for a guest spot on the blog. We would love to hear from places around Boston and beyond—for the nomads. I personally would love to read more about and experience more exhibits that show museums care about engaging all walks of life.

So, rewinding, Dorothea Lange… who is she? She’s a popular photographer from the 20thcentury who used her camera as a tool for justice. She wanted to expose inequalities in regard to race and gender, to address issues around the Great Depression and migrant workers, and to demonstrate the decline of the rural communities and environments. These topics are not unfamiliar to us today, if you will excuse the double negative.

Dorothea Lange

I’ll be frank—I am not a photography fan. I can get down with a selfie or a scenic vista, but my world isn’t transformed by many pictures. I don’t know if it was my schooling coming in handy or maturation on my part, but I appreciated this exhibit for what it was trying to do, to give its audience a lesson on a compelling woman in history who visually captured the lives of those who would have been lost to time and to subtly make a point about how the world hasn’t changed in many ways.

Like many reinvented museum exhibitions today, this exhibit was clearly standing up for something. It wasn’t shying away from pointing out the injustices of this country. The major critique I would give is that it didn’t necessarily give an answer on how to change the oppression of minorities or the neglect of the poverty-stricken in this modern age. However, it does have a charming way of showing how photographs can be edited by the owner to represent the message the owner wants, rather than revealing the whole, complex truth. 

We should care about that visitor connection for so many reasons, but I will start with a basic one: many people for centuries haven’t seen “their story” in a museum and that’s fortunately changing. This exhibit was giving a low down on some of the rundown minorities of the past, but it wasn’t as accessible as it could’ve been due to entrance fees. Go away from this article today thinking about how museums can become more connected with the unconventional museum goer. (On a personal note, feel free to drop a line about how to spice up photography exhibits.)

Taking Stock

As this academic year draws to a close, Kelsey, Amanda, and I are preparing to hand over the reins of this blog to our wonderful new editors who will be introducing themselves to you shortly. In the past year we’ve been able to explore museums from so many angles. We have asked questions about what museums should be and what they shouldn’t. We’ve looked at collections, from the issues with preserving 20th century plastics to the plain weird! We’ve considered how museums play a role in thinking about important social issues of our time and how museums are affected by political events and trends. We believe a deeply considered understanding of and engagement with the local community is crucial to creating a strong and successful museum.

Some of our conversations centered around issues that will concern us directly as workers in the museum industry, whether it be wages and unionization fights, ethical donations, or managing burnout. We’ve examined forward-thinking programs, compelling trends, and how to improve visitor experience. And we’ve considered matters of inclusion, asking who gets included in collections, exhibits, and outreach. We know that museums can not afford to disregard their workers, their visitors, or innovative design if they want to grow and survive a changing landscape.

What we have spent the most time on, however, are matters of race and decolonization. Questions of what history is covered and how, who owns artefacts and how they were obtained are a serious part of the zeitgeist and museums must continue to grapple with them for a long time. We examined changing interpretations to center marginalized people, who is served by an organization, and how to implement decolonization practices. We are certain that this is one of the major issues facing the museum sector globally and many more honest and serious conversations will be needed in the coming years.

We hope that we’ve encouraged you to keep thinking about what a museum can and should mean to its visitors, place, subjects, and workers. We will certainly take these conversations with us as we enter the workplace. Thank you for being a part of this community! Stay tuned to see what the next set of editors will bring to the dialogue.

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