Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Thinking about museum workplace communities

When we think about the people that comprise a museum’s community, sometimes we overlook the very core of that group: the staff. Like all non-profits and cultural organizations, museums often have a small but dedicated crew of people giving 110% toward accomplishing the museum’s mission. And they wouldn’t have it any other way, right? But besides the devoted staff, museums can also often rely on tight budgets, small headcount, and, for small museums, no formal HR department to handle the needs of the people. This can all lead to the feeling that museums are (or should be) a stressful place to work. This can be dangerous for a mission-driven workplace, leading to employee burnout.

Burnout is a bit of a buzzword these days, but with good reason: If an institution’s culture makes people feel exhausted, frustrated, and alienated from their work, people will and do leave. If an industry’s culture does it, they will leave the industry. And we know that has been happening, because people have been writing about it. And as a member of EMP groups online, I can testify that the agonizing conversation  over whether or not to leave the field is taking place all the time, all over the country. That turnover can mean that institutional knowledge is walking out the door faster than it can be replaced, making a museum even more difficult to work for because people are constantly having to reinvent the wheel to keep moving. Museums, like many non-profits and places that depend on inspiration to motivate labor, are places where a number of workplace issues can come together to drain staff of their energy, enthusiasm, and ability to build a great institution. As emerging museum professionals, we should know the signs of burnout and of work cultures that will hasten it. This way, we can try to avoid toxic workplaces and build or grow non-toxic ones as we go. The best way to do that is to think about how we like to be treated in our other communities and implement those processes in our workplaces.

In our other relationships and communities, communication and dialogue in which everyone gets to share their opinions and needs are valued. It may be useful then for museums to create venues for feedback from staff, just like they do for visitors! This can include anonymous surveys, “listening sessions,” where someone in management hosts a group of people to get their feedback, or “postmortems,” meetings after issues or events where problems are assessed and betterments for the next time are decided. Implementation and followup is key: when people share their concerns, institutions must try to figure out how to make progress toward common requests. Do people want more vacation? Can your institution create a flex time policy so people can work around school pickups, appointments, etc? Do people want more money? Can your institution arrange a salary review, comparing salaries to like institutions and see if they are at par? Take in information and communicate plans to address issues.

Let’s not underestimate how important it is to show gratitude and encourage development, either. Thank people for their work. Thank teams for their work. Recognize work publicly. Celebrate finishing a project or hitting a fundraising goal. Encourage professional development, even if it means that a staffer might eventually outgrow their position and leave. Think creatively about low or no cost ways to help your staff develop. And remember that feedback goes both ways! Does your institution do performance reviews? It is difficult to know if you are doing well or to set goals without data.

There are a number of resources and action groups people can get involved with if they want to work more directly on these issues. Joyful Museums is a blog that conducts an annual survey of museum workers and, as the title suggests, thinks about how to create better museums. Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM), is an advocacy group working for equity and transparency in museums on a number of workplace issues and they offer a tipsheet about combating burnout.  The Western Museum Conference recently held a panel on workplace culture, and the thoughtful handouts are available online. Do you have more ideas for fighting burnout or creating a happy and productive museum workplace? Share them in the comments!

 

Teens Programs Teach Us What Kids Can Handle

I recently had the pleasure of going on a tour of the New-York Historical Society‘s special exhibit on Citizenship, entirely curated and presented by Teen Leaders. The exhibit is located on Governor’s Island, a park in New York Harbor that hosts a variety of art installations, food trucks, performances, and other events and activities. A decommissioned military base, exhibits are hosted in the homes of former military officers, making for an interesting backdrop for an exhibit on citizenship.

The Teen Leaders are part of a multi-year Student Historian Internship program at the museum. After completing a summer as a Student Historian, returning students can become Student Curators or Educators. Using New-York Historical’s collection as the basis for their research, last year’s crop of curators created a survey of US history through the lens of citizenship – who has it, who determines eligibility, and how those questions have shaped the United States of America.

The exhibit moves through ideas about who was originally granted citizenship, when different groups of people agitated for full citizen rights, and moments when factions took action to rescind rights from certain groups. The exhibit does not shy away from discussing complicated moments from the United States’ past, and takes care to include a wide representation of “Americans”. Native American citizenship is covered, as well as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Sedition Act, and the 14th and 19th Amendments.

 

Once the objects are selected (and reproduced), labels written, and the exhibit is hung, a second group of Teen Leaders focusing on Education arrive for the summer. These teens take the curators’ work and develop interpretive content for the exhibit that they lead families in all summer, including theatrical presentations and hands-on activities. It was these students that we interacted with as we went through the exhibit, and their enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity was equally on display.

The Teen Educators led us in activities that asked us to engage with the material presented. We created scrapbooks about rights and responsibilities of citizens; connected new images of America to parts of the exhibition; read and responded to quotations about education in America; created flags that represented our own personal identities and values; and even watched an interactive theatrical performance featuring historical figures. The creativity and variety of the activities really encouraged audiences to think deeply about the topics covered, but also contained enough variety to be appropriate for every age range.

What struck me most as I read the labels and played the games was how well these Teen Leaders grasped the importance of their subject. These students have not shied away from the complicated history of who gets to be an American, and done it deftly with fewer than fifty images, highlighting people and events that challenged or upheld the status quo. It was a welcome reminder that teenagers are ready to work with difficult concepts, whether in the classroom or in an informal learning environment. As emerging museum professionals we should keep their abilities in mind as we plan their field trips and learning experiences.

Games, games, games…

by editor Phillippa Pitts

Games have been on my mind a lot this week. I know a lot of people who spend their incredible brainpower building games for museums, like Kellian Adams Pletcher with Murder at the Met, or Susan Edward with the Getty’s Switch (which I admire for its incredible simplicity!). I’ve even built a few games myself with SCVNGR. Nevertheless, I tend to approach gamification from a skeptical starting point.

This week, two new games crossed my desk that couldn’t be more different from each other: History Hero and Papers, Please.

History Heros, Courtesy of HistoryHeros.com

History Heros, Courtesy of HistoryHeros.com

“Papers Please,” courtesy of Slate

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Learning from 100-year-old Museum Education

Check out this amazing story from the Sunderland Museum. In 1913, their curator came up with a program for blind visitors–adults and children–to let them explore objects. Architectural columns, historical gas masks, and scores of natural history specimens were included.

courtesy of Atlas Obscura

courtesy of Atlas Obscura

Make sure you scroll to the end of the article to see the clay models that the visitors made after their visit. Really incredible!

How is this different from what we do today?

LAyouth explains “Why Museums Suck.”

Howard, a 15-year-old, self-described museum-hater, reviews 5 Los Angeles area museums. Definitely worth a read and, if you look in the comments section, you can see that a lot of museum folks have been reading!

http://www.layouth.com/why-museums-suck/

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