Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Making Use of the Tools We Have

This week the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) announced that they will be closing their doors for four months later this year to complete their ongoing renovation and completely rehang their collection. When the museum reopens in the fall, they will rotate their collection more frequently, juxtapose works in different mediums, and, crucially, include more works that emphasize the contributions of women, people of color, and non-European artists to modern and contemporary art. They will also partner with the Studio Museum in Harlem, an American art museum that focuses on African American artists, to display their collection while that museum is being renovated.

This is a massive and much needed undertaking. Women and people of color have historically been included in MoMA’s exhibits in marginal ways. A 2015 Artnet survey of solo exhibitions from 2007-2014 at major American art museums found that only 20% of MoMA’s shows featured women artists. Not that these types of exclusion are limited to MoMA. Artnet recently looked at exhibitions of work by black artists at 30 major museums from 2008 to 2018 and found that they accounted for a mere 7.6 percent. So full-throated attempts to remedy these biases and gaps are welcomed. But not every museum can afford to close for months to revamp their space or aggressively collect work from marginalized artists. What can workers at those institutions do?

I recently attended a workshop on Social Justice and Museums run by Nicole Claris, Manager of School Programs at the MFA, Boston, and Sara Egan, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The workshop was put on by the Young Emerging Professionals group of the New England Museum Association. Its focus was on how to marshal resources to create exhibits, programming, and other experiences that surface marginalized lives and multiple points of view. Examples of real life successes were shared, like revamping a volunteer training program to give docents the knowledge and tools they needed to tell inclusive and truthful stories. Then step by step instructions for how to apply these intentions to your institution were shared:

  1. The work begins with you. Take a moment to check with yourself and see if you are able to take feedback about your work. It is ok to make mistakes, but we also have to be able to learn from them. This is how we build more inclusive experiences that share multiple perspectives.
  2. Define your goals and audience. What tools and objects do you already have in your institution? Perhaps it is a piece of art featuring a person of color. Are you telling that story? Maybe your historical institution starts its narrative when Europeans came on the scene. Can you surface the indigenous story as well?
  3. Get support. Determine how the actions you want to take relate to your institutional values and priorities. Identify people in your institution that could be allies. Build an external network of people who can help you do this work – who is doing this work that you can point to as a leader? What community organizations can you build relationships with to help your organization change? Who can help you with your blind spots and keep you honest?
  4. Identify activities that align with your goals. External resources from organizations doing this sort of thinking can help. Among those recommended were the Teaching Tolerance Project from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model.
  5. Use your collection! Know what you have, through and through. Take opportunities to research objects that you think might have another perspective to share.
  6. Picture success. What will change look like in your institution? Remember that incremental change is better than no change at all.

We don’t all work at MoMA, but we can all make changes that tell wider, more robust stories about art, history, science, and the world. Do you have resources for doing this sort of work? Share in the comments!

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!

 

Boston Emerging Museum Professionals Meetup

Heads up on this potentially very fun evening!

Our next event will be Tuesday, August 30th at 6pm. We’ll be getting a behind the scenes look at the Bostonian Society’s Old State House with staff from the collections department and then heading to a bar nearby in Faneuil Hall or Downtown Crossing.
To RSVP, please email BostonEMPs[at]gmail[dot]com

Upcoming NEMA Workshops

There are some really great workshops coming up this spring, and if you’re a NEMA member, they’re only $40 each. Scroll down to check out a series of workshops sponsored by the NEMA Young Emerging Professionals – $15 each, 6-8pm, and focused on interviewing and building your resume.

Exhibitions & Conservators PAGs Workshop
Best Practices in Exhibit Lighting
Friday, March 4, 2011
deCordova Museum & Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA
The Exhibitions and Conservators PAGs are teaming up this year to bring you a workshop on exhibit lighting — by popular demand!
Sponsored in part by Gaylord-Your Trusted Source®
Register

Historic Sites PAG Workshop
From Docents to Smart Phones: Creating a Compelling Interpretive Experience at Historic Sites
Friday, March 25, 2011
Gore Place, Waltham, MA
The ultimate goal of any historic site is not only to engage the visitor but to make their visit so memorable that they will return, support, and promote by word of mouth. This workshop will explore how historic sites create a compelling visitor experience.
Sponsored in part by Gaylord-Your Trusted Source®
Register

Children’s Museums & Exhibitions PAGs Workshop
Especially for Me: Innovative Ways Museums Can Support Visitors of All Abilities
Monday, March 28, 2011
Wistariahurst Museum, Holyoke, MA
With an estimated 19% of Americans classified as disabled, how can museums be responsive to this segment of the population? Join us at Wistariahurst Museum, Holyoke, MA, as we explore innovative ways to design exhibits and programs that promote inclusion and disability awareness.
Register

Membership, Development, PR and Marketing PAG Workshop
Best of Times, Worst of Times: Making the Most of What You Have
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Fitchburg Art Museum
This year’s workshop sessions will demonstrate strategies for getting a lot accomplished with small staffs and small budgets. Learn to effectively promote and execute fundraising events; discover ways to prosper as a development department of one; and share ways to get the best publicity possible for your institution.
Register

New This Year!!

Learn, Laugh, Live: A New Series of Mini-Workshops with Maxi-Impact
A series of mini-workshops*
Presented by the Young and Emerging Museum Professionals (YEP) PAG
6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. on March 23, April 20, May 11, 2011
Otis House, Historic New England, Boston, MA
Co-sponsored by Historic New England
LEARN — How to Interview “Big Wig” Speed Dating Style
LAUGH — How to Break into a Tricky Field in a Tough Economy
LOVE — How to Build Your Resume Through Internships, Articles, Conferences, and Presentations
* Each mini-workshop is $15 for NEMA Members, $25 for Non-Members. Members can register for all three mini-workshops for $40.
Register

Space is limited. Please visit www.nemanet.org and sign up today!

Registration Fee (includes lunch): $50 NEMA members / $60 non-members / $40 students

Boston EMP Tour of the New MFA

Just a quick note to say that the Emerging Museum Professionals event yesterday morning – a highlights tour of the new MFA Art of the Americas wing followed by lunch – was an absolute blast! If you’re not on the Boston EMP mailing list, then you’re missing out on some great opportunities.

EMPs were treated to a tour of the new wing given by Curator of Education Barbara Martin, who focused on museological issues. She gave us some great insight into how the MFA envisioned, planned, and executed the wing. Some galleries allowed the MFA to display more of their collections from storage (the John Singer Sargent gallery in particular was wonderful), some allowed them to expand into new collecting areas (Art Deco, for example), and some galleries finally gave the museum space to achieve what Martin called “critical mass” by displaying a collection together to show its richness (Mayan ceramics). In all, 30% of the MFA’s American collections are on display in the new wing.

After the tours (two tours, actually, due to the enthusiastic response of the EMP group) a group of about fifteen met in the museum cafeteria to compare notes, discuss the all-important job market, and toss out great ideas for the future of museums.

I said it up top, but I’ll repeat myself: follow the Boston EMPs on Facebook and Twitter, and get yourself on the mailing list so you can be there with us next time!

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