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!

 

Assessing Allyship with the AAM

October is a great time to talk about LGBTQ+ identity in museums! You may be thinking, “Isn’t Gay Pride in June?” and you’d be right, but October is also a key month for discussing more than just pride. Not only was National Coming Out Day held on October 11th, but it also happens to be LGBT History Month in the US and UK. Additionally, the first annual International Pronouns Day was observed this year. This event seeks to normalize the practice of recognizing preferred pronouns and asking for them in public spaces. Considering as well the recent rumors that the Department of Health and Human Services is about to propose changes to the federal definition of of gender to exclude trans and genderqueer people from federal civil rights protections, the time is right to evaluate how museums are treating their LGBTQ+ audiences, staff, and subjects.

The American Alliance of Museums has made a guide for welcoming LGBTQ+ people available for several years now and it is an excellent place to start when evaluating if your museum is doing all it can do to support the LGBTQ+ members of its community. The guide is multi-faceted, applying LGBTQ+ concepts to AAM’s seven Standards of Excellence, ranging from Facilities Management to Public Trust and Accountability and everything in between. Like their Standards of Excellence, the LGBTQ+ Guidelines provide a handy self-assessment checklist to aid museum staff in evaluating their own institutions. So what do these standards look like?

 

 

 

 

In this example from the Public Trust and Accountability section, you can clearly see how a Standard of Excellence, in this case adherence to all federal, state, and local laws, can be put through an LGBTQ+ critique that results in guidelines that surpass the requirement to comply with laws. While your institution will of course continue to follow any governing statutes, regulations do not always protect people from harassment on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, for example. In a case like this, creating an internal policy that assures your LGBTQ+ staff and visitors that harassment or bias is not permitted on site helps your organization move from indifference to welcome.

 

 

 

Here, within the Mission and Planning standard, the recommendation to be inclusive of local communities when making decisions regarding collections, exhibits, or programming is applied specifically to the LGBTQ+ community. Moving beyond “token” attempts at diversity to build relationships with your local LGBTQ+ community groups shows an investment in the people that make up your audience. Consulting with LGBTQ+ experts and groups when putting together exhibits demonstrates an interest in accurately representing a marginalized community.

The intention of these guidelines is to provide measurable benchmarks that indicate that an institution has moved past “tolerance” of LGBTQ+ people into “inclusion” or better yet, ownership and community collaboration. In a time where rights that have been secured are at risk of being rolled back, it is worth taking a fresh look at these guidelines to consider if your institution is doing all it can to be an ally of the LGBTQ+ community.

Symposium on the Rosa Parks House Project this Friday, May 18

Please join RISD and Waterfire Providence for a symposium on the controversial artist intervention on the Rosa Parks House. The day begins with a tour of the project followed by panel discussions about art, preservation, and memory. This project brings up questions of race, artistic appropriation and preservation and should be an important discussion for all. Free. For more information about the symposium, please visit their website.

Free Workshop for EMPS next Thursday

It’s exactly as it sounds: a FREE workshop with one of our favorite Tufts professors with no registration fee.
Creativity in Museum Practice
Thursday, June 5, 6:00 – 8:00 pm
USS Constitution Museum
Join Rainey Tisdale and Linda Norris, authors of the new book Creativity in Museum Practice, for a fun, useful, and informative workshop about creativity, both for yourself and for your museum.
Let us know the YEPs know that you’re coming by signing up on Eventbrite.

Museum Next Scholarships!

If you haven’t heard of Museum Next… you should! It’s Europe’s major conference on museums and technology AND they’re offering incredibly simple-to-apply-to scholarships for student EMPs.

Find out more here.

 

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