Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Three more years until a new definition

A man wearing glasses leans over a look, looking closely at something he is pointing at

We return to the question, “What is a museum?” this week but, instead of doodles by summer campers, we have the perspectives of the International Council of Museums community. A new museum definition was up for a vote at ICOM’s 25th General Conference in Kyoto, Japan this past weekend. The museum community polarized into two strongly for- and anti-new definition camps and, without a consensus, the Extraordinary General Assembly voted to… vote later.

The current ICOM museum definition, which has not changed much in decades and is likely familiar to most museum professionals, is as follows:

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.

Current definition from ICOM Statutes, adopted by the 22nd General Assembly on 24 August, 2007

The new definition, which split opinions worldwide, focuses less on the “what” and more on the “how” and “why” of museums. It references hot topics such as diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, and pushes the idea of a museum ever closer to forum than temple:

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.

new alternative museum definition selected by the Executive Board of ICOM on July 2019

I find my own opinions on this definition are split; I am drawn to the prioritizing of working with and for all people, but the ideas in it are disorganized. The editor in me wants something more concise! François Mairesse, a French professor and museum professional who resigned from the ICOM committee in charge of developing the new definition, shared a similar sentiment with The Art Newspaper, saying, “A definition is a simple and precise sentence characterizing an object, and this is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant.” He went on to say that the new definition was exclusionary to existing museums who do not match or would have difficulty adapting to it, adding, “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

For me, this second part of Mairesse’s argument has no legs. The practical difference between the current and new definitions is the exclusion of the word education and the inclusion of voices outside of museum staff and leadership. Words and phrases such as democratising [sic], polyphonic, participatory, and critical dialogue mark the strongest change in how a museum who adheres to the new definition might operate. The rest – basic ideas on collecting, conserving, researching, interpreting (and can’t interpretation include education, anyways?), and exhibiting objects and ideas that tell the story of humanity for humanity – remains the same, albeit with loftier goals of benefiting “planetary wellbeing.”

Is that not what we, the museum community, should be striving for? To continue our work with care and further engage the communities we serve – to share the responsibilities of authority, expertise, and meaning-making? Just because the undertaking may prove challenging for “traditional” museums (Mairesse cited the Louvre, for example), doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

I am curious to see where the definition goes from here, as the vote postponement passed by the Extraordinary General Assembly means that ICOM will have another three years to refine a new definition before it comes up for a vote at the next General Conference. My hope is for something more succinct that keeps the participatory spirit. I expect the topic will be up for fresh debate in many Tufts Museum Studies courses (as well as in programs and institutions globally). What do you think, Tufts Museum Studies Blog readers, how should the definition change between now and 2022?

If you’d like some inspiration, or just a look at the ideas of others, ICOM collected 269 submissions for the Committee on Museum Definition, Prospects and Potentials (MDPP, 2017-2019) to reference as they were coming up with the new definition. Are there any that strike closest to what you think should guide the museums of today? We welcome your thoughts in the comments!

Welcome First-Years of 2019-2020

I want to give a hearty welcome to the incoming Tufts’ students joining the museum studies program. This is a prestigious school with a well-connected group of lecturers, and just as Jennifer and Darcy recently reflected on what museums are and what they should do to be better, so will you in your new course of study. Please feel free to send in an article about what you’ve learned, and don’t hesitate to ask the 2nd-years all the questions you may have. 

I am going to weigh in briefly with what I’ve learned this summer after my internship collecting women’s oral histories and how that affects museums.

Oral histories are vital components of modern historical research and museum education. They create a link to the past about any conceivable subject, and all museums should utilize this tool to engage a more diverse audience. The stories told can capture a whole group of peoples’ attentions because they are hearing “their” story through another person— “their” story in the sense that they can relate the most to a story from someone of a similar background and life pathway. Though oral histories are important pieces to include in museum collections, they are not enough when it comes to including more diverse voices in museum exhibits. Museums need to be willing and able to work at every level of their community, and the staff, and sift through all layers of history to achieve a historical narrative that can bring the most diverse audience together in a common goal of attaining knowledge about the many layers of history. 

Museums are reinventing themselves now because they recognize that older institutions were built on the perspective of the white, middle to upper class point of view, and that is not representative of America today. It is a museum’s social responsibility to create equal cultural opportunities in their space.

This is something you’ll be learning in the Museum’s Today class, First-Years. In September, ICOM is voting on a new definition of a museum, that emphasizes inclusivity and dialogue that encourages “human dignity, … social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Be thinking about what the editors at this blog and the Tufts’ Museum Studies Community have been reflecting on when it comes to what a museum is and where it is going, and where it should go. I’d love to discuss it with you in the lounge!

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.
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