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 shouldbe 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 importantsocialissues 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.
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.
Often when a museum is dealing with tight margins, dropping interest from local visitors, and growing infrastructure concerns, they are inclined to draw inward, hunker down, and try to weather the storm by protecting the visitors, donors, and physical spaces they need to survive. Unfortunately, this can backfire, further alienating an institution from the very people that can stabilize and enliven it. While it may feel risky, going out into the community can be a pathway to survival and growth for a museum. I recently had the good fortune to meet with one such organization, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, who took this route.
The Museum of the Shenandoah Valley (MSV) was created in 2005 with a two-fold mission: To house the fine and decorative arts collections of Julian Glass Jr., whose ancestral estate the MSV is built on, and to collect and share the arts and culture of the Shenandoah Valley. The Museum came about after Glass designated in his will that his family estate, Glen Burnie, become a historic house museum after his death. Glen Burnie opened to the public in 1997 and the house and museum were moderately successful, seeing about thirty thousand visitors a year in 2013. But the MSV seemed unable to grow their visitorship beyond that point and had the all too common experience of small museums where the same group of people was constantly engaged with the site, with little interaction with the larger community.
Executive Director Dana Hand Evans, who came on board around that time saw the potential of the site and set out to bring more people into the MSV. They entered into a phase of strategic planning and created a ten year Master Plan to shape the MSV into a “cultural park” for the town of Winchester, VA and the Valley beyond. Evans made a series of curatorial, programmatic, and financial decisions that resulted in big changes and an uptick in local engagement with the museum.
Some of these decisions were small, but made the MSV more welcoming. They opened up their spaces to local organizations for meetings and other events at no charge. Suddenly the local college had access to an offsite space with a piano they could hold concerts in, and local non-profits didn’t need to search for meeting space, and lines of dialogue were opening up. At the same time, the MSV made the choice to stop pursuing grant opportunities that were open to social services. The Shenandoah Valley is a relatively poor area, with the majority of the students in the public school system eligible for free or reduced lunch. In reducing competition for funding for needed services, the MSV signaled to the community that they wanted to help build the people of the Valley up, not just preserve the memory of the people who lived there in the past.
A bigger change was to completely revise the interpretive experience of Glen Burnie, their historic house museum. Previously, the house had been a traditional historic house, with roped-off rooms displaying beautiful objects but with little context about who actually lived in the house. The house needed structural work and they had obtained an NEH grant to remove the contents of the house, do repairs, then reinstall it exactly as it had been before. However, Evans saw an opportunity to do more than maintain the status quo. The MSV undertook a series of listening sessions with community leaders, organizations, teachers, and more to hear their concerns and interests for the site, and to discuss ways to bring more people into the house. Evans and the MSV returned the NEH grant which did not allow for interpretive changes to be made, and sought alternative funding for a new interpretation that featured Julian Glass, Jr. and R. Lee Taylor as central figures in the house, giving visitors a peek into the mid-century life of two gay men who preserved and restored the house and gardens, filled it with fine decorative arts and furniture, and turned it into a social gathering place for their extensive group of friends and family.
Building on the success of that risk, Evans and the MSV have taken many more steps to build stronger bonds between the museum and the larger community. Local artists are now displayed in a small gallery, and a cafe was turned into a makerspace that offers classes and workshops to the public. Other arts education spaces have also been constructed. Seeking a way to expand use of their considerable grounds, the MSV recently completed fundraising to add three miles of walking and biking trails that will connect them to the larger Winchester Green Circle Trail and expand recreational space access for the community. And a new event oval is currently under construction, allowing the MSV to grow a small annual concert into a concert series that brings in thousands of visitors each summer.
In all, the MSV has doubled its visitorship in the past six years, bringing in over seventy thousand visitors in 2018. It has taken a lot of work, fundraising, and communication, but the MSV is in a better position now that they have devoted themselves to creating and strengthening their community connections. For any smaller organizations out there wondering how to create their own sustainable futures, looking at the MSV’s philosophy may be the key.
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 peoplehavebeenwritingaboutit. 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!
There’s a lot of ways to categorize them. Educational institutions. Tourist attractions. Repositories of knowledge or art. A place to bring the kids on spring break. One way that we like to think about a museum is as a community. The membership is a museum’s community, of course, but that is just one of many ways a museum can be a site of community. A museum can be a place where people gather, a locus that brings people together for common purposes. Museums can also be a member of a larger community, working to unite people and institutions around something bigger than itself, and reaping the rewards of that work. There’s a lot of power in that sort of engagement, and it’s something we’d like to spend more time thinking about in the pages (well, page) of this blog in 2019.
There’s a lot of ways to think about museums and community and we’re going to look at some of these in the next few months. Whether it is how Mass MOCA’s birth inside the shell of a former manufacturing plant is affecting its community in rural Berkshire County, MA, or following the progress of the Field Museum as it partners with local indigenous groups to re-envision its Native American exhibit halls, we are going to take some time to evaluate what museums are doing to create, strengthen, or expand their communities. We will also look at how arts organizations and other public spaces take on this work in ways that can be applied to museums. In taking these close looks, we hope to stimulate deeper conversations about what it means to be a museum and inspire people to look at their own organizations for ways to create new bonds with people and other organizations. Always, we hope to challenge assumptions about what and who an institution is for, who it speaks to, and what it can accomplish.
So together, let’s start thinking creatively about what it means to engage a community as a museum or as museum people. And let’s not forget that we’re a community, too, of readers and writers, and of museum students, alums, and workers! Please take a moment in the comments or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know your thoughts about community and museums or to let us know about a great museum doing community engagement in a novel or successful way so we can write about it!
How’s this for engaging with the community: the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art (in Pittsburgh) have thrown their weight behind their football teams (that would be the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively) in a really brilliant way.
Here’s how it works:
If the Steelers with the Superbowl, the Carnegie Museum of Art will receive Gustave Caillebotte’s “Boating on the Yerres” on a three-month loan.
If the Packers win the Superbowl, the Milwaukee Art Museum will receive Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Bathers with a Crab” on a three-month loan.
The museum directors are even doing some trash-talking:
Milwaukee Museum of Art director Daniel Keegan said in a statement to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he is already preparing a space for the Renoir.“I’m confident we will be enjoying the Renoir from the Carnegie Museum of Art very soon,” the Green Bay native told the paper. “I look forward to displaying it where the public can enjoy it and be reminded of the superiority of the Green Bay Packers.”
Lynn Zelevansky, the director at Carnegie, had a retort for her Cheesehead counterpart.
“In Pittsburgh, we believe trash talk is bad form,” Zelevansky said in a statement. “We let the excellence of our football team, and our collection, speak for itself. It will be my great pleasure to see the Caillebotte from the Milwaukee Museum of Art hang in our galleries.”
How brilliant is that? Can we talk the MFA into doing this the next time the Patriots make the trip to the Superbowl?
Original article, with more links and information, is here.
(PS – GO PACKERS!)
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