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!

 

A New Conversation for a New Year

What is a museum?

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 tuftsmuseumblog@gmail.com 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!

On Education and the Vote

Museums have, for many decades now, been sites of learning and exploration for people of all ages, economic classes, and educational levels. The idea of informal learning spaces assisting with civic education of newly arrived Americans has its roots in a Progressive Era ethos of immigrant assimilation, with the accompanying racist and xenophobic undertones one might expect. However, some of the programs provided by settlement houses and other progressive aid organizations had a significant impact on the lives of immigrants eager to learn about their new country and to advance within it.

Regardless of the flawed origins of these programs, the value of civic education that unites all Americans and enables advocacy and enfranchisement is not to be denied. This understanding of the role museums can play in the pursuit of civic engagement is fully realized in programs like New-York Historical Society’s Citizenship Project. This class uses art from New-York Historical’s collection to teach prospective citizens about American History and Civics through art in the collection. The course does not shy away from informing the students about the darker aspects of American History, including Native American removal, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Civil War. The Society also hosts naturalization ceremonies for students after they complete the program and pass their citizenship exam.

Of course, for those of us already enfranchised, we don’t have to wait long to exercise our right to vote. There is a midterm election fast approaching on November 6. Aside from the noble causes museums can assist with, like citizenship courses or enhancing student learning by providing material culture to augment in class learning, we know that museums are affected by political decisions every day. From federal funding of the arts and history projects to local budgets supporting field trips, elections matter when it comes to keeping museums open, encouraging new work to be done, and extending access to museums for students and other prospective learners.

This blog encourages you, museum professionals and students alike, to make sure that you make a plan to vote on November 6. The state of Massachusetts, where Tufts is located, has a sample ballot available here to help you prepare for voting and a way to find your polling location here. Other states have also posted their ballots and polling place locators online. Making decisions about who and what will best represent your life and your institutions is an important responsibility that comes with civic education. As John Dewey once noted, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”

 

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.

Measuring a Museum’s Worth

Is it via attendance or admissions fees? The size of the collection or the amount of funding it receives? By almost any measure, the Philadelphia History Museum has not proved its worth, for it shut down indefinitely at the end of June.

The museum, which is designated in the city charter to be the repository for artifacts relevant to the Philadelphia’s history, closed last month after a significant reduction in funding from the city. Talks to partner with other institutions, most recently with Temple University, fell through. For at least the next year, the museum will be closed and the collection will be reviewed with an eye toward figuring out a new direction for the museum to take. It is unclear if that direction will include re-opening to the public.

The reduction in funding was the hiatus-blow for the organization, but thriving museums rarely experience cuts like this. Attendance was low, despite efforts to revitalize the museum, including a recent renovation in 2012. The museum had also collaborated last year to create a new curriculum for Philadelphia public schools that centered the life of free Black resident, Octavius V. Catto. Shot by two white men who were never convicted for their crime while urging citizens to vote on Election Day, the exhibit sought to tell an important story with relevance to today. This is a moment in America that begs for interesting and relevant retellings of history, and Catto’s story certainly fits the bill. But it is hard to demonstrate relevance if no one seeks it out.

This is not an admonishment to the people of Philadelphia for not supporting their museum. Nor is it a diagnosis of what went wrong, for this blog does not have insight into the marketing plan, visitorship goal, or budget needed to make the Philadelphia History Museum a world-class institution, or at least, a city-class one. Rather, it is a recognition that a lot of museums in the United States are missing the mark when it comes to attracting audiences and money, despite possessing compelling stories.

There are many reasons why this is happening, but in thinking about the Philadelphia History Museum, it is worth pointing out that Philadelphia’s population is less than 50% white. As we have discussed previously on this blog, museums are not neutral spaces. Museum audiences tend to skew heavily white and affluent and often potential local visitors are alienated from spaces that don’t strive to create content of and with the surrounding community. There are museums that have bucked this demographic trend. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA has tripled its non-white visitors in recent years, to the point that the museum’s visitors are starting to resemble the city’s racial makeup. They have done this with a mixture of initiatives that included highlighting artists of color within their collection, reaching out to local potential visitors in multiple languages, diversifying docents, and reassessing ticket prices. Other museums have also looked into their collections to find ways to create new relevance for existing content.

Hopefully the Philadelphia History Museum’s assessment will include considerations about community outreach, public programs, and exhibition content and interpretation, as well as the price of admission (at closing time, the adult admission was $10, in a city where the median income is only $41k/year, well below the national median).

The Philadelphia History Museum is the designated keeper of historical objects for the city of Philadelphia. Although it’s archive remains intact for now, it is not a library. Part of a museum’s mission is to take those objects and documents and interpret them for the public, helping the citizens of the city remember and understand their history. This requires support and support includes money. While it is perfectly acceptable and necessary to demand that museums present innovative exhibits and engage with audiences in current fashion, it is also necessary to provide the support that those museums need to be good and useful and interesting institutions. Art and history and culture require patronage, to see the work through periods of devaluation and maintain these common goods for all.

Our best museums are building collaborative experiences that decenter authority, tell important stories from their collections, and engage with local populations to create community spaces that are compelling, inclusive, representational – and thriving. Our best cities deserve nothing less.

 

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