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!

 

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!

Adventures in Repatriation: Around the World and Down the Street

 

Last month, the Medford Public Library, in the town where Tufts University is located, announced an auction of “surplus goods”. The goods turned out to be a number of Native American religious objects, including shaman’s masks and rattles and a totem pole, all of considerable monetary value. The items were donated to the library in the 1880s by James G. Swan, a Medford-born collector of Native American objects, long before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed in the 1990s. The auction was halted by the mayor of Medford, Stephanie M. Burke, after public outcry organized by American Indian groups took hold.

Even though NAGPRA governs ownership and repatriation of sacred indigenous objects and remains in the hands of institutions that receive federal funds, not all organizations have completed the required inventory of objects that apply to this law. An incident like this might have happened and could still happen anywhere in the country. Native American object collecting was incredibly popular in the late 19th century, as indigenous people were thought to be “vanishing” as the conquest of the American continent completed. It is entirely likely that similar collections exist unprocessed in the archives of other libraries, schools, or museums across the country, and that more attempts to auction goods may take place in the future against a background of dwindling federal funds for cultural institutions.

Controversies around objects stolen from indigenous, colonized, and otherwise disempowered people around the world are making news every day now, in a flood that is by turns both reparative and dismaying. Under reparative, the President of France, Emanuel Macron, recently announced the planned return of 26 works of Dahomey art to the Benin government, who formally requested their return a number of years ago. Macron suggested that more such repatriations would be forthcoming, an important step in acknowledging the role France had in the destructive colonization of Africa in the 19th century.

Under dismaying, however, one can find any number of refusals including the famed Benin Bronzes or the Kohinoor Diamond, all of which remain in British hands for now. But changes may be underway. Not only are governments demanding the return of cultural objects from colonizing countries, in some cases countries or individuals are stealing objects out of the Western museums that keep them. Private citizens are also forming groups to wage social media campaigns that pressure institutions to return works to home countries.

As technology and globalization conspire to shrink the world, the call to return wrongfully obtained objects will only grow louder. Amid the din, protests and refusals from governments and institutions still holding ill-gotten treasures will sound like the weak excuses they are. In an attempt to counter tours that highlight illicit artworks at the British Museum, the museum has developed a series of lectures that focus on the proper provenance of many works originating in other countries. While any move toward transparency is positive, telling a partial story designed to improve an organization’s credibility while ignoring the larger issue the institution is complicit in is marginally laudable. With some luck and a lot of guilt and outcry, however, the public can keep pushing this important conversation to a place of resolution, rather than obfuscation.

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.

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