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!

 

Informal Dinner Discussion at NEMA

Shameless plug time! If you’re headed to NEMA, and you’re a Young or Emerging Professional, I have a suggestion for you. On Thursday night, if you don’t feel moved to purchase a ticket to go to a museum event (and they can be pricey, especially on a student budget!) come hang out at the Bluebird Restaurant in Burlington. It’s going to be great. I’m not just saying that because as a co-chair of the NEMA YEPs, I’m co-hosting this event along with Kate Laurel Burgess-McIntosh of Revitalizing Historic Sites Through Contemporary Art. Here are the details:

Push the Envelope, Break the Mold, Climb Out of the Box: Set Yourself Apart for Success 

Evening Dinner and Discussion: Thursday, November 8, Bluebird Restaurant

Open to all museum professionals at all levels;
recommended especially for Young and Emerging Museum Professionals

Especially designed for those who are seeking creative ways to approach job searching and networking, this open forum dialogue will provide opportunities for participants to brainstorm and discuss ways to set themselves apart in an increasingly challenging field. Talk to professionals with all levels of experience—be it fellow job seekers, those with more experience in the field, students, consultants, and more—and learn ways to highlight your skills, create a career plan and goals, and emphasize your unique qualities when applying for positions, interviewing, climbing up the ladder, and, ultimately, setting yourself apart.

YEP Book Club & Networking

Heads up – the NEMA Young and Emerging Professionals and the Greater Boston Museum Educators Roundtable are teaming up to present a great night of discussion and networking at the DeCordova Sculpture Park & Museum.

Greater Boston Museum Educators’ Roundtable and the New England Museum Association Young and Emerging Museum Professionals bring you a discussion and question and answer session with John Falk, author of “Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience”.

Mr Falk will be joining the book club via Skype.

Join us for networking from 4:00pm-6:00pm and for Book Club with John Falk from 6:00pm – 8:00pm.

Please RSVP to both/either event by emailing Emily Silet at esilet@decordova.org

Interested in carpooling to the event? The New England Museum Association is helping to arrange carpooling to the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park for the event. Please contact Leslie Howard at leslie.howard@nemanet.org if you are interested in carpooling. Please be mindful that NEMA cannot guarantee carpool arrangements.

NEMA YEP Workshop: LAUGH: From the Trenches – 10 Things I Wish I Had Not Learned the Hard Way

Today is the last day to register for the NEMA YEP workshop “LAUGH: From the Trenches – 10 Things I Wish I Had Not Learned the Hard Way.”

Here’s the description:

Thursday, April 12, 6:00 to 8:00 pm
Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street, Boston, MA, http://maps.bpl.org/
Register at: http://nemanet.org/workshops/12YEP.htm

The wisdom of crowds is great, but how about learning from individuals who learned the hard way? This workshop will bring together a group of more experienced young and emerging museum professionals who will share the biggest lessons they have learned on the job thus far. Each panelist will cover ten lessons they have learned the hard way, from how to approach new problems, to discussing issues with Directors, how to work with difficult Board members and more. Ample time will be provided to ask these not-quite emerging, not-quite mid-career professions questions you have about the field. Amusement and laughter are also on the agenda, as learned lessons, despite the pain they may have brought on at the time, are entertaining in retrospect!

LAUGH Speakers:
Stacey Fraser-deHaan, House Manager, Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association,
Museum Educator, Ipswich Museum, and Program Coordinator, Haverhill Historical Society/Buttonwood Museums

Zerah Jakub, Visitor Services and Program Assistant, Old South Meeting House, and Graduate Student, Museum Studies, John Hopkins University

Amanda Kay Gustin, Researcher, The Mary Baker Eddy Library, and Graduate Student, History and Museum Studies, Tufts University

Melissa Higgins, Program Manager, Museum of Science

Phillippa Pitts, Gallery Instructor, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Web Content Specialist, The Mary Baker Eddy Library

Meg Winikates, Art & Nature Program Specialist, Peabody Essex Museum

Reasons you should sign up:

  • -it promises to be a ton of fun
  •  the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center is brand spanking new and by all accounts, gorgeous
  • – who doesn’t want to hear about other people’s ridiculous mistakes and learn from them?
  • – your friendly neighborhood blog editor is speaking
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