27 Jul

6 Steps to Combat Implicit Bias in Institutions

Museum staff are in power to combat implicit bias in organizations. This work is imperative to maintain current audiences and grow new ones. But confronting bias can be scary and challenging. Here are some concrete steps to help museums start on the path to combat bias.

1.Don’t ignore bias

Bias will not go away just because you don’t see it. Talking about bias explicitly will help you and your colleagues bring to light blind spots in your work and processes.  These types of conversations should be ongoing, however, as bias can be minimized but never disappears.


2. Avoided making judgments when in heightened emotional states.

Happiness and joy are wonderful emotions, but the power of those emotions, as well as their polar opposites, can prevent you from making bias-tempered choices.


3.Communicate in ways that minimize ambiguity.

Try to communicate directly. Certainly, you might get some confrontation, but you will also create less confusion. This is certainly true in verbal communication, but it also translates to textual communication.


4. Be informed with appropriate language.

Understand what words mean in your specific circumstances. Think of this example. In your museum, do you have labels and placard? How do you feel when someone uses the wrong word? Now imagine that feeling magnified exponentially; that sort of estimates the feels that come from hearing yourself described with inappropriate terms.


5. Create feedback loops

No matter how consciously you might work, you are always within a certain ingroup. Make sure to build in ways in working processes to have feedback from different audiences. Pluralities of voice can make for a less biased final product.


6. Look for help

Just as you might have a hard time proofreading your own work (I do), you often can’t see bias problems in your own organizations. This is the ideal time to invite knowledgeable professionals to help you identity and address places for improvement.

25 Jul

The Importance of Visitor Experience Strategy

Why do you need a visitor experience strategy?

Customer Experience is something on which the “for-profit” world focuses real money. After all, there is an obvious return on investment. You get what your customer wants; you give it to them; you make more money.

But, in non-profit, this is a much more challenging equation.  In museums, for example, you provide services for free. Yet, these services cost money. Museums, while charitable, are basically businesses. You raise money to make your mission come to fruition. Funders usually have expectations. The money raised is often predicated on a certain number of people attending.  You still need to give the customer what you want in order to make money, but the money comes from many sources.  In other words, increasing visitor experience will increase money, even if the source of those funds are complicated.

What is a Visitor Experience Strategy?

A visitor experience strategy is an encompassing plan that signals to the whole organization how patrons should experience your space. This plan should serve as a foundation for any part of your organization that touches your visitor (likely all of it).

Where do you start?

With you.  Seems odd, since we are thinking about visitors, I realize. But, in this case, you need to get down some of your own ideas.

  • How often does your organization think about your visitors as a customer?
  • What do you believe your visitor is thinking?
  • What do you think your visitor wants?

Keep these issues in mind. You will want to come back to them later to see if you assumptions hold up.

How do you create a Visitor Experience Strategy?

A strategy is a way of saying that you are creating a plan of action, a road map, and some rules when something confounds your plan or map. Here are some steps to help you form a visitor experience strategy.

  1. Measure Twice, Plan once: You want to understand visitors. But, you need to attack this problem many different ways. Think of it this way. When you really want to learn a subject, you learn by reading, studying, writing, finding new sources…. Surveys are just one way to get to know them. Create a diversified means of getting to know your visitors.
  2. Keep at it: You will want to come back to your plan periodically during your planning period. As you are planning, you should test parts. When things work, note that. But, when they don’t,  adapt your plan.
  3. Make Your Plan Like Bamboo: Chinese scholars are often symbolized by bamboo, flexible to bend but not break in the wind. Keep that image in your mind as you create a plan. Your plan should be able to take some challenges but not break.
  4. Measure the Experience, not just the ideas: Visitors come to museums for experiences. So, focus on that. Think about the experience and the desired outcome for the visitor.
  5. Be about Your Visitors: Really try to imagine the experience from your visitors. Map it out. Become familiar with their current experience, and then develop a plan that moves you to your ideal experience.








20 Jul


There is this myth that some of us are details-people and some of us are big-picture folks. Most of us are able to toggle between the two ways of making sense of the world. The more successful of us are able to do this effectively and efficiently. Others struggle, focusing too intently on one or the other way of thinking. This isn’t a personal failing–it is

This isn’t a personal failing–it is human nature. We all get trapped in eddies of focus. We all find moments when we can only gaze at the wide expanse of a project expanding out into the horizon.  The best leader finds ways to choose to rise above their personal inclinations as the situation needs.

Systems thinking is one particular strategy that helps me rise above the details to think holistically. In its essence, systems thinking is where you focus on seeing how a whole system is interconnected.

So, if you think of your life as a system, where do all the parts of the machine go together? Where do the gears turn? Where are there creaks? Where are there extraneous cogs? In other words, which parts work together and which don’t?

How do you get started with systems thinking? Here are a few resources:

Why Social Ventures Need Systems Thinking?

A Definition of Systems Thinking: A Systems Approach

System Thinking for NonProfits


11 Jul

Museums Risk, Experimentation, and Contemporary Topics — Blog Schedule

The Beginning

Not to long ago, I was embroiled in a serious of disparate conversations on Twitter. The topics varied from social media to salary. But, in each, there seemed some essential kernels that stuck. With a field as large as museums (bigger than solar), it felt as if there are some big differences in perception depending on where you stand. In other words, if you are in some fields or roles, you seem to think we should experiment, for example; while in others, the lack of experimenting is suffocating. This hypothesis that role/ position results in differences in perception is not groundbreaking, but in chatting with friends, we couldn’t find the data out there (either to confirm or deny). So, we built a survey (not the prettiest one, but neither am I).

First, and foremost, thank you. Thank you to AAM, AAM EdComm, AAM Media & Tech, NAEA Museum Ed,  MCN and Museums and the Web for passing on my link through your channels. Thank you to all my friends who stepped up to complete and share. Thank you to everyone person, all 115 of you, who took time to add your ideas.  I have been reading your thoughts, mulling over your ideas as I walk the dog,  considering possible links between ideas as I wait in traffic, and coding them daily at my desk.

The data is amazing. And, firstly, it is not just mine. I am very happy to share anonymized  data. Drop me a line at seema@brilliantideastudio.com and I will send it to you.  But, it is insanely rich.  There is so much there. So, I will be spending the next few weeks digging in and doing some interviews. It feels imperative to honor all the respondents by treating their ideas right.

The respondents and a grain of salt

There was a recent article on Hyperallergic about how museum salaries are going up, up, up across the board. While such a Camelot would be amazing, the headline is equally mythical. The article was drawing from art museums, and even then it didn’t highlight that salaries were rising in certain sectors at a higher rate than others. Why this aside? Well, the author fell into a trap. They make a leap from a pool of data without realizing it doesn’t hold water. As a weak swimmer, I will not make such leaps with this data.  Instead, I want to bring up where my data pool matches as well as deviates from the field. The results will over insights, but will not be the end all. Data is a good but it is not that good.

Most notably, my data pulls more heavily on art museums than other museums & museums with big budgets. I worked at such a museum for 17 years. I suspect my own personal networks monkeyed with my sample size. In actuality, art museums are a really small slice of the pie. (Want to learn more about number of museums nationally, by state, and type? Here is my look at the ginormous IMLS data set. 

accredited and all museums by field

What’s Next?

First, I will clean up the data for anyone who wants it. It will take me a quick minute to do that right. I want to clear anything that could point back to a specific respondent.  Once that I ready, I can email it to folks.

Second, I will do interviews and use that qualitative information, along with the quantitative data. Anyone else who chooses to work on it will be welcome to add any insights they have.

Finally, I will start put out posts.  I will be posting the first on experimentation in the middle of August with three subsequent posts after that.  Keep an eye out for them.

06 Jul

Agile Thinking to Manage Change

Agile was a buzzword, drawn from software designers who came up with an effective means of developing, testing, iterating, and launching in the most efficient manner.

There are plenty of posts that talk about using Agile (and related iterative processes) for personal development. For me, I find agile particularly useful when thinking about weathering change. The challenge for most of us with change is the uncertainty. You have the feeling of walking backwards on a moving sidewalk; the backwards movement sucks but the concentration on remaining standing is even worse. Keeping a few tips from Agile development in mind can help you feel capable of handling change. You might still be walking backwards, but you will at least know that you will know that you can stand up if you fall.


Change is unpredictable. But, your reactions are predictable. For example, when someone insults you what will you do? You probably have an experience to recall.  What did you do then? There is a 75% chance you will do the same thing.  For example, I am a reactor. If you insult me, I will make fun of you. And, then you won’t like me. However, I am also happy to make up and forget it.

So, sit down to be thoughtful about your reactions:

  • What issues trigger negative reactions? Are you okay with the result of those negative reactions?
  • What really stresses you out related to change? What kinds of change don’t stress you out?
  • What types of change seemed doable? Why were those doable?

Most importantly, don’t judge yourself. Just write. Don’t second guess. There is no wrong answer.


Go back to your list and annotate your answers. Fill in the feelings associated with each answer. Put your sheet away. Come back to it. Add other ideas that might come to mind.

Revise/ Repeat

  1. These notes are where you are now. You might even rewrite it as a series of ideal scenarios, like “if X happens, I generally react like y.” These are your current state scenarios.
  2. Turn your scenarios into goals: If this X happens, I would like to react like y. Those will be your change goals.
  3. Come up with some tactics to get you from your current action to your change goals. Write down one or two ways that you can act differently. Focus your strategies on yourself.  You can only efficiently and effectively change you; everything else is pretty much a moving target.
  4. Try these strategies.
  5. Sit down and consider what worked and what didn’t.
  6. Amend your strategies.
  7. Try your new strategies.

Let’s go back to our example of my short temper above. Let’s say that I have decided that for 90% of the times I don’t think the negative reaction is worth it. For those 9/10 times I need to find some ways to change myself.  So for those I might tweet out my insult. But then, it turns out my network is big enough that the “victim” finds out. The act of writing the insult was satisfying, but the fact that people could read it was not. So, then I decide to write it on paper.

In other words, try a plan. Figure out what is wrong with the plan. Improve the plan.


Ideally steps 4-7 above have a short turn around (like in one conversation). But, it takes practice to become so thoughtful about your reactions. So, give yourself a chance to get better.

In the end, tactical action in relation to change is the goal. You start getting more and more strategic about your reactions as you practice. You will eventually get so used to handling yourself during change, that it will be your normal.

04 Jul

Make Museums Great Again? Fear of Change in Museums

Anyone who has worked for me has heard my favorite old adage, “Change is the only constant.” I have seen 200 interns (yes, I counted them)  and numerous staff through countless institutional changes. The roils of change were so continuous we lived in a constant state of low-grade institutional motion sickness.

Why is change so constant in museums?

Entropy happens, man. But, more realistically, there are a number of factors spurring change. Firstly, human capital is undervalued at lower levels. A director often makes 10 x what an education associate makes. But, this is not to say that the director is working 10x as hard. These lower level jobs, hard to get as they are, are a serious slog. Education associates, for example, often work weekends and evenings.  If you manage to get the energy to fight your way up, and I assure from having done it, you make sacrifices to do so. Most move to find a new job since so few jobs are available in any one city. Many choose not to move or not to stay in the field. In other words, our field is in a constant state of staff loss & re-training.

The patrons are another driver of change. For all but a few patrons, museums are a leisure space. They want that leisure space to meet them where they are, or they will not visit. Just as any other place that they choose to spend their time changes, so should museums, on some level. So, even if we don’t want to change, our visitors are expecting change.  Don’t think so. Think of any major museum without wifi. In this way, innovation outside the field also has ramifications for the field, thankfully. Museums would seem like institutional ostriches if they didn’t adapt to the smart-phone society that their visitors are living in.

On a larger organizational management sphere, museums seem hell-bent to figure it out themselves. Keeping their ivory tower roots at heart, they imagine that they should solve running a museum in their own idiosyncratic ways. In the world of academia, the goal is publish something new. In running an organization, often you don’t want to try something totally new.  Yet, museums often restructure with every change of senior manager. They throw out so many babies with the bathwater that they could start whole new museums of lost good ideas.

What makes change scary for museums?

Museums are slow moving institutions. Many museums are basically corporations in which the sales of products is an experience. And like American corporations founded in a different era, there is the weight of history to contend with.  Museums, however, have an additional layer of challenge–their own perceived reputations. Museums are well-regarded by the public for their constancy.

For many in the museum field, the value of being the old guard is greater than the value of changing.  One might call this group the  “Make Museums Great Again” lot. These are the folks who use phrases like “don’t dumb it down” and “we don’t want to change just to change.”  To clarify, there is a strong current in museums to maintain the status quo: show collections with the information that we want to share. It would be easy to stereotype certain sectors of the field, like curators, as being the stalwart members of this cult. But, I haven’t found this to be true in my experience. I know plenty of educators who believe change as beneath us.

But, like any cult of the past,  those who hope for museums to maintain a status quo, they are hearkening to a false past.  The museums of the past are themselves a fairly new phenomena; with only a few hundred years of past to reckon with. Even then, museums of old didn’t draw the large numbers that today’s museums do. More people go to museums annually than sporting events, as is often stated by museum folk.  In the past, museums drew on a small sector of society. Those in the museum field who are averse to change, the MMGA crowd, do not want to turn away our millions of visitors.  Instead, they want those millions of visitors to continue to come without changing the way we do things

Why does change matter?

Change is scary, in the end, because staff in key roles fear loss more than they desire gain. They worry about losing the solid, respected past, more than they desire gaining new opportunities.

But, in the field now, there is also a strong current of #TheResistance. There are many inside and outside museums agitating for change from the way boards are composed to the way collections are interpreted. The rise of museum consultants is in part due to this impetus.

If you imagine museum culture is like grained marble, many change-makers are the bright white lines passing through the dark surface.  They often are  far outweighed by those who don’t want change. Some change-makers are able to find ways to carve out narratives that honor multiple motivations, including the status quo folks. Many however choose instead to recut their block, moving out of their in situ state and into self-contained one.

What next for Museums?

If only that I was the oracle of Delphi… In many ways it feels as if we are in the middle of a narrative right now, potentially at the Empire Strikes Back period of our field’s history.  In the last few years, we created many projects that exemplified change, from digital ones to community ones. Now, with so much national uncertainty on funding for the arts and culture, the field could choose to close ranks, and go backwards.  Or instead, we could lead change.

We could realize that we are a very young field as it goes (younger than universities, medicine, and law, for example).  We could see that we are in the teen years of our institutional culture.  We could be foolish and joyful, and know that our mistakes won’t be held against us.


This post was inspired by  one of those megatweets reply all threads that remind you of the good ole days of twitter as well as offer the short burst intellectualism that makes that platform so useful. The wide ranging conversation touched on many issues in contemporary museums, including diversity, technology, and experimentation. (Read Storify synopsis).