31 Aug

Inclusion-Centered Leadership

Inclusion occurs through considered actions. Leaders play an important role in transforming the ethos of inclusion from words into actions. That said, often, inclusions practices are translated into large actions, like requiring diversity training or implementing diversity hiring policies. Those are like bringing in the right ingredients for a great feast. If you don’t deal with them, they will spoil. You need to put in an effort to turn those raw ingredients into something appetizing.

Many of the most important action in supporting diversity is small, unseen actions. As a leader, first and foremost, remember you have two jobs: being a leader of a group and then your own work. If you don’t do both, you aren’t doing either well.  You need to think hard about how your beliefs are translated into action. So, if you believe in equity, you can’t treat your staff as lowly servants, saying to them that “they shouldn’t care that you don’t reply to their emails”

You need to think hard about how your beliefs are translated into action. So, if you believe in equity, you can’t treat your staff as lowly servants, saying to them that “they shouldn’t care that you don’t reply to their emails”  Never tell someone not to care. You are in charge of their work, not their emotions.  In not replying to their emails, you are showing that their needs don’t matter. If you don’t care about their needs, you don’t really care about equity, as you are expressing that your needs matter more.

In the end, equity and inclusion will only be disseminated throughout your organization, if you, and all leaders, where ever they are in the organization, commit to taking all the small steps that support the large steps your organization makes. .

30 Aug

Truth and Tales in Museums

On August 14, 2003, I found myself standing at the Great Lakes Science Center chatting with a Chinese master printmaker stanchioned within the exhibition when the overhead lights flickered and went black before the emergency lights went on. I was supposed to be ducking out of work to attend a family wedding with my soon to be in-laws, and so I walked with certainty, wooden high heels clicking on the exhibition floor, to the door without looking back.

Many Americans living in the Northeast could write their own story about the Great Blackout of 2003. I am sure you know someone who could tell you their story. I am also fairly sure that they have a different story than mine. Both of our stories are the truth; it’s just our own separate, related truths.

History Is:
History is crafted from the available data. There are curatorial fields working with so little data that they are left with interpretation crocheted out of archeological conjecture, strong suppositions, and admonishments against the assumption. You know what I mean. These are the essay articles that include multiple equivalent phrases along the lines of “supposed”, “purported”, “suspected”, and various other literary forms of soft-pedaling. Other fields have a deluge of data. Frankly, anyone working in contemporary art and/ or history is basically drawing the internet and the related data explosion through a sieve.
Whatever level of data available, writing about history is looking at the possible evidence and attempting to develop a story. You are basically creating something that verges on truth, itself a multivalent and sometimes inscrutable state. The more stories that are written, the closer we as a culture move towards the truth. Herein lies the challenge, history is often one small sliver of what happened.

As I said above, some of this omission is due to the lack of evidence/ data. But, more often, there is something more at work. More often than not, certain stories are nominated as the truth, privileged at the expense of other stories. This is true in history in general, as the old saying as, partly because the losers don’t do the telling.

Reconciling Truth and Museum:
History is a collective concept composed of memories, writing, artifacts, artworks, and monuments. Every element can be described in infinite ways, memorialized by some, and contested by others. Proponents and detractors alike, whether in Ancient Greece or contemporary America, might claim that they are telling history. But, in fact, they are just sharing their slice. Their rendering is but a story.

The role of personal inflection is a particularly germane issue when considering museums. Everyone person writing labels has a personal bias. (Every human has biases). Every time you write anything, you leave something out. There was plenty about my 2003 Blackout story that I left out (funny stuff, actually). You often make these choices due to a commitment to a message or word count. You sometimes just can’t get the text to work in the way that you would like, and so you cut them.

But, in cutting items, you are not just losing words. You might also be losing ideas. Some of the ideas might be lost because they aren’t interesting. (I mean do need to know how long it took me to get out of a near dark exhibition hall). But others are lost because it might be too hard to explain in 140 words, like why was I speaking with a Chinese artisan working in an exhibition in Cleveland.

Museums often back off when it is hard. You can’t completely blame them. Most people back off when things are hard to express. But, museums aren’t people. They are institutions with our history in their trust. With such an important role, it is imperative that museums work as hard as they can to push the limits to get as close to the truth as possible.

Truth in Advertising
I used to think that I have a bad habit of being truthful. As I got older, I realized that the truth was not the problem, it was my delivery. In many ways, museums might be in the same boat. They tell the truth, or a part of it, and yet the delivery isn’t working. So, why is this? Well, first, and foremost, they are not sharing enough truths, as mentioned above. But, also, and concurrently, they aren’t sharing truths in ways that people want to hear them. Truth is a thing (or a series of things) that must be shared in ways, like storytelling.
A narrative is one of the most powerful ways that humans share. Oral history maintained cultural heritage for eons. If you think about memories, how many of them come through stories? As a child, the Ramayana was probably my favorite bit of history; I can still feel the injustice of Sita’s capture.

That said, I am reticent to suggest that storytelling is the only way to share our cultural truths. With big data, visualizations catch people for whom words are not enough. The detail-oriented love straight descriptions. Some people like a timeline. Just as there are many truths that make up our history, there are as many ways to share those truths.

Museum professionals need to be thoughtful in their planning of exhibitions. They need to think holistically about the truth. They can’t get the whole curve of any history. But, when they make the choices, they need to be thoughtful.  They need to decide where a less common story, say the story of the “loser” will make a huge impact on their visitors. They even need to decide when something other than a story makes more sense.

Why? Museums are different than any other historical deployment. Museums are taking actual objects, imbued with truths, and not only share the message, they also share the code. They tell the truth and then help visitors find other truths. And, herein is why the storytelling in inherently important in museum truth-telling. To go back to my introduction, how many of you read that story, and immediately filled in one of your own, either about that blackout or another? It’s human to meet a story with another. When museums share their collections through stories, they are setting up a generative system. They are inviting people to connect to history.  Objects, activated by the stories, become conduits for not just one truth but the locus of truths that make up any one moment in history.

25 Aug

How White Museum-Workers Can Combat Museum Supremacy

Today’s post has been written by Brilliant Idea Studio co-principal, Joe Ionna.  Illustrations made by Seema Rao. 

As competing narratives, histories, and facts have battled it out in the media, public spaces, and our political life. Like many of you, I was dumbfounded to see flags of Nazi Germany and the Confederacy paraded through the street of Charlottesville. Symbols of racial hatred, ideologies defeated on the battlefield and relegated to the dust bins of history, given new life by the election of Donald Trump.

But, this is a nation built on the power of Europeans.  Growing up, the term, white supremacy, was something that I thought of as a fringe element. But, the sense that white people are on top of society is woven into the structure of this country.  Even the phrase “white people” shows this. How often do you hear people and assume it is just white people?  This toxicity has touched us all and in turn implicating us as complicit to the ideology of white supremacy. What can be done?

First, we must counterprotest. Stand up. Second. hold yourself to account. Take these small steps below for big reasons.

Museums are structured around white supremacy. It is in who has power, how we refer to each other, those who are invited to speak, and those who remain silent. It is so ingrained into the organization that it may not even have been noticed by you until you look for it. Above are steps that can be taken to make your work environment a more equitable and inclusive place to work.



21 Aug

Cost-Benefit Analysis of Docent Programs (Data Template)

How can you quantify and assess the relative benefit of staff teachers to docents? Not easily, truthfully. This is a fuzzy math problem, at best. But, before I lay out some ways to consider this, let me offer some useful thoughts and questions to help you on your path.

Mission-Driven & Client-Driven

Most, if not all, museums have education in their mission. Yet, education is the most likely element of the mission largely delegated to volunteers. What does that mean? Simplistically, one might see a value proposition; education is the only mission-driven function that can be value-engineered to be accomplished for free.

But, this simplistic notion is patently untrue. Docent programs are far from free. Using volunteer educators can be as much about meeting the need as trying to do so in a cost-effective manner.  In some areas, there might be more need for gallery teachers than available staff. Without docents, they would not be able to meet that need.

That said, cost-effective or meeting need are only two elements in decision-making. Meeting the need in budget only counts if you meet the need well. If you meet this need badly, eventually you will look clients and the need will go down.

Costs and Benefits

Before running the numbers, let’s think of ideas. There are several ways to think about the advantages and drawbacks for docent programs. Let’s create a sort of ledger of ideas.

Costs: (you can also download these as a table for you to fill out)

Easily quantifiable costs: Some costs are easy to tally. Think about things that show up in your budget ledgers. Every year, you spend X about of money for a docent party. If you don’t have a staff party, or you make it potluck, the docent program is costlier.

Relatively easy to quantify costs: Parking is another quantifiable cost at some institutions. It is one that I always dreaded in my monthly ledger. Most docent programs are considerably larger than staff-led programs. As a result, many more parking spots would be used for docents than staff. Why calculate parking if it doesn’t show up in your ledger? Parking is a finite resource in most areas. If your staff and volunteers use spaces, you are displacing paying people.

Complicated costs: Other costs are harder to quantify but important to understand. Think about printing. My first museum job, one that I proudly earned after getting a master’s degree, was to photocopy out of print books for the docent program. Think a little about the costs there, leaving aside my salary for the moment. There is the cost of the paper and the printing ink but also wear and tear of the printer. That poor, sweet machine, my old office-buddy, bit the dust long before any of the other machines in the building. As a rule, docent programs have far higher printing requirements than staff-led programs. Why? A few reasons. First, staff usually have broader access to libraries and the stacks than volunteers. Second, staff often come in with degrees and as such don’t need copies of books. Thirdly, staff is expected to have the education underpinnings to be able to find and use the appropriate resources. I cannot remember a time when I was a gallery teacher that my boss gave me a printed book, but I certainly remember her checking my sources.

The most imperative, and perhaps hardest to quantify cost comparison is in terms of staff time. In terms of staff time, what percentage of your staff interacts with docents, particularly those who don’t have the word “docent” in their title. Think about the variety of people impacted by docents. How much of your security staff is spending time reprinting badges? How much of your curatorial assistants’ time is spent answering questions for docents? What about time spent communicating protocol changes? How much of the visitor experience staff is spending time answering docent questions? You might find that every division is spending time working with docents. I am not making a value judgment; I assure you. When we get to benefits, you will see that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Opportunity losses: Finally, make sure to account for opportunity costs. Where are you wasting money without even knowing it? For example, most docent programs have a room that is easily accessible to those with low-level access. In other words, they occupy a space that could be used for visitors or for fund-generating programming. Account for each opportunity lost when you use resources for docents.

Benefits: (you can also download these as a table for you to fill out)

Benefits are the portion of this equation that pushes us into fuzzy math. I want to diverge for a moment into a memory. Not too long ago, I was at the funeral for a docent I knew from my days in museum education. I sat at one of the largest churches in Cleveland, a town with ecclesiastical structures of scale, looking down at more than 100 people touched by this one docent’s commitment to one museum. Time and time again during the service, people shared that they learned to value the museum through the eyes of this one man. This docent happened to be an extraordinary man; he was the kind of person who knew teaching required constantly learning. But, his life also shows how part of the value of docent programs is “the love they share.”

The unquantifiable: Hyper-committed individuals populate docent programs. These people have the time to lavish time on an institution, and their bank accounts usually reflect his ability to spend time at your museum. Docent programs are donor groups, marketing machines, as well as teaching forces.  Staff teachers are not going to be able to donate the amount of money that docents are. And, in terms of the soft benefit of marketing, most staff teachers don’t regale their friends with the type of unmitigated love for a museum that docents do. Docents are in it for the love; it’s their avocation. (After all, staff usually gets to see the good and bad; and we all enjoy taking a break from work)

Quantify marketing benefits: So, how are we going to think about this? Well, let’s think a little bit about some concrete things. You can think about things like the number of times docents share your messaging. Compare that to staff messaging.

Quantify donations: Most museum educators don’t have the ability to donate money, but some do. Compare what money comes in from docents compared with staff. In many ways, in your docent program, you are creating a highly engaged donor class. You might not have been able to get these donors without this type of engagement.

Quantify Total Percentage of Actual Teaching Capacity: More than anything else, docents allow you to impact more patrons. There is no way to argue that 80 people can teach more people than 8. It is important to quantify this. (I have created a spreadsheet to help you do this.) Additionally, numbers are an essential metric when showing value; grants, for example, usually seem the number of people served as a measure of success.

Visitor Experience

But, now here is the wrinkle. Is the docent program helping you get out the best product? One way to think about that is to see if your program is growing. Now, be warned many variables impact growth or decrease in any program. But, comparing the change in scale with visitor feedback will help you get a picture of perception of quality. In other words, if the numbers are going up, and your reviews are good, the docents are probably doing good work.

Yet, the equation is still not complete. Think about what your visitors might want. Schools might be asking for in-depth programming that teaches specific standards with measurable assessments. Can you train your docents to do that? Will your docents want to do that? Will your docents do that well? How much time will you spend training them? Will this eventually result in greater benefits (more students, more grants, and/ or more revenue)? (Remember, also, in the US, volunteers cannot do work that is a staff function, so be careful not to accidentally start a tussle with the Department of Labor.)

Now for the Numbers

Years ago, when I got through 1/2 of business school, I had a terrible revelation that accounting is magic. And while that is a story for another day, it is important to remember what I stated over and over here. This will be fuzzy math.

Take your notes from the costs and the benefits and start adding them to the spreadsheet. Do this for the docent program. Then do this for a staff-led experience.  Now add your visitor experience information. Which one outweighs the other?

In the end, your equation should be:

Docents: Costs + Visitor Experience Opportunity Losses VS Benefits + Visitor Experience Benefits 

Staff: Costs + Visitor Experience Opportunity Losses VS Benefits + Visitor Experience Benefits 


Where does this leave you? Well, you will likely come up with useful data but not an answer.  One will side of this scale will be higher. Visitor experience considerations might make staffing a better choice. The scale of impact might make docents a better choice.

You might not be able to make a change due to hard cash. After all, even if staff is a better choice, you might not have the money to hire them, right now. So, why do this?  Well, this is the kind of planning tool that will help you move forward in a strategic manner toward your best solution for putting your mission of education into action.

15 Aug

Inaction is an Action: #MuseumsResist is a better One

thanks to Robin Cembalest for the photo

I had the extreme pleasure of being part of this year’s MuseumCamp hosted by Nina Simon at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. For those who are unaware of this program, it’s sort of a hybrid museum conference, personal growth program, and summer camp smushed into three days. Intense would be a useful descriptor. Useful, impactful, and thought-provoking also work.

This Monday morning, after such wonderful experiences with people from around the world in the cossetted kooky culture of Santa Cruz, I had hoped to create a blog post from my MuseumCamp notes. Instead, my heart feels exhausted. I wanted to share some of the hope a community of change-makers felt. Instead, my brain is misfiring. I wanted to pass on useful advice to colleagues who couldn’t be in Santa Cruz. Instead, my soul needs rest.

Why? Well, because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In this case, for all the changemakers aimed at an inclusive society, there are those who want exclusion. There are those who fear more people at the table will mean less space for them. There are those who only feel full when others are starving.

If you do not know me personally, I have made my life, career, being, on being an active participant. You tell a funny story—I laugh. You ask for a volunteer—my hand is up. You need some help—I will be there. Why? Because inaction is a much less fun choice than action.

As I said, though, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. You can choose your opposite reaction or not. If you don’t react to negativity, you are still acting. Your lack of action is still a reaction. So, when you see evil, when you see people actively fighting inclusion, and you decide it might be too political to act, you are being political in your inaction.

Today, everyone in America woke up in a country where people spouted hate publicly and proudly. Today in America, we saw the emblems of enemies past parading in the streets of one of the nation’s best college. Today in America, we remembered that our own worst enemies are our own neighbors.

What does this have to do with museums? Museums are the best of our nation, even literally, holding our national heritage for eternity. Museums are ideas. They are hope. When the best of our nation doesn’t do anything, then they are choosing—and they are making the wrong choice. There is a simple binary: chosen action (1) or choosing inaction (0).

How can museums react?

  • Staff can be allowed time to share their feelings together
  • Staff can raise money for organizations that support inclusion (Bake sale, anyone)
  • Staff can reach out to colleagues in Charlottesville with unencumbered, unquestioning support
  • Museums can host conversations for visitors
  • Museums share their stories of colonialism and inclusion as a model for growth (History isn’t erased any more than hard drives; bits always exist)
  • Museums can model inclusion in their programming
  • Museums can work together in regions to create safe spaces for inclusion

Do what is your museums doing? Let’s grow this list until every museum has something they can check off. After all, action is so much more fun.

Also, check this post out on Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 ; similar to this but with a different picture of me.

10 Aug

Drawing to Help Construct Meaning

Drawing is a dividing word.  For some people drawing highlights their weakness. Few people it turns out can draw like Michelangelo without practice–not even Michelangelo.  Artists are trained.  They practice their craft. No one is born drawing. If you can get past your hesitation about drawing out of the equation, drawing can be an incredibly useful thinking tool.

Why use drawing?

We live in a visual world that we translate into text. We use so much text that it feels natural, but it is a form of translation nonetheless. The world is a complex, and some ideas are hard to articulate with words. Think about strong feelings you have experienced. Do you think about them in prose? Or do you have a series of images in your mind?  Images are natural to our thinking, and so a wonderful way to put thoughts to paper.

How can you use drawing?

  • Start by the times you can’t say what you mean in words. What if you diagrammed it? Don’t try to be realistic.  Try to be schematic.
  • What about when you think of a problem and pictures come into your mind? Well, draw it.
  • Then there are things that require millions of words or just one picture! Draw those.
  • Some things are about connections. Connections can be a whole slew of words or a single line.
  • Drawing helps you look slowly and carefully. Some problems need that type of focus. If you need to really see how something ticks, drawing it.

Basically, draw, draw, draw if you want to try to get a different look at the same problem.

08 Aug

Self-Care: Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is a positivity-focused planning process that allows teams to build on the best of their past to dream of the best future. This strategy can be helpful in organizational problem-solving.  You start with a goal (rather than a problem, as in problem-based learning or design thinking), and then you go through five steps: define, discover, dream, design, and deliver.  Alliteration aside, the process asks you to start with what’s good, discover what’s next, put down your dreams, design your dreams, and then deliver on them.

I have been playing with this process developed by Case Western Reserve University to facilitate organizational change. But, I have also been playing with this tool as a means of personal growth.

How about you use Appreciative Inquiry to help your self-care practice?

Self-care is basically a process of making sure that you aren’t burned to the core. You make sure to keep your inner-self nourished and whole. It isn’t about being selfish or self-focused. Instead, it is about self-preservation. Self-care is about making yourself ready for anything the world throws at you. Here are the steps to help you make the most of yourself.

  • Define: This is an illuminating and essential step. Take stock of yourself. Ask yourself a series of questions. Write your answers. Draw your answers. Think your answers.   It’s the type of work that is best done with a little procrastination. This is the kind of stuff that bubbles up when you are driving the car or standing in the shower. So, start, stop and start again.  As yourself questions, like, who are you? What makes you tick? What makes you freeze? What exhausts you? What ignites you?
  • Discover: This is a process that can work in many ways. In traditional AI, you can frame a series of exercises to go through discovery. But, for self-care, try giving yourself this challenge: write 5 sentences about your greatest desires.
  • Dream: Now that you know about your greatest desires, spend some time dreaming. What are ways that you can make it to your desires? Don’t negate your dreams. Don’t say no to yourself.
  • Design: Alright, so now you have your beginning (defining) and your ending (discover), and some of the ways you can get there (dreams). So, what next? Design concrete ways that you can get there.  For example, if your greatest desire is to be healthy, and you dream of being muscular, then design a way to make exercise part of your life. Now, this is a concrete example, certainly, and goals like “be happy” might be harder. When your goals seem too abstract, break them down. So, go back to your define statements, what makes you happy?
  • Deliver: In a non-profit, this is easy. You turn your strategic plan into action points and show how you did it.  But, for people, this is the same in some ways. You make yourself accountable to your goals. Put them on your calendar. Give yourself tasks. Basically, make ways to help yourself achieve your goals.


03 Aug

Centering Empathy in your Visitor-Practice in Museums

Empathy is one of those things that is hard to verbalize and even harder to feel. If sympathy is when you say “I know how you feel” then empathy is when you connect with someone’s pain to not be able to say anything at all.  Empathy is hard to gain, requires time, and involves work. You don’t gain empathy by looking onto something in a disconnected manner. You gain empathy by linking with others in real, authentic ways. These connections return enormous gains.

Think of your visitor. You no longer think of them as one monolith. You start to differentiate the mass into individuals. You start to wonder what they would think, not in an abstract way, but in a solvable way.  You move from inaction to action.

How do you gain such powers?

Pretty simple. Walk out of your office. Sit where your visitors sit. (Didn’t put a bench there? Well, then you think about sitting where your visitors think about sitting.) Talk to people. Be careful–this is not an evaluation that I am talking about. Don’t take this sample size of a handful as

Talk to people. Be careful–this is not an evaluation that I am talking about. Don’t take this sample size of a handful as an anecdotal study.  Just get to know your visitors as people. Let them be actual people rather than abstract numbers.

Then go back to the problems that face you. Think of those people that you have been getting to know.  Try to solve these problems for them.

Oh, and ask facilities to put an extra bench in the galleries.

01 Aug

Defend Yourself? A Tool to Improve your Social Justice Work

I am pretty competitive. In a verbal argument, I like to win. It’s a terrible trait. I blame in on a childhood in debate and model UN. But, as I can see in my own children, I suspect it is just innate to my DNA. This is the thing about people. There are things that are in us that we just are.

This kernel of truth was the starting point for this book. People just have certain innate traits. Defensiveness is just one of those traits. In early existence, the ability to get your hackles up right quick was likely very helpful.  Defending yourself would come in handy in a prehistoric fight with an equally prehistoric predator.

But, in today’s world, when most fights are verbal, does defensiveness still come in handy? Nine times out of ten, your defenses only make things worse. Think of a verbal argument. You project a negative attitude, and your “aggressor” either shuts down or flees.  Either way, you both lose.

Dealing with defensiveness is hard. It’s the kind of topic that makes you feel insanely self-aware, like when someone mentions being itchy and you start feeling the urge to scratch.   But, in many ways, it is also the lynchpin. If you can learn to decrease defensiveness, your ability to relate to others will improve steadily.

I produced this free workbook to help all of us, myself included, become less defensive. This tool is aimed at those working in social justice work in non-profits, including staff and volunteers. But, honestly, everyone who wants to do better interacting with others can use it.