17 Apr

#OMA2019 Recap : Boards, Front of House, and Conversation Burnout

The Ohio Museums Association had its 2019 conference in Akron this week. I was at the conference as a board member of OMA, eager to hear what we can do for our constituents.

This week in Akron I was reminded of the phrase: All politics is local. Ohio is populous state, classically purple in elections, and historically split politically even in non-election years. People on the coasts might imagine our counties chock full of corn and cows, but my Ohio is one of old steels mills and Big Medicine. We are a state, in effect, that encapsulates much of the complexity that makes our nation great already and maddeningly polarized. I also found a space where Ohio museum professionals could talk to people dealing with the same problems, often with the same audiences or donors. I found local solutions to local problems. Now, while a national conference can be incredibly helpful, I was struck by the power of the local professional community (and while I love Ohio, I am sure all of the state conferences have this vibe). When we talk about the costs of conference travel, and that is a topic for another day, you might also look locally for affordable resources near you.

Center the Right Story: The keynote was given by Sean Kelly of the incomparable Eastern State Penitentiary. He gave a wonderful talk about his organization. I was particularly struck by the way he shared failure and growth in his organization. In reflecting on his talk, I kept thinking about how space is a form of communicating relative importance. When something is central to the organization’s goals, it is given physical space. Kelly mentioned that he noticed in the 1990s and early 2000s the artwork installations dealing with the issues of incarceration were often on the outskirts of the physical space. He realized this was a loss, as he said, mass incarceration is the great civil rights travesty of our era. As such, they centered that story and gave it physical space. (I will note Kelly wins with me, as he kept discussing the staff who did the work of the organization, rather than himself).

Boards: Kelly also gave an interesting talk about leadership. He used a rapid voting system to gauge people’s ideas about change and which groups might be reticent. He then led an interesting discussion about these issues. The topic of boards loomed large. As one director of a historic home mentioned, the challenge can be as a leader predicting what will set off the board. Another discussant mentioned how one board member at an institution put a stop to an important program for fear of looking political. These kinds of stories highlight an important challenge of boards. There is often a great deal of actual power, rather than advisory potential, exerted by boards, with those 15 people, say, having more power individually than most staff. This power struggle can be disappointing for staff, stuck working at the whim of the board. Of course, good boards aren’t able to exert such power, but that requires a strong director. One discussant mentioned that under a good director, we might be scared of the board, but they can be a great resource.

Woes of the Front of House Staff: Kelly also mentioned his surprise at the ways his Front of House staff was reticent to change when the organization changed its interpretation strategy. Kelly also mentioned that he should have realized this challenge and been proactive. Where boards can enact change, FOH staff is often suspect to the forces of change with little agency. They are often underpaid and might need to work many jobs to be able to afford to work in the museum. They are also stuck in dealing with the greatest ire of visitors. It’s a tough job to be FOH. Supporting them goes a long way in improving the visitor experience. I was most interested in a conversation about the burnout vibes staff feels when visitors hoping to push a political agenda argue with staff. Kelly mentioned his staff follows the idea of empathetic listening. His staff doesn’t shut down hard conversations. Another person shared how hard these kinds of situations can be on her staff, who are often being harangued by visitors completely unperturbed with the burden of historical facts. We didn’t come to a solution to the issue of how to support staff in this situation. (and if the staff should be able to shut down conversations based on alternative facts/ or people’s interpretive truths.)

Salary transparency: Michelle Epps of the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network spoke passionately about her organization’s desire to improve working conditions in part by pushing organizations to publish salaries of job openings. The move to salary transparency is huge for the field. It allows people to potentially entering the field to understand salary. Employers are saved interviewing people who can’t afford to move for certain salaries. Of course, it also exposes the low salaries of some parts of the field and the inequity within other parts. But even that can be good for the field, potentially improving salaries in the long run.

Diversity isn’t a Trend: Diversity was an interesting thread through the conversations. Salary is a diversity issue, for example. When entry-level salary ranges are low, applicants will likely come from higher income brackets that can help buoy low earnings. Diversity was also part of some of the Front of House conversations. FOH is often one of the most diverse workforces in the sector (especially guards). These employees are often part-time and are offered fewer self-care supports than full-time staff. Finally, many people were struggling with how their organizations and constituents understand diversity. Diversity isn’t about looking a certain way. Adding one person of color, say, won’t check the box of diversity. It’s about systemic change where the organization and its staff act and think a different way

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