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.


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.