Guiding Questions to Think about Bias in Museums (by functional area)

At AAM 2018, there was a wonderful panel led by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko about Decolonization. While all the speakers were wonderful, I was particularly struck by Jaclyn Roessel’s remarks about indigenizing museums as an act of transforming the current power structure. Overall, the conversation underscored the importance of systematic and cataclysmic change in transforming the colonialism inherent in museums. This process is one that requires work and the ceding of power to people outside the museum world. Cinnamon et al stressed the importance of collective action and community-organized change.

Walking out of that conversation, I was struck at how much time and energy is required of community groups when they help museums transform. How can museums ensure that they are meeting this sacrifice in good faith? Museum teams need to prepare themselves for tough conversations.

The first step is to find ways to subvert the natural human inclination towards defensiveness. Criticism of any kind can feel like an attack. But, in a society where race is a taboo topic, criticism can become debilitating. Learning to tamp down defensiveness, therefore, can be an incredibly important means of laying a foundation for growth. (Incidentally, Beyond Defensiveness, our book, and our online course can be useful tools to help on the path to dealing with bias).

Once you are personally positioned to be self-critical about bias, you need to examine your work. While each field has a slightly different manifestation of bias, overall, investigating inherent challenges requires thinking about who is missing and why. Making ideas explicit requires seeing what you have been missing, potentially for your whole career. Think of it as an intellectual optical illusion; once seen cannot be forgotten.

An Example

Take this example. Recently, New York writer Jerry Saltz posted a tweet about women artists.

The sentiment was important, as was the fact that it was said by an influencer.  Yet, the tweet had an important omission. The tweet never called out the reason that women were not taken seriously as artists. While this could be seen as simply an issue of “elegant” verbal framing, this was also a way that language hides the actual instigators of inequity.  Exposing such omissions are important as bias cannot be dealt with if it remains invisible.

How do you see the unseen?

The pernicious effects of colonialism and bias thrive on silence and denial. People need to be willing to look at every process with a critical eye. Every element of work needs to be investigated. Choice points need to be considered. Here is a great moment where data and visualizations can help draw conclusions. Data can help make concrete that which is hidden. For example, what percentage of works in an audiotour are of male artists or artists of color? What percentage of artworks have long-form labels? What is the demographic make-up of the audience? What is the demographic make-up of the photographs in the marketing? (Above is a graphic to offer some questions by functional area.)

Doing this type of hard work internally is essential before joining forces with community partners. Those partners have put themselves out to join you on your journey. Don’t they deserve a travel partners who is strong enough to make it down this long road?

Recognizing Bias in Interpretation and Content

 

Being culturally situated is a state nothing can avoid, collection objects included.  Collection objects, even natural history specimens, are mediated by creators, curators, educators, amongst others. A dinosaur bone is excavated by a person, identified by a person, and reclassified by a person. The human existence, in other words, flavors the essence of every collection object.

The first step in recognizing bias is to accept that all aspects of museum work have inherent biases. There are many clear points of bias (above). Ignoring bias does not make these issues disappear; in fact, avoidance usually exacerbates and multiplies bias. Acquisitions are the often the result of inherent in-group bias when the academic interests nominate certain white, male artists as exemplary skewing the whole collection/ cannon. Databases seem cut and dry but are rife with potential biases.  For each category that has controlled vocabulary, a decision has been made. Databases that articulate male and female as the only choices for gender are excluding other genders. Interpretation is the front-facing function that needs to think particularly critically about bias.

 

 

Interpretation is like the end of the long line from the origin of the object to the visitor.  Interpretation is also the point where bias is particularly obvious. Content creation, ideally, starts with finding bridges between objects and visitors. There are many tools to form this bridge, from social media to catalog essays.  While each tool has a different reach and needs a different approach, in each instance the content creator chooses facets about the collection object to foreground. This choice-point is when many stories are edited out. When making this choice, however, thought is rarely given about who is being edited out and why.

How can bias be improved?

  1. Understand that all aspects of museum work have bias. Without accepting and understanding this, museum staff cannot address bias.
  2. In each area, reconsider conventional wisdom, long-held beliefs, and givens. Ask yourself “why” processes exists as they do.
  3. Seek help from others. Jaclyn Roessel gave a wonderful talk about her work about Indigenization of interpretation and process at #AAM2018, and this is a great example of how changing the balance of power can ameliorate biased systems.
  4. Invest time, energy, and trust. Museums are colonial institutions. Lip-service or surface bias treatment will not reform the foundations into equitable institutions. People need to go all in to make true change.

#AAM2018 Recap: Language, Collaboration, and Action

 

The Annual American Alliance Conference 2018 was hosted in toasty Phoenix. Many participants mentioned that this conference felt like a year to consider the basics. Rather than big bang projects, many presentations seemed to focus on maintenance, improvement, and thoughtfulness. As part of this introspection, many presentations put a fine focus on understanding the structures and processes of the museum world. Here is a roundup of some the biggest issues

Language: Communication between people has an inherent bias. Verbal communication often holds a bias towards those in power. For example, until very recently, many occupations were described in gendered terms (fireman, postman, councilman). Focusing on words might feel insignificant in the grand scheme of improving equity and inclusion. However, words are the basic building blocks of improving the socio-cultural state. Currently, language is built on broken blocks. Being thoughtful in the ways that you use language, avoiding biased language, for example, is like excavating and rebuilding our faulty communication tools.

Decolonialism/ Equity/ Inclusion:  Just as language might be the building blocks of inequity, colonialism is the architect of the inequity in society. The society we live in is a product of white Europeans expanding and conquering much of the planet, laying waste to the people and cultures resident there. This expansion/ decimation might have begun centuries ago, but the ramifications remain present today. Museum collections are particularly tangible artifacts of the colonial state. In order to truly embrace equity and inclusion, museums need to face and address the colonial nature of their work and collections, in a holistic and all-encompassing manner.

Collaboration/ Partnership: Museums are part of an ecosystem of organizations and institutions, large and small. Despite the breadth of possible collaborators, museums often act unilaterally in their planning and implementation of programs and exhibitions. Museums are ill-at-ease with ceding power, the central crux of good collaboration. Instead, museums often create collaborations in name only, which are basically perfunctory check-ins. With careful planning and dedicated time, museums can implement collaborations that will have positive lasting effects on their communities and their work. This type of collaboration, however, requires earnestness, truthfulness, transparency, and follow-through.

Risk: Risk-taking can be at the heart of a good collaboration. Museums are change-averse and yet always in the throes of change. This state means that staff needs to handle inadvertent change consistently, while not being able to take calculated risks (planned change). Fear of change is often centered around a few of power changes/ loss of power.  Conversely, ceding power is a learned skill not unlike risk-taking. Taking small risks, and reaping the benefits, can increase institutional aptitude for risk-taking.

Space: Improving anything is hard. It takes time, energy, money, and dedication. Ameliorating the state of museums can feel particularly draining, as we are a physically disparate field. (Rather than a physician with scores of peers in your region, museum workers often find their peers around the country/ world). As a result, people can feel isolated. Exhausted and isolated people cannot effectively make change. Museum workers must take care of themselves if they want to continue their impact on the field and their visitors. Self-care can take many forms, but in essence, means that you take some time to focus on yourself.

 

 

Making Change that Matters: Moving Beyond “Diversity” Projects Towards Systemic Change

 

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity can be implemented in a workplace in different ways.

Additive: One is additive, by adding new people and programs in the workplace. In this way, the organization hopes to infuse their existing world with new voices, as like adding spice to a bland meal. This approach has strengths, in that there is more variety being adding to the workplace. But, it puts an unnecessary onus on the marginalized people and programs being added to the institution to “fix” systemic problems.

Subtractive: Many organizations perceive a subtractive approach is more efficacious. For example, when positions come open, they purposeful hire a marginalized person (perhaps also proudly toutly their accomplishment). Unlike the additive method, this approach works under the operating auspices of the organization, i.e. not adding new positions or projects that could be cut eventually. Yet, this approach effectively creates some of the same problems as the additive approach. The marginalized person is still being asked to be the actor of transformation.

Systemic: Diversity and equity initiatives are basically about transforming culture. This requires understanding the many ways that the culture supports inequity and prejudice. Many of these issues are hiding in plain sight, interwoven into all the practices of the institution. Every element of the work of the institution could be imbued with problems. For diversity and inclusion initiatives to truly take hold, the institution needs to examine their practices. Here is where a consultant, or outside voice, can be essential. Just as people are often blind to their own faults, organizations often ignore the largest roadblocks to true diversity.

Systemic change, however, requires a commitment to being honest, thoughtful, and responsive. Unlike the additive and subtractive ways to implement diversity, systemic change is a process-based towards transformation. Processes take time and coordination between people, and ideally, non-hierarchical knowledge-sharing.  Seen broadly, systemic change requires a number of steps:

  1. Grow your team’s ideas and knowledge-base. Organizations, whatever the field, are often siloed knowledge networks. Fields bring people with similar training together, and then they generally partake in similar types of professional development. Change is about fostering difference. So, the staff needs to be able to understand and embrace difference.
  2. Examine the practices of the organization and attempt to understand facets that support or mask bias. This process will be slow and iterative.
  3. Rework those elements in a collaborative manner. This type of change needs to blend many (diverse) voices. They need to be diverse in all sort of ways (age, gender, education) in order to create a process that can handle diverse challenges.
  4. Iterate your new processes. Try out new processes, and then circle back with your teams to see how to improve them. Make sure everyone understands that processes need to grow and adapt so that they are willing to share feedback.

 

 

Reframing Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are now common words in organizational management. Before considering the actual practices, it might be useful to consider the meaning of each of the words.

Diversity:
: Diversity means variations. Genetic diversity, for example, in the human population creates a huge range of hair colors.

Sadly, diversity has become a coded word. Many people feel uncomfortable or defensive about talking about marginalized people. They use the phrase diversity to mean “adding X marginalized person or project.” When they say we need to increase diversity, they might mean that they need to add more people of color. In this way, many people are using diversity incorrectly. They don’t mean diversity in the sense of broad variation. Instead, they are unable to think beyond their narrow definitions of diversity. They see diversity too simply, this person for that person. But, diversity, actually means more of all kinds of people.


Inclusion is another word that is misused. Inclusion is much bigger than the word implies. On its surface, inclusion can seem simple. Including friends into your home can just be about giving them a call. But, in the organizational sense, you are not working with friends. You are working in a stratrified society. Inclusion are the transformational practices set forth to be able to make a diverse group of people feel included.


Community is another coded word that comes into play with diversity and inclusion initiatives. Community is a challenging word in a different way than diversity and inclusion. Community can be used differently by different people depending on where they stand in society. For example, a marginalized person might be using the term to mean their in-group of marginalized people. They are using the word to denote their shared culture, in other words, their community. However, when an organization uses that word, community should not be used to mask an inherent discomfort with naming a specific marginalized community. For example, many organizations have “community engagement” endeavors. These endeavors are aimed at low-wealth, minority patrons. However, rather than directly stating these points, the organization hides behind the term “community.”

This type of linguistic simplification and obfuscation can seem innocuous. However, they are often like canaries, signaling a work culture that is dangerously unable to truly implement diversity and inclusion work.  On Thursday, we will talk about the ways to do diversity and inclusion work well.

A Museum Professional’s Oath for Better Visitor Interactions

 

Museums serve visitors, both on-site and off. Connecting with others is a grave responsibility, a relationship that can change people and organizations. Funders love engagement, like education and community engagement. Museums seek funding for programs that connect them to others, often raising millions for operating support. This work is essential, basically making the museums’ missions manifest. But, there are times when museums need to make good choices.

In my career, I have learned the hard way that funding and allocations are tinged with ethical considerations. For example, the museum professional is asking for support to staff a project that will help thousands of people for a certain term. As an organization, you are putting off making a decision. After the term, you will need to decide how Peter will be robbed to keep Paul working. Non-profits, like museums, can feel like a daily shell game. And, instead of playing for nickels, you are playing for people’s minds. Museum work is not frivolous–it is for the benefit of every person who connects with the institution.

These millions of people deserve to know that they are being treated in the most ethical manner.  Museums often preference pragmatism to stark ethics. You make choices about allocations, pushing pennies to one project to support a team-member effectively robbing another audience. You hope to do it right, but sometimes the fog obscures the true north.

But, there is a simple goal, a cardinal direction of museum work. That our institutions should place collections, knowledge, and people in the forefront of their concerns. Everything we do needs to support these three goals equally. We as institutions have collections and knowledge down, but the visitors are often given short-shrift.  But, people deserve some essential ethical considerations. Just as doctors take an  to cause no harm, museum professionals have an ethical challenge to center their visitors:

Oath of Ethics in Museum W0rk

As a museum professional, I hereby promise that:

1.I will do no harm to the people we are hoping to serve.

2.I will not make assumptions about our patrons. We will ask them.

3.I will not just drop people when grant periods end.

4.I will treat all patrons like people.

5.I will not assume skin color defines interests, actions, or motivations.

6.I will not assume skin color connects people.

7.I will respect everyone, including ourselves. We will act in ways that feel respectful.

8.I will speak kindly, thoughtfully, and considerately. And, I will learn how to speak this way.

9.I will focus on people.

 

 

(Online Course) Self-Care For Mission-Driven Professionals

Mission-driven professionals are not in it for the money. They place their desire to fulfill the mission over themselves. Doing mission-driven work can be gratifying. But, this work is also incredibly draining. The rewards can be minimal both emotionally and financially. With these challenges, the mission-driven professional finds themselves feeling empty and exhausted.

Self-care is taking care of yourself. While so much of the media frames self-care as a privilege and an act of consumerism, self-care is about finding ways to keep yourself sane. Self-care can be as simple as taking a deep breath.

Understanding yourself is the key to doing authentic self-care. You cannot keep yourself sane if you don’t understand the things that make you crazy. For the mission-driven person, their work and their motivations for doing that work are integral to their construct of self.

This online course helps mission-driven professionals understand their work and personal issues, develop new strategies to fold self-care into their lives, and maintain their routines long-term. This course includes videos and activities to help you be your best you.

What is Community Engagement?

Capital, Collections, Cultural Capital and Infrastructure are what museums can offer.
Facets of Community Engagement

Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

Not too long ago, I was thinking about the possible types of experiences that could be part of community engagement (see my handwritten notes above)  Often organizations focus on how they can bring people in their doors, usually with programs.

Yet, a rounded community engagement program should strategically consider the myriad facets of interaction. Museums have collections as well as space, money, soft power.  People’s draw to the museum might not be the collection, at least at first. This is a controversial thought, I realize.  Community engagement, however, needs to be about inviting people into the museum community rather than demanding people use the museum the “right way”.

A huge portion of community engagement should be about sharing. Museums have many resources they can share beyond their programs. Also, there are times when what they have to offer is space, both physical and emotional.  A well-rounded community engagement portfolio should balance multiple elements of the facets of community engagement, ideally developed iteratively and collaboratively with patrons.

Fostering Empathy by Acknowledging Credit

 

Art Museum Teaching recently posted an article about empathy in the workplace. As always, Mike Murawski’s post was thoughtful and thorough. In reflecting on the article, I wanted to think further about the situations when empathy is lacking in the workplace.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand other’s feelings and act accordingly.  People need to appreciate or perceive emotions and reactions in order to act in an empathetic manner. Emotions are inextricably linked to all human endeavors, including work. In the workplace, emotions are often connected to outcomes. People often feel good when they have successes and badly when they have failures. Emotions also appear in the workplace when co-workers interact. Good connections build positive emotions. Competition can foster negative emotions or positive ones.

In most workplace situations, employees call on their empathy-skills throughout the day:

  • When you walk by a person who had dropped a stack of paper, you have the choice on if you should help. Empathy is one of the reasons that you might stop to help.
  • When you decide to give someone who is uncharacteristically snappy a pass, you are calling on your empathy.
  • When you don’t get snarky about someone’s typo, you are calling on empathy.

True, in each of the above situations, empathy blends into kindness and propriety. But, empathy is aptitude that connects to many other workplace skills. An empathetic individual is a better team member, as well as a better manager.

What are signs that a workplace lacks empathy?

So if empathy is so wonderful in the workplace, why is it often lacking? Well, the polar opposite of empathy might be selfishness/ or self-centered behavior.  These self-serving behaviors can be purposeful or accidental, but both are symptomatic of a lack of empathy and consideration of other people’s emotions. The workplace can be about balancing your personal desires and those of the overall organization. That said, even the most empathetic person seeks some sort of personal benefit from work.

We all have some desire for personal benefits. In most of the workplace, cash-money is the utmost benefit of work. In non-profit, only a small sliver of the workforce can say that they are being paid a living wage or a salary worth crowing about.  In this type of environment, credit can be a form of emotional remuneration. This is a challenging equation, however. Credit is ephemeral, at best, and easy to subvert.  Museums and academic institutions are credential-based cultures. Lab directors, curators, deputy directors are often given credit for the work of their juniors. These subordinates will eventually leave to start their senior positions, becoming grant earners and managers, and then take the credit for the work of their juniors.  So, for the junior person, credit is something to be expected down the road, after years of being underpaid. Now, this is a worst-case scenario, certainly.

But, considering the worst case scenario can be educational when considering how to improve simpler problems. On social media, I solicited responses to this worst-case scenario:

Personal Reactions to Losing Credit

Most people shared their emotional responses to these types of situations: sadness, loathing, frustration, disappointment, anger, hurt. As one person said, “Seething and loathing are my go-to ways to deal with it. Super healthy, I know.” But, realistically, all emotions, including negative ones, are human and important.

Once the emotions are felt, what next? Some talked about using smoke and mirrors, through humor, for example, to “deflect negative attention.” Others talked about immediately jumping towards the next thing as a way to get over the disappointment. Many people also spoke of such experiences as a chance to hone their own skills. “I got smart and I don’t let that person use me anymore.”

Overall, such issues with credit have very real ramifications in the workplace. As one person said, “Sadness, feelings of inadequacy, that then spiraled into feelings of being blocked, and taken advantage of. Ultimately lead me to distrust the decision-making process and start my journey out.”

What does credit mean to the workplace?

This challenge is that without an equitable, liberal distribution of credit, the overall work culture is negative and hierarchical.  In a tiered, siloed environment, those at the lowest levels can feel alienated. Overall, this is not the kind of environment where empathy can be fostered. Instead, people are too self-focused. As one respondent said, “I realized in that instance how much time conflict costs employers. So much headspace and mental space went to conflict on work time the actual work suffered.”

What can be done to improve the situation?

When organizations think about empathy, they need to understand the other emotional factors that might be currently in play in the workforce. Credit theft is a just one tripping point for empathetic workplaces. Poor management, challenging silos, and bad communication are other examples. Ideally, make all of these possibilities part of the conversation as you work on building empathy into your workplace practice.

Connecting Experience and Research

Research is the fuel in the engine of the museum’s output. Like a car, which is basically inert without a driver, the museum only fulfills its full mission when drawing visitors. Visitors are now a scarce commodity. Drawing more visitors requires considering our offerings and the way those offerings come to fruition. This does mean going all the way to the sources, including research. We need to be thoughtful about how we do research, who does research, and which research is prioritized. All those choices will eventually determine which visitors we draw. When we place research outside the realm of bias and inclusion conversations, we are putting bad fuel in our engines.

 

Centering visitors takes work. Museums often start with objects then come up with ideas for installations and exhibition, then turn to thinking about visitors while producing the outputs of that research, like in the diagram below. The challenge is that when you do your research that not centered on your visitor. Now, this is in some ways a challenging proposition. Research is an unwieldy process.  Anyone who has done research understands the sort of free-flow, errant paths that you must travel and the secret travails you must brook. Centering your visitor in your research means simply as you look at your work remember you are doing this for someone–not just yourself or your museum. Use that as a guiding idea throughout your work (as seen above). Just as a writer knows that someday someone will read these words (please read these words :>), a museum researcher should hope that their work will be consumed by someone. In other words, keep that goal in mind throughout your research.