What Museums Can Learn from the Black Panther

The stars of Black Panther including Zuri in purple carrying an impressive blade (Marvel’s Black Panther, 2018)

Taken from the Marvel Comic Books, the Black Panther is a movie about a fictional African nation that cloaks its advanced civilization as a form of self-preservation. The king of the nation has superhuman strength thanks to serious sumptuary success. The Black Panther’s trail to bring a bad guy to justice starts some even worse experiences for him and his nation.

1. Great story with POC doesn’t have to be about color
While the Black Panther mentions slavery, colonialism, appropriation, and the art market, they are in support of a great story. Certainly, the many challenges in the history of the African diaspora are worthy of exploring in film, as well as literature and exhibitions. But, people of color are not just the sum of the worst of their history. Black Panther told a great hero story, using all the elements of the character’s history, good and bad. But, this is a really an adventure romp.

In other words, don’t essentialize POC’s experiences in exhibitions or programming. Appeal to the whole people if you want their whole participation.

2. Market for Success
Disney put real money into the marketing, and their investment was returned by being the fifth biggest box office opening domestically.

Museums often split up their marketing with the smallest part going to education programs and diversity programs. And, then people don’t come. If these people are the hardest to get, you probably need to try the hardest to get them into your doors.

3. Synergy Sells
The Black Panther will be in the upcoming Infinity War, apparently. Most Black Panther audiences know this because the ad ran before the movie this weekend. Every person who liked this movie saw that. Some portion might even attend that movie as a result. That said, not every person in the theaters this weekend is a Marvel fan. Many came out to support a Black-led and performed film. But, the synergy is a classic Hollywood trick. Snag extra audiences by pushing products in existing audiences.

Museums often sell hard to a sector of an audience for specific exhibitions, like African-American audiences for an exhibition of Kerry James Marshall or young boys for an exhibition of Dinosaurs. That is good marketing sense. But, most museums can do better about cross-promotion. Look for ways that you might find connections to other parts of your collection. Offer them some connected ways to maintain a relationship with your organization’s collection. The Marshall attendees might love figurative painting. The Dinosaur boys might like whales. To find the best synergies think broadly, don’t essentialize people, and consider doing some evaluations of audiences about other interests.

4. Don’t Shy Away from the Hard Stuff
There is one scene in a museum where a woman (curator, marketing manager?) is standing in a gallery (with coffee!) nearly apoplectic when being accused of cultural piracy/ theft of artifacts. There are many tougher issues about race that are brought up in this movie, though woven into the narrative. I remind you that this is a Disney blockbuster movie being advertised during the Olympics.

Controversial issue and blockbusters don’t need to be in opposition. In fact, if you avoid controversial issues, you might find that you have alienated audiences making for a far-from-successful blockbuster.

5. Celebrate rather than Blind Yourself to Color
Disney worked to create a film within the Marvel universe that worked for the audience, and then made sure people knew what they were getting. It’s right in the name, “Black Panther”. This was not the African-American panther (not to mention he is meant to be from Africa). This story was pretty honest about race, but also matter of fact. From the advertising alone, no one thought that they were going to be seeing one or two black faces. But, at the same time, it was not just about race. You didn’t forget their color but you let the Black Panther, his enemies, his friends, and everyone else in Wakanda be their whole selves.

Museums in general still make the mistake of essentializing people of color, particularly black/ African-American people. Coded language flourishes in museums and museum culture. The word “diversity” in most museums means, not variation as it should, but instead moves to include black people or people of color in the museum ecosystem. This is a terribly bad way to grow audiences. You are basically inviting people in to change your demographic but not changing for them. What happens, then, is that you don’t have true change in museum demographics.

Black Panther showed that people of color will respond to quality entertainment that is more than about race as long as it doesn’t shy away from Race. Also, this was not a sneaky move to create a movie that had an almost all-black cast. This was all-out, right-on Black made and performed.

Museums can learn bringing people in, different people than you have now, requires real effort, real money, and a truthful product. After all, if you aren’t planning to go big, people will just stay home. Don’t believe me, ask the people who didn’t stay home this weekend.

And if you were here for the art, here are 12 artworks from cultures that inspired the Black Panther designers.

Addressing Inadvertent Bias in Language

Words matter. Actions matter too, don’t forget. But, words can be harbingers of actions. They are certainly bellwethers of the inner mind. Words belie deep secrets. Words are the ultimate tells.

Most imperative, however, words are not static. Their meaning, their usage, their connotations fluctuate. The transmutation of meaning can feel imperceptible for people, like the growth of hair. But, other times, the change of connotation can be seismic and quick. The transformed meaning feels shocking.

So, words share meaning, and the meaning is constantly changing. How can you handle this? Go with the flow won’t work here. You need to be proactive to understand and incorporate new meanings into your language.

There are many words that can make others feel bad. These are often the words that connect to how people self-identify. These are also often the words that you feel are most fundamentally unchangeable.

What are some words that can cause others to feel bad?

  • Gender Pronouns (She/ He)
  • Words that use one group to stand in for a larger group (Mankind for Humanity)
  • Words that define an ethnicity or culture (Native America, First Peoples, Aboriginal, and/or Indian).
  • Words defining relationships between people (Wife or Partner)

How can I do better?

So, what should you do? Focus on words and usage. This is not to say meaning. We have all used words to hurt people. Instead, center your thinking on when intention is different than perception.

  • Self-reflect—
    • Start by thinking about the times when your words didn’t connect with the listeners.
    • Think about moments when you have felt you hurt people.
    • Also, consider when you have felt strongly about when people’s word usage has hurt you.
  • Investigate—
    • Make it your responsibility to learn about why certain words are not being received as you imagine.
    • Do not ask others to be responsible for your education.
    • There plenty of wonderful resources online to help you start your education.
  • Attempt—
    • Once you understand the ways that words feel to others, make your informed decision on your usage choices.
    • You might find your feelings mean that you will change your usage. You might instead feel strongly about maintaining your usage as it is. If you choose the latter, be prepared to affect people.
    • For those words that you change, put them into usage.
  • Listen
    • You will make mistakes.
    • Listen to how people react.
    • Reflect on those reactions.
    • Learn from those reactions.
  • Try Again
    • Amend your approach based.
    • Employ your new approach in language.

For more, a longer and more emotional conversation about language read my thoughts here.

Are Museums Neutral? Or are they Neutered?

While I was going to do a round-up of our favorite blog posts of the year today, a recent post by Rebecca Herz made me want to return to one topic: #MuseumsarenotNeutral. I wrote a bit about it last month, and it was one of the five most popular posts. But, let’s dive in:

Neutrality vs. Neutralize:

What does the word neutrality mean? In common parlance, we often use neutral for cars, when they are neither going forward nor backward. Politically, the term can be used for a nation as “not engaged on either side; specifically: not aligned with a political or ideological grouping.”

In the former definition, the car is static. Anyone who has put a car in neutral when on a hill without the parking brake can attest to the fact that momentum is a possibility. The neutral vehicle is in a state when motion is no longer solely the choice of the driver.

The car is the apt metaphor for considering museums and neutrality. When museums don’t acknowledge that they make choices, they are not freed from making decisions. For example, if when planning an exhibition of American history, if you decide to remain canonical, you are making a choice. Any history is based on decision and interpretation. When you present that history, you are supporting those decisions. You might not see those decisions. You might believe those ideas to be facts, but assuredly, other facts have been left out. If you want to go with the classic two-sides to every story argument, history is full of sides. If you don’t think so, you are working with your eyes closed. Even if your eyes are closed and you claim to be neutral, your decisions mean you are still acting.

To return to the definitions of neutrality, the nation-state sense of neutrality can also be an edifying metaphor. Switzerland was famously neutral during World War II. The tiny mountainous nation was surrounded by Axis states, so they were on an ideal flight path for the Allies in their quest to vanquish the Nazis. Yet, Switzerland had a strict no-fly-zone in effect. Allied planes were impounded in Switzerland. So, while the Swiss didn’t fight on either side, they made it hard for the Allies to fight against the Axis. In effect, their “neutral” action was still making a choice; they chose to allow a government, who massacred millions of innocent people, to continue to do so.

Let’s bring the nation-state metaphor back to the museum sphere. There are points when history is incredibly, egregiously horrendous, like the Holocaust. But, there are other moments, when the depravity of humanity is effaced by other social victories. American history is full of examples. Consider again about mounting a comprehensive installation about American history from above. You need to make choices. If you are choosing between George Washington and his neighbor Jasper, you will choose our first president, certainly. Square footage costs dollars.

But, other choices are harder. What about choosing to discuss if Washington had slaves? Omitting a mention of his slaves is a choice. You might think you are doing this to remain neutral and avoid the issue of race. But, what you are doing is supporting an America that doesn’t acknowledge slavery.

Museums have a long history of sanitizing installations with the victors earning the spoils of history. But the act of removing elements of history is attempting to divorce collections from politics. Simplifying history will almost always sway towards those in power.

Museums are, at their core, social institutions; if not, they would be repositories. Collections are held in care for people. In galleries, material culture becomes social education.  The question then becomes what education is offered in the museum galleries? There is great responsibility in this decision—and great power. When 20th century museums increased their education offerings, they were using that power to support social causes.

Power and museums have a relationship like peanut butter and jelly. When combined, they are hard to separate. In many ways, this is why the issue of neutrality is so hard. Museums have been able to support power subtly under the guise of neutrality and devoid of politics.

The aversion to “Museums are not Neutral” from the field is in part because as a field we have fooled ourselves. We made political decisions when we placed non-Western collections “in context” which European collections in pristine white galleries. And, we made different choices when we moved those same collections into pristine galleries. Art museums aren’t the only one making political choices. Science museums have long shown prehistoric objects, taking a stance on evolution. Every moment of collecting, installing, and interpreting is a moment when you make a choice. What you exclude says as much as what you include.

Finally, there is no getting away from politics. Everything in our culture is socially constructed. When you think you can be neutral, you are missing the natural biases in society. This can be extremely dangerous. You can inadvertently make choices that make your installations more partisan.

Return to your installation about George Washington. Without it, you are clearly taking a side, which is that slavery, and the people associated with it, isn’t worth discussing. If you acknowledge slavery in the installation, you are opening yourself to share your institutional interpretation. This will be challenging, no doubt. It’s hard for many people to see slave owners as good people making bad choices. It’s equally hard for some people to see George Washington as a slave owner.

Here is the crux of the neutrality issue. Bringing up complexity in the museum is hard. We often neuter narratives in order to maintain our veneer of neutrality.  Our visitors are often not well-versed enough to notice what has been omitted, and as such they are getting partisan information. By remaining blind to bias, we are doing our field and our visitors a disservice.

Museum Education 2018 Trend Forecast

Last month, I put a call out on Twitter for museum professionals to share their predictions for 2018. Before we get into the trends, it is useful to share the respondents’ collective vision of museums and the field.

What is a museum?

I invited participants to share their definition of a museum in 140 words (The survey was produced before #280characters). The themes of the responses could be categorized into three big themes:

  1. Object-oriented: Respondents used works like objects, conservation, and loan.
  2. Social Space: Words like institution and space were often paired with words like gather and community.
  3. Learning focused: The responses described the broadest sense of education, including scholarship, experiences, and interprets.

What is museum education?

 

Respondents were asked to give five words that defined museum education. The terms were overwhelmingly positive, with only 1/3 having negative connotations. Most of the positive words related to the output of museum educator and the experiences of visitors. There was a broad span of terms, including words that describe specific activities like workshops and terms that describe methodological approaches like engaging. Some of the terms might connect to values held by practitioners, like flexible, creative, dynamic. A few respondents shared words that might indicate changes in the field like transforming and evolving.

The negative and ambiguous terms related to the working in the field. Some words like comfortable and complex can be seen as positive or negative. Other words like undervalued and frustrating are clearly negative. These words often allude to the feelings of workers, feeling undervalued, underpaid, and stifled. Other negative words focus on the programs of museums and how they impact museum education like siloed, unchanged, and racially white.

Museum Education 2018 Trendcasting

Respondents were shared many issues about visitors, both generally and also specifically on K12. They shared their interest in developing programs that were relevant and experiential. The other major theme in responses were about social justice and access, as well as the training needed to be able to create equitable programming.  Above, one can see the relative importance of the major themes, and below one can see the nuance in the responses.

When seen together, museum education in 2018 would like to offer visitors a high-quality, inclusive experiences but feel real challenges in order to do so like funding and training. Educators are thinking about how to evolve to meet the learning needs of visitors. They are interested in finding ways to include narrative and responsive experiences to engage visitors. But, they are also thoughtful about the fact that diversity, access, equity need to be planned and supported.

The respondents discussed this tension between goals and funds in their trendcasting for 2022. The above graphic shows the aggregate of all of the long-form responses about museum education in 2022.In other words, museum educators do not foresee that the problems in the field will improve in the next five years. Digital and technology were big themes for the future, particularly AI. There were real concerns about balancing technology and collections-based experiences. There were also real fears about challenges for the future in terms of funding and staffing.  

 

Stepping up a level, looking at the projected themes helps clarify the biggest issues projected for 2022. Not surprisingly, there was a greater disparity in themes for the 2022 trends, as forecasting so far out is more challenging.  That said, notice the certain issues like disaster readiness appear on the 2022 themes list but were absent from the 2018 list.

Conclusion

The educators had clear expectations for 2018. Equity and access was a major theme, along with the perennial issues of schools and visitor experiences. However, funding and workplace challenges were equally important. Taken together, one can see a distinct tension between expectations and possibilities. Museum educators want to do more but are already strapped. In many ways, the 2022 projections indicate that there is a sense that the big challenges of funding and equity/access might not be addressed.

So, how as a field can we thwart the predictions for museum education 2022?

  • How can we address the issues of frustration in the field?
  • How we move our work into a supported position in our organizations?
  • What types of funding changes or expectation changes are needed?
  • How can we make real changes with equity and access so that five years from now we are looking at broader audiences?

What are your thoughts on the trends for 2018 or futureproofing the field for 2022?

 

Also, if you would like to look at the raw data, drop me a line at seema@brilliantideastudio.com 

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. .

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.

 

 

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.

 

Keep Clean Data

Data seems pretty cut and dried, but don’t be fooled. There are plenty of ways to fold in bias.  Here are some concrete steps to help you do your best to counteract the most common pitfalls.

Start with a clean tool/ protocol to collect data.

1. Keep data clean

There are plenty of ways to keep you tidy. First, have everyone use the same protocol. Ideally, keep your data collector pool down to a minimum. More people means potentially multiple interpretations. Train everyone the same. Take out the protocol and make sure everyone understands it. And, make sure everyone uses the same data collection tool. I used to work in a team of three data collectors. We had to agree to everything, and often huddled up to make sure we were on the same page. Be vigilant

2. Observe First, Interpret Later

Years ago, when I worked on hiring teachers for the public schools, I had to take a course on legal job interviews. The fear that the trainer burned into my soul always returns to me when I do interviews. Only write what people say–word for word. Do not interpret. This goes against your human nature. And, if you have a hard time writing, ask respondents if you can record them. Also, feel free to ask the people who provided the data whether your interpretations seem to be representative of their beliefs. Once all the data comes in, then you have the joy of interpretation. That said, once you get familiar with interpretation-free listening, you will also find joy in data collection.

3. Check out the competition.

After your initial interpretations, look to others to see how they are tackling this issue. What are their findings? What other issues might be occurring in the literature. This is sometimes called triangulation. If you can find other sources of data that support your interpretations, then you can have more confidence that what you’ve found is legitimate.

4. Check for alternative explanations.

False conclusions are absolutely the most likely place that bias comes into understanding data.  Jumping to conclusions can feel normal, like finishing someone’s sentence.  But, just was you can’t fill in the blanks for your respondents, don’t fill in the blanks for yourself too quickly.  Consider whether there are other reasons why you obtained your data. If you can rule out or account for alternative explanations, your interpretations will be stronger

5. Review findings with peers

Don’t be an island. Unless confidentiality prevents you, let others look at your data. You will only become better at your work with critical assessments. Additionally, when you allow peers to review your work, you might find commonalities. You might even be able to augment your argument.

For more about data bias, here is a long read sharing more issues like confirmation bias, ingroup bias, and knowledge bias. 

5 Steps to Better Community Conversations

Community conversations can be instrumental in the growth of an organization. However, they can also be an organizations down fall.  These 5 steps can help anyone participating in an conversation, particularly those in power positions or from an organizations.

Honor People’s Perception

We all filter the world through our experiences. Therefore, everyone’s perception of reality will differ. When leading community conversations, listen to others’ perceptions of a situation, and accept that as their reality. It might match yours, but that does not make it any less real to them.  Craft your work to resonate with their perceptions.

Concrete Step: When someone shares their personal experience, listen. Then don’t contradict them. Imagine they say that your organization is not accessible, and your job is to make it accessible. Don’t contradict them. Instead, listen. Try to think out the disconnects between your actions and their perceptions.  Probe them for better knowledge if you can’t see where the disconnects are occurring.

Honor Emotions

Emotions underlie our actions and decisions. Even seemingly logical decisions are imbued with emotions. Emotions are not all bad; they are want make people passionate about your institution. Don’t shut emotions down. As you hear words, also listen to emotions. Make sure your planning takes into account the issues that bring out negative emotions in your audience. Build on positive emotions.

Concrete Step: Let people get upset. Don’t ask them to calm down.  If they are that worked up, then they have some strong ties to your organization or the issue at hand.

Honor Value

Value is hard to quantify. You honor your institution and its work. But, you need to see what new audiences value.  Hear what new audiences value. Then figure out which of your programs and services match your new audiences core values.

Concrete Step:  Value is hard to articulate, sometimes. But, actions often indicate value. So, if they are using your organization, what parts are they using? If they aren’t, what are they doing instead?

Honor Honest Communication

New audiences might communicate in different ways that your existing audience. This can be jarring. But, go with it. Also, you might want to mask emotions through jargon. Don’t! Use clear, concise language. Don’t mask emotions or your discomfort with coded language. If you speak respectfully and honestly, you will be able to connect with new audiences.

Concrete Step: Use the words you mean. If you want to increase African-American audiences, don’t use the word diversity. That said, be honest about why you hope to reach that group. Maybe, they are the majority population in your region.  Great! (Maybe, you think that will be great for funding. Well, than, this is not as great. This sort of pandering will be obvious and less successful. So, go back to the drawing board if this is where you are.)

Honor Your Audience

Any audience, new or old, will be less invested in your work than you are.  You need to connect with them through your communication, but also through actions.  Conversation without action fundamentally disrespects your audience.

Concrete Step:   Don’t start a community conversation if you don’t plan to take actions based on their responses. As above, if your motives are to check a box or please a funder, you will not be successful. You need to actually mean to change your community if you start asking them for help.  If you don’t, they will be alienated and they will remember.