29 Jun

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. 

08 Jun

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.

06 Jun

Intersectionality & Museums

Intersectionality, coined in 1989 by legal historian Kimberlé Crenshaw, highlights the fact that the many factors of being human, including race, gender, and religion, overlap in important ways. These points of overlap, or intersection, are often positions of oppression. Think of race and gender. In American society, the position of power in race is whiteness and in gender is male. In comparison, a non-white woman is subjected to oppressive forces in society. Thinking about intersectionality helps reframe issues bringing the oppressed toward the center, rather than multiply marginalized. Ideally, intersectionality allows for stronger analysis of complications. In other words, intersectionality helps everyone be included particularly those who are oppressed and excluded.

So, what does this have to do with museums? Many articulate people have written about this including Gretchen Jennings and Porchia Moore,  Nikhil Trivedi and Porchia Moore, Andriel Luis, and Seph Rodney about the AAM conference.  In this post, I share my meaning-making efforts on the topic.

What do new voices have to do with Intersectionality? 

Think of this artwork.  We do use many facets to consider this object; think of all the fields in a database. However, most institutions keep data based on curatorial research, i.e. filtered through an academic lens.  Some institutions, like history museums, include oral history to add additional layers of information. But most fields do not.  This vase, if it were in an art museum, might be described by media and style. In a history museum, it might be seen as an artifact of an ancient society. In other words, our academic specialties already segregate layers of meaning.

Even beyond that, most museums don’t have database fields to fill in about how this artwork might be seen through a lens of class, race, or gender. These issues are often discussed in chat labels for modern and contemporary artworks, but gender, race, and class have been in play since humans started flaking flints, I wager. Why is this important? First, from an academic perspective, we are missing meaning-making opportunities. But, also, we are not doing the foundational work in thinking more broadly about our collections.

Visitors need points of connections to our collections. Before the accusations of pandering are launched, I am not advocating for removing media, style, period, or any other traditional field of interpretation. Instead, intersectionality allows museums to add to their strong interpretation skills. Plenty of meaning about collections is hidden ready to be uncovered by re-viewing the interpretation.

But what does this mean practically?  

Look at galleries. How are they segmented? Are the “women artists” the only ones where labels discuss gender? Where are “black artists” placed?  What about your staff? Do you tout your black educator as a point of diversity? Your first Asian curator?

Basically, step back and be more purposeful in your actions and words. Give it a mental 360 in terms of how you might be handling issues of race, gender, class, religion… Get help on your thinking. Bring in new voices to help you.

Let’s go back to that vase. Any sense of who made it? Was it a woman? Was it for a rich person? Was it made by slaves? Was the archaeological site in a politically contested area? Were there human remains there? Any of these questions make you a little uncomfortable? I bet. They make me uncomfortable. Many of them touch on the unsaid verboten topics of art and history museums. But, when we don’t answer these questions for ourselves, and for our visitors, we are hiding parts of an object’s history.

Challenges in Including New Voices

Museums professionals often work in synthesizing and organizing information, distilling all along. This is often work that is easier done alone. More people would make the work of research take longer.  Time is of the essence in museums. A new exhibition opens scantly 6 weeks after the last with all the requisite work to make that happen. Anything that slows that down feels onerous and frightening. But, what if that time was planned in at the beginning? Once you get efficient at adding people, this time and work will seem doable.

New voices bring with them new ideas.  Those additional voices might say things that you don’t want to hear.  What if they share their dislike of your institution? They might call out your faults like your institutional racism.  Well, yes, they will probably share your faults. But, you will never improve if you don’t know what to improve. And, they might completely hate museums, but this is fairly unlikely. People will likely not spend time sharing their time with you if they inherently dislike you.  If they truly hate you, they might be moved by strong emotion to tell you. But, once the conversation is done, that moment of discomfort is over.

What needs to change? 

Intersectionality has had some important lobs launched at it. Firstly, it seems like the word du jour, no different than diversity other than the spelling. This is fair claim, in my mind.  It is jargon. People use intersectionality in uninformed ways to suggest their own “wokeness”. Yet, these words exist because as a culture we are trying to communicate ideas of equity. If these words help more people act better, then I am all for them. At its essence, intersectionality is about bringing more into the conversation for greater, more fair, meaning-making. More meaning means connecting to more people.

Museums are actually about intersectionality. They bring together disparate ideas into spaces for people to make meaning. They invite people to interface with complicated ideas. However, museum’s idea of intersectionality are often neutralized, devoid of the factors that particularly oppress people. Adding these lenses would be in keeping with the method of museums and bring museums closer to accomplishing their mission to understand collections wholly.

Basically, museum professionals, across the hierarchy, need to want to change. Then, they need to seek out training. Thinking about collections this ways is almost like being asked to see the invisible friend that has been in the room all the time.  Just as Big Bird finally got the folks on Sesame Street to see the Snuffleupagus, trainers can help staff see the elephants in your galleries. What happens when you see the elephant? Will it be a circus? Maybe. Or maybe, it will be a fantasia of meaning-making full of visitors.