Partnerships are often human relationships scaffolding financial ones. The stakes can often be high, like a staff-position. And the level of discomfort can be equally high, because partnerships require organizations to relinquish control.
What are some tips on navigating partnerships? Overall, transparency is a means of allowing both parties to understand and mitigate risk while also finding common ground. Articulating and documenting aspects of your collective work create a strong framework for mutual action. Shared success is born out of shared goals and actions.
Understanding each other
Be transparent about needs, pain points, requirements, etc. to set a culture of honesty and transparency.
Collectively Determine project goals and how that relates to each orgs mission
Share philosophy of work with each other. Look for differences. Discuss where there might be pain points. Discuss possible work arounds for cultural differences.
Agree to shared rules of engagement. Put these rules in writing.
Check in with rules periodically to adapt and improve them.
Discuss different ways to get to your shared goal.
Invite everyone to articulate relative merits of each option.
Collectively decide on path and outcome. Determine action-steps
Set check in points
Articulate how your share work environment should feel
Assume the best of your partners
Model your best way of being
Check in periodically about how the working relationship is going
Find numerous ways to celebrate your successes
Find a capstone to your partnership so you can assess your growth as an org
Hiroshi Ishii of MIT Media Lab gave the 2019 Keynote for Museums and the Web. My reflections on his speech have been split into two blog posts (this week and next). The first is outward-facing and the second will be about our own work.
Hiroshi Ishii seems like fun. I spent an hour, an auditorium away from him, but still, I stand by my judgment. As he shared the projects that he, his team, students, and colleagues produced ranging from the serious to the seriously wacky, I noticed how much pleasure he takes in his work, which is a topic for another post. I also noticed the level of whimsy and joy the products were meant to elicit in the users. Joy and fun are related concepts. Overall, his talk made me consider 1. the emotional impact we hope to elicit in visitors and 2. why museums fear fun. These might seem unrelated, but there is a connection.
Often when thinking about museum galleries and spaces, we are focused on content. Given learning and teaching are in most of our missions, information dissemination is an important mission-driven outcome. But, ignoring emotional impact isn’t a smart way to get to this outcome. For example, a patron bored by a space will not easily learn anything. Learning outcomes, therefore, need to be tied to feelings and methods. Some learning is best done through quiet reflection giving the learner the feeling of contentment. Other types of learning are best done through social engagement giving the learner the feeling of excitement. Being purposeful about feelings will increase our ability to engage effectively. Ignoring emotional impact is a means of preventing broader success.
Emotional impact is connected to accessibility. Discomfort is one of the most common feelings for people who don’t come to museums. We, as field, don’t have great research on what specific, concrete issues make visitors uncomfortable. But I would guess, some of the issues relate to the clinical nature of spaces, and the ways that norms are not clearly communicated. Unseen rules make for a culture of exclusion. Now, if asked, few museum professionals would say they want their spaces to be cold or unwelcoming. They might say they want a clean, uncluttered aesthetic. Herein lies a huge challenge. Emotional impact is often different based on numerous cultural factors. What is warm for one person is smothering or off-putting for another.
So, what is the solution? First, let’s get at the essential. Museums are conduits, where ideas pass from person to person, if through the objects and spaces. Therefore, understanding our visitors is essential. We need to remember we are different from our visitors. Many museum professionals walked into the job feeling comfortable in those spaces. Some museum professionals, such as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds or people of color, might have had a long road to learn to feel comfortable in museum spaces. These professionals are gold in the pursuit of emotionally accessible spaces. But, also, don’t tokenize those people. Hear them, and use their ideas to help you improve. But, also talk to visitors.
Improvement, however, will require change, the scariest word in some museum workers dictionary. We often hope to make visitors okay with our spaces and programs without making real change. Some visitors are fine with this (top right quadrant). These people are our low hanging fruit, as the saying goes. They are good with us without changes. Bringing them in only requires getting their attention, say. We very much fear to have to change so far outside our current norms so much as to lose our central tenets (top left). We really fear giving up our central tenets only to have no one visit us (bottom left). But, actually, many of the changes that can improve the emotional impact of our work don’t require destroying our way of life. Some current non-visitors would come to join us, if only we made a few well-placed changes, like refinements in the ways security is dressed, for example (bottom right). Fear (of change) is an emotion we need to eradicate if we want to better emotionally-engage visitors.
In order to draw in that bottom right quadrant or at least some segment of that quadrant, we need to be thinking about the ways we are excluding them inadvertently. Ignoring the emotional impact of our spaces and programs is an important problem. In experiences, for example, we might hope to bring in new visitors, by using old methodologies. This behavior is good money after bad and demoralizing for the staff. Instead, you need to pair your considerations of emotional impact with an understanding of the ideal methods of engagement. Here is where fun comes up.
In museums, fun is also a particularly thorny issue. So much of Ishii’s projects used fun to elicit joy. Herein lies an important point Ishii’s talk reinforced–fun is an excellent engagement strategy. Just as boring situations decrease the likelihood of learning, fun situations can increase the likelihood of learning. Now, this point is hard for museums to grasp sometimes. Fun can increase learning. Please don’t gnash your teeth, as you mutter edutainment or gamification. Museum spaces, when calibrated for emotional engagement, can be fun because fun isn’t just Chuck E. Cheese and waterparks.
Fun is a slippery term for a number of types of engagements eliciting many emotions. Many adults don’t understand fun, in its complexity. We often see fun as something associated with children, and as adults, we move into enjoyment. Or we see a narrow range of items as being fun. Scholars of leisure experience see fun much more complexly. Museums often fall into the serious fun (see below) category or the social fun category, even if we don’t discuss them in this manner.
Why does this matter? Ignoring fun is a diversity and inclusion issue. There is a snobbish-ness to ignoring fun, but that is because leisure is a class-based experience. Some of the types of fun in museums are most commonly coded to upper-middle class ways of life, and so other broader types of fun can challenge our norms. So many types of fun require onboarding, and if you don’t have the funds to get onboarded, or a person to help you see the value, you won’t get it.
To back to the image above (“Its Not Them, Its Us”), we’re not always willing to expand into the types of fun that keep our core values but engage more people (to the bottom right). Educational games might be an example of fun in museums. But in thinking about Ishii’s comments, those educational games are still very much tied to learning outcomes, as such are working for people who already like the museum. In order to be truly inclusive, museums need to explore all the different types of fun and see what types of fun, and associated emotions, appeal to different audiences.
Museums don’t talk about fun for a number of reasons. As discussed above, fun is often misunderstood and complicated. But, also, we fear fun. We worry that fun would be in opposition to our learning outcomes or our scholarly underpinning. We might have to change in order for people to have fun. Yes, we might. But the changes might be small, such as aligning emotional impacts with methods. The changes might be enormous, but if you keep steadfast to your central tenets, the growth will be worthy.
Emotions and fun might feel outside of our work at museums, but they are central to why visitors come to our spaces. When museum professional defame “fun”, they are often thinking of a certain type of fun, usually something age-based and low-engagement. But, most of our visitors see our spaces as fun. Our visitors will have fun in our spaces no matter what we do. In 2017, 81 percent of Americans participated in cultural activities for the purpose of ‘having fun’. So, ignoring the concept of fun is bad for business.
What are good next steps for museum professionals?
Excavate what your staff thinks is fun. Study what your visitors find fun. Rectify any discrepancies and develop a plan to infuse more fun in your work. (Remembering fun is a broad, complex concept).
Be thoughtful about the emotional impact of spaces and programs. Articulate ideal emotional states for spaces and programs. Research if these impacts are occurring. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.
I have generally prided myself on a kind of democratic, small d, form of museum work. I proudly took on visitor-centered aspects of the work. I have helped Cavs fans make signs for the largest parade our city had seen; I rode in a giant artwork inspired parade float (Schreckengost’s Jazz Bowl) in front of thousands of viewers; I have crawled through galleries pretending to be a puma. I saw myself as a populist, someone who does the work because I like people.
I hope this little enumeration of my credentials sounds like
pride before the fall. It is.
Last weekend, I went to the 36th Annual Western Reserve Writers Conference held at the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL). An age ago, I worked on a project that partnered with the person in charge of that writing center, and I always respected her. I am also in the midst of editing my two YA manuscripts in my scant, but luxurious, spare time. David Giffels, a northeast Ohio writer of some renowned having been discussed in the New York Times and other fancy publications, was to be the keynote speaker. I’d heard Giffels speak before, and he was equal parts self-effacing and thoughtful. Listening to David Giffels speak at CCPL seemed an ideal way to kickstart my work.
His keynote was a meditation on inspiration and action. I finished the keynote feeling ready to tackle my novel. But, then, there were to be a series of workshops, one run by Giffels. And, the kind Friends of South Euclid Library had provided Swiss Miss-style hot cocoa. It had been ages since I had indulged in hot cocoa. Staying seemed like a great idea.
Hot cocoa in hand, computer open, I watched Giffels lead our class. He led us through a few exercises he does in his university classroom. The first exercise was to describe an object using all the senses. It took some self-restraint not to yell “ekphrasis.” Then, as with all workshops, he asked a few people to share. One of the participants had written an interpretation of her object rather than just write descriptors. I judged her for not following the rules. Giffels, on the other hand, rolled with it. He praised elements of the work, smiling affably. For the rest of the session, I watched him meet people where they were with what they offered him. He genuinely seemed interested in the participants. He was in the moment, with his students.
The ability to meet people where they are and connect
without judgment is rare, in part because it contradicts the group-cohesion
nature of many types of social practice. Groups often have unspoken norms and
police behavior to determine who falls within the group. Museums function in
this manner. Many potential visitors avoid museums for fear of breaching the unspoken
norms of our spaces. We support the exclusive nature of our spaces, and our
in-group of museum-goers, by making the norms inscrutable, like using subtle or
non-existent signage about appropriate behavior. When museums look at making
spaces more accessible, they are hoping
new visitors will conform to existing norms.
What does the issue of signs have to do with Giffels and my
judgmental subconscious? Giffels reminded me that when we work with people, we
can’t judge them for their difference. Truly listening to people means you have
to be open and kind. You can offer them some rules, but they might not follow
them. And, some rules shouldn’t be enforced at the sacrifice of a good
experience. Connecting person to person has enormous value.
When we look at our visitors, we can’t perform inclusion while maintaining practices of exclusion, both on the institutional level but also personally. We need to not just talk about listening to people, all people; we need to hear them. We need to step out of expectations and into a shared space of communication. Speaking together people can help us create a shared language. Ekphrasis means nothing to most people, but talking about “what do you see” can, but only if you allow any answer to that question, instead of just one “right” one.
Museums feel like they have always been here, like the sky and the seas. But, while the sun has always come up, museums are not a natural phenomenon. They are much more recent, younger than many countries. Museums have their foundations in the Enlightenment and colonialism, two interrelated historic situations. Museums grow from the European impulse to possess the rest of the world.
The idea that museums haven’t been here since the dawn of civilization might be jarring. Museums give off an air of the ahistorical. Gatekeeping is at peak levels in museums. Academic knowledge, a system that trains people to replicate existing knowledge-making processes, is the chief sources of power for staff. Organizations present singular, authoritative narratives in clinical settings. The whole system of museums has society fooled. Think of the oft-quoted idea that museums are the most trusted source of knowledge in our society. Why? Because museums don’t show fissures and uncertainty. Newspapers are responsive, and as such, show their processes; people understand them to be socially-constructed and biased. Museums are certainly biased (#museumsarenotneutral, right), but our systems obfuscate this for visitors.
This field-bias to ignore the constructed-nature of our work makes thinking about decolonization challenging for many. The first step to truly decolonize our work is to admit we are colonial institutions. What does that mean? Stepping back, colonialism is classically defined as the occupation of one nation by another. Colonization, however, is not solely about land. It’s about the transformation of culture and the ways of thinking due to the state of being subjugated by another society. By the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue, our global consciousness had already been irrevocably transformed due to European “expansion”. Therefore, decolonization isn’t just about places or things—it’s about ideas and thought-processes. As a society, we can’t return to the pre-colonial ways of thinking. There is no going back, because Pandora’s box has been opened and time machines don’t exist. Instead, we need to work to create new systems of thinking that no longer centers colonial meaning-making.
What does this mean for museums? Well, it means that decolonizing isn’t going to be just about returning objects to their original nations. Sometimes this is the right answer. There are situations where objects were taken under duress, sacrifices to the colonial machine. Stolen objects should be returned. Other objects migrated to the West (N. America or Europe) in the way that people have traveled. In our mixed-up world, those objects are as hybrid as human immigrants, between and betwixt. Returning those objects isn’t the answer. What is? Rethinking those objects.
First, and foremost, this requires including voices of the people who are the real authority. For museums, this giving interpretative power to people who are not curators, and admitting having cultural ownership of an object/ idea is more important than a PhD. This move requires changing our systems and rethinking the centers of power. Given knowledge is our power base, this move requires fundamental change. But, also, transforming our means of knowledge creation will improve our content, and therefore, is in line with our missions.
These new voices will help us see our many blinders. Think, for example, about one of the most common norms in encyclopedic collections. Anonymous is a word used in labels when the artist is unknown. Most of the collection objects have unknown artists, but anonymous is commonly only used for objects made in the west in the modern era. Excluding the word anonymous might seem innocuous. But, in effect, it negates the humanity of artists before the modern era.
Technology is in a particularly good position to counteract colonization. Museum technologists work on projects that overlap siloes. They are used to ceding power to outside sources, like vendors or artists. And, technology is very often used in layers means, i.e. not make a physical change to exhibitions. For example, AR is already being used by artists to confront colonialism, and this would be an exceptional way for museums to cede power to outside voices to decolonize galleries. How? I developed a framework and wrote a whole paper about the topic. Give it a read if you want full details.
In short, technology is a collaborative and connective function in museums. It is perfectly poised to serve as a convener and conduit for decolonization. Leading decolonization in museums would have a lasting positive impact on the field.
The Ohio Museums Association had its 2019 conference in Akron this week. I was at the conference as a board member of OMA, eager to hear what we can do for our constituents.
This week in Akron I was reminded of the phrase: All politics is local. Ohio is populous state, classically purple in elections, and historically split politically even in non-election years. People on the coasts might imagine our counties chock full of corn and cows, but my Ohio is one of old steels mills and Big Medicine. We are a state, in effect, that encapsulates much of the complexity that makes our nation great already and maddeningly polarized. I also found a space where Ohio museum professionals could talk to people dealing with the same problems, often with the same audiences or donors. I found local solutions to local problems. Now, while a national conference can be incredibly helpful, I was struck by the power of the local professional community (and while I love Ohio, I am sure all of the state conferences have this vibe). When we talk about the costs of conference travel, and that is a topic for another day, you might also look locally for affordable resources near you.
Center the Right Story: The keynote was given by Sean Kelly of the incomparable Eastern State Penitentiary. He gave a wonderful talk about his organization. I was particularly struck by the way he shared failure and growth in his organization. In reflecting on his talk, I kept thinking about how space is a form of communicating relative importance. When something is central to the organization’s goals, it is given physical space. Kelly mentioned that he noticed in the 1990s and early 2000s the artwork installations dealing with the issues of incarceration were often on the outskirts of the physical space. He realized this was a loss, as he said, mass incarceration is the great civil rights travesty of our era. As such, they centered that story and gave it physical space. (I will note Kelly wins with me, as he kept discussing the staff who did the work of the organization, rather than himself).
Boards: Kelly also gave an interesting talk about leadership. He used a rapid voting system to gauge people’s ideas about change and which groups might be reticent. He then led an interesting discussion about these issues. The topic of boards loomed large. As one director of a historic home mentioned, the challenge can be as a leader predicting what will set off the board. Another discussant mentioned how one board member at an institution put a stop to an important program for fear of looking political. These kinds of stories highlight an important challenge of boards. There is often a great deal of actual power, rather than advisory potential, exerted by boards, with those 15 people, say, having more power individually than most staff. This power struggle can be disappointing for staff, stuck working at the whim of the board. Of course, good boards aren’t able to exert such power, but that requires a strong director. One discussant mentioned that under a good director, we might be scared of the board, but they can be a great resource.
Woes of the Front of House Staff: Kelly also mentioned his surprise at the ways his Front of House staff was reticent to change when the organization changed its interpretation strategy. Kelly also mentioned that he should have realized this challenge and been proactive. Where boards can enact change, FOH staff is often suspect to the forces of change with little agency. They are often underpaid and might need to work many jobs to be able to afford to work in the museum. They are also stuck in dealing with the greatest ire of visitors. It’s a tough job to be FOH. Supporting them goes a long way in improving the visitor experience. I was most interested in a conversation about the burnout vibes staff feels when visitors hoping to push a political agenda argue with staff. Kelly mentioned his staff follows the idea of empathetic listening. His staff doesn’t shut down hard conversations. Another person shared how hard these kinds of situations can be on her staff, who are often being harangued by visitors completely unperturbed with the burden of historical facts. We didn’t come to a solution to the issue of how to support staff in this situation. (and if the staff should be able to shut down conversations based on alternative facts/ or people’s interpretive truths.)
Salary transparency: Michelle Epps of the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network spoke passionately about her organization’s desire to improve working conditions in part by pushing organizations to publish salaries of job openings. The move to salary transparency is huge for the field. It allows people to potentially entering the field to understand salary. Employers are saved interviewing people who can’t afford to move for certain salaries. Of course, it also exposes the low salaries of some parts of the field and the inequity within other parts. But even that can be good for the field, potentially improving salaries in the long run.
Diversity isn’t a Trend: Diversity was an interesting thread through the conversations. Salary is a diversity issue, for example. When entry-level salary ranges are low, applicants will likely come from higher income brackets that can help buoy low earnings. Diversity was also part of some of the Front of House conversations. FOH is often one of the most diverse workforces in the sector (especially guards). These employees are often part-time and are offered fewer self-care supports than full-time staff. Finally, many people were struggling with how their organizations and constituents understand diversity. Diversity isn’t about looking a certain way. Adding one person of color, say, won’t check the box of diversity. It’s about systemic change where the organization and its staff act and think a different way
The year is winding down. Many organizations are near the halfway point of their fiscal year. This is the right time to take stock on your work and processes. You have time to improve processes for the second half of the year.
Where should you start when you take stock? You might start with the way you and your organization use time. Why? Time is the greatest resource your organization has and the one that you most likely squander. Before thinking about next steps, let’s think a little bit about the relationship between time and work.
Salary and Time
Most organizations give the most work to staff who work on a salary. Those people are paid a flat rate, and if they are exempt from overtime, their pay does not increase even if their workload does. In the short-term, organizations can get more work for less when they add labor to their salaried staff. The workload is often allocated based on prior performance. Work hard, and you might be congratulated with more work (and no raise.)
Often, workers find it challenging to mitigate overwork. They might not be able to explain their workload stresses to their managers. They might not have any colleagues who can take on some of their workloads. They might feel too cash-strapped or work uncertain to want to make waves. However, in the end, they will have to accomplish the work.
But, in considering the workload struggles, it is often that you are being required to work beyond what you were contracted for. In other words, you are not receiving immediate financial benefits from this extra work. You’re gambling your time away in hopes of earning future financial benefits. As they say in Vegas, the house almost always wins. Organizations will benefit from you working beyond your salaried requirements.
What can you do about overwork?
This is probably the hardest question to answer. You entered your career because you love the work. You want to do your best. You might have a long history of feeling successful thanks to hard work during graduate school. Overwork might be your natural inclination.
First, you need to reconsider your feelings about your workload. You need to be honest with yourself about all the work you do. What tasks have been added since your salary was negotiated? How have these tasks impacted your time? What is the benefit to you to do these tasks? Are these tasks worth it for you and/ or for your organization? Basically, you need to tally if the time you are donating to your organization is worth it to you.
Next, you need to decide when your time is being wasted due to your own poor habits:
Email is the biggest suck of time. I am a reformed obsessive email checker. I understand the way that it can feel to have things lurking in your email. I also understand the spark you can feel when you see the number of emails increase. But, obsessively checking email is just a way of letting people chip away at your time and sanity. Check email at specified times in your day, like at lunch and at the end of the day. Follow through with this plan for a few weeks, and you will train your colleagues about your new emailing behaviors.
Meetings are a time suck that you can’t completely control. When you run the meeting, come with an agenda and leave with action items. Immediately return to your space, finish any tasks that are easy to accomplish like emailing your notes back to the team. Basically, don’t let the meeting suck more time than absolutely necessary.
Choose when you waste time otherwise you will waste time uncontrollably. Breaks are a great way to increase your productivity. This might seem counter-intuitive. But, think about running a long race. You will not be able to sprint the whole distance. You need to pace yourself. Work is the same way. If you don’t find a way to create downtime, you will instead waste time pretending to work. (Another useful analogy might be snacking. Avoid eating for a long time, and you will find yourself stuffing your face full of potato chips instead of a healthy meal.)
Managing for Sanity
Managing others is often the source of overwork. You are often assigned a series of your own work tasks plus the work of managing others. But management isn’t just an asterisk on one’s workload. Good managers understand the importance of investing time in your staff. Any task that requires more than one person takes exponentially longer than something you do alone.
How can you value your time but also value your staff?
First, put in time at the onset. Set up systems that work for you and your staff. Give them the time they need consistently so that you don’t get burned down the road with a more time-consuming problem.
Don’t ignore staff emails. Of all your emails, your own staff emails should be the most important to answer. Triaging those emails efficiently will save you time in the long run. (Also, communicate an email policy to your staff so that you know that they are communicating in ways that work for both of you. Consider asking staff to add “Attention Needed” flags to items that need your answer and “FYI” to the subject line of emails that are just notifications.)
Systematize as many management tasks as you can. Do payroll the same every time. Create form emails as often as you can. But, do not systematize the personal things, like making personal connections to your staff.
Don’t waste your time doing your staff’s job. Micromanaging feels bad on both the receiving end, but it actually feels bad on the managing end as well. Micromanaging can occur for a number of reasons. You might not be confident in your staff. If this is the case, reconfigure how you communicate expectations to the staff and how you evaluate success. You might be micromanaging because your staff is accomplishing their work using a different process than you use. In this case, if the work is accomplished well, you need to let go of your need to control the process. Remember, the variety of solutions signals a staff that your department can fix many different problems.
Overall, you need to be an advocate for your time. You need to analyze how you use your time and understand why you make those choices. You also need to understand how and why you are using your time with your colleagues and your staff. Your time is a resource that you cannot get back. And, your time is worth more than you probably earn.
Recently, I was asked how to start on the path to understanding the issues of Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion. These are complex issues that take years to grapple with, and even then, you may never truly understand them. Since I have been asked this question often, I wanted to put down some big-picture ideas.
There are many steps you can take. But first, there are some intellectual changes you should make to place yourself in a good position to make a change:
It’s not me, it’s you: Slavery is one of the most inhumane aspects of human history. A portion of our current American population is on this continent because they are the descendants of slaves. Much of the current white population came to the United States after the Civil War; the population nearly doubled in the second half of the 19th century. These facts set up some complicated issues. White Americans might find themselves thinking (or saying), but my family didn’t own slaves. As an Asian-American whose family came on TWA in the sixties and seventies, I could say pretty categorically that my family didn’t own slaves. But, I wouldn’t. Why? Because arguments about actual ownership are not the point. In the US, the descendants of slaves have faced incredible prejudice and economic hardship from the moment they left the African continent. People who are white have not faced those same hardships, even if say, your Catholic ancestors faced certain prejudices. If you ancestor’s children weren’t sold as possessions, it wasn’t as bad for your people as the slaves. Saying that your family didn’t own slaves is immaterial. There are people in this country who ancestors were own like furniture, and this country is inextricably tied to that terrible fact. What your ancestors didn’t do isn’t the point. The point is what you are doing now.
White guilt isn’t the Trip we need: White privilege is a truth in society. Ceding your privilege by centering others is the best way to assuage your guilt about the privileges you were born with. But, many people with white guilt act in ways that don’t make our racially-problematic society. Guilt is often the reason white people might feel uncomfortable speaking about race or couch their conversations in euphemisms. Guilt might make white people choose to center their feelings about race rather than focusing on the actual injustices of racism. Guilt should not be a way to continue the current oppression; it should be an impetus for change.
Don’t look to Black Saviors; This fight is for whites: The people in power generally are the ones with the most power to change society. People of color have been doing this work for a long time. But, they can only make change up to a point. White people need to think of themselves as change-agents.
Intersectional; not siloed: Diversity, equity, access, and inclusion is not about adding a few people from one minority into the majority. Historically, African-Americans are the most marginalized in America. Often, organizations use the term “diversity” as a code for adding more African-Americans to their community. DEAI efforts have to deal with the ways that African-Americans are positioned in our society (and the breakdown of structural racism in our institutions.) But, DEAI is by definition broader than one racial group. People are marginalized in our society for their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, neurodivergence, nationality, and class. True DEAI efforts need to think of the way organizations deal with all types of differences and therefore require the transformation of processes.
Diversity isn’t like seasoning old dishes; It’s about new meals: Diversity isn’t about adding in a few new folks. DEAI initiatives need to be fundamental reworkings of thought and processes. Adding a couple “gay people” or “black people” isn’t the way to make these changes. You need to question everything that occurs starting with the underlying thoughts about who, what, and whys of your organization.
Listen to people marginalized people, but don’t burden them with your questions: We are taught to ask questions in school. So, asking questions seems like a good way to test your understanding of issues. But, remember life is accumulative. So, your question of your marginalized friend is one of the thousands they have been asked.
Center Others: Attention is not an infinite resource. Take stock of who is getting the most attention. If you were born with more privilege, your voice has mattered more for longer. Use that privilege by centering other less privileged voices. Give someone the center to this argument so that you can learn.
Study like your future depends on it, bc the equitable future does: In the end, the issues of DEAI are about our society as a whole. How can we ensure that all of us in this country have a future? Imagine we are on a life-raft together? If some of us sink, the whole raft is toast. Our country might still be afloat, but if inequity keeps some sectors of our society down, our whole country suffers. With this level of import, you can understand why information is your best way to help improve the future. Learn as much as you can. Read everything. Find voices that are different than your own. Question everything you know. The future is in your hands.
Make mistakes: I can’t tell you the number of mistakes I have made and thought the wrong thing. I still have major blinders thanks to my education and background. If you don’t admit to your biases and faults, you are doomed to maintain your bad behaviors. The only way you can improve is to make mistakes. Learn about other people, but also interact with them. Be truthful about who you are. Don’t pretend to be a different class, race, or gender. But, then, interact with other people. Communicate. Listen and take criticism well. You will speak incorrectly. And, learn from your mistakes.
Most years, on my plane back from MCN, I am furiously typing up notes from sessions. This year, I was volunteer co-chair and Human-Centered Design SIG co-chair. As a result, I was ever-present but not always there when it came to sessions. However, I had a better sense of what people felt about what they heard. Here are the five ideas I heard most often:
AI, Machines, and Thoughtfulness:
Amber Case said in her keynote, “I don’t want to be a systems administrator in my own home.” She was alluding to the prevalence of digitally-enabled devices in contemporary life. Museums are now more commonly using iBeacons, RFIDs, and other tools that collect data on patrons. This data can be incredibly useful for improving experience and operations, however, data collection is also incredibly challenging. First, and foremost, data is a responsibility. Our institutions need to be thoughtful about honoring our tacit relationship with our visitors to treat them well, including by treating their data well. We also need to help visitors understand how we use data, anonymize data as often as possible, and be thoughtful in the conclusions we draw from the data. Finally, visitor data is only one part of decision-making. Staff feedback is an essential tool. Most museums do a poor job of aggregating staff data on visitor experience and an even poorer job of honoring and acting on that data.
Humans make Mistakes:
No person is faultless but many museums are still reticent to be honest about failures. Sharing failures and working collaboratively across institutions to find better solutions could save the field money and headache in the long run. Many museum professionals find strictures prevent them from being honest with peers at other institutions. They also find it challenging to find places other than conferences to share their challenges, particularly places where they can publish failures.
Humans together are better than apart or against each other:
Collaboration remains a perennial topic. Collaboration with other organizations is particularly hard for many as their internal systems are in disrepair. Even when collaboration is successful, many of the collaborative projects are grant-funded, or time-restricted. The lessons learned about collaboration are often not folded into the museum processes.
Bias isn’t Mitigated without Action:
Everything is biased because humans are. Data is created by humans and therefore biased. Many of our technology-projects are outcome-focused and deadline-driven, like a DAM that must launch in six-weeks or an interactive for an exhibition. Timelines and ignorance have meant that these technology projects have often been produced without considering and mitigating bias.
Design for Accessibility is Actually Good for All:
Accessibility and inclusion are about being thoughtful to accommodate the widest range of people. But, in doing so, everyone is helped. Accessibility, however, doesn’t happen by accident. Thought must be taken to make the right choices so all patrons are included. While upfront cost might make this seem frivolous, the increase in audience engagement for the broadest audience makes designing for all worth it. User Experience Design, Service Design, and Human-Centered Design are useful ways for organizations to make sure to develop accessible projects. These processes can be adopted by all types of professionals. There are manyresources, includingthesefromme and MCN’s HCD SIG workshop. (Join by DMing @artlust).
Overall, while the conferences was called humanizing the digital, I felt that the conference was really about humans and their existence in a dense digital environment. The ideal is to create digital that does not destroy nor negate our humanity. This ideal will only occur with careful thought. When digital is seen as the medium and not the message or the meaning, people are able to have superlative experiences.
Finally, I heard over and over that MCN is attendee’s annual chance to recharge and reconnect with champions. The MCN community comes out in full force at the conference. For some of us, it remains with us during the rest of the year, like on social media. Yet, many people mentioned how they wished they had more chances to share ideas, like in publications. Think of how much better the field would be next year if all of the 500 plus attendees shared one idea to a peer at their institution, one idea to a supervisor/ director, and one broadly to the field. These ideas could be shared in emails, tweets, talks, blog posts, published articles, or books. The community of MCN is only as strong as its participants and their strength is in their ideas. By sharing these ideas, attendees can exponentially expand the good happening in the field.
A human brain is basically a pattern-deciphering machine. People make millions of judgments daily, mostly unconsciously. Their brains match all new inputs against all the data that resides in their brains. When the first white flake falls from the sky, they don’t consciously match this information against all the memories in the brain. But, unconsciously, they are connecting this image to frames of reference in their minds. They need not fear invasion by cold, wet aliens; it’s just snow, they know. (For some of us, that’s scary enough.)
Our mental framing devices are constantly evolving. Babies quickly acquire the frames to understand that eyes mean humans, for example. But, later, we learn that things that look like they have eyes might be inanimate.
Some of our most central frames are imbued with social norms. Consider the question about how you identify. You likely spent the first couple decades of life honing your identity. Your style, for example, might be incredibly important to how you see yourself. I, personally, have a strong correlation between my identity and my style. I see myself as an outgoing, rule-breaker, and my style is part of that. For others, punctuality might be part of their personality. Musical taste, hobbies, vocal intonation are other examples of how people externally express their identity. And, each of those external expressions is imbued with social constructs. By choosing those expressions, people are engaging with other people’s frames of reference (even if unconsciously.)
External identity markers are based on choice. Other identity markers are inherent to people. Gender, sexuality, race, and class are all accidents of birth. The way you express and live these characters are likely a mix of nature and nurture. The way we perceive other people’s gender, sexuality, race, and class often come down to our frames of reference.
Gender can be particularly hard. Many people have a frame of reference formed in youth that suggests two genders. When we get input that goes against this frame of reference, we can feel confused, confounded, or even incensed. All of a sudden, our accepted frame of reference is being called into question. But, destabilizing your frame of reference can be an important way to evolve your thinking. Confronting new ideas about gender can feel like you are coming against your most deeply held beliefs about your identity. But, other people’s gender identity isn’t about you. It’s about them. Learning to be flexible in thinking and communicating about gender is a way of increasing equity in the world.
Sometimes it is helpful to remember that our frames of reference are culturally constructed rather than absolute. Gender, for example, is considered differently in many societies. A friend recently mentioned Fa’afa, an element of Samoan culture, as well as gender in New Zealand, that is completely different than the binary concept of gender many Americans perceive as a given. In reading some of the resources she passed on (see below), I was struck at how different this conceptualization is my own. This is not a question of debating rightness between any one way of seeing gender. Instead, the frameworks in Samoan/ and Maori society highlight how culturally constructed mine is and therefore helps me remember that my ideas are not absolute or immutable. When you have a hard time thinking about someone who is different than a frame of reference you know, remember the binary is a construct of our society and not an element of all human societies.
Even in our own society, our conceptualization of gender can be more than a simple duality. Look at this example of how gender is expressed in common spoken American English: Person 1: What time did this letter come in? Who sent it? Person 2: I don’t know. I didn’t even see the Postal worker Person 1: So, you don’t know what they said? Person 2: No idea. Just call them and stop bothering me.
In this example, there is one postal worker who is referred to as them. In spoken English, when a gender is not known, we turn to the collective nouns, they/them. This linguistic norm is so naturalized, you might not realize that you do it. So, when you have problems using a collective noun when a person has expressed their pronouns to be they/them, think of this example. You can do grow to change how you use pronouns.
Like all things human, there are many ways of seeing the world. Remembering that our conceptualization is culturally constructed can help you learn to evolve your way of thinking. Evolving your frames of reference can be an essential way to improve the ways that you interact with others. It can make others feel more welcome, but it can also help you connect with many more people.
Content strategy is a framework that shapes all verbal communications and messaging within a brand. It ensures that all writers working with the brand have a cohesive approach while meeting their specific goals. Ideally, the strategy means that every piece of the text supports the overall feel of the organization.
Why write to a strategy?
Writing is a form of communication, but not an objective one. However, as anyone who has read a confusing email knows that language often obfuscate or confuse rather than inform. Written communication is more than the words on the page. Word-choice, framing, and sentence construction all project ideas and feeling beyond solely the meaning of the words. One projects a certain sentiment by employing erudite language. The mood is straight-up transformed when the words are switched up. Facile writers know all the tricks to manipulate readers. While manipulation might sound ominous, all writing is about swaying readers towards the writer’s ideas and point of view.
The content strategy, therefore, helps writers build their text within an accepted and common framework. Rather than manipulate wildly, a good content strategy hones language so it influences people towards a specific goal. In the end, influential language can help brands want to use language to build loyalty, trust, and connection.
What is in a content strategy?
Ideally, a strategy is like formalizing a language. You set rules and systems that help the team say what needs to be said.
The ideal strategy includes:
Norms: Every organization has a set of rules and norms. Some of these norms are expressed in the mission of the organization and its actions. However, many of these norms are unseen, like the unspoken but clearly felt accepted behaviors with the spaces. Surfacing these unspoken norms is incredibly important in developing a successful content strategy.
Limitations: Often organizations are able to find and articulate positive unspoken norms like we are a space that allows people to feel smart. However, often organizations have a blind to limitations. Without clearly facing limitations, and understanding their source, a content strategy will fail. One entry point to looking at limitations can be to explore words your organization avoids. Let’s say your organization doesn’t use slang. Exploring why might help your organization find that you fear seeming colloquial conflicts with your intellectual approach. Uncovering and address this unspoken norm would be essential before drafting your strategy.
Approach: What is the approach you hope to project to your audience? While the content strategy should fuel all written and visual communication, your overall approach to front of house is a good way think about your content strategy. What is the feel you want customers to have?
Tone: This is the most critical aspect of approach. You will likely want to send a spectrum of tone for different types of language. Remember, everything you do sets a done, so make sure you are doing it purposefully.
Scope: In this case, scope is about the breadth of communications you will use and the ways that each communication form ties into your brand. You can think of scope as how each external communication expresses an internal raison d’etre.
How does this all play out?
Google offers a useful concrete look at content strategy in practice. Google is constantly updating and improving the language. What are some of their considerations? Google is customer first, so they remove technical language in favor of user-centered communication. They also smartly front-load information while cutting unnecessary words. In the end, they say what they need fast because users want clear, concise, useful language. (For more about Google’s writing.)
What does Google’s approach mean for museums? Museums serve people with different needs. They can’t get away with quite the simplicity of Google’s approach. However, Google understood that their strategy is only successful if it is iterative and human-centered. Also, Google worked within the norms of their organization. For example, Google never moved into the passive aggressive humor many other sites use for error messages.
Overall, museums can learn that developing a content strategy is not just good for visitors/ customers but also for all of the people working in the museum. Frameworks support writers to do their best work.