Visitors want to feel welcome and comfortable in museum spaces. Museums want to keep visitors happy while maintaining collections. These aren’t opposing states, but sometimes it feels like it.
I often wonder why this whole touching thing is hard? First, humans touch things to make meaning. Don’t think touch is important. Try checking to see if that avocado is ripe while wearing winter gloves. Actually try doing anything with bulky gloves. Museums often, therefore, require visitors to suppress one of their senses. Now all museums have collections that can’t be touched, but art museums are the least tactile collections on display. Art museum collections are very often unique and irreplaceable. Touch not only degrades the object but could rob the future of that object. Add that art collections are commodities in their own right, and you get a touchy situation.
Basically, we find ourselves trying to keep things safe for posterity, a job delegated to some of our most part-time staff. The guards are then being asked to be ‘real nice’ about this so visitors still feel welcome, often with little training. Our visitors are often already on edge because they’re worried about being yelled at. The whole thing is a recipe for unhappiness.
So, what’s the solution? I don’t know exactly. When people understand the rules, they do better. “Being yelled at” feels worst when you didn’t even know why. Most people are trying to have a good time, and it’s easier to do that when you know how not to be bad. Signage helps probably in the same way speed limit signs do. The people who read signs will follow those rules if they choose. But, I think there must be better forms of communication. What are they? I’d love to hear from you.
MCN 2019 was an odd one, partly for its setting in a vacation paradise, and because I basically had no presentations. I did, though, help with managing volunteers, so I felt a bit unable to truly enjoy the proceedings. But, with those caveats, I will put down the biggest ideas I saw from the conference
tech is Passe: When technologists say tech for tech’s sake is a bad
idea, you got to think they mean it. Over and over, sessions and attendees
talked about how much they prefer to see tech as an tool to a solution. An
ancillary to this was that the tech folks need to be in at the beginning,
something we like to say every year, but sadly needs to be repeatedly yearly as
well. When tech comes in late, it is an add-on or a shiny toy instead of a good
solution. I will say that I had a great conversation in passing with a couple
people working on VR, and they had an important caveat. Cool tech is passe when
it doesn’t solve a real problem. It has to be the best solution for the problem
at hand. And, if we don’t experiment with new tech, we won’t be able to use it
well when it matures.
is King too: Content is king is something I’m professionally dedicated
to. But so many sessions were about process as being the way the content can
really reign. Some of these sessions were about fostering a culture of sharing
and respect. Others talked about breaking through siloes to work collectively.
In some ways, I kept thinking our field needs a supply chain model for ideas,
where everyone needs to see our interrelations in a more structural manner. I
was particularly struck by this when talking to social media folks. This type of
work is insanely hard. Most of them are much more facile writers than the rest
of the field as they are continuously tacking tone for each platform. The rest
of us just write in one or two styles. And, yet, these folks are often given
the least lead time. I can’t help but feel (hope) if people understood the
challenge of this type of writing that they would be brought in earlier in the
concepts often go too far: There seemed to be a trend to really
question some of the popular terms in the field, like empathy and agile. Why? Because
a critical eye on practice is good, firstly. Also, we often see the next new
thing not just in tech but also in methodologies. When we do this, we often
adapt processes poorly, missing the point. Or we think hey that’s going to save
us. The truth is we are going to save ourselves by changing. There is no
panacea. There is no bandaid. We are the authors of our future as a field.
Supremacy though ain’t a fad: The social problems of the world do not
stop at the database. They are riddled with the things that make our society,
in this case, the privilege of whiteness. Avoiding this truth does not make it
go away. Dismantling the problems of the past will not occur unless each of us place
critical attention to our work. All elements in society are, and should be,
suspect. What happens if we do this? We make our museums more accessible, inclusive,
is Caring: Open Source of course was big the last couple years. This year,
I heard many conversations about coalition-based work. People were talking
about sector-wide research and action. I’m intensely excited about these
conversations. We are both one museum in a city, but also part of the collective
of museums. What can we do as a field when we stop competing and start acting
as a bloc?
Thanks to all the MCN2019 attendees for being awesome, for the volunteers for keeping things going, and to the program chairs, Andrea, Andrea, and Eric.
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
I’m on the board of an awesome readers/ writer series in Cleveland, called Brews + Prose. I was asked to join because I came from the visual arts world. They hoped I’d create bridges between the two communities. I can’t say that I have. But, the experience of going monthly has given me a rich understanding of cultural arts audiences.
Leisure and enjoyment are intimately connected to identity. As
a teen, I would have died rather than listen to “uncool” music. As an adult, with
mortality more consequential, I might not accept a death sentence for anything,
but I still will never listen to death metal. What we value in our spare time
is inextricably linked to who we think we are. Time is an incredibly valuable resource.
We use our time for things that feel “right.”
I am an art person. I have never felt more like a visual arts person than when I sit in a great bar listening to famous poets. Monthly (or quarterly, because Brews + Prose brings in all sorts of writers), I remember that I, gasp, don’t get poetry. (But I do love many a poet as people…some of my best friends and all). I look around the room at these events to see a few dozen people truly engaged. Their earnest expressions and knowing eyes make me thankful that someone gets poetry.
Everyone has something they get that enlivens them. As I like to say at work, Sol LeWitt is my poetry. I could wander around MASS MoCA for ages, much to my children’s chagrin. Where someone might see spare stupidity, I see rhythm, cadence, and truths. Sol LeWitt spoke to me long before I studied him, and honestly, the extra knowledge was unnecessary to make me love his art. I just got it.
All of us, everyone, has something that speaks to them. Like magnets, we’re drawn to that art form. Your poetry might be golf on tv or 1960s underground saw music. You might be connected to something with a mass appeal or something within a niche of a niche.
What does this have to do with cultural audiences? First, those of us who create platforms for niche communities should be commended. If Taylor Swift is your poetry, Netflix has got you covered. But, if you love something more niche, your chance to enjoy this pursuit will be less common. Those institutions sharing less mainstream cultural forms should be commended and supported.
But, for some people, they don’t even know what speaks to them. They’ve never come to Brews + Prose, and more’s the pity for them. They’ve never been able to enjoy a Sol LeWitt. Or, they’ve been clouded by one of the most challenging specters in arts and culture, value. If you pay the cash to go to Mass MOCA, you might be annoyed to see a painting on a wall that Sol LeWitt only conceptualized but didn’t paint. I mean, you paid your hard-earned money, and you don’t get why this matters. Your appreciation of the art form is clouded by your feelings of not getting it or of not feeling like it was worth your money/ time. I was lucky because my early times with good ole Sol came at a free museum. I never had to make my feelings for my outlay of cash related to my feelings about the art. I was able to like it for how looking at it made me feel.
I also grew up going to museums and taking all sort of art appreciation
classes. I know it is no problem to dislike certain artworks. It doesn’t make
me feel dumb to say I don’t get something. In the arts, we often take this ability
to have personal taste for granted. You have to have a level of familiarity and
knowledge to be able to feel comfortable saying what you don’t like.
Taken together, you cannot connect to something without awareness
and comfort. You will not be able to like it if you feel dumb or like you’re
being duped. You will not be able to see its value if you are blindfolded by
your perceptions of its cost.
What does this mean for purveyors of arts and culture? First, we need to remember we drank the Kool-Aid so naturally or so long ago, as to be wholly different than some of our audiences. We will continue only to draw the inculcated or initiated if we don’t find bridges.
Audience growth is a numbers game. Only a small portion of the world will love minimalist art or certain arcane forms of poetry. Our programming and experience in the sector need to bring in more people, if anything else, so we can connect with the potential lovers of our specialized pursuits.
Let’s go back to my buddies at Brews + Prose. We run one big
event a year as part of the Anisfield-Wolf
Book Awards. I might not get poetry. But Kevin
Young spoke to a large crowd on a buggy, muggy night last year. Every word
he read spoke to me. I didn’t need to try to figure out if I hate poetry. I knew
I liked him.
Kevin Young is the poetry editor of the New Yorker. And, it makes me think of another big audience engagement issue. We also need to find different access points. Some will surprise us. Some will require some changes to our status quo.
A bit ago, the New Yorker gained a bit of a publicity boost when a short story, Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian went viral online. The story was derided by some as simplistic, but others noted the reach brought writing, as my co-worker said, the New Yorker itself, to new audiences. I’m guessing many of the readers of that story didn’t read her follow-up book, out recently. But, some did. And, those extra readers are why we’re always trying so hard to engage new audiences. We don’t know who could love us. What we know is they won’t even know if they do if they don’t know about us.
In the arts and cultural sector, it’s okay, and even important,
to speak to those who are naturally drawn to our most rarified forms. But, it’s
also important to find new ways to draw people. We don’t know which person walking
in the door will engage with us and realize we are the form of their heart.
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
Before I go into my notes from Museums and the Web Boston, I want to thank the home committee who was seriously on their game. Everyone around the area was so welcoming and giving with their time and ideas. They created such a wonderful vibe.
In looking through my notes and reflecting on my conversations from MW, I was struck at how much the conference was focused on big idea conversations and sessions. Instead of specific how-to sessions, many presentations were more why-to or if-to. What do I mean? Well, often sessions that show how a project occurred don’t share the raison d’etre and justifications. Of course, practical how-tos are important, particularly if putting ideas into action is your job. But, there are also benefits to sessions that consider the reasons parts of the field exist. It’s the difference between plugging something into a formula (how-to) and do the proof that the formula works (why-to). We have all been swamped enough to need to just plug into the formula and move on to the next thing. This conference feels like a mental shift, and it allowed us a group to spend the time building the proof about parts of our field.
Data, data, data: Data was the king of the conference and AI the queen and certainly the topic of many bar-time convos. Protocols and processes interwove some of these conversations. The ways that we structure data still have idiosyncratic quirks that hamper our abilities to work across organizations and fields. And, yes, some people are doing better at finding commonality. But some of the data lovers are still hitting their head against the wall. The challenge is often that data is a representation of something in the real world, and any representation of the world is filtered through the person creating the data. As Latanya Autry and Mike Murawski say, museum [data] isn’t neutral. One particularly interesting data talk about Liz Neely, and Chad Weinard really brought the issues of data being interpretive home. Liz spoke about her efforts to work across fields and their mental models. If the same idea can be cataloged differently, it shows that the catalog is mitigated by the field. Chad followed with a talk about how the changing who is doing the data production can completely change what data matters and what matters can be investigated with the data. University students will look at collections differently than scholars, for example, looking at color first instead of classification. This flexibility of thought can feel scary. It changes the concept of authority, and shakes the perceived solidity of our data, but seen differently; it helps us as a field expand knowledge processes and outputs.
Inclusion requires including people:Diversity is often a coded word. Organizations see diversity in narrow terms, adding a few different people, but maintaining the status quo in all important ways. The topic of diversity came up throughout the conference, including in my decolonization talk. People show data as a form of access, discussed social content as a form of access, considered multiple language products. But, and this a big but, I would love to see a greater focus on diversity, inclusion, access, and equity work in museum tech. Any work that connects to visitors is DEAI work. Without using that lens, the field is missing out on doing their best work for our constituents.
F’ng IIIF: OR WHY can’t we communicate: Alright, I joke about the f’ng part. There were a few IIIF talks, and then so many tweets. In thinking back on all these, this an interesting marker of the parallel train track effect in this field. The back-end folks often feel very strongly about how something works and the front end on how something feels. Both are important and connected, but in discussions, they talk past each other, their conviction impeding their ability to hear each other. So, when you say but interoperability or get into the code, you are not finding a common language. You are asking people to come to your mindset instead of finding a middle one. I find that IIIF is a topic that is particularly susceptible to this. It makes me chuckle that something predicted on crossing systems (interoperability) isn’t communicated well interpersonally. In some ways, I would love the IIIF talks next year to go the way of the data ones where I hear more people speaking about the why-tos. I find getting to the big picture is a better way to get everyone involved.
The Field: The biggest topic of the conversation wasn’t in any presentation title. Is our field imploding? Are we too depressed for our own good? Is there an epidemic of bad management? Is this work sustainable? The topic came up in many talks like Seb Chan’s talk about experience (magic keys, I tell you, magic and keys!). But, otherwise, the topic was most manifest in the halls, bars, and twitter rooms. One particular aspect of this issue was about the ways that many people feel a lack of agency to make change. Koven Smith and Emily Lytle-Painter talked on Twitter about how they felt their hands were slapped for trying to act. Many people talked about how if this field is for the future, we are stuck, bc the present looks pretty bad. I can’t put a nice spin on this topic. There was no resolution. Yet, it’s pervasiveness in the conversations at the conference should be indicative of some big issues.
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.