Museums are not Neutral — Nothing is #MuseumsarenotNeutral


As a “first year” in college, I sat in a bright room that belied the imposing gothic facades that populated campus.  My professor asked us to raise our hands if we were rational beings. We all raised our hands. He asked us to keep our hands up if we were not biased. He then asked us to keep our hands up if we are able to turn a lens on culture critically, without bias. We all maintained our smiles with our hands thrust in the air.  He then said that every hand should be down. No human, he explained, could be outside society.

We all have these moments that break into our excepted vision of the universe. These are revelations which change everything.  I never again could look at anything within society as being anything but socially/ culturally constructed. Nothing is free of culture.  Think of this metaphor. Everything in the world is culture; and we cannot step outside it into space, as there is no air there.

So, when I saw this debate on Twitter about my colleague/ friends at Portland Art Museum’s exhibition involving sharing ideas with visitors, I was almost incredulous. The socially constructed nature of everything, including museums, is something that has suffused all my work. It occurred to me that this might be an issue of nomenclature. Political is a  word that has become tainted with additional meaning. In its original sense, it means to wade into the ideas that are part of society. Partisan, on the other hand, is to take sides. People might not understand that nothing is neutral; everything is within society.

Of course, the idea that museums are not neutral is not solely an academic one. Money is involved, and as such, complications follow. Museums are 501(c)3s or non-profits. As such, there are many rules as to how they should behave. But, those laws do not prevent museums from sharing ideas or empowering visitors to make choices. In fact, those laws support museums in doing their part to help visitors be informed.  Those laws help create a structure denoting exactly how far museums can go. Truthfully, when people like Portland do anything, they are way ahead of others, and so it looks as if they have crossed a line. But, what they have done is stand up to do what’s right within the law. If this seems shocking, you might instead wonder why more museums aren’t joining the charge.

Team Dynamics in the Nonprofit Workplace / The Pride and Prejudice Guide to the Non-Profit Workplace

Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen, was first published in 1813. In the subsequent 200 years, the tale of a family of unmarried daughters and their subsequent marital aspirations remains a popular novel. In my recent reread of the book, I started to focus on the staying power of this literary classic. This novel is about interrelationships, communication, and strife. In many ways, this book, with some plot transformations, could be any nonprofit. Rather than regurgitate the novel, check out the synopsis before digging into the rest of the post.


In many ways, this book, with some plot transformations, could be any non-profit office place. Instead of the ideal husband, rich and loving, the non-profit organization is seeking the ideal donor. While we dream of a Bingley, a rich, affable donor who lets us do what we want, we end up with ever so many Collins, the low-level donors with outstripped demands on our time. The rare Darcy might come up; this donor is demanding but in ways that appreciably grow your organization.

The Non-Profit Team

So, if the suitors are the donors, then the Bennett family is a useful metaphor for the non-profit organization. Each working team has a set of people: You will likely have a number of Jane’s and Kitty’s. These are people who do their work and keep things going, but they don’t make waves. You will have a fair number of Mary’s. These are the people who follow rules above all other choices; they don’t bend.

You will likely have a number of Jane’s and Kitty’s. These are people who do their work and keep things going, but they don’t make waves.

You will have a fair number of Mary’s. These are the people who follow rules above all other choices; they don’t bend. These are not leaders, but sometimes they are also not followers.

The smallest categories of workers are the Lizzy’s and Kitty’s. In many ways, they are like ying and yang. For all of Lizzy’s amazing characteristics, her judgmental nature makes her challenging in the workplace. Similarly, for all of Kitty’s negative characteristics, she is definitely doing something. So many of the people in the non-profit ecosystem are maintaining the status quo, and the Lizzy’s are a rarity.

So What? 

In the novel, Lizzy, the main character, slowly comes to value people for who they are. For example, when her friend marries Lizzy’s horrible cousin Collins, she comes to see that the match is actually fairly good.  Love isn’t the only path to marriage, she realizes.

Working with other people is often about just getting along well enough to get the project done without impaling each other.  A big part of this is realizing that you can’t change people. Frankly, it is hard enough to change yourself, and you are generally in control of your faculties. So instead of changing people, you are often better served by understanding others.

Certainly, the characters of Pride and Prejudice are more simplistic than real people. Most people aren’t straight Lizzy’s or Lydia’s. But, when you are sitting in a staff meeting, wondering why your insane coworker is allowed such latitude, step back. Try to consider what positive things happen when this person goes off the deep-end.

Inclusion-Centered Leadership

Inclusion occurs through considered actions. Leaders play an important role in transforming the ethos of inclusion from words into actions. That said, often, inclusions practices are translated into large actions, like requiring diversity training or implementing diversity hiring policies. Those are like bringing in the right ingredients for a great feast. If you don’t deal with them, they will spoil. You need to put in an effort to turn those raw ingredients into something appetizing.

Many of the most important action in supporting diversity is small, unseen actions. As a leader, first and foremost, remember you have two jobs: being a leader of a group and then your own work. If you don’t do both, you aren’t doing either well.  You need to think hard about how your beliefs are translated into action. So, if you believe in equity, you can’t treat your staff as lowly servants, saying to them that “they shouldn’t care that you don’t reply to their emails”

You need to think hard about how your beliefs are translated into action. So, if you believe in equity, you can’t treat your staff as lowly servants, saying to them that “they shouldn’t care that you don’t reply to their emails”  Never tell someone not to care. You are in charge of their work, not their emotions.  In not replying to their emails, you are showing that their needs don’t matter. If you don’t care about their needs, you don’t really care about equity, as you are expressing that your needs matter more.

In the end, equity and inclusion will only be disseminated throughout your organization, if you, and all leaders, where ever they are in the organization, commit to taking all the small steps that support the large steps your organization makes. .

How White Museum-Workers Can Combat Museum Supremacy

Today’s post has been written by Brilliant Idea Studio co-principal, Joe Ionna.  Illustrations made by Seema Rao. 

As competing narratives, histories, and facts have battled it out in the media, public spaces, and our political life. Like many of you, I was dumbfounded to see flags of Nazi Germany and the Confederacy paraded through the street of Charlottesville. Symbols of racial hatred, ideologies defeated on the battlefield and relegated to the dust bins of history, given new life by the election of Donald Trump.

But, this is a nation built on the power of Europeans.  Growing up, the term, white supremacy, was something that I thought of as a fringe element. But, the sense that white people are on top of society is woven into the structure of this country.  Even the phrase “white people” shows this. How often do you hear people and assume it is just white people?  This toxicity has touched us all and in turn implicating us as complicit to the ideology of white supremacy. What can be done?

First, we must counterprotest. Stand up. Second. hold yourself to account. Take these small steps below for big reasons.

Museums are structured around white supremacy. It is in who has power, how we refer to each other, those who are invited to speak, and those who remain silent. It is so ingrained into the organization that it may not even have been noticed by you until you look for it. Above are steps that can be taken to make your work environment a more equitable and inclusive place to work.



Inaction is an Action: #MuseumsResist is a better One

thanks to Robin Cembalest for the photo

I had the extreme pleasure of being part of this year’s MuseumCamp hosted by Nina Simon at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. For those who are unaware of this program, it’s sort of a hybrid museum conference, personal growth program, and summer camp smushed into three days. Intense would be a useful descriptor. Useful, impactful, and thought-provoking also work.

This Monday morning, after such wonderful experiences with people from around the world in the cossetted kooky culture of Santa Cruz, I had hoped to create a blog post from my MuseumCamp notes. Instead, my heart feels exhausted. I wanted to share some of the hope a community of change-makers felt. Instead, my brain is misfiring. I wanted to pass on useful advice to colleagues who couldn’t be in Santa Cruz. Instead, my soul needs rest.

Why? Well, because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In this case, for all the changemakers aimed at an inclusive society, there are those who want exclusion. There are those who fear more people at the table will mean less space for them. There are those who only feel full when others are starving.

If you do not know me personally, I have made my life, career, being, on being an active participant. You tell a funny story—I laugh. You ask for a volunteer—my hand is up. You need some help—I will be there. Why? Because inaction is a much less fun choice than action.

As I said, though, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. You can choose your opposite reaction or not. If you don’t react to negativity, you are still acting. Your lack of action is still a reaction. So, when you see evil, when you see people actively fighting inclusion, and you decide it might be too political to act, you are being political in your inaction.

Today, everyone in America woke up in a country where people spouted hate publicly and proudly. Today in America, we saw the emblems of enemies past parading in the streets of one of the nation’s best college. Today in America, we remembered that our own worst enemies are our own neighbors.

What does this have to do with museums? Museums are the best of our nation, even literally, holding our national heritage for eternity. Museums are ideas. They are hope. When the best of our nation doesn’t do anything, then they are choosing—and they are making the wrong choice. There is a simple binary: chosen action (1) or choosing inaction (0).

How can museums react?

  • Staff can be allowed time to share their feelings together
  • Staff can raise money for organizations that support inclusion (Bake sale, anyone)
  • Staff can reach out to colleagues in Charlottesville with unencumbered, unquestioning support
  • Museums can host conversations for visitors
  • Museums share their stories of colonialism and inclusion as a model for growth (History isn’t erased any more than hard drives; bits always exist)
  • Museums can model inclusion in their programming
  • Museums can work together in regions to create safe spaces for inclusion

Do what is your museums doing? Let’s grow this list until every museum has something they can check off. After all, action is so much more fun.

Also, check this post out on Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 ; similar to this but with a different picture of me.

Drawing to Help Construct Meaning

Drawing is a dividing word.  For some people drawing highlights their weakness. Few people it turns out can draw like Michelangelo without practice–not even Michelangelo.  Artists are trained.  They practice their craft. No one is born drawing. If you can get past your hesitation about drawing out of the equation, drawing can be an incredibly useful thinking tool.

Why use drawing?

We live in a visual world that we translate into text. We use so much text that it feels natural, but it is a form of translation nonetheless. The world is a complex, and some ideas are hard to articulate with words. Think about strong feelings you have experienced. Do you think about them in prose? Or do you have a series of images in your mind?  Images are natural to our thinking, and so a wonderful way to put thoughts to paper.

How can you use drawing?

  • Start by the times you can’t say what you mean in words. What if you diagrammed it? Don’t try to be realistic.  Try to be schematic.
  • What about when you think of a problem and pictures come into your mind? Well, draw it.
  • Then there are things that require millions of words or just one picture! Draw those.
  • Some things are about connections. Connections can be a whole slew of words or a single line.
  • Drawing helps you look slowly and carefully. Some problems need that type of focus. If you need to really see how something ticks, drawing it.

Basically, draw, draw, draw if you want to try to get a different look at the same problem.

6 Steps to Combat Implicit Bias in Institutions

Museum staff are in power to combat implicit bias in organizations. This work is imperative to maintain current audiences and grow new ones. But confronting bias can be scary and challenging. Here are some concrete steps to help museums start on the path to combat bias.

1.Don’t ignore bias

Bias will not go away just because you don’t see it. Talking about bias explicitly will help you and your colleagues bring to light blind spots in your work and processes.  These types of conversations should be ongoing, however, as bias can be minimized but never disappears.


2. Avoided making judgments when in heightened emotional states.

Happiness and joy are wonderful emotions, but the power of those emotions, as well as their polar opposites, can prevent you from making bias-tempered choices.


3.Communicate in ways that minimize ambiguity.

Try to communicate directly. Certainly, you might get some confrontation, but you will also create less confusion. This is certainly true in verbal communication, but it also translates to textual communication.


4. Be informed with appropriate language.

Understand what words mean in your specific circumstances. Think of this example. In your museum, do you have labels and placard? How do you feel when someone uses the wrong word? Now imagine that feeling magnified exponentially; that sort of estimates the feels that come from hearing yourself described with inappropriate terms.


5. Create feedback loops

No matter how consciously you might work, you are always within a certain ingroup. Make sure to build in ways in working processes to have feedback from different audiences. Pluralities of voice can make for a less biased final product.


6. Look for help

Just as you might have a hard time proofreading your own work (I do), you often can’t see bias problems in your own organizations. This is the ideal time to invite knowledgeable professionals to help you identity and address places for improvement.


There is this myth that some of us are details-people and some of us are big-picture folks. Most of us are able to toggle between the two ways of making sense of the world. The more successful of us are able to do this effectively and efficiently. Others struggle, focusing too intently on one or the other way of thinking. This isn’t a personal failing–it is

This isn’t a personal failing–it is human nature. We all get trapped in eddies of focus. We all find moments when we can only gaze at the wide expanse of a project expanding out into the horizon.  The best leader finds ways to choose to rise above their personal inclinations as the situation needs.

Systems thinking is one particular strategy that helps me rise above the details to think holistically. In its essence, systems thinking is where you focus on seeing how a whole system is interconnected.

So, if you think of your life as a system, where do all the parts of the machine go together? Where do the gears turn? Where are there creaks? Where are there extraneous cogs? In other words, which parts work together and which don’t?

How do you get started with systems thinking? Here are a few resources:

Why Social Ventures Need Systems Thinking?

A Definition of Systems Thinking: A Systems Approach

System Thinking for NonProfits


Agile Thinking to Manage Change

Agile was a buzzword, drawn from software designers who came up with an effective means of developing, testing, iterating, and launching in the most efficient manner.

There are plenty of posts that talk about using Agile (and related iterative processes) for personal development. For me, I find agile particularly useful when thinking about weathering change. The challenge for most of us with change is the uncertainty. You have the feeling of walking backwards on a moving sidewalk; the backwards movement sucks but the concentration on remaining standing is even worse. Keeping a few tips from Agile development in mind can help you feel capable of handling change. You might still be walking backwards, but you will at least know that you will know that you can stand up if you fall.


Change is unpredictable. But, your reactions are predictable. For example, when someone insults you what will you do? You probably have an experience to recall.  What did you do then? There is a 75% chance you will do the same thing.  For example, I am a reactor. If you insult me, I will make fun of you. And, then you won’t like me. However, I am also happy to make up and forget it.

So, sit down to be thoughtful about your reactions:

  • What issues trigger negative reactions? Are you okay with the result of those negative reactions?
  • What really stresses you out related to change? What kinds of change don’t stress you out?
  • What types of change seemed doable? Why were those doable?

Most importantly, don’t judge yourself. Just write. Don’t second guess. There is no wrong answer.


Go back to your list and annotate your answers. Fill in the feelings associated with each answer. Put your sheet away. Come back to it. Add other ideas that might come to mind.

Revise/ Repeat

  1. These notes are where you are now. You might even rewrite it as a series of ideal scenarios, like “if X happens, I generally react like y.” These are your current state scenarios.
  2. Turn your scenarios into goals: If this X happens, I would like to react like y. Those will be your change goals.
  3. Come up with some tactics to get you from your current action to your change goals. Write down one or two ways that you can act differently. Focus your strategies on yourself.  You can only efficiently and effectively change you; everything else is pretty much a moving target.
  4. Try these strategies.
  5. Sit down and consider what worked and what didn’t.
  6. Amend your strategies.
  7. Try your new strategies.

Let’s go back to our example of my short temper above. Let’s say that I have decided that for 90% of the times I don’t think the negative reaction is worth it. For those 9/10 times I need to find some ways to change myself.  So for those I might tweet out my insult. But then, it turns out my network is big enough that the “victim” finds out. The act of writing the insult was satisfying, but the fact that people could read it was not. So, then I decide to write it on paper.

In other words, try a plan. Figure out what is wrong with the plan. Improve the plan.


Ideally steps 4-7 above have a short turn around (like in one conversation). But, it takes practice to become so thoughtful about your reactions. So, give yourself a chance to get better.

In the end, tactical action in relation to change is the goal. You start getting more and more strategic about your reactions as you practice. You will eventually get so used to handling yourself during change, that it will be your normal.

Keep Clean Data

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

Start with a clean tool/ protocol to collect data.

1. Keep data clean

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

2. Observe First, Interpret Later

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

3. Check out the competition.

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

4. Check for alternative explanations.

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

5. Review findings with peers

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

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