Classism and Museums

 

Socio-economic diversity is often ignored when organizations endeavor to become more inclusive and accessible. But, ignoring socio-economic differences can have a lasting impact on the audience and staff demographics, as well as impede future audience growth.

In our purportedly merit-based society, we are taught to ignore markers of class, so we are not good about discussing them. Even if we might talk about race, more, marginally, we rarely discuss socio-economic diversity.

 

Myth of Meritocracy

Americans are raised to believe we live in a meritocracy. Most young children are told that success is within reach, usually in their educational settings and sometimes in their families. How many of us are told that anyone in America can grow up to be president?

Inculcated into the myth of meritocracy, we are often incapable of seeing the ways that class and socio-economic standing are structurally embedded within society. Merit-based advancement is our cultural Potemkin village erected by the few to trick the many. There have been times in our history where a large sector has made advancement, notably the rise of industrialization and just after World War II. In each of these periods, notable lower class people became wealthy, greenbacks being the best accouterment for a class transition. But, these socially-mobile individuals are anomalies with great marketing, not the norms. They are held up as proof of our meritocracy, rather than simply being what they are, rarities that escaped the structural challenges.

This myth of meritocracy permeates the ways that people consider poverty, class, socio-economic mobility. Firstly, merit becomes directly related to success. If earnings and success are based on merit, then low earnings and career failure are born of a lack of merit. Lower earners are seen as less deserving than high paid ones, thanks to their personal failings.

In actuality, career success is born of many factors. Class stratification gives the rich a leg up by starting higher on the success ladder: starting with greater maternal nutrition, continuing through strong primary and secondary education, and eventually in adulthood cashing in on family and school networks and connections. The race to success for the rich is a much shorter course than for the poor.  

Race and Class

Race and class are inextricably linked. African-Americans and Latinx individuals are more likely to be poor in American than Asians or whites. The myth of merit leads to the spurious assumption that certain racial groups are inherently less successful. In truth, African-Americans and Latinx individuals are often starting on the very bottom the ladder of success and climbing the rungs weighted by racism. Racism, therefore, cannot be disentangled from classism.

The connection between race and class is not accidental. Legal and political systems have made success harder for certain racial groups. Legally stipulated segregation, for example, meant that people of color spent much of the twentieth-century blocked from many forms of success. People of color often had fewer rights, like even the right to citizenship after decades of legal residency or the right to marry outside their race. These few examples scratch the surface of the ways that systematic racism contributed to our current racially-stratified class structure.

Programs aimed at improving racial disparity often ignore issues of class. This omission is often about the prejudice of the planners, who might not even realize their innate, unspoken beliefs. Class blindness has real ramifications. For example, many people might say black or Latino, but they mean a person who is poor and black. When people don’t investigate these false assumptions about class and race, the programs have inherent flaws, including scope, marketing, and reach.

 

Class  Segregation is our Norm

People live and work in socio-economically siloed spaces. Work is usually earned through academic credentialing and networking. The former requires an initial investment of money while the latter requires tapping into existing relationships, usually with others of the same background. In American, most people are educated alongside people of the same class, only to go to the same universities, get similar jobs, and explore similar leisure activities.

Work can be a point of socio-economic diversity, but this is often when an employer has people in different job functions (executive to janitorial). In those situations, the workplace might reinforce class divisions. Leisure activities are another point where classes mix, like at sporting events. However, paid leisure activities often create a separate but equal culture, with upper classes enjoying games with cocktails from the boxes while the hoi polloi chow down on dogs at the lower levels. Many of these glancing connections to different classes reinforce stereotypes. Overall, most experiences that overlap classes are too shallow or else imbued with financial baggage to result in meaningful cross-class understanding.

 

What does this mean for the workplace?

Employees engage with each other about work through the medium of spoken and unspoken communication, both of which are intensely class based. Think about Standard American English. This vast nation has numerous regional variations and accents, but flat-toned Standard American English is the most commonly accepted communication tool on most news media. That type of speaking might go over class, hypothetically, but in practice, improper pronunciation or grammar scream “lower-class” to most Americans. For the American employee raised in a lower class home, communicating with colleagues can be an act of self-policing and personality translation.

The unspoken class norms are even harder for people passing into a higher class. While Standard American is taught in every American school, the subtle class cues are taught by osmosis in the many social and cultural experiences that make up a person’s upbringing.

The American myth of meritocracy often glosses over the problem of learning new class norms.

In a famous scene in the movie Pretty Woman, sex worker Julia Roberts learns about utensils as a way to grease her way into the upper-class society that she finds herself. Being able to tell a fish fork from a salad fork would be the least of your worries in the long run. The ability to interact with the trappings of a class is like signifiers of being comfortable with that class. Learning to interact will not help you learn the foundational class norms.

In service-based fields, this complexity of class is even more challenging. People in decision-making roles are often of higher classes than the people being served. This class differential can add bias into and decrease the efficacy of the services being provided.

 

What does this mean for museums?

Museums are inextricably connected to class. Most museums are funded through donations, often large gifts from the wealthy.  Collections can also be connected to wealth. Art Museums display millennia of the material culture of the wealthy. But, science and anthropology collections often come from wealthy donors. Museums connection to wealth is not solely historical. While museums hope to expand their audiences, people still see museums as a leisure activity of the wealthy.

Without dealing with class, museums will be unable to draw wider audiences. Ignoring our prejudices and assumptions about race, therefore, can have a massive impact on our staff and patrons. Later this week, we will think more concretely about the challenges of classism in the museum and cultural sector.

Some Solutions to the White Supremacy in Museums

White supremacy is not something easily solved in our society, with millenia of problems to counteract. Yet, the scale of the problem should not be a deterrent to action. A previous post helped set up the meaning of the phrase white supremacy, but it is useful to continue to discuss the term.

Most of the actions that support inequity and the power position of white society are subtle and constant. Inaction is a form of action. For example, when museums do not discuss race, they are choosing to maintain the current order. Museums have a great opportunity to help increase equity in our society.

What types of actions are white supremacy?

This diagram can help clarify the types of issues that contribute to the culture of white supremacy. Many more actions occur daily at the lower level of the pyramid. Those actions create the foundation of society, and in many ways, form the culture upon which the more overt actions occur. While the overt actions are shocking, the covert actions are often more pernicious. Understanding these covert actions, and then need to subvert them, is the first step in transforming white supremacy. After all, as many protest signs have stated, white silence is white compliance.

What are some examples?

Communication & Signals: Sharing ideas that ignore race or imply issues about race

Style Guide:

Most institutions have a style guide that (hopefully) ensures communication consistency. These documents are the organization’s linguistic choices codified and formalized, servings as the editor’s measuring stick for all textual output. Organizations often focus on certain elements of the style guide, like brand issues, but ignore cultural competency issues.

For example, many organizations continue to use the word “slave” over “enslaved person.” Any long-time label writer can attest to the horror of wasted words. But, at organizational level, this choice places the need to maintain word count over expressing a nuanced understanding of the humanity and horror of the state of enslaving people.

Solution: Work with bias trainers to refine your style guide.

Interpretation Strategy:

Writing about collections is enormously challenging. Writers are working with limited space and unlimited possibilities; visitors are completely variable in their desires and needs. Every exhibition is mounted as a good faith effort to balance the organization’s need and the visitors. Yet, very often, exhibition planners (curators, educators, designers, etc.) do not consider cultural competency issues, like race, when working through their installations. When space is at a premium, intellectually and physically, interpretation often decides to focus on the issues that can be tackled easily. Avoiding issues like race, colonialism, etc. only serves to support the status quo.

Solution: Lead conversations during interpretation planning to discuss the ramifications of decisions.

Marketing Imagery:

Marketing photographs are usually chosen to project the ideal audience demographic, a visualization of the diversity the organization seeks. This racial diversity is often unfulfilled dream. Visitors attending the organization, expecting a certain audience demographic, find themselves amongst a different audience entirely. Using images that misrepresent the audience is dishonest. They set up expectations for the incoming visitors. If the organization is not actually prepared to make those visitors comfortable, for example if security and front-line staff have not had extensive cultural competency training, visitors will suffer.

Solutions: Be purposeful in your imagery choices, and ensure your staff is prepared for changes to your audience demographics

Gallery Sequencing:

Gallery sequencing might feel easy, following a canonical path. Art museums might choose to set things up according to the chronological march of time. Natural history museums might choose to split organic and inorganic specimens. But, every choice is imbued with cultural norms, often dripping with white supremacy. Natural history museums, for example, often hold collections of native American art, though don’t hold corresponding collections from other American cultures. The placement of these galleries can project uncomfortable and inappropriate meaning. Placing native American collections near collections about the evolution of man, for example, can imply Native Americans are less “evolved.” Certainly, curators might not believe this, however the space juxtapositions can still imply this to visitors.

Solution: This problem can be incredibly hard to solve. Gallery cannot easily be moved without massive financial ramifications. If you are in the position to do a resequencing, spend time talking through the choices, ideally with a bias consultant. However, if not, then find ways to communicate challenges with your visitors. Meet any possible misunderstanding head on with your interpretation.

Decision-making: The business of running museums can maintain the current status quo

Tokenism: Hiring practices in museums can certainly be a full blog post. But, in short, the credentialing-based hiring and unspoken requirement of unpaid internships ensures that staff positions are drawing from a small privileged group of applicants. Museums often expand their applicant expectations, say for community engagement positions. In other words, people of color are being relegated to a few jobs associated with working with people of color. Basically, these hiring practices bring a few individuals into the existing culture, all but maintaining the current order.

Solution: Again, this could be the subject of a blog post. But, internally, the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access need to be considered thoroughly and thoughtfully. Hiring in staff without internal change only exacerbates the problem.

Community Engagement: Engagement programs can be incredibly transformative for organizations, but only if they allow for the transformation. When such programs are siloed, their impact on the organization is localized. In other words, community engagement often supports the status quo, creating a culture of special interest (segregated) programming that runs in parallel with the general programming. For community engagement to truly transform white supremacy in an organization, it has to become central to all work and the job of everyone.

Solution: Leadership needs to make transforming the audience everyone’s job, then they need to increase internal capacity across the board to do so.


 

Thanks to Hrag of Hyperallergenic on his post about Newark Museum’s labels that got me thinking about this topic. The Newark Museum is obviously doing something right, as they have made the decision to move away from anonymous.

Museums & White Supremacy

White supremacy is a phrase that can startle people. For many people, the phrase connotes men in white sheets marching under cover of night fighting anonymously for a minority vision of our society. These white extremists certainly fall within the definition of white supremacy, but they are not the defining aspect of the concept.

What is white supremacy?

White supremacy is a system that maintains the structure with the white culture at the top of society. For many people, this actuality of white supremacy is challenging. There is the cognitive dissonance between their belief that white supremacy is a minority opinion counter to our pluralistic society. Being confronted with the idea that wholly contradicts their original opinion can be jarring. But, being forced to see themselves mentally aligned with such vilified members of our society can seem repugnant and repellent. Most members of our society attempt to perform “anti-racism,” i.e., they act in ways that appear inclusive. So, to learn that their actions and the society they live in is in line with the KKK, well, that can feel either earth-shaking or completely false. Either way, without coming to terms with the reality of white supremacy, people cannot work toward racial equity.

Our cultural structures are so imbued with white supremacy as to have become nearly invisible. For example, the English language has become the norm globally. Even nations that had never succumbed to the English empire, advertisements run taglines for products in English. Coca-Cola anyone? American capitalism is equally pervasive. I would be hard-pressed to imagine a single adult in the world who is without some knowledge of an American product, like a brand, actor, or idea. Western society has become our global given.

What do these economic and cultural givens have to do with white supremacy?

First, English is a language, perhaps the language, of white colonialism, the greatest propagator of white supremacy our society has ever known. Even as the economy of colonialism has largely waned, the language maintains many of those ties. Many smaller languages have given way to the power of English, the language of commerce and success. But, with a new language comes a new idea. The English language serves to support the dispersal of cultural norms as well. Any bilingual person knows that translation is an approximation, at best. And, English has forced many cultural ideas into other societies, leaving much of the pre-English ideas lost in translation.

Economics also has its part in white supremacy. The means of production since the Industrial Revolution has been held by the few, and those few have been white. Even as society has slowly transformed with more non-white people gaining ground economically, largely the system has been constructed to maintain this order. This economic reality can be incredibly jarring for people. Often, the iconic poor white miner is levied as a rhetorical brick against this reading of white supremacy. After all, aren’t there black people with Harvard degrees eating caviar while this poor white miner remains jobless in Appalachia? Of course, both people described certainly exist. But, those individuals do nothing to undo the economics of white supremacy, and in fact, they both serve to support the theory. An Ivy-league educated American black person remains a minority.

Given that most black Americans can trace their history in this nation back farther the many White Americans, the lower rates of matriculation of black Americans at Ivy League institutions should be shocking. Think about this. Black people have been in American for hundreds of years, speaking this language, living in this culture, and yet, someone whose grandparents spoke no English has more likelihood, statistically, of matriculating to an Ivy League school. So, what’s the variable? Race. We live in a society where if you are white, you are unmarked. Therefore, you can live within the scrutiny of color. Now, you might be given a silver spoon and the corner office, but white people are not hamstrung by their race. So, black American is succeeding despite the mark of their skin color, and often as one of very few to follow that path. In the story of the black Harvard grad, there are two hallmarks of white supremacy. The road of being a solo person of color in a competitive field is exhausting and intense. Career and academic isolationism, due to few people of color reaching high levels, maintain the current order. But, even more telling, the black Harvard grad is often seen as a product of affirmative action, as if their merit was not equal to white students. The underlying belief is that the playing field was not equal. Certainly, the playing field was not equal. White people have the ability to move within the academic and economic society without the baggage of race. That mobility is an enormous boon, and likely one of the greatest mechanisms that propagate white supremacy.

This mobility is also underlying the issues of the white miner. That people would see a poor white person as proof that white supremacy exists is the ultimate marker of white supremacy. The argument is that white supremacy can’t exist if there are white people who are poor. The corollary to that argument would be that all white people must be above all people of color. In other words, that argument is complete within the norms of white supremacy, where whiteness is an essential state of being. If whiteness was the issue there, the poor miner could be any color, and the argument would be about the shrinking periphery in our society. But, instead, his poverty is seen as surprising because he is white, i.e., of the privileged state in our society.

What do this poor miner and black Harvard grad have to do with museums?

Whiteness is inextricably linked to the work of museums. Museums are part of the Western (white) society. Often collections are born of the very colonial state that propagated white supremacy. Art museums certainly hold collections born of colonialism, such as Asian and African collections. But, other museums also profited from colonialism. Fossils from all around the world call Western nations home, for example. Even the very idea of collecting and cataloging is a Western one. Denying this history does not negate it, but instead allows this history to subvert any changes we attempt to put in place. After all, we know that the monster under the bed has more power when unseen and threatening; once faced, its hold dissipates quickly.

However, language and translation might be some of the most useful elements of white supremacy that permeates museums. Museums attempt to share ideas with patrons to help them connect to collections (and share collections to connect patrons to ideas). In other words, museums are basically communicators. This places museums in a power position. They have the power to chose what is communicated and how. Often, museums communicate in ways that support the current order, and therefore they support white supremacy.

Museum staff remains largely white, so the nuance of language and the bigger cultural issues of white supremacy often feel academic, which gets us back to our miner and Harvard grad. The class is certainly an issue in museums, but generally, many more white people of lower classes have been able to pass into the upper levels of museum administration than people of color. Diversity and inclusion efforts have brought in more people of color, but the numbers are low. People of color, therefore, become isolated and often disenchanted.

So, what can museums do?

There are many ways, small and large, that museums can deal with white supremacy in their work. First, though, museum professionals need to face up to the fact that white supremacy is a lot more than guys in sheets and that they are part of the problem. Museum professionals need to think about what white supremacy means within society and within their work. Without coming to terms with the fact that white supremacy is a powerful state that has suffused our society, they have no hope of moving towards a racially equitable state.

On Thursday, we will have some concrete examples of white supremacy in museum work.

The Game is Up: Game Design as Part of the Interpreter’s Tool Kit

Serious Games in Virginia is this week. Here is the gist of the ideas that I shared.

Why Games?

Games are about experience, interaction, and engagement with ideas while fueled by competition, camaraderie, and humor. Education has tried to capitalize on these elements in games as the ultimate form of constructivist learning.  No other form of content engages people quite like games.

Think of all the ideas absorbed while fighting to win. (Boardwalk is low rent; Carcassonne is one seriously walled town; the Oregon Trail was no joke.) Beyond the facts gleaned, games drop players into worlds where learning the systems and rules was imperative for victory. In a well-designed game, the player’s joy and desire propel them; learning is, therefore, self-fueled and addictive.

So Educational Games are a no-brainer?

What teacher, content-writer, interpretation professional, etc. don’t want people to be addicted to their ideas? But, the challenge is that games need to have an inherent authenticity that can be crushed by contrivances. Putting too many constraints and requirements during game design is a sure way to kill the game. This problem is at the heart of the challenges many people have with the term “edutainment.”  Detractors point out that games are inherently educational, after all as they teach systems and interactions; edutainment is a way of hobbling good games with excessive content.

Truthfully, I am on the fence about edutainment. I like the idea of games as a way to get people into ideas in an entertaining way. My issue with edutainment and any other content-based game is about expectations and design. Games can’t do everything for everyone. Games are darn-hard to design and even harder to perfect. Games that feel easy to play are hard to design. Content-providers and educators must manage their expectations for the game. So, what’s the way to get the best content-based game? Scale back content expectations, increase the time for design, and test the heck out of the game.

What are the decisions you make to create game-based interpretation? How do you think about the audience?

First, when planning a game figure out who is playing this game and what their actual behaviors are. But, thinking about the audience requires nuanced considerations. All people play games sometimes but not all people want to play games all the time. In other words, games seem universal, but they aren’t. Often, content-providers are simplistic in considering who wants games.

Children seem like an obvious audience for game-based interpretation. Sure, games often work for kids, but children often want to play games to exclusion of everything else. Ever had to play Candyland until you consider gumdrop-icide? A family exhibition that needs fast thru-put might not be the best option.

Adult audiences have not lost all joy in life; they are not inherently-game averse. But, some types of games will turn off some adults. Role-playing games draw some adults for almost the same reason that they turn off other adults. LARP lovers want to be immersed, taking pride and joy from all the nuances of language and dress required to get into it. LARP-averse folks do not want to get into it—at all. (And, yes, I know that LARP love isn’t just a binary pro or con, but more of a spectrum.)

Practically speaking, game design is expensive in terms of time and energy. The most logical conclusion might, therefore, be to plunk money into a game that works okay for most audiences. But, designing games for slightly specialized audience slices can be easier and more successful. A good approach is to pick a sizeable chunk of the overall audience, say the largest sector of an exhibition audience, and plan for them.

After honing in on your audience, you need to focus on time, space, and depth. How long will people spend, at a minimum, to play one round? Time considerations should actually be considered before content ideas. If you only slot in 1-2 minutes, you cannot expect players to learn about all the nuances of the 100 Years War. Alternately, if you are creating a game that makes people WANT to learn all the nuances of the 100 Years War, you need to accommodate longer gameplay. Therefore, content is a function of time and space. Have a game where players can sit and dig in? You can go a little deeper with content. Only have space and time for a quickie? Hold the content tight and concise.

Finally, make sure experience goals are more important than content outcomes. In other words, make sure players enjoy engaging with the ideas. Think of that saying that Coco Channel said about taking one thing off before you leave. Scale down your content goals at least once before designing your game, and then be okay with having to scale back again after playtesting starts. It is better for players to really understand a few ideas while playing a fabulous game than being turned off by a whole host of ideas due to a terrible game.

Who should design a game?

Game design is a specialized skill, in certain ways, but also a learned skill. A full-time game designer has years of experience to draw upon. A museum profession or educator has years of knowledge and teaching to draw upon. In my previous museum work, I lead a team that developed games. Creating games bonded the teams and surfaced the complementary skills amongst the staff. Yet, we were often working long, un-competed hours to make our games. We were often unsupported by our institution.

So, the question about who should design a game is a complicated one. Now, as a consultant, with the pleasure of distance, I think game design can be exquisite torture for museum professionals—worth doing for the joy but torturously hard-work. Pairing institutional content people with game design people allows the museum/education people to have the joy of creating the game without the exhaustion of working through design and playtesting without support.

What makes a game successful?

I live in a mixed house-household—Scrabble-haters and Scrabble-lovers. While true, I mention this useful fact because even the most successful games will not hit 100 percent of players. So, firstly, success cannot be measured by the percentage of people who play. Instead, focus on the quality of experience for the people who did engage with the game. Did they enjoy the game? Would they play again? Would they tell friends about the game?

After focusing on enjoyment, then focus on content outcomes. This will be hard for educators and museum professionals, as they are generally focused on sharing information. But think of it this way. If your players were miserable but understood your content goals, you failed and made people unhappy. If your players had fun but didn’t understand your content, you failed but at least your visitors were happy. The best game, of course, helps people engage with content joyfully. And, that is totally possible, as long as you are completely aware that content success only happens when a player experience is at the fore of all decisions.

Alpine Institute’s 2018 #TheStateofRace Symposium

The Aspen Institute had their annual State of Race Symposium last week. Journalist Juan Williams moderated two panels: one about politics and a second about hate speech. As Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Comcast Corporation, David Cohen suggested in his opening remarks, the symposium aimed to ignite discussion about race in America today.

The Findings

While social media journalists, including myself, documented the remarks on Twitter, overall the remarks highlighted the tension in our nation. We are a nation formed through racial strife, and these roots crack the very firmament of our contemporary society. Discussants to various degrees discussed the current President in relation to white supremacy. Normalcy has been transformed with the white supremacy becoming a public norm, rather than an open secret. The acceptance/ visibility of white supremacy can be seen as a result of other transformations in society, namely stagnating job opportunities and the diversification of the knowledge production and the rise of social media.

The remarks of the symposium painted a picture of American Society in 2018 as a churning cultural clash between the youngest generation of voters and the oldest one. These two groups are drastically different, coming of age in oppositional eras. The oldest sector of our society is the baby boomers, born in a period of unprecedented prosperity. The youngest voters were raised in the greatest period of insecurity in nearly a century. While the oldest sector of society might have earned a lifestyle that they hope to maintain, the youngest voters do not even imagine or hope to live that way.

The response to this cultural tumult has been multifold, according to the Aspen Institute speakers. Older voters were fueled by fire to vote against diversity, globalism, and tolerance. A small sector of the population, say less than 2000 people, decided to generate an enormous about of hate online, according to the Twitter, diversity officer. Women came out to fix the government, standing up to run for office in unprecedented numbers. Asians are expressing their political rights and highlighting the heterogeneity of the community. People of color and marginalized people are fighting tooth and nail to get into the rooms that matter, in every arena, and some are succeeding. Overall, marginalized people are pushing  to make a change while the traditional seats of power are attempting to defend the status quo.

Extrapolating from the Symposium

Chuck Rocha, Strategist and President of Solidarity Strategies, pointed out an important divergence in media and knowledge consumption amongst the oldest and youngest voters. Older people still get their news by watching television. Older people use the platform to help determine the value of the speaker. The youngest voters are indiscriminate in their knowledge conduits but very discriminating in the sources. Young voters value the speaker, not the platform.

Rocha’s observation is huge for all knowledge producers (media, education, politicians alike.) Solely sharing that information over traditional channels will garner a small, aging, but important and wealthy, demographic.  Therefore, knowledge needs to be produced and disseminated in old ways AND new ones. Knowledge needs to be shared by valued “experts” as well as by influencers.

I was struck how America, as described by the presenters at #stateofrace, was very much in line with the comments from Culture Track describing the cultural habits of Americans. According to Culture Track, younger adults are brand-agnostic, experience seekers, looking for peer-nominated experts, unlike older adults who build relationships with institutions often based on perceived expertise.

In other words, be it government, politics, or culture, older people are more often tied to traditional institutions and reticent to/ ignorant of change. Younger adults offer fealty to few institutions, if not outright seeking the overturn of said institutions.

What does this mean for the State of Race and Culture?  

Race means something very different for older voters. These voters believed that they stamped out racism by holding protest signs in the 1960s and quoting MLK on their Facebook pages. These same voters understood that race is something to avoid discussing for fear of exposing the ugly truths that they feel. The oldest voters startle when they hear the phrase “white supremacist” but also feel uncomfortable saying the word “black.” The oldest voters were raised in an America of assimilation and as such do not have the skills to notice or handle their inherent bias.

The youngest voters see race, as well as gender for that matter, as a complicated spectrum. Diversity, inclusion, and access are familiar words, though the concepts are not always easy for them to put into action. Race is hard to discuss, not for lack of skills, but due to the disconnect between their understanding and the way race is expressed in conventional sources.

Understandings of race are so drastically divergent, and the oldest voters are maintaining control of many traditional sources. For example, the Alpine Institute State of Race symposium had no speaker that represented the youngest voters (likely no speaker under 35).

Conclusion

In reflecting on the symposium, I kept imagining two planets currently moving at different trajectories in fairly independent orbits, just at the moment before the collision. We are at that moment when the atmospheres and moons are crashing into each other, with the previous calmness being pierced by a shocking, surprising racket that is a harbinger of greater problems. In this scenario, both planets could be destroyed, one could survive, or both could survive (one as a subservient moon).

Similarly, the deep-seated differences in our culture between age groups, expressed in race and every other facet of society, might be undoing of us, bring our demise. Or, and ideally, we will find a completely different configuration of how we do things. Conversations like the State of Race symposium are the only way for our society to chart a successful course towards a better society and avoid catastrophic options.

Guiding Questions to Think about Bias in Museums (by functional area)

At AAM 2018, there was a wonderful panel led by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko about Decolonization. While all the speakers were wonderful, I was particularly struck by Jaclyn Roessel’s remarks about indigenizing museums as an act of transforming the current power structure. Overall, the conversation underscored the importance of systematic and cataclysmic change in transforming the colonialism inherent in museums. This process is one that requires work and the ceding of power to people outside the museum world. Cinnamon et al stressed the importance of collective action and community-organized change.

Walking out of that conversation, I was struck at how much time and energy is required of community groups when they help museums transform. How can museums ensure that they are meeting this sacrifice in good faith? Museum teams need to prepare themselves for tough conversations.

The first step is to find ways to subvert the natural human inclination towards defensiveness. Criticism of any kind can feel like an attack. But, in a society where race is a taboo topic, criticism can become debilitating. Learning to tamp down defensiveness, therefore, can be an incredibly important means of laying a foundation for growth. (Incidentally, Beyond Defensiveness, our book, and our online course can be useful tools to help on the path to dealing with bias).

Once you are personally positioned to be self-critical about bias, you need to examine your work. While each field has a slightly different manifestation of bias, overall, investigating inherent challenges requires thinking about who is missing and why. Making ideas explicit requires seeing what you have been missing, potentially for your whole career. Think of it as an intellectual optical illusion; once seen cannot be forgotten.

An Example

Take this example. Recently, New York writer Jerry Saltz posted a tweet about women artists.

The sentiment was important, as was the fact that it was said by an influencer.  Yet, the tweet had an important omission. The tweet never called out the reason that women were not taken seriously as artists. While this could be seen as simply an issue of “elegant” verbal framing, this was also a way that language hides the actual instigators of inequity.  Exposing such omissions are important as bias cannot be dealt with if it remains invisible.

How do you see the unseen?

The pernicious effects of colonialism and bias thrive on silence and denial. People need to be willing to look at every process with a critical eye. Every element of work needs to be investigated. Choice points need to be considered. Here is a great moment where data and visualizations can help draw conclusions. Data can help make concrete that which is hidden. For example, what percentage of works in an audiotour are of male artists or artists of color? What percentage of artworks have long-form labels? What is the demographic make-up of the audience? What is the demographic make-up of the photographs in the marketing? (Above is a graphic to offer some questions by functional area.)

Doing this type of hard work internally is essential before joining forces with community partners. Those partners have put themselves out to join you on your journey. Don’t they deserve a travel partners who is strong enough to make it down this long road?

Recognizing Bias in Interpretation and Content

 

Being culturally situated is a state nothing can avoid, collection objects included.  Collection objects, even natural history specimens, are mediated by creators, curators, educators, amongst others. A dinosaur bone is excavated by a person, identified by a person, and reclassified by a person. The human existence, in other words, flavors the essence of every collection object.

The first step in recognizing bias is to accept that all aspects of museum work have inherent biases. There are many clear points of bias (above). Ignoring bias does not make these issues disappear; in fact, avoidance usually exacerbates and multiplies bias. Acquisitions are the often the result of inherent in-group bias when the academic interests nominate certain white, male artists as exemplary skewing the whole collection/ cannon. Databases seem cut and dry but are rife with potential biases.  For each category that has controlled vocabulary, a decision has been made. Databases that articulate male and female as the only choices for gender are excluding other genders. Interpretation is the front-facing function that needs to think particularly critically about bias.

 

 

Interpretation is like the end of the long line from the origin of the object to the visitor.  Interpretation is also the point where bias is particularly obvious. Content creation, ideally, starts with finding bridges between objects and visitors. There are many tools to form this bridge, from social media to catalog essays.  While each tool has a different reach and needs a different approach, in each instance the content creator chooses facets about the collection object to foreground. This choice-point is when many stories are edited out. When making this choice, however, thought is rarely given about who is being edited out and why.

How can bias be improved?

  1. Understand that all aspects of museum work have bias. Without accepting and understanding this, museum staff cannot address bias.
  2. In each area, reconsider conventional wisdom, long-held beliefs, and givens. Ask yourself “why” processes exists as they do.
  3. Seek help from others. Jaclyn Roessel gave a wonderful talk about her work about Indigenization of interpretation and process at #AAM2018, and this is a great example of how changing the balance of power can ameliorate biased systems.
  4. Invest time, energy, and trust. Museums are colonial institutions. Lip-service or surface bias treatment will not reform the foundations into equitable institutions. People need to go all in to make true change.

#AAM2018 Recap: Language, Collaboration, and Action

 

The Annual American Alliance Conference 2018 was hosted in toasty Phoenix. Many participants mentioned that this conference felt like a year to consider the basics. Rather than big bang projects, many presentations seemed to focus on maintenance, improvement, and thoughtfulness. As part of this introspection, many presentations put a fine focus on understanding the structures and processes of the museum world. Here is a roundup of some the biggest issues

Language: Communication between people has an inherent bias. Verbal communication often holds a bias towards those in power. For example, until very recently, many occupations were described in gendered terms (fireman, postman, councilman). Focusing on words might feel insignificant in the grand scheme of improving equity and inclusion. However, words are the basic building blocks of improving the socio-cultural state. Currently, language is built on broken blocks. Being thoughtful in the ways that you use language, avoiding biased language, for example, is like excavating and rebuilding our faulty communication tools.

Decolonialism/ Equity/ Inclusion:  Just as language might be the building blocks of inequity, colonialism is the architect of the inequity in society. The society we live in is a product of white Europeans expanding and conquering much of the planet, laying waste to the people and cultures resident there. This expansion/ decimation might have begun centuries ago, but the ramifications remain present today. Museum collections are particularly tangible artifacts of the colonial state. In order to truly embrace equity and inclusion, museums need to face and address the colonial nature of their work and collections, in a holistic and all-encompassing manner.

Collaboration/ Partnership: Museums are part of an ecosystem of organizations and institutions, large and small. Despite the breadth of possible collaborators, museums often act unilaterally in their planning and implementation of programs and exhibitions. Museums are ill-at-ease with ceding power, the central crux of good collaboration. Instead, museums often create collaborations in name only, which are basically perfunctory check-ins. With careful planning and dedicated time, museums can implement collaborations that will have positive lasting effects on their communities and their work. This type of collaboration, however, requires earnestness, truthfulness, transparency, and follow-through.

Risk: Risk-taking can be at the heart of a good collaboration. Museums are change-averse and yet always in the throes of change. This state means that staff needs to handle inadvertent change consistently, while not being able to take calculated risks (planned change). Fear of change is often centered around a few of power changes/ loss of power.  Conversely, ceding power is a learned skill not unlike risk-taking. Taking small risks, and reaping the benefits, can increase institutional aptitude for risk-taking.

Space: Improving anything is hard. It takes time, energy, money, and dedication. Ameliorating the state of museums can feel particularly draining, as we are a physically disparate field. (Rather than a physician with scores of peers in your region, museum workers often find their peers around the country/ world). As a result, people can feel isolated. Exhausted and isolated people cannot effectively make change. Museum workers must take care of themselves if they want to continue their impact on the field and their visitors. Self-care can take many forms, but in essence, means that you take some time to focus on yourself.

 

 

The Cost of Museum Work

Consider these scenarios:

For the Museum: Most cities have few museums. Jobs often have low turn over. With the dearth of jobs, professionals don’t leave museum jobs lightly. The manager, confronted with an open position, sees the chance to (finally) make real change. They are looking across the field for the BEST person. The manager has their pick nationally. Rather than focus on investing in and promoting within, the manager can look for a new person.

For the Job Seeker: The job seeker, on the other hand, knows that they will need to seek nationally because the options are small in your own town. You will likely need to leave home if you want to get a higher position.  The chance of internal promotion is low. Moving is a requirement for promotion.

Being a Museum Professional

Museum professionals invest huge amounts of money into their education. Unlike other professional fields, only a fraction of museum professionals will earn high-level salaries.  Going into the field is a huge gamble.

  • Success is hard to quantify: People go in and work hard. But, hard work is not enough to ensure success. In some fields, hard work is easily connected to success. Accountants who can churn out tax returns like machines are seen as more successful.
  • Success is subjective: Museums want to be able to bring in more visitors for less money while being the most academically rigorous (and ideally garnering an article in the Times), basically the Holy Grail. The path to this endpoint, however, is complicated, confusing, and subjective. Despite the many meetings where a colleague suggests they have the “right” answer to accomplish the grail, there is no single path to improving museums. There are good answers, better answers, and terrible answers–but there are no perfect answers. Museum professionals often feel like they are being measured against this idea of perfection that doesn’t exist.
  • Success doesn’t mean profit: Museum professionals might impact millions of visitors over their lifetime. Their pay for this service is usually good vibes, and potentially professional street cred, but rarely money.
  • Success often means placing the field ahead of family: In order to move into a higher pay grade, most professionals need to move. There are financial costs in moving, often not included in the hiring package. While moving can increase your earning potential, you need to have the stability financially to do that. (See graphic). There are many hidden “costs” to moving. You need to uproot your family. You need to be willing to live away from your family. You have to be willing and able to travel to see family.

The Effect on the Field

The Museum Hiring Culture:

  • Develops a Split with Local Audiences: People who move to work can either grow bonds with their or feel disconnected/superior to their new community. Many museum professionals remain siloed in their work, surrounded by transplants such as themselves. Therefore, they might find themselves supported by people who are not connected to the community. Their work can be affected by an innate superiority about the local community.  This individual attitude becomes infused into the work the museum produces.
  • Promotes bad management: Museums are small networks, so a truly terrible person will never be able to escape their mistakes. But, average bad managers and self-obsessed jerks profit from a culture that eschews internal promotion. In the first couple years of work, most professionals are given some latitude for their failures. About three years in, their colleagues start to judge them. This is the point at which they can improve or leave. Instead of promoting a culture of self-improvement, the hiring culture effectively promotes people leaving (for more money) before improving.
  • Depletes the Field: People might not be willing to move for promotions, and live in small markets, without the availability of local options. People might feel exhausted by the workload requirements. People might not be able to afford to do museum work, as the remuneration is often not a living wage.
  • Prevents Diversity:
    • Museum professionals without families are therefore more likely to be willing to move for a job (though their transitions are not without the stresses of developing new roots.)  Managers then are often people without local roots and without children. They don’t understand the personal obligations of staff, demanding long evening and weekend hours. Therefore, the field unfairly supports those who are willing to put their job ahead of their family. (Remember diversity is not about race, and professionals with families is a form of diversity).
    • The cost of moving means that people who have a greater buffer from families are more likely willing to move. The net result is that executive positions are more likely filled with those from higher economic classes.

Making Change that Matters: Moving Beyond “Diversity” Projects Towards Systemic Change

 

Diversity, Inclusion and Equity can be implemented in a workplace in different ways.

Additive: One is additive, by adding new people and programs in the workplace. In this way, the organization hopes to infuse their existing world with new voices, as like adding spice to a bland meal. This approach has strengths, in that there is more variety being adding to the workplace. But, it puts an unnecessary onus on the marginalized people and programs being added to the institution to “fix” systemic problems.

Subtractive: Many organizations perceive a subtractive approach is more efficacious. For example, when positions come open, they purposeful hire a marginalized person (perhaps also proudly toutly their accomplishment). Unlike the additive method, this approach works under the operating auspices of the organization, i.e. not adding new positions or projects that could be cut eventually. Yet, this approach effectively creates some of the same problems as the additive approach. The marginalized person is still being asked to be the actor of transformation.

Systemic: Diversity and equity initiatives are basically about transforming culture. This requires understanding the many ways that the culture supports inequity and prejudice. Many of these issues are hiding in plain sight, interwoven into all the practices of the institution. Every element of the work of the institution could be imbued with problems. For diversity and inclusion initiatives to truly take hold, the institution needs to examine their practices. Here is where a consultant, or outside voice, can be essential. Just as people are often blind to their own faults, organizations often ignore the largest roadblocks to true diversity.

Systemic change, however, requires a commitment to being honest, thoughtful, and responsive. Unlike the additive and subtractive ways to implement diversity, systemic change is a process-based towards transformation. Processes take time and coordination between people, and ideally, non-hierarchical knowledge-sharing.  Seen broadly, systemic change requires a number of steps:

  1. Grow your team’s ideas and knowledge-base. Organizations, whatever the field, are often siloed knowledge networks. Fields bring people with similar training together, and then they generally partake in similar types of professional development. Change is about fostering difference. So, the staff needs to be able to understand and embrace difference.
  2. Examine the practices of the organization and attempt to understand facets that support or mask bias. This process will be slow and iterative.
  3. Rework those elements in a collaborative manner. This type of change needs to blend many (diverse) voices. They need to be diverse in all sort of ways (age, gender, education) in order to create a process that can handle diverse challenges.
  4. Iterate your new processes. Try out new processes, and then circle back with your teams to see how to improve them. Make sure everyone understands that processes need to grow and adapt so that they are willing to share feedback.