How do you do Community Engagement

Community Engagement is a commitment. Often organizations need to go through stages to improve their engagement with patrons. At the lowest level of engagement, organizations want to include people in their existing programs without changes. At the highest level of engagement, the organization is willing to make changes and as a result their community changes. A small example of a coevolution might be when procedural changes, like waiving rental fees, are put in place to run a community-originated program.

Most organization’s work in community engagement between “consult” and “collaborate.” Each subsequent level of engagement requires increasing amounts of trust, truth, and time.

Organizations need to give a little and learn a lot in order to do community engagement well. In non-profit, particularly museums, while the stakes feel high, the outside world rarely understand our norms. Many of the concessions to connect to the community and increase involvement do not change us at the core. They require listening and improving; they do not require changing who we are.

Community engagement is a good relationship, like a long marriage/ partnership when you lose track of the small changes each partner has made.  But, like all relationships, engagement needs to start with an honest, truthful commitment. Then, museums need to follow through.  (Museums have more need for this relationship, so they must model follow through. If they do, communities eventually will.) If museums do, they can expand and improve your work, eventually finding that the museum and the community have both been inextricably improved by this faithful communion.

What is Community Engagement?

Capital, Collections, Cultural Capital and Infrastructure are what museums can offer.
Facets of Community Engagement

Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

Not too long ago, I was thinking about the possible types of experiences that could be part of community engagement (see my handwritten notes above)  Often organizations focus on how they can bring people in their doors, usually with programs.

Yet, a rounded community engagement program should strategically consider the myriad facets of interaction. Museums have collections as well as space, money, soft power.  People’s draw to the museum might not be the collection, at least at first. This is a controversial thought, I realize.  Community engagement, however, needs to be about inviting people into the museum community rather than demanding people use the museum the “right way”.

A huge portion of community engagement should be about sharing. Museums have many resources they can share beyond their programs. Also, there are times when what they have to offer is space, both physical and emotional.  A well-rounded community engagement portfolio should balance multiple elements of the facets of community engagement, ideally developed iteratively and collaboratively with patrons.

Thinking about Value: Universal Rights of Humanity & Free Arts/ Culture

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 explicitly calls out the importance of arts and culture. Article 27 states “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This estimable document includes a number of essential rights, like the right to life and work. Amongst those foundational needs, everyone has the right to knowledge and culture.


The importance of intellectual and cultural pursuits might be seen as a right by the United Nations but are often unfunded mandates in many countries. In the US,  arts and culture funding generally combines private and public funding like a complicated crazy-quilt. A patron at a library, theater, and/ or museum would be hard-pressed to perceive the sources of money that keep the lights on and the culture coming.  Arts and culture seem to just be there.

The opacity of funding can be a sincere challenge in building ownership in patrons as well as maintain sustainability. Patrons need to understand costs if they are being asked to help pitch in. National Public Radio (NPR) offers a useful model of articulating the actual cost of services. During funding drives, most stations delineate the costs and then remind listeners of their responsibility to pay for what could be free. Breaking down costs concretizes services that otherwise seem ephemeral.

Museums and arts organizations, like NPR, are often available on the user’s timeline. Rather than a theater performance, you can go to the museum during open hours.  You might choose to spend the full day in the galleries or walk out in ten minutes. At the symphony, you would be ejected by polite red-coated volunteers if you tried to stay the day and judged, equally politely, if you walked out in ten minutes.  While this self-determined timeline can be positive for visitors, it can also have ramifications for the perception of value. One museum professional shared that they felt that, “People see us as the friend who is always there for you when you don’t have plans, and this is also the friend that you don’t really pay attention to.”

Visitors often do not understand the true costs of running arts or cultural organizations. Museums and arts organizations support their funding mostly through large donors, who basically subsidize the low-cost or free entrance. So, the visitors are merrily ignorant of the hard work the development staff engages in daily. They see the benefits of this labor as a given.  Alternately, many performing arts organizations have a different model. Patrons pay fees for tickets. These fees do not completely cover the operating costs. But, patrons understand that there is a cost associated that that cultural experience.  The distributed funding model in performing arts exposes the funding needs to a broader sector of their community.

Patrons will not innately understand costs. The onus is on the organizations to make this clear to their broad audience. Many of the costs of this work are different than the costs in other fields. Most office buildings have framed posters on the wall. Not all visitors will understand why the cost of framing and hanging an artwork on a museum wall is exponentially higher. An arts-professional shared the importance of expressing funding needs…”CHRISTINA”



Value has a complicated relationship with cost. For example, if the value is seen to be less than the cost, the patron will likely be deterred or disgruntled. If the value is perceived to be more than the cost, the person will be thrilled to make the payment.  But value is not just about getting a steal.  Value can grow over time. Repeated contact can be necessary to really appreciate some costs. Gym membership, for example, is a cost that you might need a few months to truly appreciate.

Arts and culture also have a perception problem. These pursuits are seen as being appreciated by a rarified audience. Certain skills are seen as necessary to “get it.” They have to be “your thing.”  And, if they aren’t your thing, you won’t find enjoyment. A recent British study articulated this issue:

Onboarding is, therefore, a major problem for the field. Entry programs, often through schools, can help people gain an appreciation of arts and culture. However, if these programs are not valued in their family, students often do not grow to value arts and culture in the long term. Families often preference other leisure pursuits, even if those have costs, unlike the free arts and culture. All is not lost, of course. Arts and culture appreciation can grow in young adulthood, often through friends. However, young adulthood is a time of high student loans and low disposable income. So, young adults might not experience arts and culture enough to build a sustained habit.

Free programs, therefore, can be a way to build broad audiences. As one cultural professional said “[without free programs], I think our audience would be even more middle-aged and middle-class than it is, and I don’t know that it would have the chance to diversify, both in those terms and in others.” Free programs are the easiest way to break down a tangible access barrier. Free allows anyone and everyone to enjoy the benefits of arts and culture.

Arts and culture are also often best enjoyed collectively. A live reading of a poetry is different than listening to an audiobook at home. Live theater allows patrons to connect not only to the story but also to the energy of being in a room full of like-minded individuals. When a social group goes to an exhibition, they can learn and explore together. Arts and culture are also cost-effective when experienced collectively. The cost of mounting an opera is exorbitant, and so sharing those costs are the only way that such experiences can exist. Real Rembrandts, and frankly many fake Rembrandts, are too costly for most people to own. Most people’s chance to experience high-quality art is in art museums.  As, the power of experiencing arts and culture, though, is not universally obvious, free opportunities allow people to tap into these experiences of collective learning with authentic arts and culture.

Free also has a number of problems, however. As mentioned above, free means costs must be raised in other ways. Also, as mentioned above, free means people do not understand the true costs, and so they cannot determine the true value. Therefore, for some organizations free becomes a different type of barrier. As a professional at a free museum shared, “People just assume that they can come when they want, and so they never come and go to the things that they pay for. No one wants to lose money.”

Value and cost, therefore, have a convoluted relationship. These organizations are seen as exclusive.  Charged fees support the perception of exclusion. The real costs of running these types of organizations are often invisible to users. However, most people do not place enough value on these resources to pay even a portion of the cost. After all, even when available free, these arts and culture amenities are often eschewed for costlier options. When free programs are valued, patrons grow a deep appreciation and donate funds.


The rights to art and culture are one that is not universally appreciated. There is no single way to run arts and culture nonprofits to help patrons understand their value. Broad social appreciation of these fields is required to sustain audiences. Costs can be an access barrier, certainly, however, fees can also signal value to patrons. Availability can be a way to grow engagement or a means of building engagement.

However, the salient issue here is about perceived value. In order to maintain the arts and cultural sector, writ large, the social value has to be clear to potential patrons.  These programs have to appeal to patrons (rather than organizations). In other words, the arts and cultural sector cannot expect to draw new patrons (or even existing patrons) by maintaining the status quo. They need to find better ways to express their value to their local community while also working nationally as advocates.


Looking into the Well-Reported Statistic about Museums, Starbucks & McDonalds (Data)

A well-reported statistic compares the number of museums to Starbucks and McDonalds. There are 1.5 times more museums in the country than the caffeine and fries purveyors. A friend Michelle Epps got me thinking about what this statistic. (You might know Michelle from her tireless work on the Emerging Museum Professional network).

In looking at the numbers, Michelle is right. While statistics about the sheer numbers of museums seem positive, they mask some real challenges. Museums can easily grow their reach. They have the physical space to interact with more people and the cultural capital to improve our society. But, they also don’t have the staffing capacity across the board. The majority of American museums have 3 or fewer full-time staff. Most, if not all, museums buoy their organizational capacity with volunteers. This staffing challenge is hugely detrimental to the field. Volunteers are wonderful, and I myself love volunteering with local organizations. But, they also effectively subsidize work at these institutions. Starbucks, in the opposite, is well-known for its commitment to giving numerous benefits to retain staff.

Starbucks and McDonalds (combined) are serving 70 times more people than museums.  These scores of patrons are also always interacting with paid staff when they are at those establishments. As Michelle pointed out to me, people don’t get a Master’s degree to volunteer at Starbucks. Instead, they work at Starbucks to be able to afford to volunteer at a museum.


Sources and Numbers:

Starbucks: 453600000 people served, 8,222 stores, and 238,000  staff (does not staff if these numbers are full-time staff only)
McDonalds:1266960000 people served, 14140 stores, and 375000 staff (does not staff if these numbers are full-time staff only)
Museums: 85000000 people served, 35000 museums, and 725000 employees

Interpretation : Focus on Tactile and Kinesthetics

In museum galleries, we signal ideas through a variety of ways. Collections are visible in the galleries. Interpretation adds more signals, like ancillary images, audiotours, and of course text. But, we also omit many stimuli. We often completely exclude two major forms of meaning-making, kinesthetic and tactile. What happens when we do this? And, what are ways that we can foster these senses?




Every moment of the day, awake or not, we make take in sensory information and make sense of the world. Some stimula are fairly direct. We smell a musty odor and match that to a memory of skunk smells. Other times, we receive information that has been translated by an individual (like you are reading about skunk smell now).

Most objects in museums are translations of phenomena. Fossils were once a living, breathing creature. Artworks might relate a concept, idea, or experience.  Look at the example above. An artist has created an image of a cat. Now, in understanding that object, you can use your senses. In museums, you will most likely not be able to touch it. You could listen to an audiotour, but you couldn’t be able to hear the sounds of striking it (ping) or dropping it (crash). Most likely you will need to use vision as your primary sense, either through looking at the object or reading the text (a translation of the object into text that the reader must interpret.)




In other words, in the vast majority of museum settings, visitors must rely on the mediation of the museum interpretation. They need to use visual sense as the primary source whereas in the rest of the world they use many more sources of information.

Humans have a distinct haptic system, where they use touch to reflexively seek and acquire information, even more quickly than with the sense of sight.  Many types of information are most easily ascertained through touch like hardness, temperature, pliability, weight. These topics can be learned through verbal communication, yet they are more easily ascertained if you just reach out your hand. People often act on this need to understand through touch before their rational senses take hold.

Touch can evoke memories but also quickly immerse people in new experiences.Touch is a type of learning that is often fostered in early childhood. Engaging in learning through touch is pleasurable.




Touch is not the only sense that people lose in the museum. Spatial and kinesthetic sensibilities are often challenging. Works are seen out of context. While the fossils of some dinosaurs are seen in its full forms, many bones might be framed in a case. Because of that, you can’t walk around the whole creature. You can’t understand your relative scale to this animal, for example.

Kinesthetic experiences allow learners to connect actions to ideas to develop deeper understandings of concepts and developing critical thinking efficiently. This connection of body and mind is called embodied learning, in which abstract ideas are made more salient when connected to concrete physical action. While kinesthetic learning is so important for meaning-making, this form of engagement is underrepresented throughout the educational ecosystem.

Kinesthetic learning has some important ancillary benefits. Experiences that foster learning through actions usually have a flexibility that encourages creativity, experimentation and problem-solving.  The sheer act of moving put learners in a position to see spaces and objects from a new perspective. In museums, ideally, kinesthetic learning should feel authentic and meaningful. And, kinesthetic learning also encourages collaborative action.



Streamlining to visual senses have major problems for visitors. Spatial and tactile learning can certainly help those with hearing and sight impairments, but these types of experiences empower everyone making collections more memorable for all. Together these senses can evoke emotions and encourage fascination.

The challenge for museums is that touch and kinesthetic action are natural ways that humans make meaning. The sense of touch is the easiest way to ascertain authenticity, for example. People are well aware when an experience feels inauthentic.  Museums need to be thoughtful, therefore, in the experiences they produce, for example, using high-quality replicas. When chosen appropriately, handling replicas or other materials can stimulate engagement.

Touch does not mean to wildly grab collections. Museums need to help visitors learn appropriate handling behaviors. Ideally, touch can be added into museum spaces without unleashing an avalanche of destruction. Reality-based interactions on tablets can offer some of the benefits as touching objects. While more research needs to be done, virtual touch does seem to be a real option.

The Regional Arts and Culture Ecosystem

No institution is an island. Understanding your part in the greater whole of your community can help, your organization find the best way to work in the community.

  • Large Single-Sited Institutions: ex. Museums
  • Multi-Sited Institutions: ex. School systems, Library systems
  • Event-Focused Organizations: ex. Reader/ Writing Events, musical festivals
  • Small Single-Sited Organizations: ex. Arts centers
  • Mobile/ Outreach Organizations: ex. teaching artist programs

Most organizations have a core competency. For example, a museum might have a housed-collection in a vast building downtown. They might then decide that connecting to the collection requires mobile outreach. However, their core competency is their sited space.  An efficient, thoughtful approach would be to partner with an organization that does outreach well.

Coalitions allow organizations to pool resources and gain the benefit of competencies they don’t naturally have. Additionally, the community wins exponentially. Remember, all the organizations are working together for the community (which is a more mission-driven approach than thinking that you are competing for audiences).  Understanding where you fit in the ecosystem is a useful way to find efficiencies, build audiences, and learn from adjacent fields.


What Museums Can Learn from the Black Panther

The stars of Black Panther including Zuri in purple carrying an impressive blade (Marvel’s Black Panther, 2018)

Taken from the Marvel Comic Books, the Black Panther is a movie about a fictional African nation that cloaks its advanced civilization as a form of self-preservation. The king of the nation has superhuman strength thanks to serious sumptuary success. The Black Panther’s trail to bring a bad guy to justice starts some even worse experiences for him and his nation.

1. Great story with POC doesn’t have to be about color
While the Black Panther mentions slavery, colonialism, appropriation, and the art market, they are in support of a great story. Certainly, the many challenges in the history of the African diaspora are worthy of exploring in film, as well as literature and exhibitions. But, people of color are not just the sum of the worst of their history. Black Panther told a great hero story, using all the elements of the character’s history, good and bad. But, this is a really an adventure romp.

In other words, don’t essentialize POC’s experiences in exhibitions or programming. Appeal to the whole people if you want their whole participation.

2. Market for Success
Disney put real money into the marketing, and their investment was returned by being the fifth biggest box office opening domestically.

Museums often split up their marketing with the smallest part going to education programs and diversity programs. And, then people don’t come. If these people are the hardest to get, you probably need to try the hardest to get them into your doors.

3. Synergy Sells
The Black Panther will be in the upcoming Infinity War, apparently. Most Black Panther audiences know this because the ad ran before the movie this weekend. Every person who liked this movie saw that. Some portion might even attend that movie as a result. That said, not every person in the theaters this weekend is a Marvel fan. Many came out to support a Black-led and performed film. But, the synergy is a classic Hollywood trick. Snag extra audiences by pushing products in existing audiences.

Museums often sell hard to a sector of an audience for specific exhibitions, like African-American audiences for an exhibition of Kerry James Marshall or young boys for an exhibition of Dinosaurs. That is good marketing sense. But, most museums can do better about cross-promotion. Look for ways that you might find connections to other parts of your collection. Offer them some connected ways to maintain a relationship with your organization’s collection. The Marshall attendees might love figurative painting. The Dinosaur boys might like whales. To find the best synergies think broadly, don’t essentialize people, and consider doing some evaluations of audiences about other interests.

4. Don’t Shy Away from the Hard Stuff
There is one scene in a museum where a woman (curator, marketing manager?) is standing in a gallery (with coffee!) nearly apoplectic when being accused of cultural piracy/ theft of artifacts. There are many tougher issues about race that are brought up in this movie, though woven into the narrative. I remind you that this is a Disney blockbuster movie being advertised during the Olympics.

Controversial issue and blockbusters don’t need to be in opposition. In fact, if you avoid controversial issues, you might find that you have alienated audiences making for a far-from-successful blockbuster.

5. Celebrate rather than Blind Yourself to Color
Disney worked to create a film within the Marvel universe that worked for the audience, and then made sure people knew what they were getting. It’s right in the name, “Black Panther”. This was not the African-American panther (not to mention he is meant to be from Africa). This story was pretty honest about race, but also matter of fact. From the advertising alone, no one thought that they were going to be seeing one or two black faces. But, at the same time, it was not just about race. You didn’t forget their color but you let the Black Panther, his enemies, his friends, and everyone else in Wakanda be their whole selves.

Museums in general still make the mistake of essentializing people of color, particularly black/ African-American people. Coded language flourishes in museums and museum culture. The word “diversity” in most museums means, not variation as it should, but instead moves to include black people or people of color in the museum ecosystem. This is a terribly bad way to grow audiences. You are basically inviting people in to change your demographic but not changing for them. What happens, then, is that you don’t have true change in museum demographics.

Black Panther showed that people of color will respond to quality entertainment that is more than about race as long as it doesn’t shy away from Race. Also, this was not a sneaky move to create a movie that had an almost all-black cast. This was all-out, right-on Black made and performed.

Museums can learn bringing people in, different people than you have now, requires real effort, real money, and a truthful product. After all, if you aren’t planning to go big, people will just stay home. Don’t believe me, ask the people who didn’t stay home this weekend.

And if you were here for the art, here are 12 artworks from cultures that inspired the Black Panther designers.

The Future of the Art Museum: The Alternative Possibilities


I was struck by this response to a previous post of mine. I wasn’t the only one. It had 40 likes and 18 retweets.

In many ways, art museums greatest strengths can be their failures. Art museums do quiet, meditative, restrained, and grown-up really well. These are good things for the people who already go to art museums. After all, those people like those things enough to go.

Why is attendance going down? 

Yet, museum attendance is going down.  Why? I’ll give you my take.  First, that core demographic (middle-aged women) is aging. And, those people aging into middle-age are finding other things to do. In other words, visitors are becoming a finite commodity. Unlike in previous generations, when there were fewer things to do, museums now have still competition to convert new patrons.

Notice how I didn’t say that art museums do art well. Art museums often prioritize themselves over their visitors. I love museums and even I sometimes feel like visiting the morgue might be a more jolly afternoon than some exhibitions. Sometimes I read the curatorial listings in the paper and wonder if the museums are playing a colossal game of stump the chump. And, then as if they have Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, those same institutions evoke the blockbuster card with the most stereotypical, saccharine, middle-age-lady-baiting exhibition that they can. What about the happy medium, friends? Sometimes you do that well, but only sometimes. Make this the given, instead of the occasional, and museums would automatically do better with attendance.

Art museums have also suffered for their stability. They have vast, expensive collections. They have authenticity in the hole. And, so, they have felt like they can focus on that and slack on the visitor experience. The truth is that the idea of authenticity has expanded. Who has read a book on Kindle and felt as if they didn’t read the REAL book? There is certainly the core audience who is amazed by a real Tanguy. But, there a bigger group of people who don’t care what That Guy’s real painting is. Museums can’t eschew focusing on experience. They don’t get a free pass for being repositories of the world’s history.

Museums aren’t changing fast enough. The world has changed pretty quickly in most people’s lifetimes. Other than those born after 2007, most humans remember a time before cell phones. Fast change is our normal. So, when museums tout changes that feel glacial, they show how incredibly out of step they are.

How can they stem the tide? 

Truthfully, monumental changes are needed. First, and foremost, culturally art museums have to accept that the status quo will not work. If art museums continue as they are, the audience decline will be precipitous.


Now, I will say that some museums are making changes and putting in certain efforts. A recent Ford Foundation grant, for example, funded some wonderful projects. Many of those efforts are focused on curatorial practices. That is a good start, on some level, as collection work is a core competency of museums. Curators have concentrated power in museums. In some ways, projects targeted at collection acquisition are focused on improving the means of production. Future collections will be less uniform, ideally, with these efforts.


But, those efforts might fall flat if they are not paired with many other changes. If you use the production model, even if the means of production improves, the company can still go under. Currently, museums run on a model of inequity, with portions of their staff working for considerably less than others. While in the short-term this model is fine, in the long-term this is inefficient for the field. Right now, the glut of young potential employees is high. Eventually, it will slow and then the cheap labor model will stop working.

Even if you aren’t worried about long-term sustainability, the museum staffing model is bad for visitors. Underpaid staff is not going to do their best no matter how much they love the art.



Collection work will help museums maintain current audiences. Improving workplace equity will help them have a stable workforce, and therefore save money on retraining. This will allow them to increase time and money spent on visitor experience. Improving how people feel at the museum is the only way to increase audiences. To go back to the tweet I started with, people need to feel like the museum is enjoyable. They need to feel like you want them there as they are, not as you want them to be. In order to do this, the practice needs to align with the visitor’s needs (rather than the museums.) Without a concerted effort on making museums about visitors, we will eventually be without visitors.

The Strengths of Museums: What We Can Learn From Each Other

Last week, I had a wonderful amount of feedback on my post. I had compared two fairly different types of museums, Art and Science Museums, to see what they can learn from each other. Often, museums silo their practices within their own specialty. By looking over the wall at the successes of others, the whole field improves. I have compiled feedback from many to create this graphic. It is really just a start. I am sure there are so many more strengths. In fact, if you see missing ones, I would love to hear about it.

Also, what about the museums and installations that have already picked up ideas from other types of museums. I have scores of examples, but I will share one. One of the most moving art experiences my family had was at the Redford Gardens in Quebec at an international art show. My children are regular museum-goers (a familiar hazard for museum kids), but there was something amazing about art in natural space. The children were talking about form and line in ways that I hadn’t really ever observed in other museums. And, my children were not alone. Many other families were having similar experiences around us.

What are some of your favorite times where a museum has broken its usual paradigm and thereby improved the visitor experience?

How to make museums more engaging? Develop Employee-Centered Museums First

Museums share collections and research for visitors. But, of course, they are also workplaces. People, who work at museums, create research and installations for visitors. This simple equation highlights an essential challenge for museums.

Unhappy People equals Unhappy Product

Unhappy people are some of the most generous folks around. They share their negativity with awful abandon. Their noxious fugue of disenchantment follows them, infecting those they contact. This attitude spills into all their actions and communications. In service organizations, these unhappy people suffuse every action with a patron. The sticky residue that disgruntled employees exude is hard to expunge from the workplace culture. Unhappy people, therefore, taint the product of the organization. But, this terrible plague of negativity is not the fault of the employees. Employee dissatisfaction and negativity is often a symptom of a challenged workplace culture.

A strong, positive workplace culture is like an inoculation against negativity. Good cultures put employees at the center. Starbucks recently invested profits back into their employees, in line with their belief that staff is the best brand ambassador. Tony Hsieh, CEO of, goes farther in describing the relationship between happy employees and happy customers:  “At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff—like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers—will happen naturally on its own. We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin…Your culture is your brand.”

Museums might bristle at comparing themselves to a shoe company or a coffee shop. But, most visitors who walk through their doors have done business with Zappos or Starbucks. Visitors are used to experiences that “feel” a certain way. Therefore, museums with strong customer experience (born of equally strong staff experience) feel comfortable and resonate with visitors.

How do you make a positive work environment?

I have always been reticent to participate in anything billed as fun in print. If you need to say its fun, the likelihood is that others might not. Authentically enjoyable experiences are more expansive and cannot be encapsulated in that three-letter word.

Often workplace thinks of employee engagement as additive. In other words, they add a few workshops to improve an employee’s day, like a yoga experience or a trick-or-treat party. Experiences like this are not bad on their face. But, if the core culture is not solid, these are basically like adding frosting to a maggoty cake. Frosting will not make you want to consume even one rotten slice.

Developing a solid employee experience is not easy. As Casper mattress brand CEO Philip Krim says, “just because you say you’re fun, doesn’t actually mean you’re having fun. Paradoxically, being fun takes work.” While negative employee culture can easily spread like a virus on its own, positive employee culture needs a thoughtful, purposeful effort.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

First and foremost, the museum needs to make a commitment to place their staff first. This commitment can be lip-service. It needs to be shown in actions. A colleague once said, “organizations express the value they have for your work in cash-money.” Pay disparity in departments often results in real cultural problems. When an assistant in one department, say curatorial, is paid drastically more than another, say, registrars, the museum is highlighting that is not work but affiliation that matters.

The biggest challenge in terms of pay equity is between executive staff and junior staff. The museum is implying that executive staff is worth 50 times more than the junior staff by paying them 50 times more. This might be true, but if so, then junior staff should not be asked to check email at home, make on-the-spot customer decisions, and take work home. More likely, however, is that this pay disparity between executives and junior staff is disproportionate to the relative importance these roles have to the visitor experience. In other words, junior staff make or break visitor experience, and yet, do not receive commensurate pay for their value.

Show People & Tell People

Museums are tiered corporations, certainly. And, some decisions are easier made by a few people. But, most decisions are best made by those who know what they are talking about. The challenge with hierarchical (oligarchical) organizations is that decision-making power is reserved for the highest tier. As such, the deciders are often fairly far away from the results of the decision (and the need for the decision). Think of the decision on the size of the font. If the head designer is not in the galleries with the recently visually-impaired elderly patrons, she doesn’t have the pleasure of hearing the complaints about her tiny, tiny type. Ideally, delegate decision-making. Find ways that people can make decisions from their role that help their work. AND DON’T MICROMANAGE.

Some decisions, say financial ones, will need to be sent up that corporate ladder. The challenge for staff is not always that they have no say in the decision, but instead that they are ignorant of the reasons. When rolling out decisions, be truthful and transparent about the motivations.

Don’t Pull a Bait and Switch

There is nothing worse to me than the sickly sweet “friends.” I, personally, don’t care if you don’t like me. But, don’t be nice to get something from me, and then return to your usually nastiness. This is a habit many museum managers take with their junior staff. They roll out the pleasantries, commending the importance of a certain field. Then, internally, in upper-level meetings, say, they mention all their complaints about said department, staff-member, program. Firstly, museums are magnificent for their grapevines, keeping true, perhaps, to their academic roots. If you really want to spread a rumor, start it in a meeting considered confidential. Secondly, this type of behavior will erode staff culture faster than any other behavior.

Don’t be underhanded. If you don’t know what underhanded is, then you likely are. Don’t lie to your staff, either through omission or true falsehood. Don’t say one thing and do another. Don’t make rules and then exempt a certain sector of people (say curators). Don’t treat a set of your employees with kindness (the rest will assume contempt).


Back to our cake, rotten ingredients make a rotten cake, but the eater not the baker will be the one to truly suffer. Museum visitors suffer most from negative employee culture, which results in decreased or stagnant revenue, which will mean less money to operate the museum, which eventually is bad for the collection and the institution. In other words, centering your employees and ensuring their satisfaction is good for collections. Your investment in your employees will be returned one-million-fold in superior visitor experience, which is the sweetest reward.