Towards a More Human-Centered Museum: Part 3, Bringing Our Whole Selves to Our Work

Written by Mike Murawski

Through a recent series of posts, I’ve been exploring the idea of a human-centered museum, why this is a meaningful way to think about the work of museums, and what changes we can make to bring people to the center of these institutions. Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to advance empathy, human potential, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institution’s values and culture.  It is about putting people, not just visitors or customers, at the center of our organizational thinking.  These people include visitors as well as staff, volunteers, members, donors, and community partners as well as neighbors and residents of our localities and regions.  All of these individuals are part of a museum’s interconnected human ecosystem.  I’ve written about how we can rethink internal hierarchies and work toward building a culture of empathy, and now I want to turn to the importance of cultivating personal agency in museums.

As museum professionals and workers, we too often ‘clock in’ to our jobs and check our own personal passions, values, and identities at the door.  The personal communities of our lives float away as we embrace the existing institutional culture and branded identities of our museums.  

In her 2015 book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Harvard professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy discusses her research into personal power in the workplace. “Some organizations,” she finds, “socialize new employees by focusing on the groups’ identity and needs, failing to acknowledge those of the individuals. Workers may even be discouraged from expressing their true identities” (p. 54).  In many cases, these organizational or group cultures are grounded in legacies of oppression and white, male, patriarchal, colonial values, and they frequently conflict with our personal identities.  Yet, for museums to become truly human-centered and inclusive, we must work toward valuing and celebrating the unique identities, experiences, values, skills, and passions that individuals bring to the institution.  

So what does it look like when we bring our whole selves into our work?  This core question was asked by Amber Johnson, Founder of Justice Fleet, in her powerful opening keynote at the 2017 MuseumNext conference in Portland:

How do we bring our whole selves into our work spaces and what does that look like?  What does it mean to say ‘This is all of me and I’m going to put all my junk on the table’?

Through her work with Justice Fleet, Johnson is on a mission to start a dialogue about radical inclusion and radical forgiveness, going into neighborhoods to engage their communities in discussions about implicit and explicit bias, social identity, and communicating across difference.  

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Her 2017 MuseumNext talk entitled ”Revolution Requires Forgiveness” focused in on the importance of bringing our social identities with us to our professional work, and what it means to allow those identities to truly impact our work.  For Johnson, radical inclusion is a deeply personal act that “requires bringing the whole self to the table, [and] the dirty, nasty questions that nobody wants to answer, ‘Who am I? What matters to me?’”  Beyond this level of deep personal reflection, radical inclusion at the institutional level requires a lot of people within an organization bringing their whole selves to the table.  Both radical inclusion and radical forgiveness, as Johnson aptly frames them, are vital to museums becoming more human-centered and ensuring that museums are places that understand, support, and value what every individual brings to this work.  

So this begs the question: how can we begin to engage in bringing our whole selves to our work on a daily basis?  What are some initial strategies you can adopt right now?  

Strategies for Change

In his book Museums and the Paradox of Change (2013), scholar and museum activist Robert Janes strongly advocates for museum organizations to connect with the knowledge, experience, and values of individual museum employees and to cultivate personal agency at all levels and departments of an institution.  Janes defines personal agency as “the capacity of individual museum workers (not only leaders and managers) to take action in the world.”  He outlines some clear, doable strategies for museum leaders and workers at all levels, and I wanted to simply share several of them here:

  • Ask yourself, your colleagues, your supervisor, and your leaders “why” you are doing what you are doing?  This questioning will help to move the museum beyond the “what” and the “how.”
  • If there is an intractable issue or situation that is adversely affecting your work, speak out. Advise your manager of the difficulty and ways to address it. Have the courage of your convictions to remedy the situation.
  • Decision-making should be decentralized throughout the museum to the “lowest level” in the organization where the work can be done well.  In short, staff should have as much responsibility as possible for decisions which affect their work.
  • Any person in the museum, irrespective of level or rank, must be free to go directly to any person in the museum for information or assistance needed to perform his or her job.
  • When appropriate, share aspects of your non-work life, whether it be involvement in an environmental NGO or work as an artist. These seemingly unrelated skills, knowledge, and experience are essential as a museum broadens its awareness and engages in the interests, issues, and aspirations of its community.

Bringing our whole selves into our museum work is vital to developing human-centered museums, and so is cultivating museums as spaces where we can actually do this.  Managers and leaders need to break down the rigid expectations of conforming to a corporate culture or institutional branding, and create environments where employees and colleagues can safely bring their personal and social identities into their professional work.  This is tied up with breaking down hierarchies within museums as well as building a culture of empathy.  As we make decisions in the museum workplace, we should be asking ourselves: what are we prioritizing over the skills, knowledge, experiences, and perspectives of our co-workers and colleagues?  When might we be valuing ‘the museum’ over the people who work within it?

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In her widely-watched 2010 TED talk entitled “The Power of Vulnerability,” researcher and author Brené Brown talks about connection as a fundamental human experience. “Connection is why we’re here,” she says.  “It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”  During a time when we are surrounded by an increasingly fragmented society of ‘us versus them,’ museums have the potential to be powerful catalysts for empathy, human connection, and personal empowerment.  We just need to truly embrace, value, and celebrate the people that make up museums–staff at all levels, volunteers, visitors, neighbors, community partners, members, donors, and the broader public.  These people, more than anything else, give museums their meaning and purpose to become agents of positive change.

Share Your Thoughts

These conversations and actions cannot take place solely behind museum walls or in the isolation of professional conferences. We need to work together to realize the full potential of museums and discover how a human-centered focus on social action can transform your practice, your museum, and your community.

Are you working to cultivate personal agency in your organization?  How do you breing your whole self in your practice?  What challenges do you face in this work?  This conversation deserves to be more complex, and bring in as many perspectives as possible.  Add your voice to the comments below or via social media (@murawski27), and share your experiences or questions as part of this effort to make change happen in museums.

Let’s be a part of making this change happen together!

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About the Author

IMG_3329MIKE MURAWSKI: Founding author and editor of ArtMuseumTeaching.com, museum educator, and currently the Director of Education & Public Programs for the Portland Art Museum. Mike earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning in the arts. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as coordinator of education and public programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. Mike has been invited to lead workshops, lectures, panels, and training sessions at various institutions, including the Aspen Art MuseumCrocker Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among others.  He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as creative sites for transformative learning and social action. Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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