Tag Archives: featured

#ChangeTheMuseum

Written by Anonymous

I have been in the museum field for a number of years and worked at multiple institutions. When I first started, I had the privilege to work under a great leader. They taught me so much about supporting and cultivating a team. Perhaps because they were such a good leader, they also shielded me from the issues that I have come to find are prevalent in the field. When I was making barely enough to survive, they advocated for me without me even having to ask. They ensured that I was decently paid, and though it still wasn’t ideal, I knew they had done everything in their power to push for my compensation.

In the years since we went our separate ways, I quickly came to learn that not every leader is like that and that museums are particularly hostile places for employees of color. At first, it was small and perhaps predictable things I noticed like White employees referring to the one Black woman on the team as “aggressive” though I found her to be an assertive change maker. Then, I watched the dwindling number of people of color on our team starting with the unnecessary firing of one of the most senior positions. In the beginning, as each scenario unfolded, I saw these things as singular incidents.

As my institution has increased the staff diversity among entry level positions, I realized that these incidents weren’t isolated, rather they were a result of the systems in place. Bringing in diverse staff in entry level positions is relatively easy, providing opportunities for growth and promotion is much more difficult and can be held up by the normalization of Whiteness and the othering of ideas and people that do not fit into the concept of White professionalism or are not in line with the power structure and values held by institutions that are created, funded, and sustained by wealthy, White donors. Yet still, during this time I assumed the issues that I and others in my institutions faced were confined to these particular institutions or even the geographical location. I thought, if only I could take a job at a better museum, a more forward thinking museum, a museum with goals rooted in diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion, that I would be able to thrive.

Then in June, ChangeTheMuseum appeared. If you are unfamiliar with it, ChangeTheMuseum is an Instagram account where museum workers can anonymously submit issues and situations that have arisen in their museums related to race and equity. Most of the submissions have been from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) employees in museums. The posts range in severity but each of the posts highlights the real pain and trauma that BIPOC employees face in these White institutions. And the gravity of the combined posts should make anyone who works in museums stop and consider their own actions and the actions of those around them.

ChangeTheMuseum has simultaneously torn down my hopefulness about museums as institutions, and helped me feel less alone in my struggles. It is depressing to realize that many museums that we hold up and look to as important institutions are failing just as much as smaller museums when it comes to acknowledging past and current wrongs and truly committing to the work of addressing institutional racism and supporting BIPOC staff and communities. But it is powerful to know that I am not alone, that there is a critical mass of BIPOC museum workers who have endured in isolation and silence but are now speaking up and demanding something better. 

I don’t know if the museum world can be changed. I do know that museums cannot rely on BIPOC staff to make the change happen. Change must come from the board, from the leadership team, and from the overwhelming numbers of White staff in museums. I don’t know if museums can change as quickly as we need them to. We may continue to see an exodus of BIPOC from the museum field, but at least now everyone will have a clearer picture of why. 

Museums Must Become More Trauma Informed

Written by Jackie Armstrong

When I took my first steps into the world of visitor research and evaluation there was a lot of emphasis on how to make the museum a more engaging place. The word engaging often got thrown around with no outline of what that actually looked in practice, or sometimes even no explanation as to why an engaging experience was what a museum should be trying to achieve. Engaging for whom, in what ways, and under what circumstances? Everyone used the word but the nuances were very different depending on the person and the situation. This was something I was hyperconscious of and always tried to address in my evaluation practices.

I’m noticing a very similar thing happening now with how the word trauma is used, in particular as more institutions and organizations talk about being trauma aware, trauma sensitive and/or trauma informed.  I’m thrilled there is finally more focus on the prevalence and impact of trauma, but I am aware that not everyone is talking about the same thing or on the same page and also recognize how far we have to go in realizing a trauma informed museum. This is something I’ve been wanting to address, professionally as someone who advocates for visitors through evaluation and research and as a person engaged in intensive trauma therapy and working on healing from the impact of traumas in my life. 

It is my firm belief that museums have a responsibility to do the work to become more trauma informed, not later but now. Museums are not standalone containers for housing art, but hubs of human interaction located within communities. If museums wish to be truly relevant to people and be spaces in which people can safely and purposefully come together to experience art in layered and meaningful ways, and be able to show up as their authentic selves, then museums must become trauma informed. This requires a culture change throughout the museum, not just using trauma informed practices in one department within the museum. This is something I’ve felt urgency around for quite awhile but feel that both COVID-19 and the issues underlying the Black Lives Matter movement are bringing all of this into focus even more as collectively our worldviews have collapsed and individually we are all dealing with survival reactions. A growing sense of unease has flooded our consciousness, many of us pushing for changes that require solidarity, intentionality, and unwavering action. 

“Traumatic experiences and oppressive social conditions cause us to move into a series of automatic, holistic, and incredibly creative means of first surviving then adapting to the harm, ruptured connection with ourselves and others, and betrayal.  We are built for safety, belonging, and dignity. We are built to be connected to and make a difference for others, to have meaningful lives. When any of these core needs are disrupted through trauma, we automatically attempt to protect ourselves….Traumatic experiences are always happening within a social context and shaped by social conditions. They are nearly always perpetuating the “rules of engagement” of our social conditions.” (Staci K. Haines, Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice: The Politics of Trauma, Chapter 4)

Let’s think about COVID-19 first. To start, we have this invisible threat that no one fully understands but it’s clear that some people get very sick and even die. It spreads easily and rapidly and we can get it just by going about our lives. We fear getting sick and potentially dying and we fear loved ones getting sick and dying, and in order to keep each other safe we need to stay away from one another, which goes against our instincts as humans. We are asked to isolate in our living environments and practice physical distancing. We develop rituals around cleanliness and hygiene in an effort to thwart the virus and we scan news sources constantly hoping for answers. Levels of hypervigilance are at an all time high for many. And while we do these things, we are given mixed information from those in power that only adds to the emotional dysregulation we’re experiencing. Dysregulation makes it difficult to manage and recover from the intense emotions that might come from upsetting situations. Prolonged emotional reactions take a toll on our physical and mental well-being. There are several results from all of this: feelings of powerlessness, a deep sense of dread for the future, overreactions to “little things”, a near constant state of fear, mood swings, sleeplessness, and more.   

Added to the constant threat to life that COVID-19 leaves many people with is the economic instability that comes with lockdown, the loss of regular coping strategies, and perhaps worse, the inability to have physical contact with people in your life who you would normally turn to for comfort. It’s an extremely disorienting time. Our bodies, to varying degrees, live out the state of emergency we are in and our bodies fight the isolation that we must endure to keep one another safe. For those with existing unresolved trauma, everything surrounding COVID-19 escalates these experiences.  None of us can orient to the threat of COVID-19 because we cannot see it, nor can we adequately flee it or fight it, so a lot of our reactions become internalized or come out in other ways such as the dysregulated emotional responses mentioned above, as well as physical symptoms such as migraines, gastrointestinal issues, inflammation and other physical pain. 

Early into the COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States, the glaring inequality that has existed for so long came into focus for many more people as BIPOC are impacted by COVID-19 more than white people and also face unemployment at higher rates. Along with this there has been a surge in police brutality against Black people, something that has been going on for far too long, and perhaps because of COVID-19 more people, specifically white people, finally are taking notice of the massive injustices and inhumanities taking place. The present moment is asking everyone to not look away or remain silent but to rise together and fight these injustices. All of this against a backdrop of climate change and political instability.

There is a pervasive weight of fear and grief everywhere. The world is literally screaming for us to heal. Something must shift.

Before we talk about what a trauma informed museum is and what that might look like in practice it’s important to start by considering what trauma is.

What is Trauma?

The first thing to know about trauma is that it exists on a spectrum. When people talk about trauma they often refer to a specific event or series of circumstances but trauma is actually more about how the brain and body processes those experiences.  Everyone experiences trauma at some point in their life and everyone to some degree has unintegrated traumatic experiences.  Unintegrated trauma is that which hasn’t been properly acknowledged or contextualized and therefore remains trapped in the body, instead of being processed and moved through. When trauma isn’t integrated into someone’s consciousness and/or when the natural reaction to trauma hasn’t been given space to be felt (e.g. feeling anger, grief, being able to escape), it gets stuck. This is problematic for many reasons but mostly because it impacts the present, causing reactions that are out of place and out of proportion to things happening in the current time or situation. This is why trauma treatment often involves modalities outside of talk therapy, for example EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and/or SE (Somatic Experiencing).  There are many different types of trauma or large categories of experiences that can result in trauma such as early childhood trauma, cumulative trauma, interpersonal trauma, developmental and attachment trauma, trauma in adulthood (often, but not always, re-enactments of early trauma), systemic injustice, intergenerational trauma, racial trauma, immigration trauma and many more. The list of symptoms that can be associated with trauma is lengthy and goes far beyond the flashbacks and nightmares mostly commonly thought of, having repercussions on the brain and body.

Most people cannot begin to process trauma, and therefore heal from it, until they feel safe. Safety and stability are critical. People who have someone who is able to co-regulate and be with them, at the time trauma occurs, can often move through the experience more quickly so that the trauma doesn’t have as long lasting or as severe of an impact as it does for someone who has no one to be with them in their pain. This is one reason why childhood trauma can continue to haunt people into adulthood as most people at the time their childhood trauma occurred did not have adequate support in place, in particular if their caregivers were the abusers. At the heart of trauma is a sense of isolation, disconnection and feeling of not belonging. Trauma asks to be seen, heard and felt and therefore requires connection and community.  Healing from trauma involves the relief of suffering, validation for what has been endured, and words and action which seek to make sense out of something which defies reason. Everyone’s individual nervous systems as well as access to resources (external but also internal) plays a big role in one’s ability to heal.

Trauma is about overwhelm. It’s about something happening that is too much, too fast, or too soon for the body and mind to take in. Trauma is about unmetabolized information that gets stuck in the body and makes it hard for people to heal from. Trauma is about the nervous system, intolerable sensations and emotional dysregulation. Trauma is about dissociation as an unconscious survival mechanism. Trauma is about defense mechanisms and shame responses. Trauma is about activation levels and hypervigilance. Trauma is about not feeling safe in one’s own body and feeling disconnected from the world. Trauma is about the impact on a person’s life, which can be enormous, layered and long lasting, but it is also about hope, resilience and finding your way home, both to yourself and to a community of supporters. 

One of the clearest definitions of trauma comes from Howell (2020) who explains that:

trauma is that which causes dissociation, that is, it causes a blank spot, or fissure in experience, causing a deficit in the ability to regulate affect and to make sense of things. This conceptualization has the advantage of bypassing debates about the meaning of objectively defined trauma (which does not result in post-traumatic stress to all those exposed to it) and subjective trauma (which can run the risk of categorizing anything that is distressing as traumatic)…. An experience is traumatic if it is overwhelming enough to cause a break in the linkage and meaning of experience, in narrative memory, and even in body processing. When an event cannot be assimilated into the rest of the experiencing self, it becomes, as Pierre Janet so well described a fixed idea that is isolated and disconnected from the rest of the self.” (Howell, pp.30-31, 2020)

Why is it important that art museums understand trauma and implement trauma informed guidelines, practices and processes?

The simple answer is because art museums are places where people come together, people with diverse life experiences, perspectives, interests, abilities, learning styles, identities AND traumas. Art museums are spaces where many nervous systems come together, in various levels of activation, navigating a dense landscape of art and sensory inputs. And ideally art museums are much more than a building where art is put on view, but places where people are invited to show up as their authentic selves and enter into dialogue with the art, one another and with themselves internally.  Art has long been an outlet to communicate when words fail or are simply not enough. A great deal of art has been born out of traumatic experiences, seeking to process and give voice to what is not easily put into words.  When art is created and viewed, it breaks through the isolation under which it might have been created and opens up the door to healing. Art connects with people in emotional and visceral ways, sometimes stirring something in us that we have yet to explore or perhaps even triggering past or current trauma. Art can connect to parts of the unconscious, open our eyes to our own truths, speak to our own suffering and offer new perspectives. Art always connects to place and time, echoing something back from the moment it was created. Art is never silent. Viewing art, particularly in the communal space of the museum, can be just as much a part of the healing process as its creation might be for the artist.

Large art institutions often welcome people from around the world and their doorsteps, both onsite and online. These museums have a responsibility to acknowledge the present moment and the life events collectively witnessed and/or experienced.  It’s just as important for staff at museums to have space and time to come together and connect with one another as it is for the museums to connect to their audiences in meaningful and diverse ways.  Museums must be responsive to the times we live in and the ever-changing needs of  audiences (those who come through the doors and those who don’t), listening rather than making assumptions about those needs.  

In many cases, art museums onsite visitorship does not reflect the racial and economic diversity of the locations they are situated in, this is particularly true of those located in densely populated cities, however they are often able to reach a more diverse audience online.  MoMA, for example, has an expansive reach online, that has continued to grow during the coronavirus pandemic, and is reaching new audiences. For many people, engaging with a museum online is more accessible than an in-person visit and/or marks the first step in greater engagement with the institution (perhaps eventually leading to an onsite visit). The trauma-informed art museum does not serve “only” a few people, it considers the well-being of the whole and creates spaces and opportunities for healing, connecting, creating, feeling, learning, sharing and transforming in ways that gently support individual inclinations. A trauma informed art museum does more than acknowledge trauma, it recognizes it, works to connect people to a shared humanity and fosters cultural humbleness, refrains from othering, avoids retraumatization and puts the physical, emotional and mental well-being of people above all else. 

A trauma-informed art museum considers and asks:

  1. By accepting that everyone has trauma and that some people are impacted more severely by it, what can we do to contribute to the conditions of healing and recovery? How can the museum be part of the healing process, thinking creatively, transparently and inclusively about this? 
  2. How can we help to understand the impact of trauma on our visitors and colleagues and how trauma experiences might manifest so that we are better able to be understanding, supportive and nimble enough to meet people where they are?  How might we consider trauma in our planning and programming efforts to ensure we are inclusive and accessible?
  3. People with trauma disorders often face stigma from the lack of information and/or from misinformation, especially when they have additional mental health diagnoses. Growing our own awareness can help break down some of this stigma. What are some steps we can take to break down stigma, individually and collectively? How might we better support people facing stigma and why is it important to do so?
  4. The grounding skills, coping strategies and somatic exercises often used in treating people with trauma disorders are helpful to anyone who experiences trauma in their lifetime.  If we all learn these skills we can better self-regulate and also help co-regulate those who may be struggling, whether a colleague or a visitor. Over time these efforts can increase our emotional capacities which reduces personal suffering and also frees us up to help others.

What does all this look like in practice? 

There are many guidelines to trauma informed principles, some organizations (in healthcare, education, the arts etc.) tailoring the principles to their individual missions but all of them at their core seek to do no harm by establishing a culture that promotes healing. Of all the trauma informed guiding principles I’ve read to date, the ones outlined by Nkem Ndefo, creator of the Resilience Toolkit, resonates with me the most and seems most appropriate for a public institution such as a museum. As Nkem Ndefo explains, these trauma informed guidelines are principles for living a humane life. These 6 principles include: 1) Safety 2) Trust and Transparency 3) Collaboration and Mutuality 4) Peer Support 5)  Voice, Choice, Self Agency 6) Cultural Humility.”  When you think about a museum and all of the people who are impacted by it, visitors and staff, these guidelines make perfect sense. 

It’s worth noting at this point that over a year ago the Education Department at MoMA went through several workshops to update our core values and collectively landed on the following as being key to the work we do: 1) Empowerment – honor people’s experiences. Share power. 2) Empathy – Build relationships. Foster Understanding. 3) Radicality – Challenge norms. 4) Embrace questioning. Think anew. 5) Creativity – Take risks. Value imagination and experimentation 6) Joy – Work with presence, passion and authenticity.  These core values could complement trauma informed practices if considered through that lens.

Trauma informed practices prioritize people, in the case of a museum this includes visitors AND staff. Creating safe spaces, fostering empowerment and actively listening are a big part of this, as well as recognizing the intersectionality that exists in all of our lives.  When thinking about programming, meetings, and other experiences at the museum trauma informed guidelines might look something like this:

  1. Create moments of calm and establish practices that promote groundedness, tolerance (of sensations, differing perspectives), presence (in the moment), intentionality, and radical acceptance, using art as a jumping off point and/or as inspiration
  2. Offer a range of activities and prompts that increase a sense of connectedness to self and others, focusing on themes of community, collaboration and internal peace
  3. Help grow empathy and compassion for self and others using a range of modalities, particularly reflection and visualization 
  4. Share skills/tools/coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, uncertainty, and intense emotions or reactions through practices and activities that encourage self-awareness and attunement
  5. Offer activities, suggestions, and experiences which help people be in the moment and grow their individual resilience and capacity for managing difficult circumstances, emotions, or thoughts 
  6. Facilitate exchange which validates personal and collective experiences, allowing individuals to create meaning using their own life narratives while opening the door to new perspectives and different narratives, strengthening their understanding and compassion for themselves and others as well
  7. Encourage people to respect where they are, and where others are, in any given moment (to check-in with themselves) and to enter into new experience with curiosity

Some of this involves shifts in our language, experimenting with new program formats, the pacing of programs and how we collaborate with one another (including working with new people and fresh ideas), but it’s also about flexibility, being aware of our own nervous systems and how they interact with others, regulating our emotions, modelling and mirroring embodied presence and awareness, and perhaps most importantly creating and holding space for one another.

This is NOT about museum staff being therapists or doing work that they do not have expertise in, this is asking that the museum operate in a more humane and holistic manner so that all staff feel encouraged to contribute to these efforts. Within the context of a program, trauma informed practices can feel therapeutic but they are not a substitute for a therapy program.

Why does it matter?

Trauma informed practices and principles acknowledge humanity and are beneficial to all, including those with acute trauma disorders, people who have experienced trauma in the past but have moved through it and everyone in between. Universal Design principles for multi-modal engagement is something that museum education has championed for years, because  it benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Trauma informed practices similarly have universal benefits.

Systemic change cannot happen unless people feel safe, and in order to effect transformative cultural change trauma informed principles must be adopted museum-wide and used as a guide. Using trauma informed practices in one department, while significant, will not have as big an impact as a museum where trauma informed principles are taken up museum-wide. For example, a small group of us in the Education Department at MoMA have started an initiative called Artful Practices for Well-Being and have been meeting since May to discuss experiences with art through the lens of trauma-informed practices. The conversations and efforts have been encouraging but they are not enough.

Museums are spaces where individual and collective narratives make contact, whether that’s the art and the stories attached to works, audiences that visit onsite or online, or the staff who work there. Trauma is present within some of those narratives, which might rise to the surface through the interactions at a museum, and those should not be ignored or silenced. Trauma informed practices acknowledge the traumas that filter into museum spaces, rather than setting them aside or avoiding them. Museums can and should be safe-enough places, as Ross Laird outlines, where emotions can be felt and traumas can be held, where people are invited to reflect, share their thoughts and offered choices in how they move through and engage with the museum, and feel supported in personally meaningful exploration.

In my understanding and imagining of what a trauma informed art museum could be, I always think about it as a nurturing environment, one where the experience of everyone is thoughtfully considered and the people who visit and work there are recognized for all that they bring with them, including the weight of trauma.  A trauma informed art museum experience ensures that we all have space and resources to make meaning, connect and heal, as individuals and in community with one another.  Museums should be places where everyone who wishes to be there feels a sense of belonging and feels called upon and empowered to show up as their best selves, but where the practices and principles in place help to regulate our nervous systems when we are not feeling our best. A trauma informed art museum unites us in our shared humanity but validates and makes space for the individual truths and lived experiences we all carry.

Here’s a quote I keep coming back to that I hope you will find inspiration in as well:

“What would it look like to belong in the world as our whole selves? What kinds of culture, knowledge and community structures would we be able to create if we could nurture one another without our armor on, if we could draw out and develop the gits in one another, if we could care for another in concrete, meaningful ways, and could protect one another from systemic harms and forms of structural violence, even as we’re struggling to dismantle them? What do we already have waiting within us that can guide us in that direction?” (Nora Samaran, p.14, Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture)

About the Author

JACKIE ARMSTRONG is the Associate Educator, Visitor Research and Experience at The Museum of Modern Art where she works cross-departmentally planning, coordinating, conducting and sharing the results of visitor research and evaluation, as well as working on other initiatives and interpretive resources. She leads Audiences Advocates, a cross-departmental group that uses agile evaluation to inform the design process, specifically of digital resources. Most recently, Jackie has been busy co-leading Artful Practices for Well-Being, a new initiative stemming from her passion for considering trauma informed practices in museum work. Previously, she served as the Audience Researcher in the Education Department at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She completed an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto and has completed studies in Classics: Ancient Art and Archaeology, Anthropology, and Tourism Management Systems. Jackie is interested in the ways in which museums can connect with diverse publics, create thoughtfully designed experiences, and empower people to make personal meaning through their encounters with art, one another and their personal life histories. As an advocate for visitors she believes strongly in using evaluation methods to help museums make informed decisions for improving the visitor experience and taking the time to really listen to people. Jackie has presented at MCN, VSA, AAM and NYCMER, as well as written for several museum publications.

Increasingly, Jackie is drawing on her personal experiences with trauma and mental health as she works on healing, using her insights, knowledge and research to advocate for others and inform her work in the museum. Jackie is a regular contributor to The Mighty and is looking forward to doing more advocacy work in the future as she moves along in her own recovery. When not working on visitor research, writing or reading, you can find Jackie engaged in therapy, trying out new ice cream flavors, painting, spending quality time with friends, exploring NYC and watching past episodes of Survivor.

Jackie’s postings on this site are her own and don’t represent the Museum of Modern Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Works Cited:

Haines, Staci K. (2019). Somatucs, Healing, and Social Justice: The Politics of Trauma. Berkeley, California. North Atlantic Books.

Howell, Elizabeth. (2020). Trauma and Dissociation Informed Psychotherapy; Relational Healing and the Therapeutic Connection. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Laird, Ross. (2020). Mental Health Considerations for Museums: An Emerging Field of Practice and Discovery. Adapted from Museum Objects, Health and Healing, by Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird,, and Jason McKeown.

Ndefo, Nkem. (2020). Nkem Ndefo on Trauma and Resilience (#113). CHITHEADS from Embodied Philosophy (Podcast). New York, New York.

Samaran, Nora. (2019) Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurtance Culture. Chico, Edinburgh. AK Press.

Other Works that Have Informed Thinking:

Chefetz, Richard A. 2015. Intensive Psychotherapy for Persistent Dissociative Processes: The Fear of Feeling Real. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company. 

Dixon, Ejeris, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Editors. (2020). Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. Edinburgh, Scotland. AK Press. 

Evans, Amanda, and Patricia Coccoma. (2017). Trauma-informed Care: How Neuroscience Influences Practice. New York, New York. Routledge.

Fisher, Janina. (2017). Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation. New York, New York. Routledge.

Foreigner, Christine C. (2017).  Dissociation, Mindfulness, and Creative Meditations: Trauma-informed Practices to Facilitate Growth. New York, New York. Routledge.

Goulding, Regina A. and Richard Schwartz.  1995. The Mosaic Mind: Empowering the Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors. New York. New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Herman, Judith. 1992. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, New York. Basic Books.

Levine, Peter A. (2010). In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, California. North Atlantic Books.

Levine, Peter A. (2015). Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory. North Atlantic Books.

Linklater, Renee. (2014). Decolonizing Trauma Work: Indigenous Stories and Strategies.  Blackpoint, Nova Scotia. Fernwood Publishing.

Mate, Gabor. (2003). When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. Nashville, Tennessee. Turner Publishing Company.

Menakem, Resmaa. (2017).  My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas, Nevada. Central Recovery Press.

Porges, Stephen W. (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Spring, Carolyn. (2019). Unashamed: Healing Trauma-Based Shame through Psychotherapy. 3 Archers Court, Huntingdon, UK: Carolyn Spring Publishing.

Steele, Kathy, Onno van der Hart, and Suzette Boon. (2011). Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation: Skills Training for Patients and Therapists. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Treleaven, David A. (2018). Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Van Der Kolk, Bessel. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, New York. Penguin Books.

Van Marter Souers, Kristin, and Pete Hall. (2018) Relationship, Responsibility and Regulation: Trauma-invested Practices for Fostering Resilient Learners.  Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

Walker, Pete. (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. An Azure Coyote Book.

Wiley, Meredith S., and Robin Karr-Morse. (2012). Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease. New York, New York. Basic Books.

Header Photo: Dan Meyers, Unsplash

Leading Means Being More Human

Written by Mike Murawski

In an April conversation with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman about leadership in times of crisis, business expert Dov Seidman stressed the need for business leaders to put people ahead of profits and heed the call to pivot in ways that are anchored in “deep human values.” Seidman ends the exchange by saying, “Leaders who in this pause hear that call … will be the ones that will earn our most enduring respect and support.” I found it worth noting that as the initial economic impact of the pandemic hit, Seidman was tapping into something that most museum directors and boards were not: the importance of people—and, I would add, the deeply human values that lead us to care for each other first before we panic and obsess about the bottom line.

As the grim picture of revenue loss and budget shortfalls have become apparent for many museums during the COVID pandemic—especially for larger institutions—we have repeatedly seen people in leadership positions deciding to prioritize balanced spreadsheets and protecting endowments over connecting with and supporting the people that make up their organizations. I see this as indicative of the problems with leadership that I outlined in my previous post, a model of leadership in which the decisions of one person (or a small few) are based in a desire to preserve power and authority.

Counter to this, I have spoken with a few directors at institutions faced with the same financial problems that have nonetheless refused to lay off staff. The reason for this, one director said, was because “it didn’t feel like the human thing to do.” They were willing to be more human at a time when those following the traditions of leadership were protecting themselves, hoarding power, and hiding behind hollow public relations statements. They were refusing to perpetuate harm at a time when trauma was all around us.

During the Radical Support Collective’s four-week reading group on ‘leadership in times of crisis’ that I was a part of back in April, we read Who Do We Choose To Be? (2017) by Margaret Wheatley, a teacher and leadership consultant best known for her classic 1992 text Leadership and the New Science. While I still have many questions about Wheatley’s thoughts on leadership, one quote early in her book resonated with me in this particular moment. Her words have helped me understand the vital importance of transforming leadership, specifically, as part of the work to change museums. She writes:

“I know it is possible for leaders to use their power and influence, their insight and compassion, to lead people back to an understanding of who we are as human beings, to create the conditions for our basic human qualities of generosity, contribution, community, and love to be evoked no matter what.” (8)

Better Humans Make Better Leaders

Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to elevate care, relationship building, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institutions’ values and culture. It is about putting all human beings (not just visitors or audiences) at the center of our organizational thinking rather than collections, big donors, endowments, curatorial silos, or shiny capital projects. For those in leadership positions, I think this means setting aside ego, stepping back, learning to listen in radical ways, and making decisions based in care and deeply-held human values—and doing this all while it runs counter to conventional thinking, entrenched legacies of leadership, and the expectations of funders.

In his 2019 book Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, leadership development expert and executive coach Jerry Colonna writes about how the habits and behavioral patterns of CEOs have been detrimental to their own well-being and the well-being of others. On page one, he states:

“I believe that better humans make better leaders. I further believe that the process of learning to lead well can help us become better humans.” (1)

In my copy of Colonna’s book, these two sentences are heavily underlined. I remember reading this for the very first time, and just sitting with it. I was in the middle of a particularly challenging decision, and I was looking for guidance on how to move forward. Much of Colonna’s book and practice is focused on radical self-inquiry and finding ways to listen deeply to our own hearts. I thought about how white dominant culture and traditional gender norms teach us to resist this vulnerability and instead put up a façade of confidence and decisiveness. Make the decision, stand by it, get back to work, and move on.

Being a more human-centered leader—and leading from a place of deeper human values—requires us to resist this pressure to perform the rigid expectations of ‘leadership’ that are harmful. It requires us to slow down and ask ourselves a series of meaningful questions:

  • What is my work to become a better human?
  • What is my own power and privilege within society and within the structures of this institution?
  • In what ways have I been making decisions based on the norms and expectations of a toxic workplace culture?
  • How am I complicit in creating or reinforcing the conditions of a toxic work culture?
  • How can I break free from existing and traditional expectations, and lead from my heart and from a place of humanness—despite the risks or consequences?

After all, as Colonna writes, “Power in the hands of one afraid or unwilling to look into the mirror perpetuates an often silent, always seething violence in the workplace” (181).

This process of self-inquiry is ongoing, and we need to practice holding space for qualities such as care, compassion, healing, deep listening, emotional maturity, and a sense of interconnectedness with other human beings and with our planet. It is a practice that we can cultivate and grow through journaling, meditation, mindfulness, dialogue with others, building a community of support with those who truly value these qualities, and learning from work being done outside the field of museums in social justice, restorative justice, community organizing, nonviolent communication, climate activism, and healing practice. These are not ‘soft’ skills, as they have frequently been referred to as a way to write off and devalue them. These are essential skills. At a time when our society is in urgent need of care & healing, being a more human-centered leader means making a commitment to create the conditions for these qualities—and the individuals who uphold these qualities—to thrive.

Breaking Through the Resistance

Some of you might be having trouble processing how any of this relates to leadership (or, at least, the ideas of leadership you’ve held dear for so long). Or you might be thinking that, while this all sounds nice, it is just not practical within the ‘reality’ of an organization. You might even be thinking to yourself: I get all of this, but will my employees and team respect me if I am more vulnerable and more human?

You are not alone. The entire construction of ‘effective leadership’ in our minds has been built up by the systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and corporate capitalism (for more on white supremacy & white dominant culture in museums, see my earlier post here and a really good Incluseum post here). So it makes some sense that you are feeling resistance to any suggestion that you uproot these entrenched ideas. But trust me, we need to let our reticence and resistance go, and open ourselves to new ways of doing things. Not only are these outdated norms of leadership holding our organizations back, they are harmful to us, those we work with, and the communities we are aiming to build connections with. Ask yourself why unfixing and rethinking your ideas about leadership makes you uncomfortable or defensive? What might be causing you to be fearful of change, in both a personal sense and an organizational sense? What is the worst thing that will happen if you make a commitment right now to being a more human and empathetic leader?

Being More Human Together

The work of transforming museums and nonprofits into more human-centered organizations is certainly collective work—no one person, no matter how much self-inquiry they do, is going to bring about transformative change alone. And changing our ideas about leadership is also a collective and collaborative endeavor.

The rise of initiatives, organizations, and groups such as Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action), the Empathetic Museum, Museum Workers Speak, Museums Respond to Ferguson, Museums and Race, Museum Hue, Decolonize This Place, Art + Museum Transparency, Museums Are Not Neutral, and others have all elevated care, justice, transparency, equity, relationships, human connection, and empathetic-centered action as transforming forces for museums and cultural organizations. These campaigns and movements, along with many others, are filled with leaders willing to make a difference, stand up for what’s right, and take care of our communities and each other. We’re seeing that happen right now in so many ways, including the powerful mutual aid fund created by Museum Workers Speak in response to the massive lay-offs across the museum sector. Through the leadership of so many individuals, these groups have developed resources, toolkits, rubrics, and roadmaps that offer support, thorough research, and assessments aimed at dismantling oppressive structures and practices. So for anyone feeling isolated or struggling to make change happen within your organization and its leadership, there is a growing movement here to support you.

More to Come…

This is the second post in a series called “Leading Towards a Different Future” that takes a deeper dive into ideas about leadership and some steps for taking action. I am, of course, open to questions, conversation, and bringing together more ideas that can help us move toward changing museums.

Upcoming posts in this series will explore what it means to stand apart and lead from the heart, how and why to adopt collective and non-hierarchical models of leadership, the need to develop and recognize leadership everywhere in our organizations, and what action steps can be taken to build a different kind of leadership for museums.

*     *     *

About the Author

MIKE MURAWSKI: Independent consultant, change leader, author, and educator living with his family in Portland, Oregon.  Mike is passionate about transforming museums and non-profits to become more equitable and community-centered. After more than 20 years of work in education and museums, he brings his personal core values of deep listening, collective care, and healing practice into the work that he leads within organizations and communities. Since 2011, he has served as Founding Editor of ArtMuseumTeaching. Mike is also currently the co-producer along with La Tanya S. Autry of Museums Are Not Neutral, a global advocacy campaign aimed at exposing the myth of museum neutrality and calling for equity-based transformation across museums. In 2016, he co-founded Super Nature Adventures LLC, a creative design and education project based in the Pacific Northwest that partners with parks, businesses, and non-profits to design content, illustrated maps, and interpretive resources aimed at expanding access and learning in the outdoors and public spaces. When he’s not writing, drawing, or thinking about museums, you can find Mike on long trail runs in the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

Upending Our Ideas About Leadership in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

Since the beginning of this pandemic crisis and throughout the ongoing protests demanding racial justice, we have seen evidence of a wide range of leadership qualities on the public stage—watching national political leaders on TV and through social media, seeing governors and mayors respond to these crises in their own states and cities, and feeling the effects of how those leading our museums and nonprofits have decided to respond.  The behaviors of those in traditionally-defined leadership positions have varied from being fairly brave, vulnerable, and serving the greater good, to acting in ways that are extremely harmful, self-serving, violent, and reprehensible. For museums, we’ve certainly seen this full range of leadership behavior—yet, unfortunately, far too much of the self-serving, harmful kind.

Leadership at institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, MoMA, Detroit Institute of Arts, SFMoMA, the Getty, New Orleans Museum of Art, Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art), and countless other museums have been called out for their inequitable and opaque decisions to cut and furlough staff, for actions taken to prevent staff from organizing and forming unions, for their role in creating and perpetuating toxic and racist work environments, for sexual harassment and abusive behavior toward staff, for censoring staff and community voices, and for unethical behaviors regarding collections practices, hiring practices, and artwork loan practices. In a few cases so far, demands for accountability from staff, former staff, artists, and community members have led to action—the Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland resigned amid the museum’s problematic handling of an exhibition of drawings by artist Shaun Leonardo, and the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit has been fired by the board after charges of mismanagement and racial harassment. In Canada, the President and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was forced to step down due to accusations of censorship, racism, and sexual harassment. And the Detroit Institute of Arts Staff Action group is calling for the resignation of the DIA’s Executive Director amidst a whistler blower complaint filed with the state of Michigan and the IRS and claims of a hostile and chaotic work environment at that institution under his leadership.

Rather than these being isolated examples, these behaviors are indicative of a field-wide crisis in leadership—a crisis that has existed for too long, and has been exposed through constant and ongoing efforts to organize and take collective action, increase transparency, and hold institutions and those in positions of power accountable.  As curator, writer, and activist Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell calls out in a recent open letter for Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action):

“For far too long our field has been led exclusively by white, cisgenered, male, privileged, overly educated, wealthy, elite, upperclass, heteronormative, ableist, colonist gatekeepers.”

The prevailing notion of leadership has been defined through existing white, patriarchal norms of power, authority, and control as well as the systems of oppression and domination that are so entrenched in museums (for more on white supremacy & white dominant culture in museums, see my previous post here and a really good Incluseum post here). When we use the words ‘leader’ and ‘leadership,’ we are too often only thinking of the single person at the top, the ‘boss,’ an individual who simply holds a job title with words like ‘Director,’ ‘Chief,’ ‘Head,’ ‘President,’ ‘Executive,’ or ‘Chair.’ In a 2017 article for Nonprofit Quarterly, the co-founder of the Nonprofit Democracy Network, Simon Mont, writes, “We have built our organizations around an idea that our leadership should come from either a single individual or a small group,” pointing out the urgent need for this outdated individual-centered understanding of leadership to be replaced. In addition to this narrow idea of top-down decision making, many museums and nonprofits are also replete with poor communication, lack of transparency, overly hierarchical structures, and a distinct unwillingness to change. This all results in the further marginalization of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Deaf, Disabled, and LGBTQIA staff, volunteers, and audiences. “The dominant organizational structure of nonprofits,” Mont declares, “is unsustainable.”

In her post, Bryant-Greenwell contends that “our museums reflect our leadership.” If, indeed, our museums reflect these behaviors and this broken model of leadership, then museums are certainly in a heightened moment of crisis and concern—which only feels more urgent when paired with the sweeping impact of the pandemic on these institutions and their staff.

Yet with each and every crisis comes a possibility for change.

In the Center for Cultural Power’s recent guide on cultural activism during the pandemic, co-founder and president Favianna Rodriguez reflects that “in moments of disillusion and fractures, there is also an opportunity to sow ideas for a different kind of future.”

Now, more than ever, is the time for us to upend our conventional ideas about leadership and what it means to be a leader; to rethink what it means to bring people together for a collective purpose and shared vision; and to redefine what values and skills are truly necessary to navigate our current crises and shape the future of museums. It is up to all of us to choose to embrace a “different kind of future.”

Reflecting on Leadership

Since the pandemic began closing museums in March, I have spent quite a bit of time taking a step back to reflect on this idea of ‘leadership’ and what it means for museums specifically. Over the these past few months, I have participated in a reading group on ‘leadership in times of crisis’ facilitated by the Radical Support Collective, I have read through piles of articles and several key books on leadership and organizational structures, and I have spoken with many people who currently hold leadership positions within organizations or whom I would define as leaders in the field of museums (even though their institutions have not recognized them as such).

Leadership is something I have consistently thought about in each and every institution I have worked for, experiencing a wide array of leadership styles while also working to shape my own practice of leadership. I have seen and experienced instances of both courageous and paltry leadership, and I have no doubt been the purveyor of such experiences to those reporting to me over the years. Through all of this, I have regularly asked myself: What does leadership look like? What should leadership look like? External pressures and expectations be damned, what does being a leader mean for me?

Over the past several years, ideas of care, healing, and collective well-being have become core to my own personal practice of being an educator, team member, advocate, change agent, and leader.  In so many ways, these values have been shaped by and with others that I have worked alongside, whether in the same department, across different areas of the same institution, or as part of the amazing groups and individuals around the US and world advocating for workers’ rights, demanding equity, and pushing forward a more community-centered and people-centered vision for museums. So as the pandemic hit and I found myself among the thousands of museum workers being laid off from their institutions, these core values have been like my bedrock, my guiding light, my North Star.

Which is why I was really struck by an article written back in April by Kathleen Osta, Managing Director of the National Equity Project. In her piece entitled “Leading through the Portal to Claim Our Humanity,” she frames the current moment of heightened anxiety and uncertainty as a “once in a lifetime opportunity to increase our global empathy—to practice radical compassion—and to pay attention to our collective well-being.” That has resonated with me in such a strong way, especially in my thinking about how we can use this moment to shift our vision of leadership. Osta writes:

“How might we use this global crisis to re-order our priorities and lives in ways that increase our collective well-being?… How might we organize our lives at the interpersonal level and lead change at the institutional and structural level with the awareness that we belong to each other—that every human being is worthy of our attention and care? What might be possible for ourselves and for future generations if we decide to live and lead with this value?”

Rethinking Leadership

I propose that we utilize this incredibly unique and unprecedented moment to seriously rethink what leadership means, and replace worn out conventional ideas with new possibilities.  For me, among the vast and deep thinking out there about leadership, there are four key principles I would like to explore here:

  1. Leadership is human-centered.
  2. Leadership means standing apart.
  3. Leadership is a collaborative, collective, and shared endeavor.
  4. Leadership is everywhere around us.

While I don’t pretend that any of these ideas are new, I certainly wish I had come across them much earlier in my own career; and I think working for ‘leaders’ who more closely embodied these principles would have significantly changed my work within museums, my ongoing relationship to these institutions, and their overall response to the crises of COVID and racial injustice. I see the powerful role that white supremacy and patriarchy have played in developing the accepted traditions and destructive politics of leadership, and what kinds of leadership traits we have been taught to value and which traits we have been taught to actively devalue. Yet it is past time that we unsettle and challenge these norms, demand change from those who hold positions of power and authority, and build a future that celebrates and centers care, collaboration, belonging, and well-being.

More to Come…

This is the first post in my “Leading Towards a Different Future” series that takes a deeper dive into these ideas about leadership and steps for taking action. I am, of course, open to questions, conversation, and bringing together more ideas that can help us move toward changing museums.

The next post in this series, “Leading Means Being More Human,” examines the importance of human-centered leadership and the process of radical self-inquiry. Subsequent posts in this series will explore what it means to stand apart and lead from the heart, how and why to adopt collective and non-hierarchical models of leadership, the need to develop and recognize leadership everywhere in our organizations, and what action steps can be taken to build a different kind of leadership for museums.

*     *     *

About the Author

MIKE MURAWSKI: Independent consultant, change leader, author, and educator living with his family in Portland, Oregon.  Mike is passionate about transforming museums and non-profits to become more equitable and community-centered. After more than 20 years of work in education and museums, he brings his personal core values of deep listening, collective care, and healing practice into the work that he leads within organizations and communities. Since 2011, he has served as Founding Editor of ArtMuseumTeaching. Mike is also currently the co-producer along with La Tanya S. Autry of Museums Are Not Neutral, a global advocacy campaign aimed at exposing the myth of museum neutrality and calling for equity-based transformation across museums. In 2016, he co-founded Super Nature Adventures LLC, a creative design and education project based in the Pacific Northwest that partners with parks, businesses, and non-profits to design content, illustrated maps, and interpretive resources aimed at expanding access and learning in the outdoors and public spaces. When he’s not writing, drawing, or thinking about museums, you can find Mike on long trail runs in the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

How Employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are Unionizing

Written By Eric Morse

Reposted with permission from the Museums + Democracy Project, a project founded by Eric Morse to explore all aspects of how museums can be more democratic. Originally published on 10 July 2020.

 

Interested in forming a union at your museum, but not sure how to do it?  This post shares the steps taken by the employees of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) to create their union.

While any unionizing effort will be unique based on the local circumstances and conditions, the steps below can be used as a template.

Create Transparency, Talk, and Listen

For any unionization effort to start, employees need to begin talking to each other about their salaries, benefits, and working conditions.  These are the main areas unions and management will negotiate through a contract.

The Art + Museum Transparency spreadsheet that was published last year was a catalyst for employees at the PMA.

That spreadsheet allowed museum professionals to post their job titles, salaries, and benefits from current and past positions.  Many at the PMA added their information.  The transparency created by the spreadsheet allowed employees to see salary inequities between employees with the same job title and in benefits for full-time versus part-time employees.

Sarah Shaw is a coordinator of the Education Resource Center and a museum educator at the PMA.  She is also an organizer of the union.  Shaw says that it was important that employees from across the museum talked to each other because it broadened the conversations to include other concerns.

“Individuals across the museum, across different departments, started having conversations that were ignited by the spreadsheet,” says Shaw.  “As we talked to more and more of our colleagues and started trying to crowdsource issues that people had we heard concerns in addition to salary and benefits.”

Those concerns included a lack of effective policies to keep employees safe.

“The most important way that we have gone about this work is by using our networks and individual connections,” says Shaw.  “One-on-one conversations have been the meat of this organizing effort.”

Shaw says that employees had conversations over coffee, during lunch, or meeting up after work.  When the pandemic hit, they continued to have conversations over the phone and by using online meeting tools such as Zoom.

Shaw also said that listening has been critical.  “We have been intentional about making seventy percent of the conversations listening to our co-workers, what they love about their job, what they wish they could change about their job, ways that they feel both empowered and powerless in their job, and relating those concerns to what we can accomplish together through a union that we cannot as individuals,” says Shaw.

Create an Organizing Committee

As PMA employees continued to talk about the workplace issues important to them, they also began to discuss how they could organize to make positive changes for themselves.  This led them to realize a union was needed.

An organizing committee formed organically.  “Our committee has really grown over the past year, but it is entirely made up of individuals who have said, ‘This is important to me, I have the time and energy to put into it,’” says Shaw.

Research a Union to Affiliate With

If you are going to organize a union at your museum, you will probably need the support of an existing union.  You’ll want to choose a union that will understand the museum environment, so it can best serve your needs.

Don’t be fooled by the names of unions.  Museum workers have affiliated their unions with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the United Auto Workers, and the International Union of Operating Engineers, among others.

“We did a lot of research into unions to find the one we would affiliate with,” says Shaw.  “We needed to have an established union with legal representation and expertise in contract negotiation and who can advise us through this process.  They are the support system that we need in order to get the campaign off the ground and win our election and our first contract.”

The PMA employees decided to affiliate with AFSCME District Council 47.  One of the reasons is because AFSCME has experience working with other museum unions and the local District Council represents workers in environments similar to museums.

“They represent workers in non-profits in Philadelphia, at the Philadelphia Zoo, and at the Free Library,” says Shaw.  “They represent folks working in universities.  The academic system has a lot in common with workers in museums.  They represent people who work for the City of Philadelphia and those connections to City Hall were important.  We felt like they had the most relevant experience and represented the broadest cross-section of Philadelphia workers, which is really what the museum is.”

On its Cultural Workers United website, AFSCME says that it represents more cultural workers than any other union in the United States.

Sign Authorization Cards

At least 30 percent of employees who would form the union need to sign authorization cards that say they support the unionization effort and the affiliation with the selected union.

The goal here is to have much more support than 30 percent.  That is what happened at the PMA, where a supermajority of eligible employees signed the authorization cards.

Voluntary Recognition or Election

The signed cards are used to petition a state or federal Labor Relations Board for recognition of the union.

Having a supermajority of employees sign cards is important because it sends a strong message to leadership that employees support the union.  A goal is that the museum voluntarily recognizes the union.  That’s what happened during a unionization effort at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.  Otherwise, museum leadership can request a vote of eligible employees.

The Labor Relations Board figures out who eligible employees are.  “Eligible workers are typically folks who are not in a supervisory position and who do not make independent decisions about hiring and firing,” says Shaw.

Negotiate a Union Contract

If the union is voluntarily recognized or recognized through an election, the next step is the ultimate goal: negotiating a union contract.  This is the document that will govern the relationship between the museum and the union, and allow employees to have a say in pay, benefits, and working conditions.

Where the PMA Union is in the Process

Museum leadership did not voluntarily recognize the union and a vote is currently being held through the end of July [2020].  The votes will be counted in early August.  The vote is expected to succeed.  If it does, the employees of the PMA will have created a more democratic workplace.

*     *     *

About the Author

ERIC MORSE: Founder of the Museums + Democracy Project, and a museum professional in central Iowa in the United States. Eric has a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University. He has experience working in museums, non-profits, and communications. Eric is the founder of the Central Iowa Community Museum. This new museum has a mission to create more democracy through exhibitions that celebrate the people of central Iowa and the issues they must face together. Eric is writing a book on the subject of Museums + Democracy.

Why Employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are Unionizing

Written By Eric Morse

Reposted with permission from the Museums + Democracy Project, a project founded by Eric Morse to explore all aspects of how museums can be more democratic. Originally published on 26 June 2020.

 

We need museum workplaces to be more democratic.

Museum workers are hurting.  The coronavirus pandemic has brought layoffs and furloughs.  In most cases, workers have not been included in the decision of who is laid off or furloughed.  Now that museums are reopening, workers face possible exposure to the virus and many have not been consulted about how they will be kept safe.

Things weren’t much better before the virus hit.  Expensive advanced degrees are required for positions that have salaries so low it’s difficult to pay back school loans and support living expenses.  Salary inequality is common between men and women; between white people and Black, Indigenous, and people of color; and between leadership and most employees.

Museum workers are passionate and dedicated.  They deserve to be treated much better than they are.  For that to happen, workers need to use democracy to make a difference for themselves.

That’s where unions come in.  Unions are democratic institutions.  Unions are formed through a vote.  Members elect their leaders and vote on agreements negotiated with employers.  Unions allow workers to have a say in how their workplaces are run.

Recently, I spoke with Sarah Shaw, a coordinator of the Education Resource Center and a museum educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).  Shaw is one of the organizers of the union at the museum.

The unionizing effort has its beginnings in 2019, when the Art + Museum Transparency spreadsheet was published.  It allowed museum professionals to share their salaries at past and present positions.

Many at the PMA added their information.  As they did, inequities became visible.  There was salary inequity between men and women filling the exact same position and in benefits for full-time versus part-time employees.

“Those conversations grew and began to broaden outside of what was covered by the salary transparency spreadsheet,” said Shaw.  One of those concerns was that the PMA had no parental leave policy or parental leave time pay.

“Those conversations grew very organically into talking about what we could achieve if we were unionized, what we could achieve through collective action and collective bargaining that we’re not able to achieve as individuals,” said Shaw.  “It was a grassroots, homegrown movement that grew up around both the concerns that the salary transparency spreadsheet brought up and problems that had gone unvoiced for a long time.”

Earlier this year, it was revealed that PMA leadership inadequately handled sexual harassment and bullying toward staff by former managers.  Shaw is quick to point out that the effort to begin to unionize began before these scandals became public and that they are not the focus of the unionization effort.

“I hesitate to give too much weight to those stories because it feels like it frames the organizing effort in a negative way.  That it is just people who have grievances against management at the museum and that is not the case,” said Shaw.  “Those stories are a small part of a constellation of much larger concerns that can be addressed by workers having a voice in the workplace and having a seat at the table when decisions are made.”

A lack of transparency runs through all the issues employees hope to address through the union, whether salary inequality, benefits, or workplace policies.

“We want to improve employee morale by having clear, transparent systems in place that can improve relationships between managers and employees,” says Shaw.

For love of the museum and each other

The union’s website says employees “are unionizing out of a love of the arts, the museum, and each other.”

Shaw says one of the goals is to make museum labor more visible and valued.  She says that in the eyes of the public—and too often museum leadership, boards, and donors—the focus is on collections and buildings.

“Museums would not function without the human labor and it does not make sense for the heart of a cultural institution to be valued so much less than the collections or the building,” said Shaw.  “Unionizing is the most effective way for us to assert our value to the institution.  Unionizing is the most effective way to make that sometimes invisible labor material to the institution.”

Museums have focused on making staff more diverse.  But not improving salaries or changing educational requirements has prevented that goal from becoming a reality.  During the recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the public has noticed that museums have not improved in this area.  Shaw says unions can help.

“Making changes to hiring practices, employee support and promotion, and pay equity will make our workplace more diverse and look more like the city of Philadelphia,” said Shaw.  “That is going to make the PMA a more welcoming place to everyone.”

A museum’s worth is measured by how well it serves its community, and that includes its own employees.  Shaw says that a unionized workforce benefits the community as well.

“The workers of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are Philadelphia’s workers,” says Shaw.  “Improving the working conditions, improving the standard of living, improving benefits, making our workplace more inclusive and more equitable, that is a service not just to the workers of the museum but a service to our community because we are part of Philadelphia.”

Where the unionization effort is today

By March of this year, a supermajority of eligible employees had signed authorization cards indicating they supported forming a union.  The PMA leadership had the option to voluntarily recognize the union.  Instead, leaders hired an anti-union law firm to handle negotiations with the union and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

During the initial NLRB hearing [near the end of June], PMA leadership and its law firm claimed that some employees are not “core” to the museum’s mission and that “core” and “non-core” employees should be split into two unions.  “Non-core” positions, according to PMA leaders, include visitor services, technology, development, and membership, among others.  This is ridiculous.  Every position at a museum is core to the mission.

Unions provide employees with an opportunity to have a say in layoffs and rehiring, which is critical at a time like this.

“Workers who aren’t unionized in institutions that have instituted furloughs and layoffs have no legal recourse,” says Shaw.  “At least if you are unionized, there is a legal mechanism to negotiate an extension of benefits or rehiring policies.  You can negotiate that when the museum is ready to rehire workers they are going to rehire folks who were laid off, not all new people.”

Unfortunately for workers at the PMA, since the union is not yet recognized, workers will not have a say on furloughs and layoffs.  On June 24, the PMA announced that 100 staff members would be furloughed or lose their jobs through voluntary departures and possible layoffs.  A museum spokesperson told the Philadelphia Inquirer that furloughs were distributed across departments, but that the curatorial and conservation staff were not impacted.  A union organizer told the newspaper that many working in visitor services were being furloughed.  This is more insight into what the museum views as “core” and “non-core” positions.

On June 25, the union and the PMA reached an agreement.  The union will not be split into “core” and “non-core” employees.  Since the museum failed to voluntarily recognize the union, employees now need to vote whether they will unionize.  Employees who are eligible to participate in the election, even if they are furloughed during the voting, will be allowed to vote.  Votes will be taken by mail July 9 – 30 and counted on August 6.  Since a supermajority have already signed authorization cards, it is expected that the vote will be overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing.  If that is the case, the museum must recognize the union.  The Museums + Democracy Project will continue to follow this effort.

Museum workers should support unionization efforts everywhere.  As these efforts grow they improve conditions for everyone in the field.  More democracy in museum workplaces benefits workers.  Through improving conditions for workers, unions benefit museums and their communities as well.

Interested in how you might start a union at your museum?  The next blog post will detail the steps employees at the PMA took to organize and establish their union.

*     *     *

About the Author

ERIC MORSE: Founder of the Museums + Democracy Project, and a museum professional in central Iowa in the United States. Eric has a Master of Arts in Museum Studies from the Johns Hopkins University. He has experience working in museums, non-profits, and communications. Eric is the founder of the Central Iowa Community Museum. This new museum has a mission to create more democracy through exhibitions that celebrate the people of central Iowa and the issues they must face together. Eric is writing a book on the subject of Museums + Democracy.

Art Therapy at the Manchester Museum

Written by Chloe Sykes

This guest post from Chloe Sykes, Art Therapist Trainee, is reposted with persmission from the Manchester Museum’s hello future blog.

As a trainee art psychotherapist, I was very fortunate to be offered my final placement at Manchester Museum in the UK. As it has come to an end, I have been asked to write a blog post reflecting on my time at the museum. But first, I will briefly explain what an art therapist does.

Art therapy (or art psychotherapy – both are protected and interchangeable titles) is a mental health intervention and has the scope to be utilised in many different ways. Some people engage in art therapy with no previous art making experience but want to explore and connect to their thoughts and feelings in a creative way.

Using art materials during the therapy session can allow someone to find meaningful ways to explore any difficulties and/or develop new self care and resilience tools. It is my role to be alongside them during this journey, ensuring the person feels safe, seen and understood.

Image1
Image 1: Reflective image exploring the role of the art therapist in create a safe space for a client.

Image 1 explores how it is the art therapist’s role to ensure the therapy space feels safe, protected and secure (shown by the blue outer circle). This allows a client to feel like they are somewhere that they can express their thoughts and feelings freely (like the centre of image 1, with the free-flowing colours and textures, feelings and thoughts, remaining held by the blue circle).

During my experiences prior to and throughout my training, I have developed a keen passion for working with different communities. I believe that a person’s mental health and well-being can be influenced by how we engage socially and individually. Unfortunately, mental health is sometimes hard to navigate and can often be daunting to experience alone. Therefore, it is exciting to see and be part of a cultural establishment that is actively making space for mental health and well-being. I truly do believe there is a place for health and well-being to be offered alongside the learning that is already available for communities; these cultural organisations have a great opportunity to bring people together through exploring the arts and our history. It is through this sense of coming together and sharing experiences, when paired up with creativity, that culture can have a powerful positive effect on a person’s well-being.

The Manchester Museum is already known for doing amazing work, engaging in various ways, with many local communities and organisations. This is something that clearly aligns well with my own passions. So, at the very start of the placement, time was spent considering where art therapy could lay within the museum and their already existing outreach partnerships. It seemed natural to introduce an art therapy service that would be offered to the organisation as well as their participants.

The planned art therapy sessions were to be held within the museum; regular sessions making artwork and exploring museum objects, in a way that would relate to how a client was potentially thinking and feeling. However, as the ripple effects of COVID-19 took hold, the shape of the placement at the museum had to adapt to the ‘new normal’. As people and organisations took the necessary time to adapt to the new unknown, it seemed appropriate to adjust where art therapy could lie during these times at the museum. A new direction was taken to offer virtual art therapy sessions to the museum staff and volunteers during the lockdown.

Each week I have been facilitating individual art therapy sessions for staff and volunteers through video conferencing. In spite of meetings being held virtually, they have still been very beneficial in many ways. A simple example of this has been how simply having a weekly time scheduled for meetings has given a much-needed sense of routine during a time when everything else seems so unknown. Also, knowing that there is a protected hour each week to reflect on any difficulties can be very powerful for some, it can feel like a beneficial space to breathe and pause.

As a trainee art therapist, facilitating something as personal and intimate as therapy over video calling needed to be carefully thought about. Because video calling can sometimes feel distant and strange, it was important to make some adaptations in light of this shift onto online delivery. Under normal circumstances, sharing the same space in therapy allows for a sense of safety and trust.

Image2
Image 2: Reflective image of connecting in a therapeutic space virtually.

Image 2 (above) explores the ideas of sharing a space and time whilst being in a different place. Moving online, it was important to still have ways to feel like we were sharing the same safe space, despite being at separate locations, finding a way to feel connected. I introduced the use of lighting a candle at the beginning of each session (seen in the centre of the drawing). This allowed for us both to know that we had entered into the same shared space (connecting our separate spaces together through the candles). Blowing out the candles also brought the session to a close in unity; it also was a reminder of returning back to our own homes and metaphorically stepping out of the shared space.

Grounding exercises were useful for some, as it helped to bring the mind back into the virtual therapy space and similarly, back into their homes at the end of the session. Much like a commute, where we have some space to allow our minds to return to where we were before.

Once we had virtually entered into the shared space, art making through various materials was used as a way to explore any thoughts or feelings for the clients. Sometimes, even online museum collections or galleries were used, with reflective chats about what those images meant for the person. The images (made or found) were reflected on, discussing what feelings, thoughts or sometimes memories were brought forward, or sometimes an imaginative narrative would be given to the piece(s).

Image3

The creativity and presence of a therapist allows for expression of sometimes powerful emotions to be discovered, seen, felt and shared. This can be a very healing process which is what the image 3 above explores. Clients often come to therapy feeling overwhelmed or stuck, seen in the left-hand side of the drawing.  During the course of therapy, these overwhelming feelings and areas where they feel stuck can be explored and begin to be understood, so that the client no longer feels overwhelmed or stuck. Instead, hopefully they will be able to recognise their feelings/thoughts/behaviours and understand what they mean (the right hand side of the drawing).

Another way that art making can help with growth is through the use of experimenting with art materials in a space that feels secure. Playing with art making, making mistakes and finding new ways to use the materials can allow self-esteem to foster. As materials are like symbolic tools to learn how to use what we already have, uniquely for each person whilst being thought of and supported by the therapist.

Over the past few months it has been a privilege to see how creativity has been used to gain a sense of understanding and bring people together despite being in lockdown. The art therapy for the museum staff and volunteers allowed for any mental health and well-being struggles to be taken on a journey of discovery and growth.

Trauma-Aware Art Museum Education: Principles & Practices

Written by Andrew Palamara, Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer, Stephen Legari, Emily Wiskera, and Laura Evans

After our initial discussion of developing a trauma-aware practice, we have had several conversations about what T-AAME could become. We initially began thinking about T-AAME in reaction to the trauma inflicted by COVID-19, but it has taken on new urgency in recent weeks with the killing of George Floyd.  We have spent time thinking about what would distinguish trauma-aware practice from our regular work as art museum educators. Wouldn’t best practice approaches already be sensitive and responsive to individual experience and need, including trauma? While the answer is yes, we believe T-AAME is still a little different.

Namely, unlike traditional art museum teaching and practice, T-AAME asks art museum educators to be mindful and responsive to implicit or explicit trauma.  An awareness of trauma is no simple task, especially when most art museum educators are not trained therapists. The word ‘trauma’ itself encompasses many different human responses, but it still carries a heavy connotation in our society. It’s not safe to assume that all museum-goers will have experienced something traumatic prior to their visit, but everyone still deserves some compassion and care from us. Compassion and care are the core values of T-AAME from the art museum educator’s perspective, while connection and empowerment are two of the main goals for visitors.

According to recent surveys conducted by Wilkening Consulting, museum-goers have strong reservations about participating in guided tours or programs in the galleries when they visit museums again. We will have to confront a new set of limitations and reinvent our best practices in response. As we continue to develop and refine T-AAME, we have developed a list of supportive and foundational resources about trauma that have informed our approach (see the end of this post for an access link).  We hope to continually update this list and welcome others to contribute resources as well.  We have also begun to articulate some principles and practices of T-AAME. We believe these ideas can be applied to online and in-person programs and are practices that could easily and safely be incorporated into our work as we return to museums. Many are approaches with which you are, no doubt, already familiar and we are highlighting them here to emphasize that certain practices are already sensitive to trauma.  Others may be new approaches or only require slight modifications to make widely-used practices more trauma-aware.

PRACTICE

Creating Relationships with Trained Therapists

We know that good art museum education, especially practices that focus on personal interpretation and perspective, can be therapeutic without being therapy.  But, because T-AAME is at the intersection of art museum education and therapy, we strongly advocate for working with a licensed therapist who has training in trauma-informed practice and experience working with groups and/or teaching. Many therapists regardless of their modality can help with this initiative. Art therapists, we feel, might be especially well placed to work with given their strong connection to the creative arts and to dialoguing with and through art objects.  You can find a list of registered art therapists in your area through the Art Therapy Credentials Board or the American Art Therapy Association.

Preparing a Tour & Preparing your Group

To borrow from art therapy language, setting the frame is an important activity at the outset of a group visit. Set the boundary around what participants can expect from an experience and also the limitations of what the experience can provide. It is important to adapt language and attitude for different groups and their needs. It is also worth noting that this does not mean we are always engaging in serious talk and dire warnings. Helping to get yourself and your group ready should come from a place of warmth, openness, curiosity and can include playfulness and humour. Understanding the goals of the visit can inform our style of preparation. This holds true for virtual visits and live ones.

When planning a tour or program, carefully consider the individual identities within your group to select appropriate works of art and topics of discussion. Along with being aware of the group, it is also important to be aware of your own presence. Do you have any particular stressors that you need to be aware of? Develop and practice techniques to center yourself and manage your own emotional activation when facilitating a group.

Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (2013) write about establishing brave spaces instead of safe spaces for dialogue. They advocate for groups to create ground rules for discussion together so that terms like “safe” and “judgment” are defined clearly by everyone involved. For example, when starting a conversation about a social justice issue in the museum, you might begin by asking, “What do you all need from each other to be honest and vulnerable in this conversation?” This makes time for the group to collectively set the terms for their interaction with each other.

While Arao and Clemens use this as a framework for conversations about social justice, it could be adapted as a more compassionate opening to any museum program. In the coming months, museum visitors will likely feel some kind of anxiety about sharing an enclosed public space with other people. If you are facilitating some kind of program in the galleries, you might ask your group, “What do you feel comfortable doing together?”

Palamara
Andrew Palamara welcomes a group of visitors to the Cincinnati Art Museum. Photo credit: Erin Geideman.

As explained in Museum Objects, Health and Healing, it is important to craft appropriate warnings for potential emotional activation when looking at and talking about art. Avoid using terms like “trigger warning” or cautioning the group in a way that will increase anxiety. Instead, select terms that encourage visitors to apply their own emotional skills to navigate and stay in control of their experience. Cowan, Laird, and McKeown (2020) offer a few suggestions:

Remember to take care of yourself. You decide how much of this to see. Some visitors have strong reactions. Your reactions are unique to you. It’s okay to be emotional. Reach out if you need help. Do this in your own way” (p. 183).

Group Discussion and Dynamic

Facilitating careful and sensitive conversations is a critical part of art museum education, and paraphrasing or re-voicing (O’Connor & Michaels, 1996) is widely considered to be a best practice in these discussions. In T-AAME, we advocate for a scaffolded approach to paraphrasing, which eventually results in participants speaking to one another, rather than to or through the facilitator or mediator.

Terry Barrett visited with a group of Laura’s university students in the fall of 2019, before COVID-19, and facilitated many discussions about works of art.  Barrett set up several ground rules before the conversations started.  He asked us to speak loudly and to one another (and not to him) so that everyone could hear.  He would frequently remind the group to talk to each other.  He melded into the group – sometimes standing with us, sometimes behind us, sometimes in front of us – giving us the feeling that he was with us rather than removed from us.  Barrett asked for no side conversations (anything that wanted to be shared to a neighbor, could be shared with the group) and no put-downs, and emphasized that listening was as important as talking.  If he couldn’t hear someone, he would simply ask for them to speak up or ask the person farthest from the speaker if they could hear.  Very occasionally, he would paraphrase, if what was shared was a complicated idea or if he needed clarification.  Mostly, he asked provocative questions and moved the conversation forward as the group spoke to one another. He listened far more than he spoke and he emphasized to the group that listening was a form of participation.

Inspired by Barrett, we believe that limited paraphrasing can be a T-AAME practice as it empowers the participant to speak without mediation and connects members of a group.  We think this works best with older participants (not “littles”) and can be eased into or scaffolded by starting out with more traditional paraphrasing and slowly stepping back while introducing the rules of speaking loudly and to one another, while avoiding side conversations and put downs.  The ultimate goal is for participants to be speaking directly to one another, responding to one another, and feeling connected to one another.

Modes of Response and Engagement

Allow for the time and space for deep reflection to occur. Instead of always asking visitors to verbally respond to a work of art as part of a conversation, pass out paper/notecards and pencils for written responses.[1] Tell your participants, up front, that the writing is completely anonymous, that you don’t want them to write their names on their responses, and that after everyone is finished writing, you will randomly read some of the notecards out loud.  Ask a question or provide a clear, open prompt that gives participants the opportunity to express themselves, emotionally or creatively.  They can write just a few words, a poem, a story, or whatever comes to mind as it relates to the question or prompt. After giving the group time to respond, collect the responses. Shuffle the cards and read them out loud without providing any commentary. The responses are for the group to hold in their mind, but not to critique or comment on. An added benefit of this activity is that it can be comfortably done while wearing a mask.

students-writing
Students writing an object based personal reflection in the Clark galleries. Photo credit: Tucker Bair.

Another trauma-aware approach focuses on creating new sensory experiences that contradict those of trauma, replacing them with sensations rooted in safety, empowerment, and connection. One method is to incorporate multi-sensory objects or prompts into your program, as is commonly done as a best practice. For example, if discussing the process of mummification in Ancient Egypt while exploring an object like the Dallas Museum of Art’s Coffin of Horankh, participants could feel a piece of linen wrap or smell frankincense and myrrh, two oils used in the embalming process. If shared touch objects are of concern in the short-term, ask visitors to touch something of their own, such as their purse or clothing and make a sensory connection to an object they find in the galleries. Use their selection as a point of discussion.

Sensory exploration can also be done verbally. If exploring a scene such as Mountain Landscape with an Approaching Storm, the group could be prompted to describe a place that they have been to that looks or feels similar to the scene in the painting. If they were inside the scene of the painting, what would they hear? Feel? Smell? Taste? If they were amongst the group of villagers in this painting, what path would they take to castle on the hill? What would they encounter along the way?

DMA-memory-care
In the DMA’s Meaningful Moments for Memory Care Facilities program, participants match texture samples to what they see in the works of art. Photo credit: Dallas Museum of Art.

In Activity-Based Teaching in the Art Museum (2020), Kai-Kee, Latina and Sadoyan illustrate an approach to eliciting low-risk, movement-focused emotional responses from a group:

Our group collects in front of Portrait of Madame Brunet (ca. 1861-63), an early work by Édouard Manet. “If you like this,” Lissa begins, “stand to your right. If you don’t, stand to your left.” Her word choice is intentionally open ended. “This” could mean the person depicted in the portrait, the way in which she is represented, the painting style, the artist, and so on, or a combination of factors. “Take a moment to really think about this question, and tap into your reaction.” Lissa is purposefully slow in leading the group through these steps, creating  space for her visitors to sensitize themselves to the work for their emotions to unfold over time. As the participants start to move their bodies in response to the prompt, Lissa adds another dimension: “Stand closer to the painting if it is a strong feeling, and farther back if it is the opposite. If you are undecided, you might find yourself in the middle.” She then invites the group to share the reasons why they have selected their current positions. “Please listen to others’ responses,” she adds. “They might even affect your decision. Feel free to change your mind, and your position, if you find someone else’s reasoning compelling.”(pg. 134)

We consider Kai-Kee, Latina, and Sadoyan’s approach to be trauma-aware for several reasons. It allows participants to incorporate movement as a mode of response and it acknowledges different levels of trust within a group. Participants are able to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable and to demonstrate reciprocity by changing their position in response to others’ ideas. This approach empowers the visitor by valuing their feelings and opinions while also connecting visitors by giving them the opportunity to observe and react to others.

Making

Until recently, participatory opportunities for museum visitors were an important way for them to be able to externalize something of their lived experience and enter into creative dialogue with the larger museum community. Open studios, creative workshops, arts-based and written feedback, and community exhibitions are all well-established tools that art educators have used to connect with their participants and connect their participants to the museum. COVID-19 has presented serious constraints about the safe use of art materials.

DMA-meaningful-moment
Participants of the DMA’s Meaningful Moments program explore a variety of materials in the art studio. Photo credit: Dallas Museum of Art.

As creative professionals, the education teams in museums have been quickly adapting and are using a number of simple, digitally-based tools. These include participants sharing their artwork made at home, photography, and digital-art. The gradual return to live encounters means that participants will not be sharing materials for some time. Organizing with groups to bring and use their own materials is one solution.  Another is the exclusive use of easily disinfected materials such as markers, scissors, colored pencils, paintbrushes, needles, and knitting / crochet tools. But, the intention and use of participatory activities remains important and perhaps even more so as we consider the traumatic impact of COVID-19 on large portions of our populations.

The American Art Therapy Association has a guide for best practice of the use of art materials based on CDC recommendations.

The studio remains an important practice whether live at the museum using the appropriate guidelines or in the virtual studio. Along with empowerment through art-making, the art studio will continue to be a place for social connection. The careful attention of facilitators, the casual conversations, and the sharing of work are all essential ingredients in maintaining the connections to communities and visitors that educators have built over many years.

Google Doc for Resources:

Inspired by La Tanya S. Autry’s Social Justice & Museums Resource List, we started an open-source document of trauma-focused resources:

TRAUMA-AWARE ART MUSEUM EDUCATION RESOURCE LIST

We hope that you will contribute to this document and share it with colleagues.  Likewise, we welcome any and all feedback on T-AAME.  We are grateful and buoyed by the responses we have received so far and we would appreciate hearing about your experiences incorporating any of these practices into your work.

*     *     *

Works Cited

Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From Safe Spaces to Brave Places: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice. In Landreman, L. (Ed.), The Art of Effective Facilitation (pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Cowan, B., Laird, R., & McKeown, J. (2020). Museum Objects, Health and Healing: The Relationship Between Exhibitions and Wellness. Milton Park, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Kai-Kee, E., Latina, L., & Sadoyan, L. (2020). Activity-based teaching in the art museum: Movement, Embodiment, Emotion. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.

O’Connor, M., & Michaels, S. (1996). Shifting participant frameworks: Orchestrating thinking practices in group discussions. In D. Hicks (Ed.), Discourse, learning, and schooling (pp. 63-103). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

[1]  This is another engagement strategy that Laura has witnessed and participated in when teaching with Terry Barrett.

*     *     *

About the Authors

LAURA EVANS is an Associate Professor of Art Education and Art History and the Coordinator of the Art Museum Education Certificate at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.  Evans received her Ph.D. in Art Education, with a Museum Studies specialization, at The Ohio State University, a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Bachelor’s in Art History and English at Denison University, Granville, Ohio. Evans has worked in museums from Australia to Washington DC to New Zealand. During non-COVID-19 summers, Evans lectures about art crime on cruise ships that sail the high seas. Laura’s email address is Laura.Evans@unt.edu

STEPHEN LEGARI is a registered art therapist and couple and family therapist. He holds a Master’s degree in art-therapy from Concordia University Concordia and another M.A. in couple and family therapy from McGill University McGill, where he won the award for clinical excellence. He has worked with a range of populations in numerous clinical, educational and community contexts. In May 2017, he became head of art therapy programs at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is currently the world’s only art therapist working full-time in a museum. Legari is a member of the MMFA’s Art and Health Committee. Stephen can be reached at slegari@mbamtl.org

ANDREW PALAMARA is the Associate Director for Docent Learning at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). In this role, Andrew oversees the training, recruitment, and evaluation of the CAM docents. Prior to joining the CAM, he worked in education at the Dallas Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. He holds a BFA in Graphic Design and Illustration from Belmont University and a MA in Art Education from the University of North Texas. When he’s not at the museum, Andrew is most likely playing music or coaching his high school soccer team. Singing telegrams can be sent to Andrew at andrew.palamara@cincyart.org

RONNA TULGAN OSTHEIMER has worked in the education department of the Clark for more than eighteen years, first as the coordinator of community and family programs and then, for the past nine years, as director of education. Her goal as a museum educator is to help people understand more fully that looking at and thinking about art can expand their sense of human possibility. Before coming to the Clark, Tulgan Ostheimer taught at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in the education department. She holds an EdD in psychological education from the University of Massachusetts and a BA in Sociology and American Studies from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She can be reached at rtulgan@clarkart.edu

EMILY WISKERA has worked in museum education since 2011, with a specialized focus on accessibility and working with diverse populations. As Manager of Access Programs at the Dallas Museum of Art, Wiskera oversees initiatives for visitors with disabilities, including programs related to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, autism, developmental or cognitive disabilities, and vision impairment.She is passionate about creating equitable experiences for all visitors. In her free time, Emily enjoys well-meaning mischief. Emily only receives carrier pigeons at EWiskera@dma.org

*     *     *

Featured Image: A mediator (educator) at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts working with children. Photo credit © Mikaël Theimer (MKL)

No longer in extremis: A letter of resignation & courage

Reposted with permission from Andrea Montiel de Shuman’s Medium page.  Visit to read more from Andrea.

Written by A. Andrea Montiel de Shuman

I have been told that if we stay quiet and play the system, eventually things will change. But how am I supposed to have hope if at my institution decades of museum education and visitor-centered practices were dismantled in a matter of a few years?  Those practices led to the inclusion of my communities. I remember the first day I visited the DIA and saw myself in art, embraced as part of humanity, by the creative collective memory of the multitude of nations. Those practices that made me feel accepted, no longer an alien, because that day the DIA was speaking directly to me: the immigrant, the Mexican, the woman of color — and it told me that I belonged.

“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”

*     *     *

About the Author

ANDREA MONTIEL DE SHUMAN is a digital experience designer that focuses on public-facing digital experiences to help visitors find personal meaning in art. Among other collaborations, Andrea serves as Program Co-Chair for Museum Computer Network, as Committee member of the Tech & Media MUSE Awards, and as an Education Program Advisor for the future Smithsonian Latino Galleries, and she has been involved in a number of reflective digital initiatives with Knight Foundation and AAM, mainly discussing ethic/moral implications of emerging technologies. Currently, she is interested in exploring opportunities to use the power of experience to set traditionally underrepresented audiences, especially indigenous communities.

A Moment for Accountability, Transformation & Real Questions

Reposted from Museums Are Not Neutral website. Visit to learn more. Expose the myth of museum neutrality and demand equity-based transformation across institutions

Written by Mike Murawski

As protesters have gathered in the streets of more than 2,000 cities, towns, and communities across the United States to stand against police brutality, white supremacy, systemic racism, and the violent oppression of Black communities, museums across the country have decided to post images of artworks by Black artists (without statements and without the permission of many of these artists), share their own vague and often hollow statements of ‘solidarity,’ and post the #BlackoutTuesday black squares on their social media accounts without considering the impact. Many of these predominantly white museums have been called out for their superficial and performative acts (see more about SFMoMA, Guggenheim, the Met, and Nelson Atkins, just to name a small few), and more will be held accountable to these statements as we see whether or not they commit to making the changes needed to dismantle racism, take action, and transform their institutions.

In addition to using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, several institutions have also used the hashtag #MuseumsAreNotNeutral. While we never claim to control the use of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral hashtag, it has certainly represented a grassroots movement for all of those who stand against the myth and lie of museum neutrality. La Tanya S. Autry, curator and co-producer of Museums Are Not Neutral, writes via Twitter: “we hate seeing people co-opt it to perpetuate more abuse. Museums could identify their investment in racism, apologize, and create community-derived action plans.”

For any institutions who have used the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral hashtag in recent days, I would simply ask that your team reflect on what this means for you, and where your organization stands when it comes to actions and transformative changes that tear down and refuse the system of white supremacy that is the foundation of most museums. “Museums Are Not Neutral” is a message and call to action that has been around for many decades (long before hashtags), and it continues to be a powerful call to action right now in this moment because of the time, energy, labor, risk-taking, and truth-telling of so many Black museum leaders, curators, educators, organizers, and activists. When you use these words, back them up with action — stop causing harm and commit to change!

I am grateful for the real questions shared by Madison Rose (@nomadiso) via Instagram on June 2, 2020, the day that many referred to as #BlackoutTuesday. I wanted to share these questions below as a way to help guide institutions and those in positions of authority within museums to think through their own process of internal reflection, critique, and transformation. This is not a moment to “check the boxes” and do something just because everyone else is doing it — this is a moment for true leadership, substantive and seismic change, and for institutions to choose to stand apart as they directly address racism, colonialism, and oppression within their walls and in conversation with their communities.

* * *

[posted by Madison Rose @nomadiso]

In 2017, co-producers of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral movement, La Tanya S. Autry and Mike Murawski dedicated their time to refuse the myth of neutrality that many museum professionals often take and calling for an equity-based transformation of museums.

It’s essential to hold their message during this time. To acknowledge the politics in everything we do. Museums are always making choices where to spend their time, their money, and their influence. A simple post on Instagram providing solidarity because the public forced them to is bare minimum. Highlighting dead Black artists with an inspirational quote isn’t support. It’s time for internal institutional critique to start to dismantle white supremacy, inequities, and colonialism in our institutions. Can museums be redeemable?

Some real questions to ask:

  • What work are you doing internally to fight institutional racism?

  • How accessible are you making that information?

  • Who is making decisions?

  • Are you redistributing the white wealth?

  • Is there Black leadership?

  • Are you owning your mistakes and making amends?

  • Are you laying off BIPOC workers?

  • Are you donating to Black community organizations?

  • What is the % of Black art do you have in your collection?

  • What are you going to do with your stolen African artifacts?

  • What efforts are you making toward decolonizing your museum?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Action & Resource Guide: Museum Education Roundtable

Reposted with permission from Museum Education Roundtable (MER) blog.

Written and compiled by Museum Education Roundtable Board of Directors

The Museum Education Roundtable stands alongside those protesting violence against Black people in Minneapolis and around the country. Museum educators are bridges to and producers of cultural knowledge. We care for our communities intellectually but also emotionally, socially, and physically. As such, we have a responsibility to address structural injustice, oppression, racism, and abuses of power. Museums are not neutral, and neither are those who work in these privileged institutions.

We are angered by and mourn the killing of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others. We stand with those condemning the violence against and ongoing oppression of Black people in the United States. Our thoughts, words, and actions are with anyone organizing to dismantle systems of oppression.

These are only the most recent instances emerging from centuries of violent, structural racism in the United States. To end this cycle of injustice, we all must come together to recognize the insidious nature of white supremacy and the ways it has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, including and especially our cultural institutions.

We encourage our members and readers to take action and have compiled the following resources for folks seeking an entry point. As a Board, and within a museum field, that is predominately white, we must center our Black, Indigenous, and racialized colleagues, partners, and visitors. We have privilege inherent to aspects of our identities and power in our position within the cultural landscape.

Here’s what we can do right now: 

Here’s what we can do within the museum field: 

For museum workers who are, or want to become allies, advocates, accomplices:

  • Recognize how this violence affects Black, Indigenous and colleagues of color deeply and differently than white colleagues;
  • Make space for Black friends, colleagues, and family to grieve and mourn; center them and their experiences rather than your own;
  • Talk with kidsstudentscoworkersfamily, and friends about race;
  • Join or start reading and discussion groups like Building Antiracist White Educators, centered around racial equity
  • Support BIPOC organizations in a sustainable way, not just during crises; send funds to thought leaders and changemakers that you learn from using platforms like Venmo or Paypal; become a Patreon member of podcasts that challenge your bias;
  • Confront your own bias and unearth the ways that white supremacy has benefited you; then start dismantling it.

Resources for white people confronting anti-black racism:

We offer MER’s platform to amplify the voices of museum colleagues of color, and uplift liberatory work in our field. If you have thoughts, blog posts, or resources to share with the museum education field, we welcome you to do so in this space. We can be reached at dearmuseums@museumedu.org.

We acknowledge that much of the framework for organizing how museums can and should respond to injustice has been the labor of people of color, in particular Black women. We thank Adrianne Russell and Aleia Brown (#MuseumsRespondToFerguson); La Tanya Autry (#MuseumsAreNotNeutral); and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie (#SayHerName); Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi (#BlackLivesMatter); and Porchia Moore and nikhil trivedi (Visitors of Color).

In solidarity.

*     *     *

About Museum Education Roundtable

Formed in 1969, the Museum Education Roundtable fosters professionalism among museum educators by encouraging leadership, scholarship and research in museum- based learning. MER provides leadership in professional development for a broad and diverse audience of museum practitioners and educators. Through its publications, programs, and active communications network, MER:

Supports professionalism among peers and others committed to excellence in museum-based learning. Encourages leadership, scholarship, and research in museum-based learning, and advocates for the inclusion and application of museum-based learning in general education and life-long learning.

MER publishes the Journal of Museum Education, the only American journal that is devoted to the theory and practice of museum education. Written by museum and education professionals, JME articles explore innovations in the field of museum education, teaching strategies for use in museums and other informal learning environments, visitor research, and evaluation.

MER hosts an annual program each year in Washington, DC, and a members reception at the AAM annual conference. In addition, MER partners with regional groups to present programs that offer networking opportunities and discussions around issues of the JME.

What does it mean to be human in this moment?

Written by Emily Turner

There’s a sentence that’s been haunting me lately: “museums are places where people go to think and feel about what it means to be human”(1). It’s a beautiful concept that encompasses the good and the ugly of what museums have been, what they are, and what they could be. It expresses the potential for museums to assert definitions of humanity that are liberatory, healing, and affirmative while leaving room for the essential question “but for who?” 

What is our role and responsibility to help people think and feel about what it means to be human in this moment? What does it even mean to be human in this moment? What does it mean to be essential or vulnerable? What does it mean to survive? Who will? I keep thinking about what our actions – as neighbors, colleagues, and culture workers –  communicate about what we think it means to be human right now. As to be expected, the impacts of the virus are not being felt equally. Essential workers are still largely low wage workers; access to health care is still restricted and costly; educators are still trying to meet students’ needs with too few resources; the elderly are still disposable; it’s still expensive to be poor. The systems that prop up what “normal” looks like are still pushing folks to the margins. 

As the few museum staff left try to creatively adapt to serve the needs of their community, they ultimately express what they think those needs are and what they believe is the museum’s unique position to fill them. What people will be comforted by, what will help them navigate their day, what will help them make sense of their emotions or the news will depend drastically on how the pandemic is affecting their material reality. Content designed for people who are bored is probably not going to resonate (at least not in the same way) with people still riding the bus every day to work or whose loved ones lie in a hospital bed they cannot visit.

Yes, people are looking for history that affirms a sense of self, distractions, or art as a therapeutic process. People are also looking for more mundane balms – to hear someone express a similar feeling, to speak aloud, to know their child is occupied for thirty minutes. People are also in crisis. 

Ruminating on life in the pandemic has been a continuous exercise in getting absorbed in and extracting myself from my own isolation, emotions, hardship, and drama. I’ve been generally disappointed with museum leaders (individuals and institutions) who are unable to pull themselves out of their own internal turmoil, who seem unable to instinctually care for others in a time of crisis. You know, the ones who assume their priorities are the top priority, that whatever choices they make will be justified as long as they can save the institution, that if people know just how long and hard these decisions were they will understand them and feel okay. It can feel like asking the world for what in reality is so little – for those who hold the power to consider our experience and let it impact their choices. To take time to listen, or communicate frequently even if incompletely. To put others’ needs before their own or the needs of the institution. As I try to articulate and find examples of the leadership I am looking for within myself, my institution, and my community this is what I’m getting stuck on. Whose humanity is being affirmed through our choices and in the ways we reach out?

  1. Marc O’Neill in Gaynor Kavanaugh’s Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum. Leicester University Press, 2000.

IMG-3948

About the Author

EMILY TURNER: Seattle-based museum educator and creative historian who strives to infuse joy and creativity into the museum experience and encourages visitors of all ages to think critically about objects and their stories. Through writing and comix, Emily explores issues of representation and labor in art and history museums. An officer for the Museum Educators of Puget Sound, she is active in her community as a mentor and an advocate for emerging museum professionals.