Tag Archives: museum leadership

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.”

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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.

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.

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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.

Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis

Written by Jason Porter

All of us have been watching closely as museums across the country layoff their educators and interpretive staff. I understand why these decisions were made: staff costs for a non-profit are expensive, right now unemployment benefits are generous and long-lasting, and decision-making metrics that take into account experience, seniority, and “essential” status often disproportionately count against the people who work directly with visitors (and those in security, visitor services, and operations). So in some senses laying off educators makes sense. Part of me also has to acknowledge that there are also more shadowy reasons for these layoffs at play: board members and executive directors have very little interaction with these workers, so they appear more expendable than senior staff; interpretation and education are not seen as “core functions” because it is possible to keep the lights on and keep the collections safe & secure without educators; as well as the fact that education and interpretation staff are often lower-wage workers (or working on contracts) and therefore viewed as less skilled or more easy to replace than curators, fundraisers, or marketing staff. 

Appropriately, the outcry from educators has been full of rage. Some have suggested boycotts and protests while others have defiantly declared that they won’t return to the field because of the ways they have been undervalued and cast off by museum leadership at this desperate moment. And predictably, leaders from museums that have undertaken these large-scale layoffs have frequently bungled the communication around their reasons for these actions. 

And yet here we are at the precipice of a new reality. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, managers and directors of interpretation or education and programming have been left with fewer staff members (or dwindling numbers), holding out hope that soon we will return to normal in time to execute the programs we planned for the fall, and facing a future in which digital engagement — long the “extra” component of our interpretive work —  is now the primary way in which we’ll connect with our visitors and communities. 

MoPOP PopCon
MoPOP PopCon

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last month-and-a-half canceling our offerings, postponing others, checking in with community partners to see how we can help each other stay afloat, and keeping long-term projects going in the hope that social distancing won’t last too much longer. But mainly I’ve been supporting staff, doing a lot of listening and encouraging, a lot of expectation-setting around what may happen with our jobs, and struggling to interpret the ever-changing messaging coming from leadership about how we plan to sustain ourselves as an organization. I find myself talking a lot about mindfulness, about staying in the present and focusing only on what each of us can control. Especially with emerging professionals, I think this has been helpful in dealing with the demons of dread and disillusionment that hover around us and drift in as we devour too many podcasts and calamitous news alerts.  

But in the few weeks, I’ve embarked on a new way of thinking. It came to me after I was asked by my boss to come up with a staff reduction plan that evaluated people based on their job descriptions, the number of projects they had to work on, and whether they were performing well. I am the type of person that needs a lot of reflection time, “sleeping on” ideas, and the space to (most often) write down my thoughts to work through how I feel about something as consequential as this. So I took a few days and attempted to write out my thoughts. By way of context setting, the week before, my department had started a weekly “watch-a-long” film series and we’d launched a bunch of social media initiatives that pushed out all sorts of content — blogs, videos, book clubs, playlists, etc — and all of it was proving to restart a bit of the creative thinking that had been a bit of a side-effect of COVID-19 since we’d shuttered the museum. In addition, I’d been taking in some news and the dire predictions of the length of the pandemic, and I started to think that the work that we had started to do was liable to be with us for quite some time. 

I didn’t really have time to go through the stages of grief. My staff plan was due in just a day or two, so I decided not to grieve at all. Instead, I shifted my thinking from mourning what we won’t be able to do anymore — the huge, crowded opening events, the groups of 150 school children coming through the door at once, the film screenings, the live concerts, the 1000-visitor days at the museum — to making the conscious choice to embrace the change and apply the kind of thinking that always motivated my work: reinvention

It was at this point that I decided not to submit this staffing plan as assigned. Instead, I wrote a “vision” for the next year for Education and Public Programs, the department I oversee. When I tried a first pass at the assignment from my boss, I had followed the rules: I created a plan where the hourly folks had their time scaled back, the folks who coordinated programs or did admin work would be laid off, and only the managers and content producers would remain. But once I started to think about the future and what it might be like (instead of assuming we will just return to “normal” after the quarantine period ends), it seemed like minimizing staff wasn’t a good idea at all, even in the short-term. I thought about the ways in which visits to the museum will be different, how if we will engage visitors mostly through on-line experiences, if we have to go to schools to reach students and teachers, if our large-scale gatherings will have to be re-imagined with safety and social distancing in mind, then we’re going to need creative, skilled people to do it. In fact, scaling staff back either in preparation for this new paradigm or once we are able to open again will leave us at a great disadvantage to function as a community-based, educational organization that provides support to schools or convenes groups of curious visitors. In my most radical thinking, I considered that we might actually need more people — folks who really understand digital learning, people who are expert in using technology such as VR, digitized collections, app-based programs, etc. to create and facilitate programs that will remind people how essential museums are for content, community, and connection. 

Across the field, the definition of a museum has become a hotly debated issue, and while I was thinking about the vision plan I was writing, I thought a lot about what role a museum will play in our new reality. Of course, to a dyed-in-the-wool educator like myself, the main function of the museum will always be to connect with visitors — to be part of learning ecosystems through storytelling, to provide outlets for people’s interests and creativity, and to satisfy our very human need to come together (in whatever form that takes). Stewardship of collections will still be important, regardless of whether visitors feel able to congregate in public spaces, as will research and scholarship. But few cultural organizations have the capacity to keep connected to their communities and audiences solely through posting collections online; to me, the museum of the future will need interpretation, accessible programs, creative approaches to sharing ideas, extensive outreach via social media as well as our more traditional in-person platforms if people are going to continue to see museums as trusted, essential resources. The museum experience will always be a human-centered one, based on exchanges between and among people, but these interactions will likely have to occur in vastly different formats than we’re used to.

There is no denying that what’s happened in the museum field is catastrophic and that for far too many of us, there doesn’t seem like there is much we can do to influence the decision-makers in the choices they’re making to try and sustain their organizations. But as educators, I’d urge all of us to not just accept these decisions without at least making a counter-argument, one which focuses on who will be best positioned to adapt to the new environment during and after COVID-19. We must make a compelling case for ourselves and our indispensability, for holding on to the essential value of engagement. 

After I submitted my plan to my ED and explained my thinking, I worried that it wouldn’t have an impact. She has been spending most of her time running through various financial scenarios to sustain the organization and working with our board’s finance committee. I was almost certain that she would tell me to revise my thinking and begin the layoff process. But after hearing nothing for a few days, at our leadership team meeting, I listened as she spoke to the group about the importance of the work my department is doing, how this pivot to re-imagining our programs as virtual experiences and the emphasis on keeping visitors engaged was one of our highest priorities. Now, I can’t claim that my conversation with her and the vision plan I submitted were solely responsible for the fact that we have not laid off staff, but I don’t think it hurt; in fact I think it did influence her decision-making, and thus far (knocking on wood here in my kitchen), we have held onto everyone on my team.   

All around in the museum field, we’re witnessing the kind of leadership decisions that reflect hastily considered responses and panic instead of vision and progressive thinking, leaders following the prevailing winds instead of charting new courses. I believe that educators and interpreters will be key to the survival of our institutions (and current and future sources of revenue). Of course, I also acknowledge that my institution has found a way to afford to respond in this way and that not every organization is privileged to have the option of retaining all staff members. But if you have the forum (and the time) to make a compelling case for why educators, teaching artists, interpreters, and evaluators will be essential to your work whether visitors can walk into your galleries or only have access to you through Zoom and Youtube, I say you should do it. It may help to show your leadership the way forward.

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About the Author

JASON PORTER is the Director of Education + Programs at MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle. His work focuses on experiential education and public programs that serve community, school, family, and teacher audiences and on using the arts as a vehicle for personal and social change. Prior to his work in the museum world, he was a public school teacher. His dissertation examined charter schools meeting the needs of special education students. He was a board member of EdCom (at AAM) from 2014 through 2016, a jurist with the Excellence in Exhibitions competition in 2017 and 2018, and has been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education since 2016. When he’s not working, he’s reading, writing, cooking, cycling around town, or (yes, nerd that he is) visiting museums.

Photo credit: Museum of Pop Culture, photography by Jim Bennett.

Writing in a Time of Crisis: Open Call for Submissions

Right now, I realize that we are all affected by the current coronavirus pandemic in wide-ranging yet different ways. From the realities of severe economic downturn and the daily experience of physical distancing to concerns about our own health and the well-being of our families, friends, and loved ones, this is a challenging time for us all — our entire global family.  Moments like this change us. And I believe that it is part of our collective human responsibility to reflect on moments like this, to write about our experiences, and to share our stories with each other.  Stories that allow us to be vulnerable, open, honest, and more human.

At times in my own life when I feel the most challenged, I reach for the writings of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron.  In her transformative book When Things Fall Apart, Chodron explores the human response to moments of intense despair and loss. I grabbed my copy of this book off the shelf last week, and began flipping through the pages, reading bits from each section.  One sentence stood out to me more than all the others: “This very moment is the perfect teacher.”

Open Call for Writings and Reflections

So here is my invitation and open call.  I would love to gather together a series of posts over the next weeks and months from anyone willing to share their own reflections during this time of crisis, this very moment. There are few if any guidelines here, and I’m open to any type of personal writing as well as creative responses that open up new ways for us to share our stories.

Here are some questions that are interesting me, but more importantly I want to know what interests you about what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling during this time.

How have you been affected by the current crisis?

How are you and others taking care of yourselves and each other through these difficult times?

What does strong, compassionate leadership look like for you right now?

How can museums continue the vital, necessary work of dismantling systems of oppression during and after this crisis?

As we move further into this crisis, how can museum leaders (and those who remain working for these institutions) place human care and relationships above all else?

In what ways can museums and cultural organizations serve as places of healing and connection for our communities?

What is something that has gone unspoken or unsaid since the beginning of this pandemic and its impact on museums and cultural institutions?

How to Submit

If you are interested in submitting or have something to submit for publishing online as part of this series, please just send me an email at murawski27@gmail.com.  I only have one requirement for these posts — each submission must have at least one image or photograph (that we can reproduce here on this blog); and I’m happy to help find an image if you don’t have one.

Share this Open Call to anyone in your community who might be interested.

I am continuously grateful for everyone who has come together to support each other during this pandemic. I hope this series of posts, writings, and stories can be a way for us to be listening to each other and find human connection, loving-kindness, and compassion amidst the darkness of these difficult times.

-Mike Murawski


Header photo: “Writing” by akrabat, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Museum Salary Conundrum & a 21st Century Salary Agenda

Written by Mike Murawski

In recent years, there has certainly been increased awareness and discussion about salaries within the museum profession.  I can speak from my own place within the field of museum education when I say that this has become a very frequent (and more urgent) topic of conversation at conferences, leadership convenings, and professional meetings in recent months.  Thanks to the efforts of museum activists involved with movements such as Museum Workers Speak, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson, protests at individual museums, and several leaders in our field, we are seeing an increase in awareness around museum labor practices, hiring, and worker pay as well as the intersection of these issues with race, gender, and class.

Last week, Joan Baldwin wrote an insightful and widely-read piece entitled “Museums and the Salary Conundrum” via the Leadership Matters blog — a site that emerged in conjunction with the 2013 book of the same name written with Anne Ackerson and studying museum leadership in history and cultural heritage organizations. In her post, Baldwin so clearly and boldly frames the problem of museum salaries:

“we work in an underpaid, under-resourced field. And for too long, too many people have told us that it is such a privilege to participate, that we should suck it up, deal with the fact that we’re thirty and still need roommates to pay the rent, and revel in the fact that we have a museum position.”

Joan quickly followed her post with another this week entitled “The Salary Agenda,” in which she and Anne take a stab at what they think a Museum Salary Agenda for the 21st Century could look like.  I really appreciated this action-focused series of items, which can begin to help the conversation focus on real change — from professional organizations and institutions to graduate programs and individuals.  Here is a quick repost of their Agenda, and I invite everyone to read their entire post and add comments to the already-active conversation on their blog.

From Leadership Matters:

What Professional Associations and Museum Service Organizations Can Do: 

  • Establish and promote national salary standards for museum positions requiring advanced degrees.
  • Encourage museums to demonstrate the importance of human capital in their organizations.
  • Make salary transparency part of the StEPS (AASLH) and accreditation process (AAM).
  • Support organizations in understanding the need for endowment to support staff salaries. A building and a collection don’t guarantee a museum’s future. People do.
  • Create a national working group for #Museumstaffmatters.

What Institutions Can Do: 

  • Encourage networking and individual staff development.
  • Make every effort to provide salaries that exceed the Living Wage.
  • Educate boards regarding the wastefulness of staff turnover.
  • Make criteria for salary levels transparent.
  • Examine the gaps among the director’s salary, the leadership team and the remaining staff.
  • Offer equitable health and family leave benefits (and make them available on Day One of a new hire’s tenure).

What Individuals Can Do: 

  • Do your homework. Understand the community and region where you plan to work.
  • Use the Living Wage index.
  • Be prepared to negotiate. Be prepared to say no. A dream job isn’t a dream if your parents are still paying your car insurance and your mobile phone bills.
  • Ask about the TOTAL package not just salary. If you are the trailing spouse and don’t need health insurance but do need time, make that part of your negotiations.
  • Network. Know what’s going on in your field, locally, regionally, nationally.

What Graduate Programs Can Do:

  • Be open about job placement statistics
  • Teach students to negotiate salaries and benefits.
  • Teach students to calculate a Living Wage plus loan payments and quality of life.
  • Encourage networking, mentoring and participation in the field.

Just as Joan and Anne are not speaking from a position of having solved all these problems, neither am I.  However, I wanted to share their recent writings and ideas as a way to ensure that this conversation remains strong within the field of museum education.  As we enter the spring season of conferences (AAM, NAEA, etc.), let’s make sure to keep these issues at the forefront of many of our conversations about diversity, inclusion, and leadership and work toward making appropriate and necessary changes within our professional organizations and institutions.

Thank you to Joan (and Anne) for sparking another important exchange around these vital issues to our field, and thanks to all the museum thinkers and activists pushing this issue through Twitter chats each week and in-person meet-ups across the country.

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100+ participants at the #MuseumWorkersSpeak rogue session at AAM 2015. Photo from Museum Workers Speak.

Header image: Flickr photo by Tax CreditsCC BY 2.0

 

 

Supporting Leaders of Tomorrow in Museum Education Today

Written by Wendy Ng & Rachel Trinkley

When you’re regularly working 10-hour days doing everything from implementing strategic initiatives to signing timesheets, how do you manage to be a leader in those circumstances?  Ask any exempt staff (1) and they’ll no doubt share stories of being overworked, under-resourced, and despite the best of intentions, feeling overwhelmed and less than effective. Given this reality, beyond your personal conviction and will power to do a good job, what makes a great leader?  What supports do leaders today and tomorrow need to be successful?  What strengths and skills can museum educators bring to leadership roles?

These questions guided an interactive session we led at the National Art Education Association Annual Convention in March 2015.  During the session, colleagues shared the qualities they believe make a great leader.  If you think about a great leader from your own life, you’ll probably recognize many of these same qualities including:

  • has vision
  • is innovative
  • is a great listener
  • speaks the truth
  • is courageous
  • accepts and learns from failure
  • is strategic when fighting battles
  • knows when to follow rather than lead
  • models behavior for staff
  • brings others along and empowers others
  • is a chief storyteller

From there, we split into groups and tackled the top three leadership issues we face, as chosen by those assembled:

  1. developing and supporting staff
  2. institutional culture change
  3. making change at your level

Since we believe in the power of collective minds, and know that there are incredibly smart, capable people in our work, we endeavored to develop solutions or, at least, resources and places to begin. Here’s what we learned…

Developing and Supporting Staff

Build time into our practice, as individuals and as teams, for reflection.  Given the theme of the convention, use Design Thinking to test, prototype, and create solutions as staff through an iterative process.  Books recommended were Coaching Skills for Non-Profit Managers and Leaders and Managing to Change the World.

Institutional Culture/Climate Change

Create interdisciplinary teams and use Design Thinking to create solutions.  Change takes time and is an investment – you’ll need to weather storms and stay more than two to three years at an institution.  It takes courage to run with it, create a space that doesn’t exist, and ask forgiveness later, not permission.  Flip authority within by trusting others with the reins.

Making change at your level

Whether you are a volunteer, intern, part-time staff, full-time staff, or a director, hold yourself to high standards while knowing your limitations.  Modeling change versus talking about change is more impactful.  Awareness of change leads to more collaboration, which leads to growing success and less discouragement, which generates more ideas.  The book Tempered Radicals was recommended.

design-thinking
Design thinking, Flickr photo by Cedim News. CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

As we reflected on the outcomes of that session recently, we realized the values, challenges, solutions all still feel relevant to us. When we talked about our current environments and work realities however, some new questions and challenges emerged:

  • has vision – what if others on your team don’t share that vision?
  • is innovative – what if others define innovation differently?
  • is a great listener – what if others aren’t listening to you?
  • speaks the truth – what if others don’t want to hear it?
  • is courageous – what if your courage backfires?
  • accepts and learns from failure – what if failure negatively impacts your job or career? What if others in your institution don’t value failure?
  • is strategic when fighting battles – when does strategy become political and personality-driven?
  • knows when to follow rather than lead – how do you follow when there’s a lack of trust?
  • models behaviour for staff – what if staff are not receptive?  For example, emerging and mid-career professionals tend to prefer flat rather than hierarchical organizational structures compared to more senior professionals.
  • brings others along and empowers others – what if they disappoint?
  • is a chief storyteller – what if it’s a story others aren’t ready to hear? What if your story is competing for airtime, or there’s no one to hear it?

Perhaps these questions, or similar versions, have emerged in your setting as well, whether quietly or loudly. How do leaders tackle these very real, messy issues? What sources of strength, knowledge, or wisdom can we mine to support both ourselves and others?

We invite your thoughts and responses to these and other questions — add to the Comments below, or share your questions via social media.

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Notes

[1] The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act determines many employment standards, including who is or is not “exempt” from overtime pay. Many museum workers are exempt from overtime pay due to their work duties.

About the Authors

WENDY NG: Manager, Learning at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, where she oversees School Visits, Traveling Programs, and the Hands-on Galleries.  Previously, Wendy worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario as Coordinator, Elementary School and Teacher Programs, and other museums in Washington, DC and London, England.  She holds a BFA and BEd from York University, a MAT in Museum Education from George Washington University, and is certified by the Ontario College of Teachers.

RACHEL TRINKLEY: Director of Education for Explore! Children’s Museum of Washington DC, a new children’s museum being developed for the nation’s capital. Prior to joining the museum, she worked at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and at the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio), where she managed the docent program and served as Assistant Director of Learning. She holds a BA from Saint Mary’s College, Indiana, and an MA in art history from Ohio State University.

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Header Image: PopTech Flickr photo, “2010 PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, no changes made to photo.

 

Asking Beautiful, Scary Questions: Reflections on “Leading the Future of Museum Education”

Written by Karleen Gardner, Director of Learning and Innovation, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Reposted from the Museum Education Roundtable’s JME40 blog. Be sure to check out their posts exploring the evolution of the Journal of Museum Education during its 40 volume run as a reflections of the field at large.

I recently enjoyed traveling to the great city of Denver, Colorado and participating in the Leading the Future of Museum Education: Challenges and Opportunities, a convening of an amazing group of museum leaders from across the country. This event (May 2015), co-hosted by Bank Street College’s Leadership in Museum Education and the Education Professional Network (EdCom) of the American Alliance of Museums, offered a much-needed opportunity for educators in our field to come together and discuss issues, the future, and ask beautiful, scary questions.

In her opening remarks, Sarah Jesse, chair of EdCom and Vice President of Education at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, introduced the idea of beautiful questions inspired by the book A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. A beautiful question is:

“an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Such questions seem to be ingrained in our DNA, for in 1987 a group of 25 art museum educators came together in Denver to explore similar issues and reforms, and to develop a collective vision for the future of the field. The Journal of Museum Education (JME) Volume 13, Number 3, Fall 1988, was dedicated to sharing the insights and key issues from the Denver Meeting. Guest edited and authored by the organizers and participants of that meeting, the JME issue reflected the individual thinking generated through their discussions and widened the conversation to engage more educators from across the field. I am proud to say that two representatives from my museum were in attendance in 1987.

Twenty-eight years later in Denver, our brainstorming and discussions focused on many of the same topics: the empowerment of museum educators as leaders; making our work visible; professional development and career tracks; visitor-centeredness; the lack of diversity and inclusion in our field; and leading change.

Photo by Rachel Goldberg ‏@EducatorRachel
Group brainstorming during convening. Photo via Twitter by Rachel Goldberg ‏@EducatorRachel

Much of the program and conversation in Denver focused on change on many different levels—the ever-changing and vast-paced world in which we live, the shifts and much-needed changes in our field and institutions, the rethinking of museum education, and the changes in us as individuals. Both Kaywin Feldman, the Duncan and Nivan MacMillan Director and President of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Marsha L. Semmel, principal of Marsha Semmel Consulting, spoke of our VUCA environment and the need for adaptive and strategic leadership. VUCA is short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity,and ambiguity, and a catchall for our turbulent, dynamic reality. In order to thrive, we must have vision, understanding, clarity, and agility and be willing to experiment and take risks. Laura Roberts from Roberts Consulting points out there is no one way or single path to get us where we want to go and the “best practices” from the past won’t be sufficient.

We must challenge ourselves to find these new paths and ask beautiful, scary questions, which will inspire us to take risks and head into uncertain territory, and possibly fail. Some of the beautiful questions that emerged from our brainstorming and conversations in Denver:

  • How might we encourage greater diversity and inclusion in our field?
  • How might museums become truly visitor-centered institutions?
  • How might we find balance in engaging both our core and new audiences; balance between co-creation and expertise?
  • What if we broke down silos and collaboration was the new norm?
  • How might we rethink our work with the public education sector?
  • How might we harness the power of technology to expand access, improve engagement, and try new approaches to our work?
  • What if excellence isn’t enough?
  • What if educators became more empowered and began breaking the rules?

To begin exploring the strategies and solutions to these beautiful questions, we must become adaptive leaders and both individually and collectively embrace the gradual but meaningful process of change. Marsha Semmel introduced us to John Seely Brown who believes in social, participatory learning and teaches us that museums need to stop protecting our assets—our stocks—of authoritative knowledge and instead nurture our flows—creating new knowledge. We are poised to cultivate these flows.

Photo via Twitter from Wendy Ng ‏@twin_muses
Marsha Semmel presenting. Photo via Twitter from Wendy Ng ‏@twin_muses

Laura Roberts, who was asked to reflect on and summarize the convening stated in her closing remarks, “museum educators routinely use the sort of skills an adaptive leader needs. Moreover, if we are going to shift our museums from a focus on objects to a focus on visitors and community, it is clear we are positioned to lead the way…” She noted these observations about our character:

  • Educators are trained to elicit observations and points of view and to bring people together in dialogue. We are good facilitators. We have those “soft skills” to be boundary spanners.
  • We are clever, creative, and imaginative. We are good problem solvers. We are good listeners.
  • We practice the skills of collaboration and partnering. We are matchmakers and brokers.
  • We often serve as the integrators in the institution, bringing disparate staff together.
  • We are often “empowerers.” Many educators are refreshingly light on ego.

We have these skills, and we also need to become more empowered and better advocates for our values, our expertise, and our audiences. Insights on the 1988 Denver Meeting from Diane Brigham in JME echo this concept, stating that our role is essential in serving the missions of our museums and that:

“when we realize that we offer abilities that no one else in the museum can contribute, we are better able to offer leadership. We empower ourselves when we are clear about what we are and have prepared ourselves to practice our profession with rigor.”

It is essential for us to be more rigorous and confident in articulating our goals and vision, and ask beautiful, scary questions that will serve as catalysts for innovation and change in our field and our communities.

What are your beautiful, scary questions?

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You can check out #leadmuseumed tweets from the convening here: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23leadmuseumed&src=typd

More brainstorming artifacts from convening. Photo via Twitter from Kaywin Feldman ‏@KaywinFeldman
More brainstorming artifacts from convening. Photo via Twitter from Kaywin Feldman ‏@KaywinFeldman
Photo of full group of museum educators and thought leaders convening in Denver for "Leading the Future of Museum Education" (May 2015)
Photo of full group of museum educators and thought leaders convening in Denver for “Leading the Future of Museum Education” (May 2015)

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About the Author

karleengardner-150x150KARLEEN GARDNER is Director of Learning Innovation at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She leads initiatives and experiments in interpretation and learning, and works to make the museum accessible and relevant for all audiences. Karleen currently serves on the board of directors of the Museum Education Roundtable, on the editorial team, and as a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education.

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Header Photo by Ann Rowson Love via Twitter @annrowsonlove