Tag Archives: organizational change

Interrupting White Dominant Culture in Museums

Author’s Note: This post is a fluid and organic piece of writing, and I want to be transparent about that. As people ask questions or call out issues with language, lack of clarity, and other problems, I am working to make changes and keep shaping this piece. I’m open to discussing any of these changes, as well.  I also want to acknowledge that this piece may be largely intended for a white audience, although I don’t think it’s limited in that way.  

Written by Mike Murawski

As I sit down to write this post, I find myself reflecting on the sometimes frustratingly slow, pain-laden, and capricious path of change for museums, and my own role as an agent of change and accomplice in this work of making change happen.  I’ve got a towering pile of books on the shelf in front of me on museum change, activism, and inclusive practices along with a formidable pile of diversity statements and strategic plans that talk about equity and community. Conference after conference and convening after convening bring to the center themes of equity, inclusion, relevance, community, and audience. There are rapidly growing networks of activists and changemakers, with expanding movements connecting through social actions, events, book clubs, reading lists, online syllabi, and social media hashtags.  Yet given all this, why do some of the pivotal changes happening in museums right now feel tenuous and temporary? Why does deep and meaningful change feel a bit out of reach?

In a recent piece by poet, activist, and community organizer Jamara Wakefield that powerfully envisions a decolonized future for museums, she writes:

Museums could be one of our greatest allies in liberation struggles. They have the physical space, the means, and the public confidence to partake in a large scale social movement against colonial powers. Yet they reject this opportunity over and over again. They prefer to remain silent and hide in a world that desperately needs decolonizing.”

One of the things holding us museums back from this level of transformative change is our continued unwillingness to challenge the entrenched institutional structures that advance and maintain inequity. The pervasive hold of white supremacy is arguably one of the single greatest threats to the deep, transformational change that is needed within museums today.  It is a threat to racial equity; it is a threat to environmental and economic justice; it is a threat to the well-being of communities of color; it is a threat to human dignity; and it is a threat to those who are struggling to see these universal values of equity, justice, and dignity define our new institutional realities.  And it is a threat that is largely-unacknowledged by white museum professionals and leaders across the field.

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I realize that pressing this idea of examining white supremacy and white dominant culture within our museum institutions may bring forward some resistance, defensiveness, tension, and complexity.  During the past two years of spreading the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign and message with co-creator La Tanya Autry, we have encountered resistance (sometimes staunch, sometimes more subtle) from some museum leaders and thinkers (all white) who are unable or unwilling to see, define, and critically reflect on white dominant culture in their institutions.  After all, for me, that campaign is so much about the simple yet powerful recognition that what museums take for granted as ‘neutral,’ ‘objective,’ ‘normal,’ ‘professional,’ and ‘high quality’ is all part of a system of white supremacy that perpetuates oppression, racism, injustice, and colonialism.

In an interview this past week, incoming Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch was asked about what #MuseumsAreNotNeutral means to him.  He replied:

“It’s crucially important for museums to open the veil, of how they do the work they do so that even they understand the complicit biases they carry. They understand the cultural baggage that shapes what we do.”

I frequently reference the words of scholar and activist Angela Davis who, while speaking to a gathering of Ferguson protesters in 2015, stated:

“Any critical engagement with racism requires us to understand the tyranny of the universal. For most of our history the very category ‘human’ has not embraced Black people and people of color. Its abstractness has been colored white and gendered male.”

White supremacy thrives within this tyranny of the universal, the neutral, the apolitical, the fair and balanced, and the objective. Acknowledging that ‘museums are not neutral’ is a meaningful and urgent step toward gaining awareness of the powerful role that white supremacy and white dominant culture play within our institutions.  It is a crucial step toward recognizing one’s own role in questioning it, interrupting it, and being a part of taking transformative action to replace it.

How can we define white dominant culture and white supremacy?

As part of this discussion, I want to bring in a couple definitions of white dominant culture and white supremacy that can be helpful for those who are new to these ideas.  If you hear these terms and limit their definitions to the acts of militant white nationalists and hate groups marching with torches, then I suggest you pause here and do some homework.  Take some time to connect with the wider discourse around this topic. It is important that we get past these reductive associations, and begin to develop more complex and shared understandings. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility (2018), firmly states the importance of using language such as white dominance and white supremacy in these conversations.  She writes:

“White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea—the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.” (33)

A useful and widely-recognized definition of white dominant culture comes from the work of Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones on dismantling racism:

“The explicit to subtle ways that the norms, preferences, and fears of white European descended people overwhelmingly shape how we organize our work and institutions, see ourselves and others, interact with one another and with time, and make decisions.”

From their collection of writings entitled How We Fight White Supremacy (2019), Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin write:

“White supremacy defines our current reality. It is not merely a belief that to be White is to be better. It is a political, cultural, and economic system premised on the subjugation of people who are not White…. White supremacy is the voice in our collective heads that says it makes civilized sense that one group of people gets to annihilate, enslave, incarcerate, brainwash, torture, sterilize, breed, and terrorize other people.” (vii)

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Through their work on racism, Okun and Jones have also offered up a list of characteristics of white culture that can help us see where white dominant culture is showing up in our work and in our lives on a regular basis.  These include perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, either/or thinking, a focus on quantity and valuing measurable goals, discomfort with emotion, a sense of paternalism in decision making, and fear of conflict, just to name a few.  

For some of you reading this, these characteristics may be strikingly familiar and precisely describe your workplace culture.  Have you taken a moment to step back and question some of these norms? How have you been involved in promoting and advancing this culture?  I can say that I have spent much of my career in management roles without actively questioning and interrupting these characteristics, playing my own role in maintaining these structures of inequity without being conscious of the impact.  My goal here is not to make this about blame or guilt (that happens far too often), but rather to invite white folks to recognize where this is showing up so we can work as part of a collective effort to interrupt and decenter it.

Aspects of white supremacy are showing up every moment of every day in the museum workplace (and in the galleries).  It dictates how people hold meetings together, who is invited to those meetings, who participates, and whose ideas are valued. It informs how students of color are treated during a field trip, and how a museum responds when instances of racism hit the media.  It controls how our front of house staff interact with visitors, who works in positions that interact with visitors, the types of training they receive, and who makes decisions about these trainings. It dictates how museum leaders and managers make decisions, who gets to have input into those decisions, and who is impacted by those decisions.  It is a controlling force in how we define ‘community,’ how we work with community partners, what we value about those partnerships, and how we resource those partnerships. It dictates the words that get written on museum labels, and who gets to write, edit, and approve those words. And each and every one of these moments (and thousands more) threatens to chip away at the humanity of our colleagues of color, visitors of color, and all those who are not defined within these norms of ‘whiteness.’  

Real harm is being done throughout every nook and cranny of our institutions, and we need to collectively recognize this before we can take actions to interrupt white dominance.  As Gita Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk state in their 2014 article on “Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege”:

“not doing this examination means that any equity conversations and work will continue to take place in a larger container that is shaped by the very dynamics that the group aims to change.” (27)

Why am I  writing about this?

I want to be clear here. I understand that I am a product of white dominant culture and a participant in white dominant culture, not just as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied male in a position of power within a museum, but as a human being living and acting in our society. White supremacy is insidious, pervasive, and systemic.  It is the air we breathe.  It shapes our language, our relationships, our actions, our decisions, and our emotions. It is showing up in my words as I write this, even as I critique it. And while I have made choices to gain awareness of this domineering and harmful culture, it still floods all aspects of my being in this world.

I have chosen to make my messy and mistake-filled learning process more public, not to create harm but rather to recognize these challenges wherever, whenever, and however possible.  Throughout my museum career, I have leaned towards questioning the status quo and the “ways things are supposed to be” without necessarily having ‘the answer.’ I enjoy the more fluid exchange of ideas, questions, and experiences that we, as a broader collective of changemakers, can bring to these issues.  I find that it is important to open up larger and larger conversations about burning issues so that we can grow together as a community of change and work toward building a positive, thriving future for museums.

I raise these questions about white supremacy as part of a rapidly expanding group of museum workers, leaders, and advocates for change who see the language of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility spread like wildfire on the surface of museums without necessarily seeing the deep institutional transformations that are needed within museums.  I also raise these questions as someone working within a museum that is changing and experiencing the pain and messiness of grappling with these deeper issues. My own learning has been happening over the course of many years in conversation and allyship with colleagues, mentors, friends, co-workers, and the many teachers in my life. I also recognize the long history of museum workers, activists, educators, community leaders, and radical transformers who have fought against white supremacy, and those who I see as powerful leaders and mentors in current efforts to dismantle racism and change museums (including La Tanya Autry, Monica Montgomery, Teressa Raiford, Keonna Hendrick, Porchia Moore, Radiah Harper, Nicole Ivy, Omar Eaton-Martinez, Chris Taylor, Janeen Bryant, nikhil trivedi, Jackie Peterson, Melanie Adams, Joanne Rizzi-Jones, Dina Bailey, PJ Gubatina Policarpio, Stephanie Cunningham, Aleia Brown, Adrianne Russell, Kayleigh Bryant Greenwell, Chieko Phillips, Elisabeth Callihan, Laura Raicovich, Aletheia Wittman, Alyssa Greenberg, Margaret Middleton, Toni Wynn, those working on MASS Action, the Museums and Race team, and many many others).  I am aware of, and grateful for, the deep thinking and action that has already been done around this issue, and that continues to be done today. 

Taking action to interrupt white supremacy

The work of interrupting and decentering white supremacy can seem overwhelmingly daunting when we’re faced with what seems like the insurmountable task of systemic change.  Furthermore, there is no easy fix, mandatory training, or simple pre-packaged strategy that can wash away these oppressive structures and legacies. As Solomon and Rankin aptly state, “if we had a magic button we could press to end this nightmare, we would have leaned on that bitch long ago” (x).

One important place to start, especially for white people, is to simply recognize and name when white culture is showing up in the workplace — and accept the discomfort that comes with identifying these moments without resorting to defensiveness (see “white fragility”).  In a widely-shared blog post on challenging white dominant culture in nonprofits, Lupe Poblano, Project Director at CompassPoint, writes, “White leaders … need to locate their own cultural whiteness and become aware of how their internalized superiority shows up and how it negatively impacts POC inside their own organization.”  He continues, “You, leaders within the white dominant leadership structure, need to be willing to change you first.”

Gulati-Partee and Potapchuk stress that “putting white culture and privilege on the table is critical to include in racial equity work—and it is fraught with challenges due to the complex manifestations of structural racism.”  For those doing the more transformational work in museums, I know that you feel these challenges each and every day. For most white people, myself included, the larger structures of white supremacy are elusive and invisible until we gain the awareness to see them.  And when we do see them more clearly, it feels like a punch in the gut. As Hannah Heller writes in her 2018 article “Working Towards White Allyship in Museums”:

“those moments that feel uncomfortable or anxious are exactly the moments to lean in to as an ally. That feeling is your Whiteness being tested and questioned. Start paying attention to the moments that make you pause….”

Recognizing these characteristics of white dominant culture is a pretty big step for many of us, yet it doesn’t end there.  Transformative change begins to happen in our institutional cultures when we examine, interrupt, decenter, and replace these harmful and oppressive organizing structures and habits of mind.  Okun and Jones offer an entire set of “antidotes” or alternatives that we can pivot to, moving away from the established norms of white workplace culture. The Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) toolkit also provides an extremely useful discussion of dominant culture, organizational culture, and inclusion in Chapter 3 and many other sections of the toolkit.

BlackSpaceManifestoI also highly recommend that folks check out the BlackSpace Manifesto, created by a collective of Black artists, architects, designers, urbanists, and changemakers working to amplify Black agency.  Their Manifesto provides a powerful set of practices that turn us away from white supremacy and center new modes of thinking and working based in equity, justice, love, and trust. I recently shared the Manifesto with a few white colleagues at my own institution, and we met to discuss our own roles in pivoting toward these practices. While it was just one conversation, it’s a small step toward doing things differently.

Download BlackSpaceManifesto (PDF)

After taking time to reflect with colleagues about how we might change workplace culture, I began working on a quick resource (below) that could be front and center on our desks and in our minds. At our museum, we have an existing set of Agreements in place that support our broader equity work, including things like “stay engaged,” “listen to understand,” and “be willing to do things differently.”  For about the past year, many staff have inserted the Agreements into their staff ID badge holders as a daily reminder to show up differently in our work.

Along these lines, I am interested in any way we can bring a more regular, daily awareness to white dominant culture and the ways we can collectively work to interrupt and decenter it. Please feel free to download, share, or print the Interrupt White Dominant Culture guide below, and use it to spark conversation and change within your organization or workplace.  Or simply use it yourself as a personal reminder to shift your focus and energy away from white supremacy.  It’s just an imperfect start to getting these conversations to happen more frequently in museums.  And the language and characteristics used in this guide come from the sources I have cited in this post along with much of the research and writing on white dominant culture.

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Download InterruptWhiteDominantCulture (PDF)

[TEXT OF INTERRUPT WHITE DOMINANT CULTURE GUIDE]

INTERRUPT WHITE DOMINANT CULTURE

  • Let’s work COLLECTIVELY to identify these and other elements of white dominant culture, and work toward dismantling racism in our organizations in in our lives.
  • Move from a focus on professional and transactional relationships toward relationships based on trust, care, and shared commitments.
  • Move from protecting power to sharing power.
  • Move from a culture of over-working to a culture of self-care and community care.
  • Move from a competition and struggle for limited resources to a mindset of collaboration and working to share resources.
  • Move away from prioritizing only degrees, work experience, and job titles toward a way of recognizing and centering lived experience
  • Move from a place of those with power making decisions for others toward a place where we work to include those affected by decisions in the decision-making process.

Speak Up. Take Action.

(recognizing the thinking and writings of Tema Okun, Kenneth Jones, Maggie Potapchuk, BlackSpace Manifesto, Radiah Harper, Hannah Heller, and Kai Monet)

Questioning the ways we make change happen

For me, the spark for writing this piece and creating the guide above came when I was invited to speak at the MuseumNext conference in London (June 2019).  The conference’s central theme was “Making Change Happen,” a topic I am extremely passionate about. I spent some time reflecting on the barriers we, as museum professionals and changemakers, face within institutions to make change happen, and how quickly (or slowly) we enact change.  For my presentation, I facilitated a bit of a workshop that created some space for conference attendees to think about the larger issues of dominant culture and white supremacy in their own personal work and within our institutions. 

I ended with a “Questions & Listening” session, rather than a typical “Question and Answer” thing — which is a strategy I’ve experimented with in the past.  This simply allows people to ask questions, gives those questions some space to be heard in a deeper way by everyone, and does not pretend that I (as the “presenter”) am in some kind of ‘expert’ position to give the answers.  It allows everyone in the room to reflect on the questions, and potentially have their own conversations about their responses.  It honors the knowledge in the room, not just in the “expert presenter.”  While this is always a bit awkward, since we’ve been trained to want to hear the answers from the single person on stage, I feel it is a worthwhile strategy to disrupt the white dominant culture that shows up in conferences. 

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I have also embraced a flood of questions racing through my mind before and after my presentation about change:  In our own impatience to see urgent and meaningful change take place, are we unintentionally setting up an antagonism between immediate action and deeper reflection?  Are we creating an either/or choice between making change happen now and taking time for conversation, listening, and collective understanding?  Do we place more value in the bigger, bolder public-facing actions and downplay the more intimate, personal, relationship-based evolution of change happening on a smaller scale?  How much of our mindset about change, and the pace of change, is dictated by white dominant culture?

I am open to your thoughts, insights, questions, and critiques as part of this broader conversation.  I intend to remain open-hearted in this work, recognizing that I have a lot of learning ahead of me and a lot of listening to do.  I’m committed to being a catalyst for these challenging conversations since I believe in the future of museums and I know in my heart that we collectively have the courage to change these institutions in deep, transformative ways.

“Museums could be powerful, liberatory spaces…”

I’m going to put an exclamation point on the end here by reconnecting with the incredible words of Jamara Wakefield (enormous gratitude to my friend Monica Montgomery for sharing this piece, which I have read about a dozen times in the last couple days).  In the articleMuseums could be powerful, liberatory spaces if they let go of their colonial practices,” Wakefield concludes with this:

“For my activist, artist, dreamer friends, and all who believe in another world, the one where our lives matter, our histories matter, our liberation matters: be prepared to fight in this world but never stop imagining liberation for our future selves. We owe this moment to our future selves.”

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About the Author

IMG_3517MIKE MURAWSKI: Changemaker, museum thinker, author, and nature lover living in Portland, Oregon, USA. Mike currently serves as the Director of Learning & Community Partnerships for the Portland Art Museum, and is the founding editor of ArtMuseumTeaching. He earned his MA and PhD in Education from American University in Washington, DC, focusing his research on educational theory and interdisciplinary learning. Prior to his position at the Portland Art Museum, he served as Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as Coordinator of Education and Public Programs at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a contributor to the Museums as Sites of Social Action (MASS Action) initiative supporting equity and inclusion in museums, and served as First Wave Project Advisor for OF/BY/FOR ALL initiative based out of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History helping civic and cultural organizations grow of, by, and for their communities.  Mike is proud to be the co-founder of the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign aimed at erasing the myth of museum neutrality and demanding our institutions act as agents of change. He has spoken nationally and internationally on the social responsibilities of museums and how museums can serve as agents of positive change within their own communities.  Mike has also been invited to lead participatory workshops, lectures, panels, and training sessions at various institutions, including the Aspen Art MuseumCrocker Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San DiegoLos Angeles County Museum of ArtNational Gallery of ArtNelson Atkins Museum of ArtPhiladelphia Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among others.  He is passionate about how we can come to see museums as agents of change in their communities as well as creative sites for transformative learning and social action.

Mike’s postings on this site are his own and don’t represent the Portland Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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

Written by Mike Murawski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strategies for Change

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

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

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

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

Share Your Thoughts

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

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

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

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About the Author

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

Towards a More Human-Centered Museum: Part 2, Building a Culture of Empathy

Written by Mike Murawski

In the current air of divisiveness and disconnection, it can feel more challenging each day to bring people together in meaningful ways. When I listen to the news on my commute to work each day, the negativity and misunderstandings can seem overwhelming when compared to the small changes and connections I might make possible through my own work in a museum.  As we celebrate communities, cultures, histories, memories, and stories in our museums, others deride them and shape a narrative that negates their value here in our society.

Yet at this time when we are surrounded by an increasingly fragmented society of ‘us versus them,’ I continue to firmly believe that museums have the potential to be powerful catalysts for empathy and human connection.  As museums respond to issues affecting our communities, both locally and globally, there is a clear shift toward focusing on human connection and the role museums play as catalysts for empathy and cohesion in a society rife with intolerance, discrimination, inequality, social isolation, and self-segregation.

In their essay included in the recently published volume entitled Fostering Empathy Through Museums (2017), a team of leaders and changemakers (past and present) from the Levine Museum of the New South powerfully reflect on their decade-long commitment to dialogue and civic engagement:

“With shared empathy, individuals can move from isolation to belonging, from division to connection, from suspicion to trust, and come together to begin the hard work of creating a cohesive diverse community that values and gives opportunity to all its residents” (235)

Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to advance these concepts of empathy and connection as integral elements to our museums’ values and culture.  And it is time to take these principles seriously, and recognize the essential need for museums to lead and take action rather than just follow and passively react.

Expanding Our Definitions of Empathy

While there are many definitions of empathy out there (and we certainly throw the word around quite a bit these days, present company included), I really appreciated how this concept was framed by educator Thom Markham in a January 2018 article for KQED’s Mind/Shift about empathy and learning in our connected world.  I would whole-heartedly agree that we need to move beyond narrowly defining empathy as ‘I like others’ or ‘walking in someone else’s shoes.’  A more complex definition of empathy considers it as a “deep interpersonal skill necessary for effective teaming, customer design, and other aspects of life that require openness to the flow of information.”  It involves collectively working toward the common good and making a positive difference in the world.  I’m interested in how we can expand our definitions of empathy to consider its relationship with social justice, so that striving for a culture of empathy means that we’re also committing to actions and convictions that lead to more equitable and just communities.

These core social functions of museums have been clearly emerging as museum leaders and professionals reflect on how institutions can be relevant and sustainable now and in the future. The Alliance of American Museums 2017 TrendsWatch highlighted empathy and social justice as key forces of change in the field. In a chapter devoted to empathy, Elizabeth Merritt states that “museums’ inherent strengths position them to be effective ‘empathy engines’ helping people to understand the ‘other’ and reinforcing social bonds” (8).  To embrace these values, museums are working to build experiences based in storytelling, lived experience, memory, healing, and civic engagement. Exhibitions are being designed in partnership with community members, content is being co-created between museum staff and visitors, and marginalized voices are being brought into the core of museum spaces.

Strategies for Change

How can we more fully integrate these values in our own museum practice and institutional culture?  How can those of us working in, for, and with museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset?   In addition to rethinking hierarchies and internal structures, another key starting place for this type of change is simply practicing more empathy within the workplace environment and culture of a museum institution.  

Building Empathy on an Individual Level

While this sounds very broad, it can start with anyone at any level of an organization.  In many museums, especially large ones, the proliferation of departments and reporting structures combined with an over-reliance on email communication can lead to silos and barriers among staff within the organization.  People are not connecting with other people in meaningful ways.  

I can speak from my own personal experience, having been in plenty of tense meetings in which everyone comes in with their defenses up, ready to battle.  A curator is certain that the education staff are going to ‘dumb down’ their ideas.  An educator assumes that their suggestions to make an exhibition more accessible to families will be belittled by an exhibition designer.  Situations like these are happening in museums everyday, and they are creating and maintaining barriers to change.  We’re making assumptions about other people’s values and positions without ever listening to their perspectives.  

To counteract this, we can begin to form a culture of empathy through the basic building blocks of conversation and listening.  Building empathy on an individual level means identifying those people in your organization or in your community about which you might be making assumptions, then spending time having face-to-face conversations with them, taking a step back to truly listen, and trying to gain a greater sense of what they value and why.  Being a human-centered museum starts with the human connections and social relationships we build within the institution and among our community.  Getting this process started can be as easy as having coffee with co-workers that you find yourself rarely interacting with or even butting heads with. Removing these smaller-scale disconnections is a powerful way to start working toward change in your institution, one conversation at a time. 

Building Institutional Empathy

In addition to embracing empathy on an individual level, it is vital to consider how museums can embrace a broader form of institutional empathy.  Just as individuals can practice listening to and responding to the needs of other individuals, museums have the ability as institutions to mirror those same skills in building empathy with their communities. The amazing work of the Empathetic Museum group has focused on helping organizations move towards a more empathetic future.  According to their model, “an empathetic museum is so connected with its community that it is keenly aware of its values, needs, and challenges.”  

Using a rubric called the Maturity Model, museum staff and leaders can assess their own institution’s commitment to building empathy across a series of characteristics such as civic vision, institutional body language, community resonance, and sustainability. For museums just beginning to think about their work as human-centered, models such as this can provide a spark for meaningful conversations among staff about what it means to be empathetic and better reflect the values of your community.  For museums at more advanced stages of this change process, this model can help structure goal setting and inform strategic planning.  

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Photo from John Love’s interactive space “Bound in Yes,” part of the exhibition “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” at the Levine Museum of the New South.  This project is discussed in Elif Gokcigdem’s edited volume “Fostering Empathy Through Museums” (2017).

Identifying and Advancing Core Values

So this all sounds great, but what if just a few passionate staff are advocating for these ideas and models within an institution?  How can these human-centered values of empathy and human connection be integrated into the DNA of an organization, and not just fade if those few passionate staff get frustrated or even leave?  

Beyond advancing individual empathy as described above (an important strategy toward spreading empathy within an organization), one key strategy is developing core values and a values statement that reflect these ideas.  If your museum does not have any type of core value statement, there is never a bad time to get one drafted.  

Traditionally, this type of institutional language has been created through a top-down process and likely doesn’t have the buy-in of most staff and volunteers.  Rather, it’s best to go through a process that allows staff at all levels (perhaps even some volunteers and community members) a chance to express their thoughts about a museum’s core values. These conversations might start during hallway conversations or cross-departmental meetings, and trickle up to the leadership team.  The goal here is to develop a simple, clear, open, and transparent set of values that can guide everyday decisions and help organizations answer difficult questions and challenges when they arise.  If an organization’s overall culture does not seem ready for this (yet), a similar process can occur within a single department and then often spread from there.

Having established a set of values based in human connection can more effectively lead to institutions becoming more human-centered and making decisions that reflect these values.

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Photo from Oakland Museum of California via The Empathetic Museum: http://empatheticmuseum.weebly.com

Share Your Thoughts

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

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

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

Check out the previous post on rethinking hierarchies, and stay tuned for further posts in this series about how museums might become more human-centered institutions working toward positive impact in our communities, including reflecting on personal agency.

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About the Author

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

Header Image:  “Wall of Empathy (6)” photo by David Goehring, not changed, CC BY 2.0.  Photo depicts a “wall” of sticky notes installed by an artist group in selected San Francisco BART stations following the 2016 presidential election. This project was inspired by a similar one in the New York subway.

Towards a More Human-Centered Museum: Part 1, Rethinking Hierarchies

Written by Mike Murawski

As common sense and straightforward as it sounds to think about museums as people- and human-centered institutions—a concept you’ve heard me write about quite a bit—this idea has faced a legacy of rather fierce opposition grounded in outdated traditions and histories. How many museums have mission statements that prioritize the colonizing actions of “collecting” and “preserving” objects, rather than fore-fronting the people-centered work of building community, growing empathy and understanding, celebrating human creativity, and cultivating engaged citizenship?  How often do museum leaders and boards make decisions that value objects and collections over staff, volunteers, and museum visitors?  What if museum leaders and professionals considered human relationships and human impact, first and foremost, when making decisions about exhibitions, interpretation, programs, facilities, policies, and practices?  Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to do just that, advancing empathy, human potential, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institution’s values and culture.  And this is not just putting visitors at the center of our thinking, but all of the people that make up a museum’s community—visitors, staff, volunteers, members, donors, and community partners as well as neighbors and residents of our localities and regions.  All of these individuals are part of a museum’s interconnected human ecosystem.

Embracing a mindset of openness, participation, and social connectivity allows museums the chance to extend the boundaries of what is possible, and serve as sites for profound human connection in the 21st century.  In their 2011 book Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World, Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant discuss their ideas for developing a more human organization in a world affected by social media and the Internet.

“We need organizations that are more human.  We need to re-create our organizations so that the power and energy of being human in our work life can be leveraged. This has the power not only to transform our individual experiences in the work world, but also to access untapped potential in our organizations” (p. 4).

Jasper Visser writes about museums and these aspects of a social business, quoting the Social Business Forum in defining a social business as “an organization that has put in place the strategies, technologies, and processes to systematically engage all the individuals in its ecosystem (employees, customers, partners, suppliers) to maximize the co-created value.” The model of a social business, therefore, focuses on building relationships and connections among its entire community, or ecosystem of people.  For museums, this goes beyond just being visitor-centered and means thinking about staff and volunteers as well as neighbors and the broader public.  As Visser states:

“museums and most other cultural institutions are inherently social organizations to begin with. They have always thrived on intimate relations with all individuals involved in the joint creation of value.”

Insert cliche image of people working together (couldn’t resist, sorry)…

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This concept of a social museum relies on each and every stakeholder working together toward change, value, and impact (which is why using the stock image above actually makes sense to use in representing museums). The key elements of a social organization—embracing networks of people, considering social relationships inside and outside the organization, and enhancing collaboration in a way that crosses traditional boundaries—are all core to developing a human-centered mindset in museums.

Strategies for Change

So how can those of us working in museums begin to make this shift happen toward a more human-centered mindset?  In order to become social organizations that achieve positive impact in their communities, museums need to be rethinking their internal organization structures.  Most museums rely on deeply ingrained, top-down structures that rely on territorial thinking, defined protocols, and traditional reporting structures based on academic degrees, power, silos, division, and oppression.  In these traditional hierarchies, communication flows from the top to the bottom which means that “innovation stagnates, engagement suffers, and collaboration is virtually non-existent” (Jacob Morgan, “The 5 Types of Organizational Structures: Part 1, The Hierarchy,” Forbes, July 6, 2015).

Furthermore, as stated in the nationwide report Ready to Lead: Next Generation of Leaders Speak Out (2008), organizations that maintain traditional hierarchies “risk perpetuating power structures that alienate emerging leadership talent in their organizations” (p. 25).  The sluggish bureaucracy of this embedded management structure prevents a museum from being responsive to its staff and its broader community.  In other words, traditional top-down museums are just not very human-centered.  They tend to be leader-centered or focused on a few powerful individuals at the top.  So how can this be changed?  What steps can museum professionals take to think about and enact alternative structures?

To be more people-centered, museum leaders and staff can work toward more participatory, democratic, and flatter models for organizational structure.  In their recent book Creating the Visitor-Centered Museum (2017), Peter Samis and Mimi Michaelson discuss this transformation taking place in museums taking a more visitor-centered approach: “new ways of working ultimately shift traditional structures and may end up equalizing roles or flattening hierarchies” (p. 6). Efforts to decentralize decision-making and promote broader collaboration lead to museums that are more innovative, more responsive to change, and more likely to have a shared central purpose across its staff, volunteers, visitors, and community stakeholders—its human ecosystem.  When we rethink and replace the outdated hierarchies, there is clearly a greater potential for a broader base of individuals to feel personal ownership over the meaningful work of museums in their communities.

In 2011, the Oakland Museum of California (OCMA) made major changes to their structure that resulted in a new cross-disciplinary and cross-functional model focused on visitor experience and community engagement.  Referred to within OCMA as “the flower,” this new organizational structure has attempted to rid the museum of some of the barriers formed by outdated ways of operating.  In 2016, their updated organizational chart had “visitor experience & public participation” at its very center, and only text references to the CEO and executive team floating around the outside.  What started as a “rake” of institutional silos, according to Executive Director Lori Fogarty, became a “flower” of cross-functional teams emphasizing transparency, input, and communication. The more decentralized flower structure has positioned this civic-minded institution to better serve and engage its community.  Here is Fogarty speaking at an ArtsFwd event in 2014:

But What Can I Do?

Aside from reinventing your entire museum’s organizational structure (which is awesome, but quite challenging and rare), there are smaller action steps that anyone can take within their own institution.

One way to make these types of changes happen is to work toward flattening communication and expanding participation in decision-making.  Seek ideas and input from staff and colleagues on a regular basis, and you don’t have to be a manager to do this.  For example, instead of using meetings to passively report out information about upcoming projects or policies, use these times to also discuss critical issues and gather input.  Even a large staff meeting can be a platform for two-way communication.  In addition, empower staff at all levels to participate in setting goals for their departments and for the museum.  This can happen at any level of an organization, and sometimes making changes at the smaller ‘grass roots’ level of an organization can eventually lead to significant changes at the top.  And involving more staff input in goal setting may take a greater investment in time across an organization, it will lead to broader feelings of ownership once those goals are being implemented and achieved on the floor with visitors.  Involving staff at all levels of an organization in goal-setting and decision-making can also work toward cultivating leadership at all levels.  Human-centered museums are institutions that recognize leaders across all levels and departments, not just at the top.

Finally, one important strategy for embracing a human-centered mindset in museums involves replacing outdated “org charts” with new ways of visualizing connections.  Everyone reading this is probably familiar with the org charts that have each position in a box, and lines connect everyone based on management and reporting.  Who manages who?  Who evaluates who? Who has power over who?  These charts fan out from the Director or CEO box at the top, ending at the bottom with lots of little boxes filled with part-time staff, security guards, volunteer docents, etc.  Not only are these charts confusing (and oftentimes quite ugly), but they emphasize oppressive power relationships and do not accurately represent the way a museum works and how staff interact with each other.

Your museum or organization might have something that looks a bit like this:

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We need to replace these old org charts with new maps that emphasize human connection and collaboration.  And you don’t need to be the human resources director or CEO to give this a try.  Take a piece of paper, draw a circle to represent yourself, and then begin adding in other staff, volunteers, or partners based on your working relationships with them.  Who do you collaborate with on a regular basis?  What working group meetings or committee meetings do you attend?  What are some of the social connections you have within your organization (yes, these count, too)?  Soon, you begin creating an organic map of your organization based on human relationships and connection.  Maybe something a bit more like this:

Picture1

Not only is this a great way to visualize and map your existing connections with others, but you can also use this as a way to identify individuals or departments in your organization that you are currently not connected with.  What are some ways you might begin to develop new connections to those people?  What impact might building new connections have on your work, their work, and the museum’s work in the broader community?

Share Your Thoughts

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

Are you working toward rethinking hierarchies and outdated structures in your organization?  Add your voice to the comments below or via social media (@murawski27), and share your experiences or questions as part of this effort to make change happen in museums.

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

*     *     *

Check out additional posts in this series about how museums might become more human-centered institutions working toward positive impact in our communities, including reflecting on personal agency as well as embracing a culture of empathy.

About the Author

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

Revolution: MuseumNext Portland – Call for Speakers

Written by Mike Murawski

I am so proud and excited that my home institution, the Portland Art Museum, will be hosting this fall’s MuseumNext conference.  I have been fortunate enough to attend MuseumNext both times that it has held conferences here in the United States thus far: first in Indianapolis, and mostly recently in New York.  This conference, perhaps more than any other, brings together a diversity of thinkers and leaders in the field of museums, attracting speakers and attendees from all around the globe.  And with this fall’s theme of REVOLUTION, there is no doubt in my mind that it will be a powerful, transformative event that brings together risk-takers and changemakers from museums as well as the arts & culture sector.  I am thoroughly excited to showcase the great work happening right here at the Portland Art Museum, and welcome attendees to gain a richer understanding of the innovative, diverse, and creative things happening here in the incredible city of Portland (far beyond the stereotypes of Portlandia).  Hope to see many of you here this fall!

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call_for_papers

MuseumNext USA Call for Speakers
Portland, Oregon
2 – 4 October, 2017

Deadline: Friday 16 June (5pm PTZ)

MuseumNext is a global conference on the future of museums. Since 2009 it has acted as a platform for showcasing best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow. On October 2-4, 2017, we will be holding our third annual conference in the United States – with three days of presentations, discussion,s and debates at Portland Art Museum.

Every MuseumNext conference has a theme, around which the community comes together to discuss the future of museums. This year the theme for MuseumNext USA will be Revolution. Museums aren’t strangers to revolution, we are constantly responding to and transformed by our changing society, whether that’s due to politics, environment or technology. Our institutions don’t stand still. At the same time, having the mandate to conserve, revolutions are a risk and challenge to many museums.

We are now inviting proposals from our community on the theme of revolution, looking at what that means to individuals and institutions around the world.

Taking a stand – How are museums acting as agents of change within their communities and fighting for social good?

Managing change – How are museums responding to a rapidly changing society or change within their organizations?

Mini Revolutions – What trends are revolutionising the field of museums, from the maker movement to being safe places for refugees?

Collecting Revolutions – Museums collect and tell stories through their collections, but many of today’s most important stories center around civil movements, hashtags and other, uncollectable ideas. How do we document the revolutionary now?

Or – We welcome your own ideas about how revolution relates to museums.

MuseumNext follows a fast-paced format of twenty-minute presentations with the focus very much on practice rather than theory (please note that this is the only format we’ll use at this event and we aren’t seeking longer presentations or workshops at this time).

Proposals for presentations should contain a title, names of presenters, a summary of the themes to be addressed, relevant links as well as a description of the expected learning outcomes.

We offer those speaking at the conference one free ticket per session, and speakers are responsible for their own travel and accommodation.

All proposals should be submitted via this form.

A Museum Educator’s Takeaways from Museums & the Web 2015

As someone whose interests, skills, and even job title (Manager of Digital Learning) sit squarely between two areas of museum work—education and technology—I think pretty much nonstop about the relationship between the two. This year, I had the great fortune to be able to attend the 2015 Museums and the Web conference (MW or #MW2015) in Chicago, IL, and think out loud with hundreds of leaders, practitioners, and students passionate about museum technology.

I am active in the Museum Education Division of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and usually attend the NAEA convention, but this year I was excited to step away from my home base of museum education and into the world of digital. I was not disappointed: I found my tech nerd people (you should have heard the nostalgic sigh when someone showed a GIF of old-school Hyperlapse in action).

However, this is not a post about digital nerdery, so if you understood not a word of that previous sentence, don’t be scared. From here on out, this is my attempt to bridge the areas of digital and education in museums. Here are some of my key takeaways from the MW2015 Conference.

Museums and the Web does conference swag right. Check out those tote bags. Photo by the author.
Museums and the Web does conference swag right. Check out those tote bags. Photo by the author.

Twitter is a magical thing

One of the best things I ever did for my career was sign up for Twitter, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become more involved in the field. It has helped me make deep and vast connections with colleagues I never would have encountered otherwise, from all over the museum field and into art history, academia, and K-12 learning. I now use Twitter as my primary source for museum, art, and tech news; as a place to share resources; to talk about issues in the field; and to store my thoughts during conferences. At MW2015, I was finally able to meet many of my “Twitter colleagues” in person. As someone who’s more introverted, it made approaching someone I’d never met before much easier when I could lead with “I’ve followed you on Twitter forever!” and pick up a conversation where we left off online. I could see the same being true for a student or emerging professional.

And, not gonna lie, it’s both fun and weird to be recognized from Twitter when you’re at a conference. It’s like your own little celebrity moment when you introduce yourself to someone and they exclaim, “Oh! I follow you on Twitter and was hoping I’d meet you!” (Insert blushing emoji here.)

Museum technologists publish—and therefore legitimize the “musetech” field

Museum technologists publish. This topic has been bubbling up both at this year’s NAEA (read Dana Carlisle Kletchka’s speech here) and among the museum educators present at MW2015.

At Museums and the Web, presenters can host professional forums and workshops, but they can also present papers. For paper presentations, you write and submit a formal paper that goes beyond “show and tell” of a project and focuses on theory and practice. At the conference, you’re bundled into a session with two other author-practitioners who wrote on similar topics, and the three of you share key points. These engaging talks give technologists the opportunity to formally publish in their field, a boon for their institution and impressive internally to senior staff. Wrapping publishing into a conference also opens doors for emerging professionals and students to participate in the organization more deeply.

But more than that, it legitimizes museum technology. Emily Lytle-Painter used that turn of phrase when I mentioned how impressed I was with the publishing arm of the conference, and it was an “a-ha!” moment for me. Publishing in this quantity and with such dedication—plus offering the papers online, for free, for anyone to read—helps the museum field at large see how important tech is, because it connects theory with practice.

Michelle Grohe (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) and I are thinking about how to adapt this to the field of museum education, and I am hoping to have some ideas to pilot this summer. So stay tuned, and please feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested in this topic.

The author presents on teen programs at the conference along with Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago), Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), and Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs). Photo by Peter Vega
The author presents on teen programs at the conference along with Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago), Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), and Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs). Photo by Peter Vega

We need to be better at translating and advocating for our work

One of my coworkers told me about a moment in the Linked Open Data session where the speakers were asked to do an “elevator pitch,” as if to their director or board, about the benefits of linked open data. Afterward, the audience was asked to raise their hand if they were convinced. Just one person did–in a room of nearly a hundred.

When my coworker—one of our fantastic IT (information technology) staff—told me this anecdote, we had a great discussion about the topic of translating what we do for non-technical staff. One of my biggest pet peeves about the museum field as a whole is that we use specialized language that visitors don’t understand. On top of that, we often use our own content-area words that our colleagues might not understand—curators use art history terminology, educators use teacher-speak, and digital has a host of terms drawn from tech. It’s so easy to forget that others might not know our vocabulary, and few of us are brave enough to ask our peers what the heck a mandala, parking lot, or API is.

Educators are great at knowing our audience on tours; let’s apply that to our own institutions by explaining what we mean when talking to our colleagues, as well as not being afraid to ask coworkers to define their terms. Another tool is metaphor, which Tracey Berg-Fulton suggested at the conference—she “translates” by using art history examples to explain tech to curators, and puts curator needs into tech speak for IT. When we translate what we mean, we gain powerful allies and advocates.

We grapple with the same issues—so let’s collaborate more!

There were countless themes and issues that surfaced during Museums and the Web. Technologists such as Peter Samis (SFMOMA) are thinking about storytelling in the digital sphere. We’re grappling with focusing on process vs. the object, as evidenced by a talk on museum makerspaces by Desi Gonzalez, which in turn sparked a sideline Twitter debate about visitor motivation. Developing projects that aligned with institutional mission came up again and again—as a guidepost, as a tool for advocacy, as a way to develop buy-in from colleagues. And we’re struggling with how to define impact and evaluate digital projects—how do we avoid “anecdata” (anecdotal non-data) and really dig deep into showing change?

I’m sure that more than one of these topics resonated with you as a museum educator–so it’s no surprise that I think we should collaborate more internally, cross-departmentally. The museum technologists leading the deepest organizational change and the most impactful projects are those who have strong collaborations cross-departmentally. So if you’re not already, reach across the aisle of your museum and foster relationships with your tech folks–then we can innovate together rather than separately!

It doesn’t have to be a huge, scary endeavor: start small. Have coffee with one of your museum’s digital/IT staff to learn a bit more about his or her job, and let them know what you do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—your genuine curiosity will go a long way. Find existing projects that you might be able to support, and share what you’re working on. See if there’s a cross-departmental meeting like a Technology Team you could join, or invite your new IT pal to join in an education meeting.

Digital leaders are often museum change leaders

Finally, one of the biggest threads of the conference was about how change is affecting our institutions (you can track lots of different conversations at #MWChange). You’ll notice that “digital” wasn’t in that sentence, but it seems to me that organizational change is, at many institutions, being spearheaded by digital staff. I think this is because digital projects are often catalysts that force museum staff to rethink business as usual. Keir Winesmith (SFMOMA), Michael Parry (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney), Dafydd James (National Museum Wales, UK), Seb Chan, and Aaron Cope (both from Cooper-Hewitt) all led sessions that focused on or touched on institutional change as a result of digital projects. I highly recommend checking out Keir, Michael, and Dafydd’s excellent slides.

Their stories all rang true with one of my favorite books on change and leadership, Leading Change by John Kotter. Kotter proposes eight stages of organizational change, and asserts that it’s a long-term process that requires deep buy-in from all areas and levels. His theory resonates deeply with the change strategies put forth at MW2015. Both Kotter’s book and the papers written by these presenters (here and here) are well worth a read for those of us thinking about deep change in our institution and in the field at large.

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I’m sure you’ll find that there’s lots of overlap between our work as museum educators and the work of our colleagues in technology. After a week with some wonderful museum technologists at Museums and the Web, I guarantee that there is a lot we can learn from each other to invigorate our practice and better serve our visitors.

PS: I also had the pleasure of presenting at the conference with educators Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago) and Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), organized by Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs)! We talked about digital in teen programs, and you can read more about our session on Barry’s blog.

Featured header image: A shot of the closing reception at the beautiful (and massive) Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Photo by the author.