Tag Archives: personal experience

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.

The Interpretive Value of a Chair: A Personal Reflection

Written by Susan Spero

“For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed.  Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.”  –Paul Klee

I’m pushing myself, and I’m tired. There are too many museums in Washington, D.C., on my list, and I am running out of time before I have to fly to the other side of the country.  My foot hurts, too, because I twisted it walking on the capital’s irregular sidewalks; it is bruised badly, but I press onward as I am determined to squeeze in yet another museum. I’m driven. Foolishly, I thought my heavy travel-ready backpack would be ok for this last venture that somehow I could manage it well enough on my shoulders balanced against my back. But now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this backpack has become a problem as the guards—properly, I’ll add—keep telling me to wear it on my front. In this position the straps are too tight, so I attempt to hold it near the ground on my side. That position doesn’t work either because it is too heavy for my arm alone. I then compromise by holding the pack at the front of my body with my arms wrapped awkwardly around it.

Whenever I find myself in a museum with short time, I mentally and emotionally agree that I’m going to metaphorically strap on some roller skates and cruise through it all. I like getting a sense of the whole of any museum, even if it is much larger than a skate-cruise allows. This time, with the mix of guard admonishments and sore foot, my push to see everything isn’t working.  Completely frustrated, I spot a bench in a dark room placed before a quite garish painting. I head for the bench, not the painting.

The bench is instantly satisfying, cushioned—quite comfortable. Backpack down next to me, I sigh to gather myself, then look up. The painting looks quite different than it did when I initially walked into the room. It takes me a bit to figure out just what is happening before me; very slowly, the lights illuminating the painting seem to shift into what begins to feel like the slow revolving of a Christmas tree light wheel display. As the colors change, the relationships of the shapes and patterns within the artwork alter, making some versions visually delightful. I’m taken away from my foot misery, fascinated. It’s a celebration of the full color spectrum—a Roy G. Biv tribute. Time is passing and I don’t care; I’m now mesmerized by the work, and comfortable enough to take some time looking.  It’s hooked me; I’ve stopped skating. I’m looking deeply, asking questions. Wondering.

I’m lucky this visit–there are few visiting this part of the gallery, so there is no crowd to subtly press me to move on. I welcome the one person who steps into the gallery space, and when he sits next to me—the bench is a long one and could accommodate many—we talk a bit about what we notice in the abstract world of the painting that changes before us. After viewing a second round of the color cycle, I finally get up to find the label. The work’s painter initially surprises and slightly wounds my pride that I didn’t actually know him immediately, it’s David Hockney’s Snail’s Space with Vari-Lites, “Painting as Performance”.  From the label I’m curious to what a Vari-Lite is? With the color spell broken I make myself move on, away from the comfortable bench.

Later, when I look for more details online, I find a static picture on the SAAM collections site that shows none of the subtle color changes. With a further Internet search, I find a few not-very-equivalent to the real thing YouTube phone-captured videos. These videos just vaguely give a sense of the piece. This is a you-must-see-it-to-get-it artwork. The SAAM thoughtfully gives us a bench so we can sit and see for some time.

I have no idea if anyone else has been struck in the same way I am with this particular painting. Thinking about my experience, I am reminded of one of my first museum visits as a child at the Columbus Museum of Art where there was a machine that demonstrated color light mixing using transparent gels showing how three light primaries (red, blue, green) combine to create magenta, yellow, and cyan. My mother had to drag this whining eight-year-old away from it as I could have played for hours. Years later, I desperately wanted to make something like it for my science project. So I’m moved by color, perhaps in the same way some are moved by music. Color feeds me in a way few other things do.

One of my other color memories is thanks to a Windsor chair, notably with a back, so I could really relax while viewing a painting. This chair was placed before one of the most well known paintings in D.C., Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. My circumstances were similar to those with the Hockney: I was at my first National Docent Conference, overfilled with conversation about art, and in a different twist for me, was being dragged by others for one last look at art before we headed to our flight. Upon hitting the galleries, my goal was to sit and gather myself, so I wandered through in search of a chair aiming to take the first one I could find. At the time, some almost 30 years ago, an available chair seemed a novel thing. And equally unexpected, the guards at The Phillips Collection were students from nearby universities dressed in everyday clothing.  I remember asking an approachable gallery attendant if I could sit in the chair, assuming I could not, and being told that it was there for people to take in the paintings. The atmosphere was welcoming, and the chair made it more so.

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Gallery view with Renoir, Phillips Collection. Flickr Photo by Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The room was full of Impressionist paintings; I was full of a disdainful attitude about them, internally wearing my smugness of ‘I’d been there, I’d done impressionism.’ One of the lessons I learned that day sitting in that welcoming chair has stayed with me since: you don’t know what you don’t know unless you see something for yourself. Being in that chair, the painting invited me in to look, and the more I looked the more I wondered, the more intrigued I became, and suddenly my respect for this work increased. Not having the Internet to turn to in those days, I soon found myself in the bookstore buying information on this masterpiece. Today this 20-minute experience remains vivid in my mind’s eye.

When I recently talked about this with my colleague Peter Samis, Associate Curator of Interpretation at SFMOMA, he suggested that both of these works are clear instances of what he calls Visual Velcro. The Hockney and the Renoir readily hook the viewer into the work in part because of the color dramas they present.  The Visual Velcro with them hooked me so well that I might have stayed for a while to look anyway. Having a place to sit in both instances helped me physically endure a much longer visual journey.  Access to seating can also support our viewing works that are not as easy on the eyes, those that are more unsettling or socially challenging. For instance, the color used in the recent show Rewind at The Baltimore Museum of Art is quite purposeful, the artist has made KKK robes in colorful Kente cloth and other patterned fabrics. While the Rewind show has the visual allure of color, the content is more socially charged; I want to sit in a chair especially in that exhibition. The longer I can be with any artwork, the more I will notice, the more I will feel.

Comfortable chairs in the right places within our galleries are critical. Not only do they offer a place for the weary to rest, but also are an invitation to stop, stare, and wonder. In many ways, in this online venue, I’m preaching to the converted: we know this. But you might want to remind yourself of the interpretive value of a chair.

When was the last time you sat in one in front of a work and let yourself just see?

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Flickr Photo by Chris Short, galleries at North Carolina Museum of Art. CC BY-SA 2.0.

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ABOUT AUTHOR

SUSAN SPERO, Ph.D. teaches Museum Studies at the John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley CA.  Her classes focus on all aspects of the visitor experience, including discussions on creature comforts.  She also serves on the Museum Education Roundtable Board.

Header image: Flickr photo by John D., “Forest Stream,” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0