Tag Archives: white dominant culture

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.

Action & Resource Guide: Museum Education Roundtable

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

Written and compiled by Museum Education Roundtable Board of Directors

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we can do right now: 

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

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

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

Resources for white people confronting anti-black racism:

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

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

In solidarity.

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About Museum Education Roundtable

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

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

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

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

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.

InterruptWhiteDominantCulture

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.