Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Who are we, museums?

This month, I want to ask us this question. As a field, who are we?

I have been thinking about this question at work for the past few weeks. I had started a rapid research experiment recently. I invite the whole staff to my office anytime between 2-3 on Tuesdays to answer one question. They get a cookie, and leave their desks for 15 minutes, interact with colleagues from outside their silo, and I get a bit more insight as we build our audience engagement plan. Most weeks, people give me great surprises. But, recently, one of my colleagues, a man with an impressive assortment of checked shirts that I consistently envy, said, “I think we can’t do this until we decide who we are.” It was one of those record-scratches-to-a-stop moments. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Then, I get home, confined to the couch with a terrible sinus headache, to find ICOM was debating the definition of a museum. A different sort of ache began. ICOM matters because museums are a global phenomenon. Is there a country without at least one? Over the years, I’ve enjoyed interacting with all the international museum folks at conferences, particularly at AAM. From those scant moments, I’ve garnered that, like many things, the happenings in America are different than those in the world. ICOM might not seem to matter to our workdays in American museums, but it does matter global. Why? For me, it is a sign at a high-level of what bureaucracy of our field thinks.

I have many thoughts about the ICOM definitions. Procedurally, I worry that many of the people leading this debate are not well-verse in practice (thanks for that clarification Suse Anderson) or in what visitors think. Good leadership is informed by others and on behalf of others. It is not deciding what is in your own best interest. Sure, some of the people working on the definition have been informed. But I’d love transparency on the ways that the ICOM delegates prepared for their role defining museums. As as Katie Eagleton brought up, who is this definition for? 

I’m particularly interested in the ways that the possible definitions by ICOM relate to the ways the people of those nations define museums. Susan Spero brought up a good point. Our field is more than casual observers see us, and our future requires us to go beyond the assumptions people make of museums. Absolutely. Tony Butler offers a publication that also resonated with Susan’s point. Both of these issues are important. People can only define museums on what we have now. We as professionals get to define museums on the future we will make.

But the gaps between the ICOM definitions and their people’s/ visitor’s definitions would be telling. Do these gaps happen because we have forward-looking, visitor-centered leaders? Or do we have these gaps because our leaders are not grounded in visitors or practice? The former is my hope, and I’m sure some of the people at ICOM qualify in this group. My fear is the latter is all too common, and I know some of the ICOM definitions reeked of naval-gazing, esoteric stupidity, and backward thought.

Why does it matter to get a definition? Or does it? I don’t know. I do think a good definition is a good way to show funders and foundations our collective vision of the field. I also think when museums are taxed, and in countries with different norms for museums, the definition can be a positive way to shine a light on the best path. But with all unfunded mandates, people are not being compensated to change. Should they? The status quo is the path already cleared. Many people on Twitter talked about how our actions as a field are a better definition of the future than any word salad a committee can produce.

But I’m curious: Who are we, museums? (As Sarah May said, we might ask, who is a museum? Who is it for?) 

I’d love every answer and all answers. In many ways, our discussions are the most essential way to move forward. ICOM would be well-served by invited huge digital debate by museums folks and the folks who go to museums, by then inviting thinkers to synthesize these thoughts, and then use that to make something worth voting yes for.

I’ll summarize your answers at the end of the month.

Please share, talk, and tell me. Tag me when you share (@artlust, @seemarao, @_art_lust_)

For your enjoyment, the ICOM definitionish:
Also, I'll put in a plug for my Medium post this week. I don't write there often, just when something feels important. It's an ode to my colleagues.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

We are the Solutions to Access Barriers

This month, we’ve been thinking about access barriers. I took us way off the beaten path on this subject. While I do admit to loving a tangent, these last few weeks have been purposeful detours. In our field, everything is tight. Money, time, energy, goodwill…we have only enough if we are lucky. We try to solve problems and often look for the most parsimonious solution.

We’ve all been there. A grant comes in. We whip out our logic model. We figure out the program that gets us the solution the grant wants. This way of solving has been occurring for years in our field. But we also know that it hasn’t made an appreciable impact on the people coming to museums.

People see impact and changes when they don’t solve for “x” using the same old formula. This month I talked about two variables that are often ignored when we talk about access and equity: the way we do our work and the frames we use to judge our work. I chose these because often when we talk about access, we think about ways to get people to come. We forget it is a lot harder to change other people. It’s a lot easier to change ourselves. Of course, changing yourself requires a certain level of self-reflection. Being honest with yourself, as an organization, is hard. But when you can really look at yourself, your workflow, and the flaws in your assumptions, you are also in control of the changes you can make.

Now, I’m not an expert in throwing open the doors, but just one voice, trying to make this happen. I put it out to everyone. I cheered every time people tagged me in their shares. And, I liked every comment. There was one particular thread that came in through Twitter from Rebecca of Melbourne, Australia. I loved how she brought up so many issues, often combining structural issues with the related effects. I’ve been thinking about her comments all month. From the very start, we are often setting ourselves up for challenges. We beg people to come in but we have formidable ticket booths. We are basically setting up a contradiction. To add insult to injury our visitors’ desks are often a barrier (both physical and perceived to entrance), Rebecca notes.

At my organization, we’ve just started to talk out the ways our space might be accidentally signaling inaccessibility to staff. These conversations are hard. They take time. But we believe the outcome will be worth it. How many organizations are doing this?

The relationship between perceived barriers and physical ones are incredibly important. If someone is already uncomfortable with the notion of coming, what does a physical block do? Prove their point? Now, I understand the economics of tickets, trust me. No one in leadership in a museum can be immune to the financial responsibilities of keeping collections available. Rebecca’s point gets to such an important point. We do these things one way, say putting a ticket desk up in the middle of the lobby, but we don’t always interrogate what the perception of our conventional wisdom is, and as such, we ignore contradictions therein. Our ticket desks are often more like draw bridges, gatekeeping, rather than inviting people in. Then we wring our hands when people don’t show up.

Rebecca also mentioned another issue about our museums and how we entice people. I’m a big e-reader. I never check out a book before reading the preview. I love shoes. I generally try them on before I buy. I even taste ice cream before selecting my flavor. Our whole society has moved to a transactional model where previews are the expectation. That is, except museums. We expect people to pay upfront on spec. We are giving people no tools to assess interest or value, and then we can’t understand why people aren’t snapping up the tickets. (Rebecca’s full thread is, hopefully, listed below for you to read.)

Overall, my point from this month, and I think Rebecca’s, is that much of our accessibility problem lies in us, not our visitors. We need to be self-reflexive and honest. We need to add new voices, from within our organizations, to help ourselves see the ways that we aren’t actually opening doors for visitors. And, then we have to make the necessary adjustments if we are truly hoping to open doors.

For more, read this thread, starting here: