Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Teams, My teams, and Are we one team?

The Ship of Fools by Hieronymus Bosch, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

By Seema Rao and Paul Bowers

I've been living in a wintery wonderland and luxuriating a beachy wonderland in equal turns recently. Last week, Rob Weisberg posted when I was at MCN (sadly as missing him terribly at that conference.)

I'm so glad to have gotten to go to MCN. Museum Computer Network has become my Shangri-la, in a way. A mirage, I see even when it's not there. I connect with many of those people online and in email. I wrote a bit about my true love for my conference friends last week on Medium. I wrote that post because I had one heck of a conference. So many things that had meant so much to me were coming to fruition, and like a godparent, I had barely anything to do with them. It felt great and also like an out of body experience.

In some ways, museum work has this illusory aspect. Or museum work is like atomic theory perhaps. We all have so many colleagues we rarely meet. And, then you run into each other in life or online, maybe exchange some energy, and like electrons bounce to higher levels.


This idea of bouncing ideas and growing them might be said for my other post of the week, about touching art. I'm pretty open to a number of possibilities in museums. I am most definitely not open on the issues of collection care. The sanctity of the work is paramount. So how do we balance NO Touching policies and messaging against welcoming visitors? I don't have an answer, but would love to increase my energy levels on best solutions with your help. (as always drop by a line in comments or at Twitter @artlust)  So in this case, I'm hoping you run into me with your ideas. (I did this illustration on my plane back from MCN that made me feel better though offered few solutions. And yes, it really is 2 Legit 2 Legit to quit. But I couldn't. I just couldn't).

All this meandering introduction, perhaps, is to lead up to this week's guest speaker. I've definitely felt energized by interacting with him, usually online. Paul lives in Australia, and I've had a couple of meals with him at most. I've also had very thoughtful conversations with him and I feel I've found a kindred spirit. So much so, we've presented a paper together on the stage of MuseumNext. I was thrilled he was willing to share some of his thoughts here today. Enjoy.

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Are we one team? 
By Paul Bowers
As Seema wrote in the first of the work series, our sector has been professionalized and reshaped over the past few decades. While we are enriched by the many professional fields intersecting to create the contemporary museum workplace, it presents a challenge we rarely talk about. 
In every museum, we find different values, language and work practices. I want a debrief, you talk about retros; I ask for the budget, you offer me the ‘P and L’. A successful day for the retail team is not the same as for the registrars - how do we work together when some people want to make a profit, and others study provenance? Many workplaces have these complexities, but I think our sector is unique in the sheer number of different domain experts - and that means we have to work harder than most at building common cause.
Lots of low-level workplace frustration can be laid at this door. I think I could fund my coffee habit if I had a dollar for each complaint of ‘Jeff from department blah is messing up my project, grrr.’ And there’s always a Jeff to blame: I’m sure even Jeff has a Jeff.
Before offering some suggestions, it’s important to emphasize there are a lot of unspoken assumptions of privilege and social encoding around values and how things should be done: that ‘academic’ is superior to ‘technical’, for example. We must be mindful, humble and open to learn about the privilege we may have in the workplace.
That being said, my first suggestion is to slow down: invest time in being clear what we mean and why we are acting as we are. Expertise gleaned from years in one sector, understood easily with your department colleagues, doesn’t automatically feel valid to someone without this experience. Deploying authority to win is easy but doesn’t help in the long run. We build trust and social capital by taking the time to explain - and explaining our reasoning can often assist in clarifying our thinking.
Overt your values, rationale and motivations. When passing on a piece of work, be clear, ‘I did it like this because _____.’ An exhibition team of mine was in conflict with the functions and events team - it was resolved when that department head said ‘I love doing two things at work: making money and supporting the arts. When I make money, it pays for exhibitions. That’s why I want to make more money.’ Written here, it looks patronizing - but in that moment, the direct simplicity brought clarity and drained conflict from the conversations.
My second suggestion is to remember that no-one comes to work to do a terrible job or annoy their co-workers. So when someone seems frustrating, work really hard at assuming good intent. Reflect on ‘how do they think they are creating a positive impact in this conversation?’ Find a way to ask - can you explain a bit more about how this way of working moves us forward? Usually, there is an excellent reason!
The legal team in a previous museum frustrated me - they were excruciatingly slow. And then a mutual colleague explained how it looked from their perspective - slowing me down and checking the detail was their job, to protect the organization against the existential threat of a huge legal cost in the future. This helped me see their contribution as a positive thing.
My final suggestion is to be more intentional about purpose, and who owns it. We can often unintentionally create micro-empires around tiny tasks, rather than cohesive language around a shared endeavor. Stating ‘I will select the artworks, you will prepare and document them, they will install them’ may be factually accurate, but it is so much better to say ‘let’s work together on getting this exhibition looking great, let’s agree how we’ll get it done, how about this: …’ before that statement. Use collective language in every situation, unless talking about your own direct accountability.
I’m sure there are many more ways to create and maintain common cause with the different professionals who make up our workforce. The goal isn’t to make everyone work the same - I’d be a terrible legal counsel! - but if we can reduce friction and create more harmony, the rewards for us as workers (including Jeff!), and eventually for our audiences, will be great.


Paul Bowers is a museum professional in Melbourne, Australia, who usually blogs at


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Activity Level Discussion in Museums: Is a Role Marketplace an Answer?



Written by Seema Rao and Robert J. Weisberg

A few years ago, I had this crazy idea to write a book to support a single conference session. I wasn't alone in my zeal. A friend, Robert J. Weisberg, had the same idea. Together we wrote a how-to manual for organizational change, called Change at Work: Not Just Surviving but ThrivingThe weekly calls and the Slack channel in preparation for writing the book was incredibly impactful for me. I'd managed for ages by then, and I'd certainly put in place change management. But until I started talking big picture with Rob, I don't know that I was truly thinking out the big issues. Now, not all of you will get to spend every other week for months chatting with Rob about museums, but I wanted to offer you a slice of how wonderful that can be.

This week Rob will share some ideas about museum work. What I particularly like about this post is that he's turning a critical eye to something many of us take for granted.

The Activity Level Discussion in Museums: Is a Role Marketplace an Answer? By Robert J. Weisberg

 Activity level is a problem for museum staff. The solution is unclear. A marketplace of museum roles is worth a look. Many museum staff realize that the model of more-with-less is unsustainable. Perceptions among staff subcultures differ, however. Is the problem too many exhibitions? Too few staff? Too much collecting? Too much digital? Too much perfectionism borne of high-achieving academic backgrounds? (And what does "too much" mean, anyway?) If you answered "maybe" or "it depends" to all of the above, pat yourself on the back for your honesty. But if you want other people's projects canned so your great projects can continue, then we have gotten nowhere.

Museum leaders often see their institution in terms of ambitious expansions of buildings and collections. These generate more work without corresponding increases in funding for staff and benefits. It's a pernicious culture of seeing rank-and-file staff as costs, not assets, nevermind as people.

Staff cuts aren't the answer when those who are left end up overworked. We've heard the question, who should pay for art? But who should pay for those who work with the art and connect art to people? People make museums.

The answers aren't simple. The terms "innovation" and "engagement" have become buzzwords thanks to too many outcome-unclear professional development classes and staff surveys without corresponding action. It's no wonder why—creating the atmosphere for development to bloom or acting upon staff frustrations requires top-to-bottom organizational changes, not just a vague resetting of priorities. Collecting staff opinions is easy. Giving staff the authority, time, and trust to experiment, fail, learn, and teach the organization is far more difficult.

What does it mean to tackle activity levels in real terms? Reducing the amount of work everyone has so that most people can leave work on time? Cutting the number or intensity of projects? And if projects are cut, does that mean that staff will no longer have the agency to experiment, which might raise staff morale and yet might unleash some chaos?

The "Google 20 percent" innovation idea, allocating some portion of staff hours to self-managed time, has its supporters. However, 20 percent of an insane workday isn't the solution. Museum workflows have trouble with cross-team or -departmental projects. What happens when everyone has a project they want to pursue? (Gasp—would that mean figuring out how to compromise at scale? Can a trust potion be put in the water coolers?)

A more profound change would be to rate work across the museum on its impact with visitors—being sure to value how internal workflows and the unsexy infrastructure projects influence visitor outcomes. This creates a measure which organization leaders can share widely and which would help staff see how their work connects with the public. (This exercise can also help clarify how work like preservation, conservation, and research can matter to the public.) The institution can sunset work which doesn't connect, such as legacy projects which don't matter to visitor experience.
Then—and here's the radical part—give staff the opportunity to take part in higher-rated projects across the museum, seeing work as roles and responsibilities, and not just titles and boxes on an org chart.

A larger organization could test this approach in a few departments, with results made public internally. Staff could work anywhere in the org for a few hours a week. Departments that fear losing the attention of their workers would complain, but this might get leaders to make their own projects and responsibilities more appealing, leading to a marketplace of projectsBalancing organizational needs and staff satisfaction is an institution-wide endeavor.

Museum staff who strongly identify with their authority and expertise will need the humility to learn what their colleagues are doing. This is not playtime at work. Staff will have to interrogate their own understanding of their museum's mission and strategy—the why which staff training programs rarely address, not just the what.

A marketplace of museum roles would be a challenge to implement, but it is an experiment worth trying. Museums might learn something, and museum workers can't be much unhappier. Staff salaries and benefits are a problem, but if museum leaders are serious about dealing with the vicious spiral of activity levels in ways other than hacking at budgets and projects, they can't afford to ignore any option.

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Rob Weisberg is the Senior Project Manager, Publications and Editorial, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He usually blogs at Museum Human

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Museum Work


Author: Seema Rao

This month, we’re talking about work. Not the work we do, but the ways we do that work.
While many American museums require 37.5 or 38 hours of work a week, most of us put in way more. In some old jobs I've had, particularly when I was full-time at part-time, juggling multiple roles, I regularly put in 100 hours a week. I came from a family that did that, so it seemed normal, though my relatives were all earning considerably more for their 100 hours a week.

I’m setting wages aside this month. Trust me, I know they are important. Salary is, often, the way organizations signal your worth. This is particularly evident when organizations pay greater salaries to certain departments overall than others. And, as Phillip Thompson said inour panel last week, the museum business model sets up problems for our field, because we are always trapped by the amount of money we can raise. Therefore, the whole issue of wages gets at the heart of the faulty systems of capitalism, the culture of women’s work, and museums as privilege-concentrating institutions. In other words, wage is enormous conversation and deserves its own month down the road.

This month though, I want to deal with something a bit more manageable. How we do our work and how we can improve it. The big questions are, how can people make changes to improve the working conditions, and how can leaders help organizations run better?

Efficiency is a favorite topic of mine. I like to think about where to shave off a little time (though who knows what I’m doing with that extra.) And, next week, I can share some of my thoughts on efficiency. But efficiency is like calibrating a well-run machine. This month, I’d like to think about our many broken machines.

Museums might earn their philanthropy partly through gifts from commercial enterprises, but for a very long time, their workplaces were run very differently. They had the committee decision-making structures from universities and the collections-authority systems of libraries. But they had a flavor all their own, spiced up with curatorial authority and donor privilege. In the last twenty years, or so, professionalization has changed museum work. Much of the quirkiness in the field has given way to corporate norms. Dashboards and ROI are as much part of our workplace language as community engagement and light-sensitivity.

This transformation has brought some good. Last month, we talked about audience engagement. Almost twenty years ago, when I started in community engagement, meeting after meeting would be held about what X group of people wanted. We never once asked them. We had no data to support our suppositions. And, we still barreled in and gave them the wrong thing. Now, I can’t imagine creating a new program without data.

Moving toward a more professionalized, and I might say corporate, structure has also brought negative issues in the workplace. In an old job, I was asked to track all the costs and benefits of family programs. Our systems weren’t up to snuff enough to let me click a button to generate a dashboard pulling directly from enterprise software. Plus like many organizations, family programs were a necessary evil for that organization, not what the museum perceived as their worthy audience. So, I sat at my little desk and crunched away. In an old life, I took plenty of stats. Numbers and graphs excite me. They are as plain, if not more, than words, in my mind. I sent the report to my boss. Six months later, she said she didn’t read it. She wasn’t into numbers. My tale of wasted work woes isn’t being retold for sympathy. I’m using this as an example of when a museum workplace needs fixing. First, we are often asking ourselves to do more, but we don’t scale up our system to do so. If you are going to become data-informed, you need to have your data easily accessible (or pay someone extra to crunch the data). Data is not free. Second, we are often choosing to make a change without scaling up internal capacity. If your leaders don’t use numbers, get them training, or don’t waste the junior staff’s time on generating them.

We have a certain amount of time allocated for work. As individuals and organizations, we choose how to allocate them. Giving a critical eye to labor, and the reasons certain systems don’t work is an essential way to improve work overall.

Museums are often run like city-states, each solving for their own problems. Just as Sparta and Athens solved city management differently, two museums on the same block can be run quite differently. Diversity in organizations and workplace solutions can be good for our field, that is, if we learn from each other. We often look across the street or nation at other museums for how they solve the big things: exhibitions, building projects, technology. But, we aren’t all that good at talking about the boring mundane parts of our lives like the way we do work. I suggest speaking across the sector about work could improve working conditions and as a result the field.

We are at that museum way more than 37.5 hours a week, and why should those hours be frustrating and unhappy? So, this month’s big issues are: What are some of the big issues you see about how work is done in Museums? What can you do to change this?

Also the picture at the header was Rob Lancefield's old desk, and it was part of Chad Weinard's wonderful talk about work from an age old MCN conference.