Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A Decade of Museums and Museum Work


I love alternative history novels. You know, like if this didn’t happen how would the world have gone. I was thinking I’d do a few alternative histories of museums for the first post of the last month of the decade. But I couldn’t get there. As I imagined a world without the many museum tech projects of the decade, I felt inherently sad about the imagining away the successes that friends and colleagues have enjoying. As I imagined a world without Nina Simon’s Participatory Museum, I felt sad about all the visitors whose voices (and post-it note comments) that weren’t honored. I tried to picture an alternative with AleiaBrown and Adrianne Russell’s #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson and LaTonya S. Autry and Mike Murawski’s #MuseumsarenotNeutral. I tried to picture a time before Jen Oleniczak Brown's museum improv company, Engaging Educator, as well as the aforementioned Jen, Mike Murawski, as well as Rachel Ropeik, and PJ Gubatina Policarpio's GalleryThrowdowns. I tried to picture a time when we were okay with only having a sliver of American society walking in our doors. And, well, the whole exercise was depressing.

The last decade has offered us enormous growth in the field. The idea of interactives in the galleries (alongside collections) are now not novel or very controversial. Museum workers other than curators are gaining power, often rising to directors of major museums. People are seeing that collection knowledge should be shared in ways that center the visitor instead of the museum. And, yet, there is so much to do. So, this month, I thought we’d take stock, good and bad, and then look forward to the next decade.

To take stock, let's start with the good/ better, what are ten things I’ve noticed in the field in the last decade:
  1. Social Media isn’t just Marketing’s B@tch: Twitter came about in 2006; Facebook affected an election in 2016. In between those two moments, social media grew, though I wouldn’t say matured. Social media is like cooking; its results are only as good as the ingredients used. Research suggests that effective social media isn’t just about shilling but instead about sharing valuable content. Museum social media managers have spent the decade offering the world some of the greatest forms of interpretive creativity. They are also exemplars of partnership in the field; augmenting reach and showing how big orgs can lift up smaller orgs. Giant collaborative tweetups show we like to work together. Quality examples are #SmithsonianCypher (with Lanae Spruce, leading the campaign strategy, along with the social media managers of all the Smithsonian Institutions, who wrote their own raps) and the Museum of the City of New York's #MuseumSnowballFight (with Meredith Duncan and Claire Lanier starting this good-natured battle). But every time a museum social account responded to another museum we saw this form of collaboration. This work might have seemed easy, but I assure you, being a museum social person is exhausting. The work is 24/7 and the pay can be 7/11. These folks are taking content to the biggest audiences in the field, often without the resources or support of other content creators. 
  2. Museum work is hard work: As mentioned above, social media is a burn out job partly as museums undervalue the labor of those individuals and as such understaff those roles. But those jobs aren’t the only ones that expect more for less. Museum staffers are constantly taking on more work, and getting praised for it, but not given raises. Leaders should be thinking critically about the labors of their staff and working with them to map out long-term workload. Our staff is the way collections come alive. They are also the way we will improve this field. Our teams know what it takes to do their job. Honest conversations are the beginning of more equitable museums. This decade has begun the conversation about labor. Where will it go in the next? What will happen when in the next decade the boomers retire and we've already seen many people leave the sector? 
  3. Collections are not obvious or universally understood: In this decade, the word interpretation was super fancy and important. I’m not a great fan of the term, as it has colonial and hierarchical overtones, but I’m on board for the underlying concept. Collections are not easy to “get”; our curators get PhDs to be able to understand them. We shouldn’t expect our visitors to get them with a 100-word academic chat label. We found many exciting new ways to connect visitors to collections this decade, and there is plenty of work to be done in the ensuing one. About a decade ago, I remember reading "Nuns sat here" at the Detroit Institute of Art as the title of a label for a piece of wooden convent furniture. That label, with its clarity and humor, stuck with me. It was the first time I really noticed a label being modified for the reader. Certainly, there are many more wonderful examples of labels. John Russick of the Chicago History Center runs the annual label contest for the American Alliance of Museums, and those entries are always worth reading. They show the possibilities of text in our spaces, and the ways our writers are using language to include (rather than exclude) audiences. Do you have any particular exemplars of novel forms of interpretation from this decade worth calling out? 
  4. Anecdotally, We Don’t Understand Visitors: This was also the decade of the rise of audience research. A couple centuries into having museums, we’re gotten pretty good at installing collections. We’ve just started to get good at understanding visitors—and using that knowledge to improve museums. It’s that second part that’s the challenging one. As someone who has done plenty of audience research, I’ve seen the way organizations translate findings to barely change their behaviors. Museum staffers often decide to forefront their anecdotal findings, like 'my daughter’s friends thinks', rather than the sound findings of a researcher that contradict their assumptions. (Decreasing confirmation bias will be an important growth opportunity for the next decade.) But with strong leadership, audience insights can be used to transform museums in positive ways. Was there a study that you read this decade that transformed your ideas about the field? 
  5. The next big thing turned out not to be: As the Delorean proved, there are plenty of flops in every decade. Museums put big money into all sorts of apps, screens, and other tech solutions. I’m not of the school to dismiss such experiments out of hand. I think the backlash against “one-offs” should actually be a backlash against leaders who didn’t learn lessons from those experiments and use those lessons in their future experiments. Iteration only works if you create the systems to learn from those tests. (I will also say the other issue about such experiments is that they might siphon money from operations. If done smartly, they can increase audiences, and therefore add the revenue or ability for the museum to do its mission. But, many were not done smartly.) Either way, we tried things and some of them failed. I can think of many one-offs, tech and not, that delighted me. And, delight and wonder are often values these experiments offer our field, but we don't often frame them that way. I have so many one-offs that I enjoyed. The first that comes to mind was Ryan Dodge, then at the Royal Ontario Museum, put a TRex on Tinder. What are some other examples of experiments and one-offs we should remember from this decade? 
  6. Intersectionality, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion: Museums are starting to think about this issue. I say starting because the road to improving equity in museums is slow. We're still in the additive phase of making museums equitable. We believe if we add a marginalized person, we might not need to look at fundamental change. I suspect we'll look back at the field in 2030 to see that supposition was false. That said, projects like MIA's MassAction toolkit (creators listed here) shows real, important work is happening to make museums more equitable. The work has been brooked mostly by black women and people of color. In the last couple years, I've seen the exhaustion these labors have caused. Some white people have taken up the charge; and some have done it well. But, the work of dismantling white supremacy is for whites, as they have benefited from its systems. Where have you seen DEAI work really excel in this decade? 
  7. Social Justice and Advocacy: Museums are acknowledging their power and looking at how their work is politically charged. Sometimes this happens thanks to public outrage like when the Walker was forced to take down an artwork due to its insensitive nature. Sometimes this happens because a museum staff member stands up and says let's do this politically active installation, like the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History installation that Lauren Bentua, Nina Simon, and other colleagues did about the foster care system. What is your favorite way museums used their power for good from this decade? 
  8. Design thinking, agile, human-centered design: I like problems that can be solved in different ways, but I'm not always good at following systems. Therefore, I'm not necessarily the right person to speak eloquently about the various systemic solutions museums have employed. That said, I love that museums have figured out they should look at adjacent fields for ways to solve their problems. Design-thinking, for example, offers museums a method of including empathy in their work. My favorite adjacent field is systems thinking where you look at all the parts of the wonderful, terrible system that is any given museum. What are some ways you've seen adjacent practices that improve our work in this decade? 
  9. Outreach is often not Engaging: When I first started in the field in 2000, Outreach was a pretty common thing. Now almost two decades later, we've moved to engagement. The change, like so many, was due to good intentions. Outreach centers the museum, whereas engagement makes the museum nebulous in its position of authority. And, I will say I prefer engagement when it is centered in the community as a way of growing audiences. Some museums are doing engagement right, and I can think of a few. But what are your ideas? Who is doing engagement best? 
  10. The cost of expansion: The biggest issue, I think, this decade was money. Many people were in the throes of expansion. Raise your hand if you worked out of your trunk, learned your space was value-engineered away, or watched development turn their energy away from your department toward capital campaigns. Many, many organizations were building or living with a new building in this decade. These new spaces allowed us to get staff on capital budgets, ask for money for groundbreaking projects, and attempt new feats. They also meant we had to find new revenue streams and deal with increased operating costs. I do believe when planned for correctly "new" can be good, but that is only when administrators are thoughtful about incremental operating costs (and talk to the people associated with those costs to make their plans). Expansion costs are not like the monster under your bed; you cannot wish them away. Many organizations didn't face them before their growth, and their staff is paying for it now. But other museums are honestly thriving after their expansions. They are finding new ways to make vast spaces feel intimate. They're using the push in attendance as an engine of change. Which organizations flourished after their expansion? 
You might note that I didn't mention tech, despite the ways that tech has transformed museums in this decade. Technology has become part of the fabric of museum work. It qualifies under most of these topics. It is no longer an aside or an add-on. It is part of all elements of the museum world.

Do you have anyone I should call out next month as an examplar of these trends? Do you have a trend you'd like to add? I'll use next week as a chance to celebrate our colleagues and your ideas about the best trends of the decade. 

(Please consider passing on your ideas about exemplars of my trends or your ideas about big trends for the decade. Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB). 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Doing Museum Work: Your Thoughts


This week has turned out to be the hardest post I've written yet. Not because of the subject matter, but because of the sheer volume of awesome I'm trying to summarize. This month, we're thinking about the way we do work in museums. I'd ask questions on Twitter before. But this one resonated clearly, as I got 75 retweets and 61 comments. So many wonderful ideas, and I shared a few below.

An important thread throughout was that managers can use their power for good.  A few offered solid concrete suggestions that take the big idea of "advocacy" and make it concrete, like list wages on hiring requests and refusing to use unpaid interns. Also, being flexible about work times, as both Jennifer Foley and Emily Lytle-Painter amongst others mentioned. Work isn't prison; don't make them feel like they're doing time.

But, being a manager is a learned skill. A few suggestions were about outside training to improve your skills. Everyone can learn from others. Training, reading, and practicing are three key elements in becoming a better leader. As someone texted me recently, Art History grad school didn't teach us anything about working with others in museums. We all need help to do this better. And there are many sources out there. I've been reading non-stop in the last few months, let me tell you. And here are a few suggestions from commenters. Dan Hicks suggested:
Nikhil Trivedi suggested reading Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun's White Supremacy Culture document and reflecting on how those issues relate to management. Many others suggested articles to read. Sharing articles that work is a great reason to stay on Museum Twitter by the way.

Managing also requires understanding the work that happens in your departments and the workers who do that labor. Dan Brennan had a plan that is powerful and simple. Everyone can do it today:
Some suggestions were about gaining empathy and looking for solutions by seeing work differently, like Micah Walter who suggested:
Others, like Suse Anderson, also talked about swapping as a way to help you see the big picture from another point of view. Much of leadership is advocacy for your team, and it's hard to do that without understanding their work.

Many people suggested regular one on one meetings with colleagues. (I get they are on your team if you are a leader, but they are not your staff. They are staff of your organization, and you lead them.)

Learning alongside your team was a suggestion that went across many comments. One such way to learn with your colleagues is:

Making work visible is a favorite topic of mine. Understanding why people do what they do, and how much they have to do, helps organizations run better. Lindsay Green suggests:

Many people discussed good leaders as being people who help staff look forward, not just for the organization, but for their team member's own growth. Part of a leader is telling your staff you advocate for their future. Ask your teams where they want to be in a few years, and work with them to get there. Jenn Edgington said:

Letting your staff look forward also requires allowing them to shine for the work they do today. Credit is infinite; let them enjoy the benefits of their labor. Find ways they can get their own voices out there, either by encouraging them to go to conferences (and financially supporting that) or helping them find publishing opportunities.
Though with both, try to find ways to make sure this doesn't add labor. If they are writing an article you want them to do, you have to find space in their workload. Or rather, you have to ask them to find space in their workload. Allow them to decide, using their knowledge of their work, where space could open to open up to do that presentation or paper.

Circling back to the idea of the power of the manager, you have the power to say yes or no to all sorts of things. Museums are "no" cultures, often for good reason. Dance while juggling flaming sticks in front of tapestries? No. Tell untruths about collections? No. But that no culture also often translates into a no culture in the workplace. Changing that can be powerful, as Nathan Lachenmyer says:
Managers need to model working smart. As Katie Eagleton reminds me--I mean all of us:
Overall, the biggest topic that came up was to communicate. As Kate Livingston suggests:
Now, I've only hit the top level of comments, I'd invite you to move over to Twitter to read the full thread:

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

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.

---
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.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Community-centered and Audience-Engagement and What not


Author: Seema Rao

This month, inspired by the panel at Western Museums Association, we've been discussing all things audience, community, and visitors.

The far-ranging conversation in the second week (a summary of the panel) touched on how interconnected and slippery the terms we use about the people who enjoy our organizations (and for that matter the ones we wished did.)

For this week, I'm summarizing thoughts people had about community-engagement on Twitter. I asked the somewhat provocative question: Can museums go TOO far with audience engagement/ being visitor-centered?

Many people brought up the issue of defining terms, as I mentioned last week, including Linda Norris' comment:
Susan Spero added that community is a long-term investment. Their comments bring up the heterogeneity of the people associated with museums. There is a group of people who visit, but not all of them are invested in your organization. Similarly, there is a group of people don't visit, but they might be invested in your audience.

This issue is also linked to future growth. Membership programs are a good example. Most membership programs benefit people who already come or people just like them. They are a small, important sector of your organization. Yet, if CultureTrack's data is to be believed, membership as a funding model might be moving toward extinction. If you decide to plan future growth on the existing people walking in the door, you might be eschewing important audiences that would ensure a more stable future. Nina Simon pointed this out in a story about a museum with a cop in the lobby:
Museums often make poor choices for their visitors, current community, and future community when they don't really spend time understanding each group (and seeing the various nuances). I've always been fascinated about where museums think it's okay to get lax. Walk into any curatorial/exhibition meeting in a museum and say placard. I promise you at least three people will be unable to stop themselves from muttering "label." Knowledge is our core competency, on some level. Most museum professionals would never think to make something up about a collection object, but we are often, in essence, making things up about our visitors when we rely on anecdotal data. Any decision made on behalf of visitors bc I saw it once or my kid things or I believe is a poor one. Luis Marcelo Mendes brings up the hubris of museums in his humorous response:
Regan Forrest's comments overlap both Nina's and Luis. Lack of knowledge can be incredibly problematic. When we make choices for the many, we are often doing so at the detriment of the few:
I've been thinking about this often in my work. Safe spaces, for example, is a phrase we use to imply a group of people may act without fear of their norms causing a stir. But who is safe if that space? Safety is often negotiated for the largest group, and so smaller groups safety can be compromised. Similarly, if visitor-centered is about the largest group, there are smaller groups who might suffer. This is not to say that visitor-centered means white-centered. But in keeping with Regan's point, if we don't question our premises and actively work to make visitor-centered diverse-focused, we might default to safe spaces/ visitor-centered spaces for whites/ majority groups.

And this is why clarity in terms of terms matters. When many museum professions say, this is just too visitor-centered, they are often highlighting their lack of knowledge, as Kate Livingston brought up:
In terms of the original question, for many people, it was about the line between visitors and curators. Nathan Lachenmeyer mentioned:
He went on to discuss how the museum should strive for a dialogue between what we want to share and what people want to know. (Something I agree with and wrote about previously.) Dean Krimmel suggested the guideline for too far was the mission. If you've picked up programs or exhibitions to draw visitors, but they don't connect to the mission you're on shaky ground. He mentioned the "so what" test, as a way to say, the mission and the ways we share the mission should be something that audiences want to know.

Many people saw Instagram museums as the ultimate non-mission driven, too far on the visitor-engagement. I might argue that their mission is to give people experiences, and they do well by their missions as their bank accounts show. And, understanding these orgs help museums, as Koven Smith brought up. It's important to interrogate what lines they've crossed and why. Those organizations are market-driven, as label me mabel PhD mentioned. To me, the biggest issue about those "museums" is that they are about now, the market today, not the future. That to me is what makes them different than traditional museums. We are not just about today but also in the future. When we let today's market drive our decisions, we are liable to lose future ones, as Nina mentioned above.

Right now, those, we still have a ways to go. We're not even close to being too visitor-centered; frankly many of us aren't even a little visitor-centered. As Jenny Lilac mentioned:
We've got a ways to go in understanding visitors, and I think also understanding ourselves. We need to consider the question of too visitor-centered in terms of not just the visitor but ourselves. When we say it's too visitor-centered, we might think the change is too far for us to brook. But then we need to be careful to go back to our mission. We are here for visitors. We are here to share, not hoard. As such, Matt might have asked the essential question for the month

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Community-Engagement, Visitor-Centered, and Other Words



Written by Seema Rao

I've written about Community Engagement often on my old blog, Brilliant Idea Studio. Last March, I wrote up some general notes about community engagement based on a mind-map I did at a #MuseumNext talk.

Here is the gist of my remarks: Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

I bring this up because the interrelationship of humans and museums are the topics of this month. I wrote at the beginning of the month about human-centered museums. And, last week, I compiled the notes from the Western Museums Association conference about engagement broadly. This week, as I always do, I started a conversation on social to use as the basis of the month's summary post.

Kate Livingston brought up a great point. Often in these debates, the meaning of key terms get obfuscated. As such, people speak at cross purposes. She was talking about visitor-centered being misunderstood. So, this month, I thought I'd give you my definitions for the key ideas of the month. I'd love to hear your definitions:

Visitor-centered means centering your visitors in your work. When you keep them as the center of your planning and decision-making, you will make choices that work for your visitors. For me, centering visitors is different than being visitor-driven. The latter is like letting the two-year-old plan and make dinner; the former is making dinner the two-year-old will enjoy but that falls into your desires as a parent. 

Community Engagement (as I said above) is connecting people to your organization. These people can be local or national (virtually). They might be underserved or not. They might be of color or not. They might be marginalized or not.

Human-centered means understanding the humans in your museum, including staff, and designing for their needs.

Data-informed is a way of using data, often generated through visitor-actions to help you make decisions as you become more visitor-centered. (Unlike data-driven which is using data in lieu of other tools to make decisions).

Often visitor-center work also overlaps DEAI work. Those terms are also important to define. I am constantly revisiting how I define the terms.

Diversity is the inclusion of people who identify in different ways, including by race, gender, age, and class.

Inclusion is the practice of breaking/ transforming barriers to include everyone.

Access is creating affordances that help anyone participate in your organization.

Equity is developing methods, platforms, and systems that allow for the inclusion of diverse people into your organization.

In my mind, museums need to be human-centered, including being visitor-centered, which is accomplished by being data-informed. One of the processes by which museums enact their visitor-centered culture is through community engagement. And, community engagement is essential in making museums more equitable, i.e. places where diverse people feel included and find no barriers to access. 

What other terms are important as we think about community engagement, visitor-centered museums, and audiences? How do you define these terms?

Share here in the comments or on social.As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (TW @artlust, Linkedin@seemarao, IG @_art_lust_)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Audience Engagement Conversation at Western Museums Association


The Western Museum Association was kind enough to invite me to speak on a panel about engagement at their annual meeting in Boise. I was joined by

  • Scott Stulen, Director & President, Philbrook Museum of Art 
  • Maren Dougherty, EVP, Communications and Visitor Experience, The Autry Museum of the American West
  • Adam Rozan, Director of Programs & Audience Development, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
  • Phillip Thompson, Executive Director/Board President, Idaho Black History Museum

 —-
The panel included people from different types of museums (history and art), scales of organization, and people with different specialties. Despite these divergences, we found great convergence around the big issues in the field.

Phillip’s early remark about museums was an invocation for everyone. He noted that coming from technology and medicine, he wasn’t hampered by the norms of the field. As an outsider, he immediately saw that museums were operating “under a business model that doesn’t work.” He then went on to note that we run museums with the hopes of being supported by philanthropy, when in fact we could have a product that people want. However, in order to accomplish the former, museums would have to transform to be more consumer-driven.

I was struck also by Scott and Adam’s repeated notes about interrogating the sources of knowledge. Scott told a story about the edict to not step on the grass in his lovely Italianate gardens. When he investigated the source, he found the tradition was from a long-retired gardener. Rationally looking at the system caused him to make a different choice. He allowed people to walk on the grass and added tables to make the space inviting. While some long-time members of the community were unhappy with the change, scores of new people came in.

In many ways, the subtext of our whole panel was that change will mean your audience will be different, but that’s not bad. As I said last week, there are people out there who could like you. They don’t know what they’re missing. But you can feel their absence in your empty galleries. Often the loss of visitors is completely due to your structures. Adam told a touching story about his late father, who suffered from Alzheimer's. His mother, the caregiver, called potential outings to see if they had family restrooms. If they didn’t, she couldn’t visit. We are turning people away without even noticing.

Adam spoke about this issue of restrooms in part as a sign about bigger issues. Organizations are neither just leaders or staff, but an ecosystem of people working together. He related the theory of the Commander’s Intent, in which the end state needs to be in line with all operations, and everyone needs to be on board. Everyone needs to understand their part so they can make decisions from their roles. But, the organization also needs to put its money and effort behind this. The ship only works if supported and organized so that everyone can support each other.

We also have a culture of not treating the people who are coming right. Maren talked about the importance of including people at public events, even if they don’t go to the galleries. Bringing people in means often changing your idea of what an ideal visit looks like. She also noted it might mean finding ways to meet real needs. At her organization, she noted serving seniors was important, as this is rare in Los Angeles, but also serving families in an unstructured way. Rather than forcing people into the programs they wanted, they looked for what people wanted and solved for that. This often requires real problem-solving. Maren also got the largest “wow’s” from the audience when she talked about the issue of alcohol and museum programming. People are used to carrying around beverages; museums need to keep works safe and facilities clean. Their institution has started experimenting with giving out beverages at parties in branded adult sippy cups that visitors can take into the museum’s theater.

Another big topic was the issue of demonstrating your desire to change. Phillip and Scott spoke about the transformations of procedures to enable change. Phillip, for example, wanted more college students as he is on a college campus, so he put a college student on the board. Adam also talked about leading change in his teams often by rethinking work with them.

Making change is not without stress. And, in many of our prep conversations, we talked about the real challenge of changing human systems. But at the same time, almost every museum professional I’ve spoken to speaks of how visitors don’t feel welcome. It feels like the data is pretty damning. We need to change.

What are your thoughts on audience engagement and change? Is there a line in the sand for the field in terms of how visitor-centered we should be? Is there a bad side to being visitor-centered? What's the hard part of being visitor-centered?

Share here in the comments or on social.
As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Audience-Engagement Successes and Failures




Author: Seema Rao

This week I’m talking about being human-centered. I’m including some failures. Why? Well, exposure of failures helps us learn and helps us lead. As a leader, sharing failures helps normalize fallibility. As a person, it reminds you are human, and that’s good. Everyone in this field is human and as such fallible. If aren’t failing, you are either deluded, blind, or failing so hard you’re blinded and deluded by your work. (I will say that the two programs I will mention occurred fifteen years ago, and many jobs ago. I have had more recent failures, I assure you. But there is one caveat with sharing failures. They are rarely just your fault. So, make sure to be transparent with others involved before sharing.)

Audience-centered for me is a subset of human-centered. Audiences are a portion of the humans in the museum ecosystem. As first-time parents, they are the focus of most attention, almost to a fault. They are certainly an important raison d’etre of our field, though not the only one. The reason I think of a museum as human-centered is that to become audience-centered your organization has to center people. You have to get through the feels. You have to get at the motivations. As a collective, the staff needs to grow emotional awareness and empathy for others. Without an internal understanding of humanity, it’s hard to be audience-centered.

Practically, being audience-centered touches every aspect of staff work. If the decision-making factor to be what is best for your audience, your choices change. Signage goes from subtle enough to be hidden to useful to visitors. Labels go from ideal for my scholarly friends to legible to broad audiences. Gallery Talks become conversations instead of lectures (well, for some audiences).

The clarity of being audience-centered can be transformative and also daunting. Most of our common practices have been related to audiences, but not centered on audiences. We did what we could to foster audiences who thought like us. Centering audiences more broadly means hearing people who aren’t like us. People will not like you. Some people will not ever like you. But there are also some people who might like you if they get to know you. That’s who you are going to win when you become audience-centered.
Becoming whole audience-centered is a bit like learning to make friends once you mature. In middle school, you’re willing to change to make friends. In high school, you might refuse to bend at all for potential friends. As adult, you get it’s a give and take, a mutual growth. Some organizations might think they have to change totally. That isn’t being audience-centered; that’s being faddish and unsustainable.  

If your metric is more people in the door, you might be tempted to completely twist and transform yourself in a brazen attempt to get people in.  Here is one failure I remember from my early days of audience-centered. When I ran an adult studios program, I started reading a great deal about the rise of craft culture (this was in the pre-Pinterest days). I ran scores and scores of classes, like purse-making and shoe-decorating. The classes sold, but it took me away from what was the real goal of our program, connecting people to collections through action. In that year, I raised enough money to completely cover my salary, but I didn’t actually grow our audiences. People took the class they wanted and left us. The program had shifted too far from the mission to keep people tethered to the organization. And, I was exhausted. After a great deal of consideration, I stripped the program of those ancillary classes. Profit decreased but repeat attendance increased. In the end, our organization for this model better for our visitors and our needs.

So how did I figure it out?
1.     I actually listened. I decided to talk to people. We did quick surveys and I did interviews. Then I demonstrated that I was hearing them but making some of the changes that were suggested.
2.     I tested the waters. I didn’t completely shift the program at once. I tried a few new things, and then asked people what they thought.
3.     I was willing to get it wrong and change. Visitors make a number of adaptations to come to us. Our hours, our rules, our spaces, all place restraints on visitors. If we’re asking them to change, we have to also make changes.

Museums often don’t have enough clout to be about to be community-centered or audience centered on their own. They often need to look to other fields (or other types of museums) for partners. One of my hardest projects was a museum-library partnership. As a lifelong library patron, I was thrilled about this partnership. While museums might be haven or destinations, libraries have always been a home to me. I walked into the project expecting synergy and rainbows. I was woefully wrong. What went awry? 

What did I learn: 
4.     Partners need to understand each other. We didn’t do our due diligence to understand the differences of norms. We didn’t articulate where our norms overlapped and where our goals connected. We didn’t give ourselves time to create a collective language.
5.     Partners need to plan together. Being transparent about goals is the first step, but then if you want to get to the end together, you have to chart a shared path. If you don’t, you’ll be met with many roadblocks.
6.     Partners need to share success. Success and credit are infinite properties. Hoarding them will not make you more successful and will devalue your future relationship with your partners. Find ways you can both benefit from success.

In summary, for me, being audience-centered is putting the people at the middle. Most of my points above might be summarized as: remember people matter; remember people have feelings; remember not to crush or ignore those feelings.

If you choose to focus on human-centered work, your organization will reap many benefits, including increased visitor engagement and attendance. But you need to increase internal capacity, including emotional intelligence and commitment to changing the means of work. The benefits certainly outweigh the investment, though. Human-centered is in essence letting the heart of your mission shine through the people of the museum.

I've written a bit more about audience engagement on my other blog, including co-creation and partnership

As always, tag me in your posts and shares so I can include you in my summary post at the end of the month (@artlust@seemarao@_art_lust_)