Saturday, August 27, 2022

8 Takeaways for Museums from Tiktok

Here are 8 things I learned after spending the last three months posting about art and museums of my personal Tiktok. With 50K followers, 34 Million videos, and 3.4 Million likes, I’ve learned some things.

  1. People are interested in art, but they want the information to be served up in an interesting way. I rarely post videos longer than 30 seconds. And when I do them I think of all the “well actually” folks who work at museums. I mean the people who’d tell me I’ve “dumbed it down.” And I’ve absolutely simplified things. But I work hard to make sure I’m factual. And I’ve learned if you make it enjoyable, people will watch. I think the “dumb it down” contingent don’t know how to hit an entertaining tone, and are not able to see the merit it entertainment. 

  2. Again! People are interested in art. I’ve had scores and scores of people commenting on items as vast as ancient Indian art to Liza Lou’s kitchen. I’ve gotten as much positive feedback about abstraction as decorative arts. When you don’t talk down to people, they are willing to listen.

  3. People trust people to tell them about art. While I only recently put my real name, I’ve often had people say they like my approach to talking about art. I’d previously done Tiktoks for a museum account, and I never had as much pick up on videos. I think people want to hear from an authentic human voice rather than a brand. 

  4. Learn their language rather than making them learn ours. My whole challenge is finding analogies between other Tiktok videos and art. If you’re not familiar with Tiktok, you might not know about duets. People reshare other peoples videos with that commentary. I used that popular format but to share ideas about art. Sure, I could have done short traditional videos about artworks. But that is less popular on Tiktok. Why try to get people to my ideas in a way they are less likely to like? 

  5. Remember people want to learn about art for fun. They are not doing it because it’s good for them. So don’t make it a chore for them. It might be our job, but it’s their time off. 

  6. Even if people like art, they don’t have much scaffolding. I have a core group of art lovers who know about art. The vast majority of commenters have basic questions or thank me for discussing basic elements. Schools teach less art, and so our visitors have taken less. It makes them no less interested. But it does mean we need to remember that when communicating about art.

  7. People don’t care about museums, just the stuff inside them. Museum people, particularly boards, think visitors are excited by museums themselves. Sure, storage, art theft, removing varnish are interesting, but that’s because they look cool. Very few people are jazzed at hearing about the history of your museum. 

  8. And some people don’t care and won’t care. For most of my museum life, donors and boards have asked, how do we bring in non-visitors? The thing they should be thinking is how do we bring in more people like the people who visit or how do we change to bring in new visitors. If you stay the same, the people who don’t come, won’t. That said if you change, the old people might stop visiting. Each organization needs to decide what is the right call for them. And after all of that, some people still will not care. That is okay. Do your best for the people who you want to come

Friday, July 22, 2022

Beyond the Walls: A Post Museum Career

 I asked my friend, Paul Bowers, to share some of his thoughts about leaving museums. If you have thoughts about leaving museums or why you're staying, reach out. I'd love to share your thoughts here.

This post is so good. Give it a slow read. Or if you're me, tear through it and then read it slowly later. Also note, Paul is a Brit living in Australia. He spells things that way. Allow for the s instead of z. 


Beyond the walls – a post-museum career

There’s a lot of talk about people leaving their museums jobs – if you’re thinking that way, this might help. I did 20 years in museums, then left four years ago, and since then I’ve run a sustainability organisation, consulted for a library, mentored a for-purpose founder and been the Interim COO for a large cemeteries trust. I’ve learnt a few things along the way and while you might not want my destination/s, I hope you’ll find this helpful as you look before leaping.

Caveats of course that my experience is singular, and contains some dimensions of privilege.

Everything everywhere all at once

Museums are complicated. Nowhere else I’ve seen has all the functions of academia, retail, logistics, customer service, volunteers, digital, marketing, specialist facilities, education; and the complexity of external relationships that comes with all of these. Working in this environment makes you super-skilled. I’m not saying you have to have worked in all these departments. But getting anything done in a museum means you have to work with all these departments. 

You’ll have had days where you’ve gone straight from a front of house meeting to a curatorial meeting, you’ll have dealt with some weird thing to do with fire exit routes, then had to help transport a precious object. Oh, and there’s that volunteer upstairs you’re supervising, too. All this means you’re flexible, you work well with others, you can grasp multiple perspectives and be professional with this huge range of people. Very few careers give you that.

And underneath all the practicalities is the complexity of the ‘mission’. Outside museums, the world is often driven by just one or two ‘why?’ questions: Money for shareholders; Save the dolphins. And everything else is a ‘how’. But museums preserve, study, display and educate. Each of those is a distinct purpose, and they sometimes contradict – the balancing act between conservation and display, for example. And that leads to many more complex ‘how’ skills: multiple dimensions of fundraising for example.

And you work within such complex constraints! All the regulatory and legal issues, the politics of Boards and Funders, the ever-changing building regulations, the whims of the geniuses, the egos of the politicians, the sheer complexity of best practice (eg, preserving mixed media artworks).

You’re flexible with time horizons. You can work fast (it opens next week!) and slow (5-year digitisation project, anyone?). You’ve achieved miracles with nearly no money. And you’re flexible with… well… challenging people. That manager, artist, academic, designer, volunteer... You’ve all got stuff done despite that insufferable someone.

So again: you’re skilled in working with a complexity of purpose, of professional areas, of limitations, of time, of difficult people, with balancing multiple demands. That’s uncommon.

Now you can’t just say all this and walk into a cool new job in a new sector. But you need to hold close to your heart that you are skilled, you are valuable. You will be a fabulous employee for someone else. You need to resist the urge to think that you’re ‘just’ a museum worker, that your skills are so specific. 

Example. I’m working in a huge cemetery trust right now. Information control (of bodies, or rights of internment) is pretty much identical to the governance of object provenance and transport. I feel like a duck that’s waddled lost across concrete and suddenly discovered a completely different pond. This is so familiar, I can just jump in, paddle my feet and I’m a useful employee somewhere else.

Identity is all

Identity can feel permanent, fixed and immutable. And when it’s been built around museums (after investing decades of study, volunteering and insecure contract work) it can feel impossible to break: I’ve worked so hard for this, so it’s who I am.

After two decades in museums, it had become such a strong part of my identity that when I left I didn’t know who I was – professionally and personally. I hadn’t known this would happen and I felt uprooted, lost and confused. 

Then I learnt. A good friend pushed me towards Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identities, and recently I discovered this Invisibilia podcast – I commend them both to you (though some caveats over little-explored privilege in the book). To simplify, the idea of personality as a stable construct is a myth. We are what we do, a product of actions and environment. When we change that environment, we change our selves. 

Ibarra’s central idea is to experiment with new working lives. Try them on for size, see how they fit. Do you like the reflection in the mirror? Ibarra recommends you don’t buy the whole outfit at once. Just try the shoes, or the shirt. Let it settle on you – let the personality shifts catch up.

She suggests you volunteer on the weekend, or spin out a craft hobby for a bit. Even getting an internal secondment to an unexpected part of the museum might give some clues. Remember, one person’s beautiful ballgown is another person’s double denim. But whether you like the dress or the jeans, go forth proudly.

You’ll also have to confront the perceptions of others. Their identity is partly built around having this version of you in their lives. If you feel weirdness, reflect on whether they’re here for you, or for their version of you. Those who truly care will cheer you on. Some others might need to get relegated lower down the friends-and-family rankings. 

And your self image is important here. How flexible are you allowing yourself to be? A rising museum pro once told me she’d be perfectly fine scrubbing a kitchen floor if it meant she could provide for her family. And that inner strength – no self-definition by title or employer prestige – gave her the confidence to risk challenging the career narrative and she made a change. She’s doing very well now, six years on.

Get help

There’s two kinds of help you need. First, those cheerleaders can give you more than encouragement. Ask them for advice. Ask them to describe you. They’ll see some things you don’t – qualities, skills, memories of a what if? conversation at the karaoke bar. If they’ve moved sector, all the better.

But remember – beyond their insights, those closest to you are the least practical help in actually moving on. You need to reach people on the edge of your network – simply because they’re further away. Ask for introductions. Have coffees with people. First off, describing yourself to others helps you find your story. Second, you never know who, in a few month’s time, will need some help and will remember that person with relevant skills who was so interesting at that café months ago…

Also, get help from professionals who aren’t in your friendship circles, framing it within a methodology. (It’s not a coffee, it’s a ‘self-coaching exercise’, very pro.) For example, you can ask current peers to do a Johari’s Window exercise with you (this is a good how-to). 

I was fortunate enough to be able to work with a career coach. Kate Richardson was extremely helpful for me, and her website has great resources too. As you’d expect, she brought all the career coaching skills but in addition she brought two things I didn’t know I needed. Her process included structure – it held me to account for making progress, and also forced me to consider discrete elements in sequence, rather than tackle everything at once in a terrifying blancmange of panic: considering values separate from strengths, for example. But most importantly, my questioning, insecurities and fears were just normal to her. It didn’t faze her, she just worked through them with me. You know that feeling when a doctor looks at something and says ‘oh, that’s nothing to worry about, you just need this medicine and you’ll be fine’, and a weight you didn’t know you were holding falls off your shoulders. Well, she made me feel like that. You may be able to find a great coach. But a fabulous manager, friend or ally in the sector could do this for you too.

The last thing is that people really want to help if they can. Most people are nice, most people remember when they needed a helping hand. And it’s flattering to be asked. You won’t believe it when you start asking, but more people will offer their time to help you than will ignore you. I didn’t believe it, I often still don’t believe it, but when I have pushed through and made the call, people have been lovely.

At first, you flirt.

Think of this career experimentation like dating. Maybe the first date tells you this person isn’t for you. Maybe you realise that after a few months. Or maybe they become a life-love for the rest of your time. All are possible outcomes. But they all start with a first date, and flirting with a possibility. 

The cultural ideas around career route are just like the ideas around marriage: incredibly linear. We’ve imbibed our parents and teachers, and all the books and films, that told us a career means going steadily up a ladder: Junior, Middle, Senior, to CEO or Lecturer, Assoc Professor, to Professor. Breaking this needs bravery in disruption.

And finding the right thing is really tough, practically and emotionally. Partly because as you shape your world, the world shapes you. I’m still no closer to finding the ‘right’ answer for me and maybe that’s the point. There isn’t a ‘right’, there’s just different. It’s OK to try something, discover it’s a dead end, then move on.

Focus on values and outcomes, not skills and history

Museum sector biases strongly to ‘stuff I know’ – technical skills. And the boomer resumé structure taught us to frame ourselves as merely a career history list of facts. This was prestige gatekeeping in action; don’t replicate it.

I learnt to talk about my strengths, then what impact that had in the world, then follow that with evidence. Like this…

I am great at making risotto, and so my family enjoy a great meal. My teenage kids have even invited friends round to taste it. I’m so glad I got to learn this from my neighbour, an Italian nonna.

… is a completely different and more compelling narrative than 

2007. Studied risotto-making from a neighbour

2009-13. Made over fifty five risottos for friends and family

Which chef would you hire? 

Miscellaneous CV and interview fails for career shifters:

  • Outside the museum sector, few care about publications and conferences. That you are an influencer in your field, respected for your insight, is valuable. But say it like that, don’t write a page of chapters and conference names
  • Jargon and acronyms. Careful, you might be so used to them that they creep through
  • Give qualitative and quantitative data to support your achievements. Customer service ratings went up by what percentage? Your peers say what about you? I’ve seen many museum staffs’ resumés full of qual information, but with no meaty numbers. Other orgs want to see the results like that, and they also want to be reassured you’re savvy enough to know that quant matters
  • People who don’t state their values. The museum sector largely assumes common values (Look after stuff. Be accessible. Decolonise.) But you have to say so, outside the field. What do you believe in, what do you care about? How do you want to change the world?
  • People who don’t convey their continuous learning mindset. It is amazing to be able to tell a story of when a director threw you a curveball and you had to learn rapidly while doing. Building a plane while flying the plane is something every museum person I know can do, and it’s a talent worth hiring for
  • People who don’t convey they can develop then apply rules consistently and fairly, and know what to do when they find a grey area. Again, especially for those in any form of conservation or acquisition roles, this feels too obvious to mention. But in the wider professional world this is a real talent and sought after. Healthcare, government, insurance and more.
  • Proofread. Please. Do not be the person proclaiming they’ve run successful pubic programs.

Apply like a straight white man. By that I mean research has shown marginalised people typically wait until they are certain they tick every box before applying; the stale male applies when they’ve kinda got most of the requirements. I’ve written countless Position Descriptions, and I always ask for more than I know exists – always try to hire the unicorn. But no-one ever has 100% on every requirement. What I’m always looking for is ‘most and learns’ – the person who can begin pretty strong on day one and with support and training will become the unicorn. (oh, and anyone who has 100% on everything should be applying for the next job up!)

Lastly, in making a good CV, remember that sectors and countries have different standards and expectations. Some hirers like a resume, some like a long ‘how I meet the criteria’ letter. Find out the rules of engagement before engaging. 

Confronting recruiter prejudice

You’ll have to gently confront attitudes about museums. External hirers fall for the cultural beliefs (dusty shelves!) too. And they won’t know what programmers or conservators do. So you must explain what you do clearly. If you’ve constructed a program and campaign that brought in a hundred marginalised people who’d never been before… that’s amazing and you have to explain it. Describe how you did it and quote the feedback they gave you. Worked with an international object loan? That’s cross-cultural competency, negotiation skills, regulatory competence. Say that, don’t just drop ‘worked on blah with blah’.

Some recruiters simply won’t have the imagination to see the transferable skills. Some hire for safety (they’ve done this before!) not for potential (their skills mean they could be the best at this role in six months). That’s their loss. Take the feedback, decide to accept it if it feels right (reject it if it feels like garbage), and move on. You’ll apply for lots before you find the next stepping stone, and along the way you’ll get rejections. Call a friend, have them remind you how great you are, then maintain your course.

In summary

I found that museum work can narrow your perception of what’s possible – in the world of work, and in yourself. The foundational career narrative is that museums are unique and you can’t get in the door without brandishing a Museum MA and five years of volunteering. The multiple dimensions of nonsense here is for another blog, but exiting museums is made as hard as entering by this lie that museums are just so special. 

Where did I land? I’m still working it out. I do know it’ll centre on aligning organisations around purpose through microtweaks to their culture and process, and it’ll always be purpose-beyond-profit. I’m going to have to keep experimenting for ever, and my main takeaway after four years is to be at ease with that.

For you? That’ll be a new and unique journey. The hardest part is breaking out of the bubble of myths. So, keep these truths close by; write them on page one of your career change notebook:

Museums are great but they aren’t the whole world

  • In Museums, I have become uniquely talented
  • People will help me with advice
  • People will help me with cheerleading
  • People will help me with introductions
  • I am amazing
  • I will experiment
  • I will thrive

If I can help, I will. DM me on twitter (@paulrbowers) or find me on LinkedIn

Good luck.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

How do I get out of Museums?

 I think half of the work problems in museums come from the fact that most staff feel trapped. And if you don’t want to move and you don’t live in a huge metropolis, you basically have very few choices. 

So what’s to do? One option is to leave the field. Listen, I’m just a few moments out. So, I’m not sure how good it is. 

But, I’d like to share my thoughts on how I got out. 

I’d really thought I wanted to stay in museums, but then the level of ridiculousness got too much. I decided I needed to look at other things. I would say this is the first step. You need to want to leave. 

But desire is pretty lonely if you don’t have any place to use it. I honestly couldn’t see where I could go. I felt like my skills wouldn’t be translatable. And here in is the next step. Ask for help. Call a friend doing work you might like to do. Hear how they got there.

Most museum pros can research anything. And these skills really came in handy in my job search. I spent time reading job descriptions and matching my resume to their needs.

We have so many useful skills. Project management, public speaking, and writing are three big ones. Many of us have spent years wrangling databases and organizing editorial schedules. I spent a good amount of time tallying my skills against those needed in the business world.

After that, I updated my LinkedIn and turned the light on (set it to show that I’m looking for work.) I did use the pro version for a month. I did the easy apply version for everything remote that was related to UX research and writing, since most of my work has been evaluation and interpretation. I got a lot of no thanks and many interviews. People were very receptive. No one was surprised I was leaving nonprofit. 

Now I’ve just left, so I can’t say how it is. But I am excited that I wasn’t trapped. I have options. You have options too. 

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Knowledge is Power

 Knowledge is power, they say. This is certainly true in many workplaces. Think of the three types of people you find in many office settings: the gossip, the hoarder, and the source. 

The source is the go-to person, who knows the locations of things and the ways to do things. People who are the source can be in any tier, but usually got a start in an administrative role. In other words, they got all those deets through hard work. These people are often happy to share their info. 

The gossip, again, can come from any tier, but the difference is that their knowledge doesn’t need to be gained or even true. Gossips revel in sharing, or even better, barely sharing. In many organizations, these are people near the highest in the hierarchy.

Finally, the hoarders…this is where I really want to focus. In many organizations, many people in power choose to horde knowledge as a means to exacting power. This behavior can be people at middle and upper tiers of management. Often knowledge does have to be held. Think about restructuring. There is a moment where some people in the organization know before others. The hoarders however parse out knowledge about everything. 

What does all this have to do with museums? Museums are knowledge organizations and these behaviors are rampant. Hoarding of knowledge is one of the biggest complaints I hear of museum leaders. In organizations without profit and loss margins and stock growth, there isn’t so much concrete proof of success. Even visitor numbers and donations are done as group activities. So, individuals horde information to maintain power. In this way, the gossips are the same. They don’t have ultimate power in the organization, so they find another means to gain it. 

But, this type of behavior is ultimately ephemeral. Once the knowledge is out, it has no power. And if hoarding that knowledge made accomplishing the goal harder, you paid for your intellectual greediness. 

Good leaders learn how and when to share. They also learn to lean on the people who are the source and avoid the gossips. Knowledge is useful and powerful when shared. It proliferates and propagates. Sharing knowledge will ultimately make the leaders work easier and better. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

Do we really want people to visit?

These days, like many extroverts, I feel the ache of loneliness. I’ve been thinking about planning to connect with people again. Imagine if despite my great need to see people, I set up the hours when they’re usually at work and also made them feel like they needed to study up before meeting me. How likely are my friends to show up? And is it my friends’ fault? Or mine? In many ways, we’re setting up the same problem. 

A couple weeks ago, I asked people on Twitter what is one thing they’d like to change to make museums better. Many people focused on improving amenities. One person, however,  suggested that we should educate people about the norms of museums. The funny thing is that many people full well understand. After getting yelled at by guards on a field trip as a kid, they get that museums aren’t for them. Or even worse, they live in a place where only a small, privileged group go to museums. 

The thing is people don’t need museums. We don’t need to exist. Society would continue without us. And we’re not age-old. Theater has millennia of history. Music probably existed in the caves of prehistory. Literature is also old. So, as a new phenomena, and also one that isn’t a necessary amenity, I find it surprising that we’re not more focused as a field on survival. 

Someone recently said to me, “wow, if museums were corporations they’d deserve to fail.” We project exclusion through our hours and our structures. We’re open bank hours. But people will make concessions in their life to get to the bank, because they need them. Now, yes, I think museums offer incredible social good, but many people don’t know this. How much good can we do when people don’t use us? In other words, we must help people see us as valuable. Rather than asking people to bend for us, we must work to meet them. 

Art museums are particularly good at this type of “toxic friendship”. For example, museum benches show people what we really think of them. First, we usually don’t have too many. Stand, damn it! We need more space for collections. Second, we pick uncomfortable ones. If you must be weak enough to sit, we won’t make it enjoyable. If you look at old museum installations, you often see soft seating. So the clean benches of today are an improvement. But for whom? The visitors or the designers? In truth, I suspect what happens is that galleries get designed with the goal of getting a certain intellectual point across. The teams forget that humans will need to enjoy the space to even notice there is a point.

Now, you might want to scream, how dare you suggest we pander? Why focus on snacks when we’re doing the real work of scholarship and curation? Well, my question is for whom do you do this work? If you are deeply committed to scholarship for its sake alone, then why spend the time on galleries. A book is easier to share and it’s timeless. Instead, if your goal is to educate or share, then what’s wrong with investing in amenities? Do you force your friends to stand when you invite them for a four course meal? 

As a field, when we decide that our concerns and our structures supersede the comfort and interests of our audiences, then we’re in trouble. We will eventually find that other types of experiences will be more popular. And is it better to hold fast to old rules or instead to adapt to new audience needs?  

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Are We at an Inflection Point as a Field?

There’s been a great deal of sports fanfare in Ohio lately. Bengals went to the Super Bowl and then Cleveland hosted the basketball all-star game. I don’t often think about sports, truthfully. But all the sports made me reflect on our own field, oddly. 

AAM has often noted more people go to museums than sporting events. It’s a good stat, and one I like to trot out when speaking to politicians. But I suspect it’s a false number in a way. Museums are open more often than not. Even with my rudimentary knowledge of professional sports, I know that most pro sports teams have shorter seasons. So, numbers-wise, given there are more museums than sports arenas, as there are more museums than Starbucks, there is an easier chance for museums to beat sport. But there is a bigger issue underlying that stat. I’d wonder how that number would look if you omitted field trips. Many museum-goers are there bc someone else has decided it’s educational or important. Student groups are important, and education underlies the raisin d’etre of the field. But as a child who spent a childhood going to pro-sporting events under duress, I can assure you it doesn’t make for a lifelong habit. 

The recent Culture Track study brought up another important statistic. Many Americans look to arts and culture as a source of fun. Now, I’d love to see that same sample rate the types of arts and culture from fun to not fun. I fear museums would not be near the top. Museums often miss fun altogether, because we fear being seen as dumbing down our educational mission. An interesting finding in the same Culture Track study is that respondents believe meeting the needs of new visitors is important even if it means losing old visitors. In order words, change even if people don’t like it. 

This brings me to the Super Bowl. The halftime show was incredibly enjoyable for some. It’s not surprising. Many people watching are the age of the performers. Gen X and Millenials are now 40 percent of the population. But, there was some backlash, as expected. Boomers, particularly, were not thrilled to have this type of music on the Super Bowl. Boomers are about 20 percent of the population. But they remain in the workforce and they hold an outsized amount of power and wealth. For museums, as they look to change, to meet new needs, they will see some of the same criticism from some of the same forces. Change often shows changes in power and that can make people upset. 

In the next few years, the voice and power of the older museum-goers will continue to decrease. Have we made enough impact on the younger generations? Do they see us as the once a year, "good for you" requirement? Or do they see us as an enjoyable place to visit on their own? 

As people have found plenty to keep them busy at home, we need to really step it up to meet the needs of these audiences. We showed we could be fun on digital in these last few years. Will we revert to our old ways, where we expect people to accept our status quo? Or we will meet this moment with change?  

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Why do people undervalue museum education?

Last week, some colleagues asked me how a Sip and Paint is different than a marbling workshop. I’d had my mind on something else, and I wasn’t able to reply then. A week later, with the clarity of a caffeinated mind, I’m easily able to rebut them. (Isn’t it always like that?)

Most museum educators know that the work of bringing people into collections requires some magic. Good educators make their work look easy or not even there so that people focus on the learning. Studio engagement in art museums, particularly, is usually about the process.  

Sip and Paints are product focused, in a sense. They prove to participants there is a simple set of steps to get something. It’s closer to learning to write a letter. Sure, we all have different handwriting, but we are essentially communicating the same sound. Much of modern and contemporary art, particularly, is often about communicating an “a” by drawing a cow, or rather coming up with new forms of communication. Teaching you to paint a sunflower step by step will not get you closer to appreciating the innovations of Van Gogh, largely because you’re skipping right past being innovative.

Museum educators working with adults, though, know adults yearn structure. Society rewards the structured in school and work. So, they come up with projects that mimic the safety of Sip and Paints, projects though that don’t have one single end-point. They safely allow adults places to not follow the rules or forget there are rules at all.

Most of these points are fairly obvious to most museum educators. We’ve done this so long, and so competently, we make it look easy. But that’s part of our challenge as a field. Those outside of museum education imagine it must be easy to make magic, b/c we don’t show the hard work.

Why does this matter? Because it goes part and parcel with the position of museum education in the field. Educators are expected to make gold out of hay where other aspects of museums often enjoy more robust budgets. This lack of respect for education likely has something to do with the fact that museum education is predominantly staffed by women. It’s also the only part of the museum field in general where volunteers do staff labor of teaching. (Can you imagine a major museum outsourcing housekeeping or curatorial to volunteers?)

What’s the solution? One is that educators need to stand up and show their work, show the challenges, and highlight the hard work behind the scenes. Another is that leaders need to reframe things. Museum membership openings are no more important than family days. All of these experiences are about the work of museums, and equally valuable, as are all the workers. 

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Are Museums a Cult?

 Yesterday I gave a talk about if museums are cults for Museum Computer Network. I’ll put my notes at the end of this blog post. The talk had come out of a Twitter thread, as too often happens to me. I’d been sitting in a meeting, listening to people discuss if the labels should match the wall color, and I was feeling very strongly on the subject. And, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. How had I come to this point in my life? I’d drank the Kool-aid, I suspect.

But like so many of us, it’s truly wearing off. I’m still pretty hyped about labels, but more and more I see that I’ve long missed the forest for the trees. I’ve gone astray a bit. I’ve forgotten that these little arguments might keep me from making real change. So, why do I get caught up in those little things? Well, first the system is set up that way. So much of our field spend 1010% of our time on exhibitions. The roller coaster of work and energy is so exhausting that we can’t even begin to think about systematic change.

Second, we might not be asking ourselves the right questions. It’s not just if this label is the best, but also is this whole thing working. I once asked, and only just recently, do we need to do exhibitions? It was really just a thought question. And, everyone in the room looked at me like I’d sprouted an extra head. We then talked through the idea. We decided yes to exhibitions to offer audiences new art and new ideas, but maybe we could have a schedule that was humane to staff.

In the end, this is what will help us improve life in the cult of museums. Thinking hard about why we do these things and then finding out what really matters.


Are Museums a Cult? (the numbers corresponded to the timer on the Ignite)


This talk starts with a pre-test.

Put your hand up. Answer the following questions about your museum with a yes or no. Put a finger down for each yes.

Do some People claim to have a special corner on the truth? 

Are you told not to question leadership?

Do people speak dismissively about those who aren’t “museum people”? 

Are finances transparent? 

Are there special requirements to get ahead? 


If you answered yes to most of these questions, you might have a problem. These are the same questions they ask people who might be in a harmful group or cult. 


There were a few months this year where I thought I can’t have one more scathing museum article about someone I know in the times. I ached for my friends. I ached for my field. And, I felt impotent and lost. 


I got to museum bc I loved art. I loved the ideas around art and I loved sharing those ideas. I figured everyone here was the same—excited to share. Then, I got into museum work. I found that people were only excited with sharing if they could control every aspect of learning. Sharing with parameters is not true sharing. 


It was disheartening. I realized the field often preferences things to people. Given the capitalistic matrix we live in, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. I was also saddened. 


And I wasn’t alone in my disillusionment. Everyone I knew was wondering if they were in a field that was problematic. We went into this field for good. And we were wondering, if somehow, our idealism blinded us. If we were on the side of the good. 


I started wondering was 2020 the great cataclysm of our field. The standoff wasn’t quite as dramatic as Jonestown or Waco. But, those big cult combustions have one thing in common with the museum reckoning of 2020. 

9 and 10

Stepping back a min, What is a cult? The term is somewhat problematic, but in this context, it’s a useful thought tool. Cults are groups that highly control their adherents to maintain the power of the group leaders. Outside voices are minimized so they status quo can be maintained. Change is avoided by squashing dissent. Ideas are vetted through the cults thoughts, and so not critically considered thoroughly. 


Much of the premises of our field are buoyed by excluding ourselves from the world, just like in cults. We work in echo chambers. We vet our plans amongst ourselves. We try to make the best museum experiences without really questioning if the museum experience is the best option. 


As a field, we’re in a crisis. Why? Because of the system. It’s trained us, not unlike a cult, to question only enough to keep the system going. It requires sacrifice from most people, and certainly doesn’t sacrifice for Us. 


The system sucks. The system gives a few people great tax breaks by giving a few more people the chance to do scholarship. It’s a system reinforcing scarcity. And like all hierarchical systems, it needs a whole lot of other people to get less, and have less say. 


Basically the system has been supported by the idea of special power. But this system has not led to universal successes. It’s seen declines in visitors. This system that once lauded a special few educating masses is no longer doing that. The investment isn’t worth it, without change. 

15, 16, 17

We must deprogram ourselves together. What does this mean? 

Deprogramming ourselves means we need to question why we do everything. We need to be critical about every aspect of our work, and no one person can be the final answer. Sure you studied that artwork but you won’t even look the cleaner in the eye, so you don’t get to be the final say on the interpretation. Sure you tell a great tale of dinosaurs in a science journal, but you don’t understand business, you will need to honor someone else’s ideas.Sure you are a fancy person from Europe with a design degree, but you don’t shop at Jewel or CVS, you can’t be the only voice in messaging for our audiences. 


Deprogramming means not centering all power in singular leaders. It means not giving in to whims of curators. It means honoring those whose knowledge comes from interacting with people (rather than books). It means standing up to donors. It means looking at our budgets critically, and reassessing who gets money.


More voices means more success. More shared decision-making mean better decisions. More honesty means more trust. 


It means leaving the cult of the past and moving to an open new future. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Six Things I Learned from the Pandemic

The start of a fiscal year for me holds the same promise as new day planners and brand-new shoes, and at the same time, the trepidation of blank pages and wide-open stages. I love the idea of planning and doing great things, but there is also the fact that you must plan and do great things.

This start of a fiscal year, though, is quite different than previous ones, I’d suggest. We’re a bit like the tiny mammals looking out onto the land after the destruction of the dinosaurs. Life did go on, of course, and in fact proliferated, as evidenced by me sitting here typing this mediocre metaphor. I use it though, because so many of us feel the field has been smashed. There is no denying our field has seen cataclysmic change. And we need to be honest about how many people are not in the field right now, due to this change. I’m like a lot of lifelong museum pros, achy and exhausted, excited and hopeful, nervous and jaded. All the feelings are in there, rattling around my brain.

While we may never have exactly the same confluence of events that caused the field-wide problems in 2020, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn. Finding some growth can help us, if nothing else, feel like it wasn’t all for naught.

As we pick up the pieces, which ones shall we keep?

1.       Working fast is not bad: Museums take 5 years to plan an exhibition. These long-time lines encourage deep research and careful publication. There is value in allowing time for ideas. But we learned that short timelines have different value. They can help museum respond to current moments. They can also allow museums to be freed of having to do a catalog or having to create deep content on the web. Balancing both could give museums the best of both approaches.

2.       Digital is an audience: Many museum leaders see digital as basically a way to entice people to see the real thing, in their mind. In a museum culture that so often wants to see itself apart from plebian concerns, I find this model of digital amusingly transactional. It’s not unlike the way stores do product placements with influencers to get you to purchase a product.  In 2020, many people did digital as an end itself. They didn’t think of it as subsidiary to a visit. And guess what, they gained new audiences. Those audiences may never visit. That’s okay.

3.       ‘That’s not how we do it’ is made up: Museum norms have been built up over decades. We don’t do many things, just because we don’t do them. We don’t show community art in our galleries, because we’re a museum. We don’t let people draw from the collection, because we’re a museum. We don’t give away art supplies, because we’re a museum. In this year, in order to stay viable, museums across the country did many of these things we just don’t do. And the field not only survived but thrived. Which norms can we eschew?

4.       Many hands: Many museums had to pivot and spin and get real dizzy this year. Some of us figured out spreading out the work, and the authority, made these fast changes easier. Leaders who limped to the finish line with a shred of sanity likely found ways to share authority. I’m truly thrilled when colleagues solve things and drop me off the email chains. My job isn’t to manage every action; it’s to ensure everyone’s actions are in keeping with our strategy.

5.       Work is about Outcomes: I do not care where and when my team does their work. It doesn’t matter if they’re on their desk, in Greenland, or on the moon. As long as they show up at events and meetings, and the work gets done, why should I determine their work process? Each human is different. Expecting people to all work the same is based on our historical labor frameworks, born of the industrial revolution. Innovation won’t occur by setting up systems based on old ways of thinking.  

6.       Community is not just a buzzword: Community is coded language and usually racially and socio-economically fraught. Museum professionals often used it when they couldn’t say the qualifiers they are thinking. But, in 2020, it became all the people we’d like to connect with. It became an imperative instead of smoke screen. Museums became vaccination spaces, food banks, and tutoring sites. Museums became the community spaces they’d been claiming to be all these years. It’s this last lesson which could be the foundation for a better field. Will we actually make this happen? 

Have more ideas? Share your lessons with me on Twitter @artlust. And now for something completely different:

Do’s in Museums ##museummoment##internationalmuseumday##museumtok##museumtiktok

♬ original sound - Akron Art Museum

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Six things I learned about museum work from our three months on TikTok

My team and I have wanted to do TikTok since 2019. We launched into the platform, finally, in February of 2021. This weekend marked our three-month anniversary. In that time, we had 1.5 million views and 112 K likes. We are definitely still a small museum account with only one thousand followers, but we have the seventh and eight most viewed #museumtok videos. (Also, you can watch TikToks on your browser if you can't get yourself to download the app.)


##duet with @anouarchelabi_ ##arttiktok##arthistorytiktok##learnontiktok##museumtok

♬ SugarCrash! - ElyOtto

Here are my reflections of our time:

1.     Don’t let the bureaucracy be the enemy of the joy: In some Clubhouse talk in January, Mar Dixon mentioned that administrator often muck things up. (As an administrator, I decided, well, I don’t want to be a stereotype ;>) Her comment really points to the fear of risk in museum. We often really want to get it perfect before putting it out there. I get the impetus, honestly. Our stakes can feel higher. We have fewer resources and no R&D departments. People might visit us once in a lifetime. But, what if you ignore those stakes? You focus instead not on the negative, but the possibilities. Then you become centered on plenty and action.

2.     Lose control: Much of this last year of museum work has been adding content to platforms. Museums are pretty used to controlling all the variables to retain their norms. When we left our galleries for Facebook, et al, we had to break out of our norms. Opening this up was good for us, or can be, if we take some of those lessons back to the galleries. The biggest lesson has been that the lack of control can be freeing. When you share your content to anyone, anyone can engage.

3.     No one cares about us: Tiktok is a watchers market for content. The two biggest #ArtHistorytiktok accounts are run by, perhaps, grad students. I imagine showing those videos to curators I’ve known. There would certainly be apoplexy and disgust about the approach and the content. But guess what? No one cares about museum. A museum account won’t get more views than a random person, because largely institutional authority has no weight in that platform. This lack of power is actually freeing. You aren’t bound my our field hang-ups.  For creators, this can be a bit of a balancing act; to be like them but keep our core competency (of research-based content). But, if you can manage it, the rewards are great.

4.     Adapt: So often, before this year, I saw museums trying to plop museum content on digital to match their desires, rather than the users needs or the platform’s norms. In this year, I’ve seen so many organizations truly catch up with the times and adapt. For example, on Tiktok, dueting others is a common norm. We used that to do art appreciation, and then link to collection objects. Historically, we’d have started with the collection object. It was a different way from our norm, but we decided to be flexible. It definitely increased our views considerably. The algorithms are no joke, so this transformation was essential to success. But, now we’ve shown ourselves we can adapt. So, where else in our field can we use this knowledge.  

5.     Enjoy: Our social team started with watching many videos. Teenagers playing music on upturned bowls, parents acting like fools, cats chasing dogs—we were there for all of it. We laughed and laughed in meetings, where my team tried to explain much of pop culture. After a year of loss, we really needed the good feelings. I can’t say we’re experts on this. Many museums are killing it on Tiktok, but that wasn’t the point. We could message each other about our successes and missteps.

6.     Make Mistakes Over and Over: Tiktok values authenticity. Polished videos don’t get better traction than mediocre ones. It forces us to really rethink the value of the polish we use everywhere. In one of our videos, I said, “the blue is really blue.” I’m actually a credentialed art historian. I could have been a bit more articulate. But, honestly, that video wouldn’t have done as well. Many of our mistakes were really just tests. We are trying content and then trying new content. We’re letting the stakes me low and therefore the gains can be high.

Should your museum do Tiktok? I honestly couldn’t tell you. We could do it, because we had the capacity and the desire. We wanted this for ourselves. What instead you should think is, what is something that will help us continue to push our desires forward? What is something that will increase joy and success for my team after this terrible time? What is something that will show our visitors that we’ve grown? What is something that puts a bit more good out into the world? For us, one of those things was Tiktok.