Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fighting for Inclusion

These are the notes and slides for a keynote speech I'm giving this Saturday at MuseumNext in Indianapolis. If you'll be there, I look forward to discussing these issues with you. If not, please share a comment and let's talk online.

The theme of this conference is inclusion. All weekend, we've heard uplifting stories about amazing work you all are doing to involve people from all walks of life in museums.

And yet. Here's my beef with inclusion: it's too good. No one is "against" inclusion. There is no other museum conference going on somewhere else in the world today where professionals are sharing proud case studies and helpful tips on how to exclude people.

But museums do exclude people. All the time.

If everyone is "for" inclusion, does that mean it automatically happens? No. But if no one is against it, how do we make sure that we actually are doing it, that we aren't just paying lip service to the idea?

The answer, I think, is to acknowledge the activist, political roots of inclusion. Inclusion isn't a given. Inclusion is something we fight for.

And so I'd like to share some of the story of how we have fought for inclusion, what it changed about our work, and some tips on how to fight.

Our Story

I came to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History four years ago. At the time, we were fighting for survival. Financial instability and creeping irrelevance had put the museum in a precarious position. We had to make a change.

And while we wouldn't have said that change was about "inclusion" specifically, it was about empowering as many people as possible to feel like the museum was a vital part of their lives, individually and collectively. We did it in two ways:
  • by empowering individuals as participants in content creation, program design, and deep exploration of art and history 
  • by connecting people across differences, building strong social bridges across race, age, economic background, and culture so that the transformed museum would be a place for everyone instead of a place for a particular target group
These two changes are at the heart of inclusion. Valuing individuals' potential and contributions. Linking diverse people across differences, even when it's uncomfortable. Reaching out, broadly and intently, with generosity and curiosity at the core.

Inclusion isn't just an engagement strategy. For us, it was a successful business strategy too. In my first four years, we tripled attendance. Doubled our budget. Doubled our staff. Got on strong financial, programmatic, and reputational footing. As one visitor recently commented, "the MAH has become 'our' museum, a reflection of us and a place where we can appreciate art, share it with each other, learn and make new connections." 

But we didn't get there without a fight. We fought against common preconceptions of what a museum audience looks like or who a museum is for. We fought against critics who claimed that we were dumbing down the museum. We fought overt and covert discrimination on the basis of age, race, and income. We fought our own biases, fears, and uncertainty... and we continue to do so today.

How to Fight

I want to share four concepts that have been helpful to me in thinking about how we actively fight for inclusion in our work.

1. Start Small

You can't change the world overnight. It's powerful to have a big vision for where you are going. But if you throw every punch, tilt at every windmill, you'll end up exhausted and frustrated.

So start with a goal. Articulate it clearly. And then find small ways to start fighting for it.

For us, inclusion began with learning how to invite community members to be part of our work. Sometimes, that meant asking people to share opinions on our plans, to share stories for exhibitions, to share their skills in community programs. But I often think of one of our simplest, and most powerful, forms of invitation: the wishlist.

On our weekly email newsletter, we often ask people to donate specific junk items--toilet paper rolls, bottlecaps, jeans--that we want to use for exhibitions and programs. I always thought we did this because we're thrifty. But then there was the situation with the cardboard boxes, which changed my perspective.

One time, we did a call-out for cardboard boxes. Hundreds rolled in. One industrious museum member even cleared out his garage and brought down a whole trailer of boxes on the back of his bike. Once at the museum, staff and visitors transformed these boxes into a cardboard castle for a co-created family opera. Junk became something creative, something of value. As I watched the castle go up, I thought about how small, yet powerful, the wishlist is. It's a simple expression of the fact that we KNOW that our visitors have something to give the museum. They don't have to be professional artists, or wealthy donors, or famous historians to contribute. EVERYONE can contribute--with something as humble as a cardboard box. That's a small step towards inclusion.

If you are fighting for inclusion, I ask you: what small invitation could you make to be more inclusive? 

2. Arm Yourself

Going into battle? You're going to need a weapon. I want to briefly address three ways to arm yourself in the fight for inclusion (or whatever else you care most about): with strategy, with self-care, and with compatriots.

In some institutions, your strongest weapon is a core strategic document - typically, a mission statement. If your mission statement talks about serving "all Minnesotans" or "creativity for everyone," that's a mandate for inclusion. Even if the mission statement is primarily used in your institution as an aspirational ideal, it's still something that theoretically everyone from top to bottom is working towards. If you can use the sentence: "We can accomplish XX part of our mission by doing YY," people at the top have to listen to you. They may not agree with you, but if you can couch your goals in the context of agreed-upon strategic language, you can use that language as a shield as you pursue action.

And speaking of shields, the second way you must arm yourself is by taking care of yourself. As Audre Lorde said, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare." Arm yourself with love, with strength, with actions and objects and people who help you thrive. You need that if you are going to fight.

But you don't have to do it alone. The most effective way to arm yourself--especially in a big institution--is with an army. One of my favorite examples of a group of museum professionals fighting for inclusion is the folks at Puke Ariki who led the Ruru Revolution in their large museum/library/visitor center in New Zealand. This band of colleagues created an "underground group working for institutional change"--and they succeeded. They found each other, supported each other, and pushed each other into new ways of working with the public.

What weapon do you have at your disposal?

3. Make Space

When you think about recruiting your army, think about whether your actions are inviting people in or keeping people out. It can be so easy in this work for us to hunker down and focus on "doing the thing" ourselves. It's ironic--and self-defeating--that we can sometimes be exclusive in pursuing inclusion. I have found again and again that we do our most powerful work NOT when we do the thing but when we empower others to do the thing. That's what space-making is all about. It's like a chain letter for good. You make space and support others in their fight, and suddenly, what felt like a lone battle is a movement pushing forward.

Unfortunately, when a new initiative or goal gets set, I often see us clamping down with micro-management instead of making space for the new work to thrive. When I came to the MAH, one of our first goals was to make the space more welcoming for people. One day, I walked in, and there were two armchairs with a sign that said "Sit back, relax, and enjoy the art." The sign was ugly: primary colors screaming amateur preschool hour. Every designerly instinct I had made me want to tear down that sign. And then I stopped and realized that the intern who had made that sign had done so to help accomplish our goal of making the museum more welcoming. The sign DID accomplish that goal. My desire for design perfection did not, and should not, outweigh the benefit that her work was bringing to the organization.

And so the sign stayed. When I look back, I feel guilty about all the times when the proverbial sign didn't stay, when some expectation or threshold for quality led us to shut down something great in development. And not just to shut down some potentially great work, but also to shut down some great people for whom we were not making space to shine.

Where could you have more impact by making space for others?

4. Start Within

Most of my examples in Santa Cruz have to do with us fighting for inclusion beyond our office, with supporters and critics and people throughout our community. But if you work at a big institution, the fight probably begins within, battling statements like "But that's not professional," or "We've always done it that way," or "Isn't that just a marketing thing?"

Starting within can be safest, because you know the people involved. But it can also feel unsafe, because the emotions and potential repercussions are higher. Find the way to start small, to arm yourself, to make space--and to do so wherever you need to start first.

It's hard to embark on this fight. It's not an easy slide into first, even if everyone is "for" inclusion on the surface. But it's worth it.

What's your fight?

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Meditations on Relevance Part 5: Relevance is a Bridge

Blessing of the Replica Boards, July 19, 2015, 8am. Photo by Jon Bailiff.
Relevance is not an end unto itself. It is a bridge. When you open the path, people flood in. You open the potential for something more.

But a bridge to nowhere is quickly abandoned. Relevance only leads to deep meaning if it leads to something significant. Killer content. Substantive programming. Muscle and bone.

This summer, we opened two exhibitions at my museum that are highly relevant to local culture. One is about the Grateful Dead (Dear Jerry), the other about the dawn of surfing in the Americas (Princes of Surf). Dear Jerry is relevant because Santa Cruz is a hippie town, UC Santa Cruz maintains the Grateful Dead Archive, and the Dead did their final tour this summer. Princes of Surf is about the young Hawaiian princes who brought surfing to the Americas 130 years ago--relevant because they did it in Santa Cruz, with boards shaped from local wood, on waves I bike by every week.

Both of these exhibitions are relevant to the cultural identity of Santa Cruz. Both had good design, great programmatic events, and enthusiastic response. But one of them--Princes of Surf--completely outshone the other. Crushed attendance records. Yielded mountains of press. Captured people like we've never seen before. Princes of Surf isn't "more relevant" than Dear Jerry. But its gateway led further into our community, deeper into the heart-spirit of Santa Cruz.

What makes Princes of Surf so special? The exhibition is small and fairly traditional in design. It features only two artifacts: the original redwood surfboards the princes shaped and used in Santa Cruz. Picture a room with two really long pieces of old wood, and some labels around the walls. That's about it.

And yet. These two pieces of wood are like the Shroud of Turin of surfing in the Americas. They are the answer to a mystery, proof of something we'd long believed but couldn't verify. They are at the heart of how so many people in my community define themselves. These boards connect modern-day surfers to something greater than themselves: across oceans, across cultures, across time. It's not about nostalgia. It's about a new connection to something deep inside.

Princes of Surf is simple. It starts with a theme--surfing--that is relevant to our community. And then it delivers something new and shocking, something old and reverent, something worth getting excited about.

The story of how these surfboards became significant speaks to the fickle face of relevance. Before the Princes of Surf exhibition, these boards rested deep in the collection storage of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. As royal boards, they were sufficiently relevant to the Bishop's mission to be collected--but not compelling enough to warrant exhibition. They were in storage for 90+ years before historians in Hawaii and Santa Cruz discovered they were THE boards in the first known record of surfing in the Americas in Santa Cruz. The boards became relevant and important in Santa Cruz, and we paid a huge amount to have them conserved and shipped here for exhibition. But their significance here doesn't translate across the ocean. After this "blockbuster" run in Santa Cruz, the boards will go back in storage at the Bishop Museum, where their relevance warrants preservation but little adoration.

In other words, these boards are significant--but only here, only because of their relevance to Santa Cruz. Attributes like "significance" are almost always contextual. And potent. When context and meaning line up, objects gain power.

Exhibiting these boards reminds me how rare it is to exhibit truly significant objects. So often in museums, we assuage ourselves with the idea that in the digital era, people will still visit museums because they want to see "the real thing." What we don't admit is that many of the "real things" we display just aren't compelling enough to get people in the door. We lie to ourselves, writing shiny press releases for exhibitions of second-class objects and secondhand stories. The rechewed meat of culture. The thin, oily soup of blockbuster shows. They may be relevant, but that doesn't make them valuable.

I remember the last time I saw an object that was so relevant, and so valuable, that it had huge community impact. It was June of 2009. Michael Jackson had just died, and I was at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where they hastily erected an exhibit of the jacket and glove he wore in the Thriller video. Many organizations hosted tributes to Michael Jackson, but this tribute, this artifact, this outfit that froze Michael Jackson at his most insane and fabulous and other-worldly--it mattered. It was relevant AND significant.

When you hit both these notes, people respond. With Princes of Surf, it started before the exhibition opened. People lining the street on the Tuesday afternoon when the boards arrived from the Port of Oakland, cheering as the crates came off the truck. People pouring in to see the show. Grown men fighting for seats at lectures about the history of the boards. Couples stopping me on the street to marvel about the story. Kids wearing commemorative t-shirts around town. The exhibition is still open, and every week I have these moments--in the museum and out in the City--where people tell us and show us how much the boards matter to them.

My favorite moment of this project was on July 19, 2015, 130 years to the day since the teenage Hawaiian princes were first documented surfing on mainland USA in Santa Cruz. We celebrated the anniversary with a surf demo, paddle out, and luau. One of the most prominent surfboard designers in Santa Cruz, Bob Pearson of Pearson Arrow, shaped fourteen replica redwood boards for the demo. We partnered with pro surfers, shapers, surf historians, Hawaiian restaurants, a local radio DJ, and a Hawaiian biker club to make it happen.

It's always nerve-wracking when you host an event with an unconventional format. I remember early morning on July 19, getting on my bike, wondering if anyone would be at the beach when I arrived. Who in their right minds would show up at 8am on a Sunday for a history event?

I arrived to a sea of people, heads bent before a blessing of the boards. I stumbled into the throng. Someone handed me a lei. I walked with hundreds of fellow Santa Cruzans along the shoreline to watch pro surfers attempt to ride the replicas. People lined the cliffs above the water. The tide was low, and we walked way out along the break, cheering the surfers on, watching them rise and fall. 

Back on the beach, the mayor proclaimed it Three Princes Day. The Hawaiian motorcycle club hefted the 200+ pound replicas and carried them down the shore to the rivermouth where the princes first surfed, like a reverse funeral for history being raised from the dead. A the mouth of the river where the princes rode, Hawaiian elders led us in a song of blessing. And then we got into the water again - hundreds of us, on redwood boards and longboards and shortboards and paddle boards and no boards at all, paddling out to form a circle in the ocean out beyond the break, holding hands, feeling the connection. We paddled back, dried off, and spent the afternoon drinking beer and dancing hula in the courtyard outside the museum.

July 19, 2015 Paddle Out, 11am. Photo by Levy Media Works via drone. I'm a speck in the water, top right between a blue and yellow board. Note the crowd at the river mouth in the background on the beach.
July 19 was amazing. For me personally, it was life-changing. And it had almost nothing to do with relevance. Yes, this project matters most in Santa Cruz, where the boards were born, but the relevance of the story was just the spark. Just the opening of a door of connection and meaning and depth and learning and love.

So let's celebrate relevance. Not as an end, but as a means. If your organization focuses on your local geography, be relevant to that. If you focus on a particular community, be relevant to them. If you focus on a discipline or art form or niche, be relevant to that. And then work like hell to make meaning out of it.

Because relevance is just a start. It is a bridge. You've got to get people on the bridge. But what matters most is what they're moving towards, on the other side.


This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. Thank you for taking this journey with me. It is an experiment in form, and I value all the comments and conversation around it. If there are other topics you think should be included in the series, please leave a comment with that topic for consideration.

Here's my question for today: Have you seen an object or work of art become relevant and powerful for a short time or in a particular context? How do you define the difference between relevance and significance? 

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.