Tuesday, December 31, 2019

What will our future be like?

Have you ever tossed a coin? I had a friend’s Dad who was a big proponent of this form of adjudication. He’d toss it up in the air. Like a film, time slowed. I watched the coin turn and turn as it flew. Quick hands clasped and then covered the coin. Finally, the reveal and the answer. Head! (or Tails!). He never did it for anything that matter, because middle schoolers rarely allowed Dad’s to decide anything important. But I still remember watching the coin, and wondering, and waiting. In some ways, that’s what the end of 2019 was for me. I’d poured through the various comments on the questions I asked for your predictions of the next decade. But the responses depressed me. Really bummed me out, depressed me. As Susan Spero reminded us, in 2029, our current 12-year-olds would be graduating from college. What would our field be like for them as they go into the work force? Though when I read Susan’s tweet, I did wonder how many people at 22 can get hired at a museum in anything but a part-time job. Think about that. My first reaction was that in ten years we’d still expect graduate degrees to do entry level jobs. Not a very optimistic look at the future of our field. I’m not alone with a jaded attitude toward our future. When polled, many people thought working in the field would feel much the same.
I think the general mood in the field is ambivalence. There are moments of hope, like the work of MASS Action, and then plenty of problems like the Marciano Foundation's closure. There is plenty of good and plenty of bad, and we don't know if as a field we should call heads. The path we take is not completely our choice; though we all have more choice than we might imagine. In trying to make sense of everyone's tweets, I decided to do some preparatory reading. Dear readers, I value you all, but I rarely read 1 book let alone two as source reading for a post. :> First, I read The Optimist's Telescope by Bina Venkataraman, a book about the challenges of predicting the future. In essence, the book said our present grounds so wholly as to bias our predictions of the future. I moved on to The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, which basically tells me chance is as likely a force in our life as choice. I'm not sure either book helped me write the post, but they did remind me I can only be wrong in the predictions I offer. So what will our future look like? If we toss heads, we'll end up with a landscape very similar to what we have. Many predict there will be more museums:
We'll still be enamored with technology:
We might toss the coin, though, and win. I asked us what our most ardent wish for the field would be. That offered so many positive and exciting possibilities for our future. Mimosa Shah shared her ideas of an inclusive field:
And, many people who took the poll thought our audiences would be more diverse:
This diversity doesn't mean more of everything though. Our leaders have learned to prioritize. We do less better, as Matt Tarr and Susan Edwards suggest:
In short we move from lip service to action, as Scott Stulen suggests:
How do we do this? First, museums start repositioning themselves:

And, they have the money to make these positive changes: The thing I realized as I read those books about the future and how choice and chance interact is tomorrow is always the future. Tomorrow at work you can make choices that make the field a bit better. Every day, you have the opportunity to pivot this field toward equity. Every person in every organization can choose to try to change things. I'm not talking change-maker level stress. I just mean the little choices. You can try to explain your reasons for your choices. You can listen to other people's reasons. You can choose to reply to your staff member's emails. You can choose to smile at your colleagues. You can choose to find ways to create the middle ground. We are all working on the future of this field, every day. As Mar Dixon reminded me, we've been building this future for the last decade: We are the future. It's not up to one giant coin toss. Our future is a million little actions. Our best intentions are useless, but our so-so actions are everything. Any action toward good moves this ship toward a future I want to see. We are charting our course every day. I want to be going toward a positive future. With all of steering this ship, I am optimistic we can get there.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


In the waning days of the decade, I’ve been inviting everyone to take stock of and make predications for museums. The first few posts of the month have been focused on the decade we’ve all just experienced, and next week, I’ll share everyone’s thoughts about the future.

Today, though, I thought I’d tell you about an exercise I’ve been doing. It started one late evening when my partner was watching something. I’d been reading a novel, only turning an eye to the show periodically. Two episodes in and I was woefully lost with the narrative and even worse off with the characters. Instead of berating him with my queries about the characters, I started spitballing about museums. He’d done his time in various museum departments over the years. He had ample room to counter my bold statements about museums. (Good ideas rarely come fully-formed from one person.) I grabbed my computer, and as he watched fire-fights and interpersonal intrigue, I penned a long look back on what I’ve learned about museums over the last two years.

My post began with some highlights (and lowlights about my career): 
"I’ve been alone with so many famous works of art, I’ve lost count. I’ve seen the backs and the bottoms and the insides. I’ve heard the secrets I can’t share."

And my ideas included:
1. People will give money to educate kids. But many funders won’t give money to turn on the lights. Who cares if it's hard to educate kids in pitch black galleries?

In the week or so since that post, I’ve been thinking a lot about good times. I had wanted to catalog some high points of the field and my career, as an invocation to everyone to do the same. Meditating on good is harder sometimes than bad. Seizing the moment to remind yourself of your worth can be challenging.

But, in the end, I found it hard. Not because I’ve forgotten the good. Quite to the contrary, actually. The good resides in my mind, just at the edge, its happiness bubbling up at odd times. But, the good times for me turn out not to be outcome-based. My CV and my list of happy memories don’t line up at all. I’ve written things and done things, and I’m sincerely proud of my accomplishments. But those outcomes don’t necessarily hold emotional weight as certainly fleeting, unremarkable moments. The times in the last decade that hold the greatest sway are the feelings, and most of these emotions grown from interactions with my colleagues. I wrote about it on Medium a few weeks ago. The post started like this: 
"I’ve spent twenty years in the professional world. I’d had two decades of relationships at work and in social media. Extrovert of extroverts, that translates as scores of people. So many people have come into my life, flowing in and then flowing out."

So to end this week’s post, I’d invite everyone this week to drop a note to a colleague who impacted you in the last decade. Tell them hello and thanks. Or tell them you thought of them. Or tell them a funny story. Just reconnect. The work and the outcomes, the collection and the labors, are what we do every day. But the people we’ve known are often filling in crevices with goodness and laughter. The webs of people who make work happen are integral to our everyday happiness.

Next week, for the last post of the decade, I'll share our thoughts about the future. Join the conversation about the future of the field, here, or on social media. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Worst of Museums for this Decade

Ask and you shall receive. Be careful what you wish for. These two adages were both in my mind last week when I asked people for the worst museum trends.

I wasn't surprised that the worst trends had much more pick up than best. The grass is always greener, as the adage says, or rather, we as people are usually pretty good at figuring out what we lack, what other people have, or what went wrong. Or, I should qualify that. We're often good at seeing the symptoms. The real improvement though is when you can get down to the root causes. On social media, it's hard to get into systemic issues effectively, but maybe people did start to touch on some of the big, bad issues in our field.

Brad Dunn basically summarized the overall themes of people comments. In this decade museums worst trends were in labor and tech:

The issues of work were pretty front and center for people. As I looked through the responses many of the issues were intertwined. The cats-cradle mess seemed to start on some level with professionalization. Suse Anderson spoke about the drawbacks of professionalization:
Even five or six years ago, I think many in the field would think of professionalization as being whole positive. Now, many see the downsides, including crushing student debt along large numbers of credentialed people with few open jobs. Susan Spero brought up the cost tuition rises had to the field:
Many brought up the challenges with museum studies programs, with Rich Ligner responding directly to Susan's tweet above.

The rise in professionalization spurred an increase in museum studies programs, as a way to train future professionals. Yet, the market couldn't support the many, many museum studies graduates that came out. As such, we have more supply than we had demand, and the work places used this as a chance to employe cheap labor.It's brought us to this point where we have a culture of underpaying, or not paying people at, to do professional work. I can't think of another professional field where credentialing is so varied or where portions of the work is routinely done by non-credentialed or unpaid professionals.
For my part, another challenge with museum studies programs is that there is a great deal of of variety in programs. As someone who has often hired professionals, I wouldn't say the benefit of a museum studies degree hasn't always been clear to me. I see a vast range in skills and knowledge depending on the program, and I see many qualified people who don't go to a museum studies program. This complexity highlights the complications we've created around training and hiring. There are many ways to become a museum professional and we don't have uniform measures across programs (like a standard set of board exams).

Now, I'm not exactly advocating for boards, but a comparison helps us see why regulation is important. In medicine for example, there are only a certain number of spaces allowed for residency, and it is regulated by congress. We keep ourselves near shortage of doctors and as such there is great competition for seats. We won't go down the looming problem of the lack of physicians our nation will be facing in the upcoming decades, but instead let's look at museum work. Money is the regulatory mechanism in museums. The number of open jobs is based on the amount of money museums can raise. Philanthropy is changing, with large benefactors giving way to people giving less and earned income increasing in importance. Like medicine, we, in effect, have few job openings. Unlike medicine, which graduates slightly more students than residency seats, museum studies programs graduates scores more students than spaces. This problem becomes compounded by the fact that many museum professionals get paid lower wages and therefore likely delay retirement. It's like we're running a roller coaster where few get off while we continue to allow the queue to form. It makes for sick riders and angry potential riders. IThe whole system is nauseating.

No matter how hard you try to make people happy with cosmetic changes, like team building, as Julia Kennedy mentions, these inherent workforce issues must be solved if the field hopes to continue to evolve fruitfully. We're losing many of our mid-career professionals, and we could find ourselves in very real work force issues. As Susan Spero pointed out, a decade from now today's seventh graders will be graduating from college. What will the museum work force look like when they join our ranks?

 In this decade, instead of dealing with workforce issues head-on, we often focused on the shiny new thing. Technology was the number one worst trend in museums in people's comments. Apps, QR Codes, AR/ VR, Interactives, all our most lauded tech, got mentioned. As Dan Hicks and Paul Bowers said:

The tech became a siphon, taking away resources, and was seen an end itself:
Tech didn't support the museum in its mission to engage visitors in specific goals, like social learning:
Instead museums found themselves at the mercy of the next big thing and the whims of tech firms:
As someone with a horse in the race on museum technology, I spent a great deal of time thinking about these comments and coming to terms with them in some ways. For me, technology and labor were really two sides of the same coin.

Museums spent this decade chasing the future on behalf of the past while ignoring the present. There was so much good in tech, like open data and social media, and as Chris Alexander mentioned museums brought a great deal of technology in house. But, these positive aspects of tech was overshadowed by the pernicious aspects of technology, often swallowing whole budgets in their wake. For many museum workers it was like watching a whole family starve short one.

Likely part of the problem was fundamental to how museums only took the worst of corporate culture:

We, as a field, didn't really slay our demons, not just work force issues but real collections issues (repatriation and decolonization), and instead moved onto new efforts like technology. In doing so, we only exacerated or allowed certain problems to fester:
Without looking at our fundamental system, the whole enterprise could be up for a challenge next decade--your thoughts on that next week.

(Please consider passing your ideas about big trends for the next 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). 

Monday, December 09, 2019

Best of the Decade for Museums

Written by Seema Rao

Last month, I shared some of my thoughts about the best of museums over the last decades. (I admit some of my best included a big of the worst side of the best). This week, I'm summarizing everyone else's ideas about the best trends of the decade. I'll mention now, Kate Livingston, listed Museum Twitter as one of the best things, and I definitely thought this as I read people's responses.

Many respondents talked about a fundamental shift in museums from them to us. We transformed from transmit to recieve. This changed attitude manifested in many different ways. For example, this change included sharing our collections online. As Aron mentioned, this shift required a fundamental intellectual shift.

And, when you make that kind of shift to shared ownership you're willing to share in an open, trusting manner, as Heidi mentioned.
This shift to a more open mindset also created fundamental shifts in operations and programming. As Jeremy mentioned, many museums wanted to be social spaces and made changes to create that culture, and as Andrea mentioned, they created amenities to support this social use.

Our physical transformation was also obvious in our galleries:

Museums also looked for people where they are and how they are, rather than asking people to just receive what the museum wanted to offer. The programs and interpretation changed as a result. Rather than unidirectional from museums out, museums began co-creating with other people, transforming the traditional means of production and seat of power.
It also meant holding programs that were different from our usual MO. Rather than creating all for one content, museums starting looking at the particular needs for specific audiences. (Also, to know more about how you can be more inclusive listen to Beth's #MCNIgnite).
We admitted that our existing programs and hours don't work from most adults, who have full-time jobs and might not want to leave the office to sit in a dark lecture hall. After hours events, for example, required changing the way we did things. The transformation was worth it, as Molly mentioned.
But, these changes above required museums doing a better job of understanding their audiences and listening to them. As Matt mentioned:

Overall, museums allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. Our openness was rewarded each time someone liked our tweets, someone mentioned our interesting programs at a dinner party, and someone brought a friend to our events. We, however, have plenty of room to grow. Next week, we'll discuss the worst trends from the decade. The worker, technology, and money will feature large next week.

(Please consider passing 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, 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.


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.