Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Why Access Barriers Aren't Easily Fixed

This month, I’ve been thinking about access barriers. The idea of throwing the doors wide open is something many of us dream about. Foundations give real money for DEAI efforts. People speak about these efforts at conferences. Whole departments are focused on this work. And, yet, our audiences remain largely unchanged. Why?

Last week, I talked a bit about the structural issues inherent in our systems and how they may play a part in our access issues. Basically, when our staff is unhappy or overworked, it’s hard for them to make the visitor happy. What are some other access barriers?

We are. Wait, what? You? Well, not just you. All of us, me included. Museums, like all professional fields, are spaces policed by unwritten norms and regulated by our credentialing systems. We are rarefied and like it that way. And, as such, many of our ideas are resistant to other forms of thought. We loathe breaking our frameworks. Or worse, we have no idea that our problematic frames exist.

For example, many museums focus on issues like ticket prices or transportation as a way to remove access barriers. Both are seemingly good solutions. Decrease cost or increase ease at visiting and more people will come. I once stood in my workplace lobby in pajamas for more than an hour watching empty buses drive up to our entrance. We had waived entrance for the exhibition and paid for transportation (and pizza), and no one came. As I mentioned last month, I’m not one to be seen in ugly shoes or my pjs. I was that willing to put myself out there (it was a pajama party). But, those solutions are not getting at the reasons people aren't coming. Why? Because, we often see the "solution" to the problem in terms we have already determined. We have the "if we build it, they will come mentality." 

Diversity is another common thought problem. Diversity initiatives are often coded terms for including a certain category of person. Now, I say this carefully. People who haven’t been included need to be included. But don’t think you can fool people. If your recent interest in an underserved group will be unwelcome if it comes “coincidentally” when you have an exhibition by an artist of that same group. Your non-visitors are savvy—even savvier than you sometimes. People know when they are being played. And people don’t forget. Simplifying diversity is a short-sighted, and ultimately unsuccessful, way to increase accessibility.

Why do we do this? It goes back, in part, to last week. We’re busy and exhausted. We care, a whole lot, but we also need to get that grant report out. We’re strapped. And, so we pick simplistic solutions. But what is a better way to deal with this? First, as a field, we need to have these discussions. We need to think about the big issues, beyond ticket fees and bus tickets, that are keeping us from broadly growing audiences.

Putting concepts into boxes is easier than facing uncomfortable truths. For example, people might not care about the deep thought processes curators had. People might not want an educational experience. People might only come for a class. We need to accept people as they come. 

This kind of solving within our paradigms causes huge problems. I’ve many a time wanted to sing “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” at low attendance events. We’ve all been there, I’d guess. Fabulous exhibitions with dismal attendance, brilliant talk that even your mom was too busy to attend, thoughtful classes without students. Of course, people not showing up is bad for business. An old colleague used to say 1 in 5 people spend money; more people walk in, more spend money. I don’t know if his stats are right, but he had a point. More people are better for business.

But the issue is also psychological. Staff needs to feel like they are going to succeed. Participation is one measure of success (we can talk about if this is good another day). I grew up in the rust belt after the steel mills closed. I get that times are hard all the time. But even in that kind of town, we’ve had a few wins. We’ve felt success. In museum work, if you are trying to bring in underserved audiences, you often find yourself caring a great deal, often without any wins.

So, what are some other big issues that you see? What are ways we are systematically putting up forcefields even if we say the doors are wide open? What are the ways you want to see us do better with accessibility?     

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

One-Person Bands and Museum Labor as an Access Barrier

When I was little, my uncle drove me to see a real big top circus. I don’t quite remember where it was, somewhere over in the farmlands near Santa Cruz, like Gilroy or Watsonville. Like so much of those valleys, I mostly remember the lush flatness, in this case with the red tent popping up like a mirage. I was younger than school age, and little from that circus visit remains in my memory.
One distinct memory I have, to this day, was of a single one-man, or we might say one -person band. He wandered around the big top playing music with his jiggered musical contraption attached to his body. As a kid, this one-person band didn’t seem all that extraordinary. The guy after him was on a unicycle juggling rubber chickens, after all. Seemingly without thought, cymbal hand and kazoo mouth sounded in time with keyboard hand and horn foot. Everything ordered, everything in time, everything easy.  

But, now as an adult, I am amazed at the guy’s ability to move his limbs in harmonious synchronicity. I can barely drink coffee and read my email some mornings, let alone play a full symphony alone. (Of course, I was four when I saw the guy. It might have been barely a harmony.)

I tell the story of the one-person band because I think many museum professionals feel like him. We are spinning and performing, and most people have no idea of the preplanning it takes to make it look so easy. But, most importantly, few museum professionals have a free hand or moment. We are just doing our best to keep from going off-key.

Last week, I asked what are the barriers to keep us from throwing open the doors. There are plenty. We might think of structural racism or the classism inherent in our funding structures. I hope to hear you articulate your thoughts in comments or on social.

Today, I’d like to call out a huge one. We will always find it hard to implement equity and access, metaphorically throwing open the doors, if our leaders don’t spend time thinking about how we do our work. We can’t serve our patrons if we are not thinking about the people doing the work.
Museums rarely have the funding to replicate positions. If the building operations guy is sitting with you in a meeting, there is no second building operations person at his desk. If you have a teen program running, there are no second teen programs person out drumming up business. While we might not play accordions with our feet while shaking maracas, most museum professionals are orchestrating huge amounts of disparate forms of labor all the while making it look effortless.

As a field, we spend a whole lot of time evaluating patron’s experiences (hopefully). Museums are for people, after all. But patrons are only a portion of the people in museums. Staff is an important part of the equation. The systems that staff work with can be empowering or inveigling. So much of our work is collective, a lifelong group project. But as a field, we don’t always articulate our work norms to each other. Our organizations often have people playing different songs, with earplugs on, instead of finding ways to perform together.

What’s the solution? Well, noticing each other, listening carefully, and trying solutions. We do this for our visitors (hopefully). Why not for staffing functions?

Recently, my amazing colleagues and I have started to articulate and improve many aspects of our work. For example, we are working out what needs a meeting and what can use an email, writing out process documents, and then putting these efforts into action. This is stuff that any workplace does, ad hoc, but we are trying to be purposeful and thoughtful. Why? Because while we want to do the real work, we first have to work out how to best keep our own sanity. If we can as a staff decrease the cognitive load of our everyday work, think of how far we can fly. I am humbled by how awesome my colleagues have been to take the leap with me. We’re not quite at the point where we can share all our efforts, though we will eventually. But, in a broad sense, we are trying to be purposeful in how we do our work, so we can free ourselves up to do our work better. BTW, Thank you. Thank you, awesome colleagues.

To take it back to this month’s topic, what is holding back our ability to metaphorically throw open the doors? Time and energy are finite resources. Are we using them well? Work practices can be a boon, helping you do more better. But efficient and effective work practices take thought and refinement. Most museum workplaces don’t place energy or thought into work practices as they focus their scant energy on collections or visitors. If you can spend real time on improving work, you might find yourself freed up, emotionally and with labor. With that freedom, you might feel giddy and free—so free you decide it’s time to plan to throw open the doors.

Managers have a huge part in this. Leaders often look at their best staff, and think, ‘hey let’s put them on this project.’ But what they might not realize is that they are potentially destabilizing that employee. They are asking the one-person band to jump on a unicycle. Now, maybe that performer can do that, but he will need time to practice and fall. Similarly, when good employees are asked to take on more thing, they will need time to fail. Many of our institutional efforts at throwing open the doors, add labor to staff. But, leaders don’t create the systems to understand how it impacts overall work. We are asking our staff to perform without a net with their hands tied behind their back. They can’t throw open the doors.

What’s the solution? Leaders need to realize access and equity isn’t solely about visitors. It’s about systems and staff too. They need to think holistically and carefully. They need to put in the effort to support their staff and try to support process improvements. They also need to honor the careful orchestration that happens in every museum in the country, with each museum professional, spinning, dancing, and performing amazing feats every day.


Also, please consider passing on your ideas about what keeps us from throwing open the doors. Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB). 

Thanks to Cynthia Robinson of Tufts University for talking out the one-man/ one-person band. I appreciate her reaching out and discussing it. I was worried one-person band wouldn't work since one-man band is common idiom. But we agreed one-person works--we are flexible, equitable thinkers after all. I write these things late in the evenings alone. Without a sounding board in person, I need your voices to help me. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Throwing Open The Doors

Recently, I was in Maine on a research trip/ quick family getaway. My children were fairly patient, partly as they don’t know there are families that don’t drag their children with them for work trips. As many a museum parent, I also assume I am dragging my children with me, often forgetting that they like museums. One afternoon we were wandering back from somewhere hoping to find something indoors to do, and we drove by this building. One of my children asked if we could go into the museum.

Prior to this, my children had stopped at every odd junk-shop-cum-museum off of Interstate 90. We had seen the oddest and least museumy sorts of museums on this trip. I was surprised they wanted to go into yet another non-traditional museum. I mean it had its doors open.

Walking in, I couldn’t help but ask the staff member about the doors being open. She said well, we wanted to show we’re open and our installations don’t have temperature control issues. We went in to find well-written labels, solid engagement strategies, and a kind, open staff member. I went much better funded museums and more well-published ones on this recent trip, and yet in my mind, I kept coming back to the Great Harbor Maritime Museum. This small museum summarized for me wonderful experience. People who worked there were happy and happy to see visitors. The ideas were conveyed in many different ways, and included engagement. The space included seating and felt comfortable. Most importantly, it felt accessible from the staff smiles to the big open doors.
Even now in my office, looking out over my rainy Ohio street, I keep thinking about that little museum. Sometimes, I wonder what types of unspoken norms and field-based myths are keeping me from throwing open the doors (climate control is keeping me, rightly, from actually throwing open the doors). We talk accessibility. But what are the things keeping us from making accessibility more than a buzzword? The list is long in my mind, but I’d love to hear what you think.

Why? Because, I’m hoping this space feels to you like that museum, a repository with the doors thrown open. Each month we will deal with a topic. I’m start the month, a bit like this with some musings, and a big question. The next week (or two depending on the month), I’ll tackle a part of this topic. Sometimes I’ll ask a friend or colleague to write a post. Then at the end of the month, I’ll summarize all the responses people gave to my questions. Ideally, throughout the month, you will be sharing ideas here in the comments or on social. If you share the post, please tag me (@artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB) just so I can see people’s comments. I hope that we find is a big space with so many ideas, answers, and surprises. This sort of dialogic model to me is an essential way to be more accessible.

Back to this month’s question…tell me—what is keeping museums from emotionally (and figuratively) throwing open their doors?   

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Rowboats and Magic Feathers: Reflections on 13 Years of Museum 2.0

Woman reading a book on a beached rowboat,
1925. Image via State Library of Queensland
(an institution I love).
Dear friends,

This is my last post as the author of Museum 2.0. I'm thrilled that Seema Rao is taking this blog and museum community into its next chapter. You can find all my archived Museum 2.0 posts here, and you can follow me going forward at and

Today, I want to share a bit about what Museum 2.0 has meant to me.

Counselors talk about marriage being something you recommit to every day. When I think of Museum 2.0, I think about the commitments I made to myself, to it, and to you--and how those changed over time.

I started the Museum 2.0 blog in 2006 for three reasons:
  • I'm a self-directed learner. 
  • I love to write. 
  • I wanted to build a bigger professional network, and this felt like a safe (and nerdy) way to start.
At the start, the blog was an experiment. A way for me to learn out loud. A way for me to call up a hero and ask, "can I interview you?" My only commitment was to myself and my own learning. I blogged three times a week. I explored things that made me curious. I was nobody, rowing into the dark with my pen, sharing thoughts about the glinting fish and ships on the horizon.

2006 was a good year to start a museum blog. Within a few months, I was having rich conversations in the comments section with new friends around the world. I'm still close with some of the very first people to read the blog--strangers whose comments, encouragement, and advice have guided me for more than a decade. I felt like I'd rowed into a friendly harbor of creative, nerdy museum misfits who were eager to share and learn together.

But within a year, the dynamic started to shift. Suddenly and disconcertingly, I wasn't nobody anymore. I became a kind of "it girl" for museum participation. Thousands of people started reading the blog. Approaching me at conferences. Asking me if I could consult. I'll never forget when one of my heroes, Elaine Heumann Gurian, cold-emailed me to ask if I would consider reviewing a paper she was writing. It was like the God calling to ask if I would give my opinion on a new planet.

I felt like I'd written my way into a winning lottery ticket. The response to this blog changed my life. I spent 2007-2011 traveling the world, doing participatory projects and consulting gigs, and writing my first book. I became a little bit famous--in a small niche of a small field--but famous nonetheless. None of that would have happened without Museum 2.0.

I am incredibly grateful to Museum 2.0 readers giving me this lottery ticket. For believing in me. For wanting more from me. You pushed me to accomplish more than I ever imagined. You helped me interrogate my ideas deeply. You gave me confidence, guidance, and stories for my books. You gave me support as I struggled to lead a museum through a participatory rebirth. You gave me confidence to grow and share.

But the increase in readership and attention had a dark side, too. By 2009, the blog I'd started as a place to learn out loud had become the engine of my career. Now, I was writing Museum 2.0 for the old reasons, but also some new ones:
  • it established and built my credibility. 
  • it opened doors to new professional opportunities.
As you might imagine, this led me to approach the blog with a different attitude. I still loved writing and learning, but I became more externally motivated-for good and ill.

On the good side, I made deep connections with people who became treasured mentors, colleagues, and editors. I met perfect strangers through Museum 2.0 who enriched my thinking, invited me to far-off countries, and helped shape my books. At the same time, the pressure shifted. I started to slide from valuing external guidance to valuing external validation. I wanted your approval. I started to think of readers less as friends and more as clients who were counting on me to deliver. I kept to a rigorous schedule and never took a week off. Even weeks when I was giving birth, on vacation, or exhausted from challenges at work, I blogged. My attitude was, "readers don't care what's going on with me. They want the content."

This blog became like Dumbo's feather. I loved it, but I also let it overpower my sense of self. As long as I was holding it - as long as I was pumping out content - I could soar. But I was terrified to let it drop. Without the blog, I presumed I could not fly.

Through the hard years - the years of books and babies and being a new museum director - I thought about quitting. But I always came back to two reasons to blog:
  • I learn so much from writing. If I stopped blogging, I suspected I wouldn't reclaim that time for some other beneficial pursuit. I'd probably just answer more emails. Blogging is precious because it is an opportunity to reflect in writing. 
  • I love the Museum 2.0 community, and I felt responsible to you. The love felt good. The responsibility felt daunting.
In 2015, as I was writing my second book, The Art of Relevance, my grip on that magic feather loosened. I started to realize that my credibility and capability are not tied to hitting "publish" every week without fail. I started to realize I would still feel motivated to write without a deadline. For the first time in nine years, I gave myself permission to write when I wanted. It felt liberating, and scary, and good.

From 2015-2019, the blog continued to be my go-to tool for reflection and learning. Readership went down a bit, and I was OK with that. I was proud of what I wrote, and I still loved the opportunity to share and grow with others. But I also started to notice two big challenges that ultimately led to the change I'm making now.

1. Museum 2.0 is about participation, but I never fully succeeded in making it participatory. Because I'd built the blog originally to do my own writing and learning, I rarely invited guest writers. I never experimented here with models for collective writing. As I got more "famous," I got even more stuck in feeling like I had to deliver the voice and content readers expected. While MuseumCamp and other in-person events built amazing community space, I never figured out how to bring that collective energy online. I wished Museum 2.0 could break free of me and become more dialogic, led by a strong writer AND online convenor. I believe Seema Rao is this person and I hope you'll join me in reading and participating as Museum 2.0 grows. There will be new experiments and approaches - alongside the archive of what we’ve built thus far.

2. I'm transitioning to a new phase of personal freedom and professional exploration. I need to let go of some things to make room. I'm trying to let go of the magic feathers of external validation I used to clutch to legitimize my existence. I'm trying to let go of the illusion that someone else has their hand on the throttle of my potential impact. I want to build some new boats, row to new places, and not worry that I'm letting someone down by following my own curiosity. You're welcome to come along. I'll keep writing and sharing and learning, both through my new work with OF/BY/FOR ALL and on my own. I’d love to keep talking and learning from you. I treasure your perspective, even as I try to lessen my need for your approval.

I believe in the spirit and vitality of everyone who has contributed to Museum 2.0. Your attention, comments, care, and challenges have meant the world to me. You are the reason it was so hard for me to make this change. But I see it as a gift. For myself, a gift of freedom. For Seema, a gift of a platform. And for all of us, the gift to keep growing and sharing together.

Museum 2.0 is a place where we dream together about a more inclusive, vibrant, democratic cultural sphere. A place where we imagine a world where every voice, every story, every creative expression matters. I will always feel proud and grateful to have rowed alongside you in this place, towards that dream, together.