Sunday, November 07, 2021

Why do people undervalue museum education?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Are Museums a Cult?

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

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

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

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


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


This talk starts with a pre-test.

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

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

Are you told not to question leadership?

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

Are finances transparent? 

Are there special requirements to get ahead? 


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


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


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


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


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


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

9 and 10

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


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


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


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


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

15, 16, 17

We must deprogram ourselves together. What does this mean? 

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


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


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


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

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Six Things I Learned from the Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

♬ original sound - Akron Art Museum

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

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

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


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

♬ SugarCrash! - ElyOtto

Here are my reflections of our time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Why do we keep working in museums?

I’ve been asking myself this question for months. I read this post by Jeremy Munro, and it hit me hard. I wanted to share it with all of you.


First off, I want to say that the following is meant to be inspirational – I personally make myself feel better about my life by putting everything 10,000 feet in the air.

TL;DR A lot of really shitty people hate museums and hate that museums would even attempt social justice therefore museums are okay, maybe.

With how negative and cynical many museum professionals (especially myself) sound about museums on Twitter and in other professional spaces the question that follows is:

“Why do you keep choosing to work in museums since you think they are so awful/bad/whatever?”

For what it’s worth I think the subtext of this question is great. It is well documented that most jobs in museums pay poorly. Even jobs like HR, finance, administration, or security often pay less than their private sector or public sector counterparts.

Gainful, full time museum employment is also notoriously difficult and competitive.

Due to those two facts, it’s fair to say that for many of us it isn’t *just* that we need a job in order to make rent.

Thus the reason we stick around must be something else. Something so powerful that we put up with the low wages, job insecurity, poor benefits, toxic culture that is often racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic, and generally dedicating ourselves to institutions run for and by rich (white) people who might enjoy art and think museums a public good with their right hand, but with their left don’t live up to those values and actively participate in the wholesale grift that is the contemporary art market where value as investment is prioritized over anything else.

This question was rolling around Twitter the other day and I wanted to square my own desire to leave the field with my desire to stick it out. I often talk with my partner about how museums are bad, which, as a sentiment, people in my life often struggle with. “I like museums, they’re fun” they say and that’s an absolutely legitimate and correct sentiment.

There’s an extent to which the problems of museums are the problem of any industry, we know how the sausage is made. However, being aware of the problems of A Thing That Exists is actually the ultimate sign of a healthy relationship to it. People are very aware of the rabid fandoms around various mainstream geek culture, things like Star Wars or Marvel movies for example. Often extreme fans of these media properties refuse to tolerate any serious critique. This emotional response is a sign of an unhealthy relationship to cultural production.

Cultural production, that is, music, art, media, anything created by people that people are into is at its best when people can accept that they love that thing so much, that it means so much to them that they are willing to pick it apart, that they are willing to hold two (or more) thoughts at once.

  1. I like this thing it is good
  2. This thing has issues, nothing is perfect and in fact by examining those aspects I can relate to it better

I do not mean to say our parents, partners, or friends have an unhealthy relationship to museums. I do not think most people in our lives or most people in society relate to museums in a rabid fanbase kind of way. However, I think most museum professionals consciously or subconsciously draw strength from:

“Museums or cultural heritage organizations have all kinds of problems and I stick around because I know they can be better. This is my role in making a better world.”

This passion that cultural heritage workers bring has been taken advantage of for decades and is the source of low wages and poor working conditions. Many people in power tell us only the passionate need apply. However, our passion, aka “how much we give a shit” is also our greatest weapon.

Museums and culture more broadly are valuable tools that human beings have to resist oppression, to endure through tough times, and to flip the table back on oppressors when we have the advantage and ability.

I was struck today while reading an interview with Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch at how the notion of a grandson of a southern sharecropper founding a museum on the National Mall dedicated to the story of African-Americans would be absolutely anathema to every inveterate racist that has ever lived or continues to draw breath. The National Museum of African American History & Culture is only a few miles from the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (the site of Arlington Cemetery if you didn’t know). In several directions only a few miles away hundreds of thousands of people fought, bled, and died horribly over the question of would slavery (and the domination of a landed aristocratic white elite) last. In a different sense this was a war about who gets to be not just American, but viewed as human.

Image of Google Maps showing the proximity of the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

Hundreds of thousands of slaves fought their own part in that war, whether explicitly as soldiers or impressed laborers. Many rebelled against their masters and put the plantation house to flame. Many others endured as resistance. Now, there is a museum that tells that story and thousands of others on the National Mall. Lonnie Bunch said “The Mall is where America comes to learn what it means to be an American” and I *think* museums broadly seek to do this but for humanity.

In so many ways what it means to be American or even human, explicitly, is awful, whether it’s the continued attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, systematic oppression of African-Americans, or any other terrible things people are responsible for nationally and internationally. That might be what America *is* and it’s easy (and I am guilty of this most days) to think of the National Mall as a site that “cleans up” the American Image.

I would refine the Secretary’s quote a tad. The National Mall and museums or cultural heritage institutions writ large are where we learn about what America or human civilization has done, but more importantly what it could be.

The very existence of sites like the Vietnam Memorial, National Museum of African American History & Culture, Holocaust Museum, and many others around this country is a testament to the continued dream of a better world. They are bulwarks and continued rebellion against any ideology which seeks to divide who is and isn’t human in order to conquer and oppress.

Again, to be absolutely clear, museums very rarely hit these high minded ideals, at least actively. Many museums perpetuate violence against marginalized people everyday. 

But I console myself that a lot of hateful and power hungry people look at many of our institutions and hate that they exist. They hate that people like us work in them, especially for our colleagues who have a different skin color than mine. The very survival ideology that says a better world – for everyone – is possible is a threat and culture has always been the razor edged sword in the hand of the oppressed and marginalized.

Our victory is our work. Our testament is our attempt. Our gospel (meant in the classic sense of “the good news”) is the lives we lead.

I stick around in museums because this is what I do. I am one person in a long long line of people tasked with transmuting the culture of what came before and that work has NEVER been clean, easy, or ethical. Yet, the attempts matter and the next time I wake up and don’t want to do my job and think that basically everything museums do is irrelevant or in the interest of the rich and powerful I’m going to remind myself that we, the museum professionals and concerned public are the thorn in their lions paw and only we can remove the thorn because we put it there in the first place.

I’ll close with a quote, it’s from a really weird thing. Don’t Be a Sucker! is a short educational film produced by the U.S. War Department in 1943 and re-released in 1947. It’s a very strange film as it is profoundly radical for something produced by a U.S. Government agency.

“You see, we human beings are not born with prejudices. Always they are made for us, made by someone who wants something. Remember, somebody’s going to get something out of it, and it isn’t going to be you.”

In the Civil War most of the wealthy planter class survived the war and regained their status once Reconstruction ended. Many generals like Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan) lived out their lives to old age. 

The young men who fought to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy died in various locations, but mostly they died in what is now a fairly short drive from the National Mall. Many of these men were also inveterate racists and should not be lionized in the slightest, but all white supremacy gave them was a battlefield amputation or a mass grave, likely somewhere in Virginia or Maryland.

The paramount mission for us, as museum professionals is to enlist the public in using culture to fight the good fight against the forces that wish to divide us, pit us against one another through white supremacy and capitalism, and constantly tell us a better world is *not* possible.

If you made it this far, thank you for indulging in me being On One.

Written by:

Jeremy Munro aka Porchrates on twitter dot com. I work in museums doing collection database management, digitization, DAMS stuff, and more. Like many museum professionals I wear many hats, sometimes comfortable, sometimes they’re cheap birthday hats where the string digs into your chin.