Saturday, April 10, 2021

Looking at Layers


It's been a full year at home--which for me is a small hamlet in Delaware County, NY in the northwestern Catskills.  I've been able to spend it here, zooming away, socially distancing with a tiny group of friends, and trying to get out for walks every day (okay, not in the deepest winter!).  But as spring approached this year, for some reason I decided to take on a new project.  This spring (until June 21) I am working on driving every single road in this very large county of 1467 miles.  

It's a county where I used to drive a great deal.  At the start of my museum career, I was director of the local historical association and went everywhere--speaking at a Masonic Lodge in Hancock, going to hearings about watershed protection, driving down dirt roads to look at an artifact for donation, undertaking a project of mapping barns in towns, and spending a week at our tent at the Walton Fair.  But my career path has taken me far away from this so I thought it might be both fun and interesting to do a bit of exploring (if you're interested in regular updates, follow me on Instagram at @lindabnorris).

As you can see from this map, I've got lots to do.  I'm appreciating having a paper map and am marking roads driven as I go.  And, as you can see, I am less than systematic about it!  It's a beautiful place.  Despite being only a few hours outside New York City, it is a really rural place.  Those 1467 square miles only contain about 44,000 people. We tried to count stoplights in the county the other day, and I think there are less than ten.  With rolling farmland,  the branches of the Delaware River, and small towns, there is always something to appreciate.

But what am I am really appreciating is how many layers I can see as I look (also making me appreciate my time at the historical association).  Probably the last eel weir on the Delaware River down near Hancock combined with streams with great trout fishing demonstrate the ongoing importance of water to the local community while a tiny cemetery up on a hill near the Pepaction Reservoir demonstrates how important that water is to others.  The cemetery contains the graves from cemeteries relocated when the reservoir, which provides water to New York City, was built.   That reservoir is not far from Andes, the epicenter of the Anti-Rent Wars of the 1840s, a rebellion against large Hudson Valley landowners.

It's also the time of year when all of your senses can be engaged:  with the car windows open, I've driven through the sweet steam of a sugar shack and the spreading of manure (not a bad smell, it's a sign of farming!) the peepers (take a listen) are out full force every time I drive by a pond, and when I get out of the car to check out a stone wall or a stream, the leaves crunch beneath my feet and I gently touch the lichen on the top of the stone wall.

There are still some dairy farms in the county, but far fewer than their heyday and many farmers maintain those barns with a great deal of pride.  At the same time, new growers and makers are coming to the county, bringing change once again.  This tiny milkhouse was a place where milk was picked up, for transport to a creamery, and eventual transport by rail to the city.  The stone walls up in the woods and places like the abandoned farmstead we found at the end of a dead-end road, dotted with daffodils, all represent the multi-layered place I continue to see as I drive.  Road names and names on a map that are now often just a house at a crossroads testify to the multi-layered of industry and community:  Steam Mill Road, Deposit,  Blue School Road, and many more.  

The landscape also shows me the complex web of economic relationships and income disparity.  Delaware County's per capita income is $27,201 compared to the average US per capita income of $59,279.  For more than a century, well-off New Yorkers have been coming here for rest and relaxation.  Although grand hotels no longer exist (see this sad example below),  there are many big new houses on back roads, built by second-home owners.  The pandemic has meant that real estate is booming--but what does that mean for those locals starting out who would like to own a home?  Can new businesses opened by newcomers boost the economy in a permanent way?  Are there ways to bridge economic and political differences?

 

But this project isn't about finding answers.  Instead, I'm finding both more questions and a great deal of joy as spring arrives up and down these hills and valleys.


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Meet the 2021 Mentees!


I'm already several months into great conversations with the 2021 mentees, so it's long past time for me to share them.  To begin. however, my deep thanks go to all of you who took the time to apply.  It's wonderful to read about your work, your hopes, and ways you're going to change the museum field--and the world.  Thank you all!  The choice is always very difficult, but here are the folks I'm in conversation with this year.


Anna Stratton is completing her MA in History Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program this semester.   She comes to museum work from a bit of a surprising place--the cooperative grocery industry.  We've already had some great chats about the ways in which that work--focused on together, the public, the workers, and the mission--can translate into museum work.  Although she was first attracted to the museum field through textile conservation, as a maker herself, she found a shift underway in her thinking.  When I asked applicants to respond to the question, "What are you passioante about?"  she responded:
I am passionate about many things, but it’s no coincidence that I am embarking on a career in the museum world just as conversations about racial justice abound. I am most passionate about racial equity. As a mixed white and Latina woman who grew up in a diverse city, I have always been keenly aware of racial differences, maybe due to the regular “What are you?” question directed at me throughout my life. I have straddled the uncomfortable grey area of being a person of color with a lot of white privilege for as long as I can remember....to be honest I didn’t realize what a non-negotiable this type of advocacy was for me until a few years ago, perhaps coinciding with…ahem…an emboldened white supremacist state. My reaffirmed commitment to antiracism blossomed simultaneously with a deep understanding that I needed to change careers.

Needless to say, it's a tough time to be finishing up graduate school from home and job hunting at the same time.   Anna's interested in development work and is currently interning remotely with Eastern State Penitentiary, along with working on a virtual exhibit on sugar cane workers in Puerto Rico as part of her coursework.  What's the change she's working towards in the field? "It seems so clear and unambiguous to me what museums must do, but first they must outgrow the idea that they are essentially separate from their communities. There might be a lot of problematic history to uncover, but this, too, must be museum work."

From a mentee who's going to school less than an hour from my house, to one much further away.  Anais Walsdorf is currently based in London.  What is she passionate about? 

I’m most passionate about amplifying voices and histories that have been and continue to be silenced, especially colonial histories and their present-day iterations and legacies. I spent most of my childhood growing up on a small island in the Philippines. In the past two decades, I’ve watched how tourism and development have caused immense damage to the environment and the local and indigenous communities. From an early age I was aware of this and the role of money and power in how quickly my home was changing.

Anais is a Visitor Experience Assistant at the Wellcome Collection, a position that has maintained throughout the pandemic lockdowns.  She's worked on a new label putting Napoleon's toothbrush in the context of colonialism as part of a larger project of rethinking permanent exhibits and is also working on team crafting guidelines for supporting researchers using collections related to trauma.  Pre-lockdown, she was also a Gallery Supervisor at the Migration Museum in London and a volunteer with the Museum of British Colonialism.

What would Anias jettison from museums?  "we absolutely need to abandon traditional understandings of what a museum is, and any arguments keeping Western museums from beginning processes of repatriation and restitution."  Another focus of her interest is that the pandemic laid bare, as it did for so many,  "the precarious position of Front of House workers, contractors, and cleaners, despite their being essential to the working of institutions and being the most high-risk."

In her application, Anais mentioned how much she missed the ways in which teamwork, those informal conversations, really lead to creative ideas and actions.  Me too.  And every year, this small mentor program provides me with new ideas and inspiration, widening my circle of colleagues.  Thanks Anna and Anais!

 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Hate Group Projects? You're Not Alone. Here's Help


“People are people. And people are problems. But – and this is a very big but – people who are practiced in collaboration will do better than those who insist on their individuality.”

                                                                                                   Twyla Tharp

To be honest, I love group projects.  If you've ever worked with me, you know I love puzzling out how to work together, how to work with thinkers very different than me (shout-outs to Rainey Tisdale and Braden Paynter here), the luxury of celebrating together when an exhibit's done   No team project is ever perfect, but I like the process and try to learn something every time.  Don't get me wrong--I've had some big team failures too! Once, lawyers had to negotiate a credit label in an exhibition. 

To begin the year, I wanted to share some lessons learned from my students this past semester. I teach in the online Museum Studies and Cultural Heritage programs at Johns Hopkins University.  The program is almost entirely online, so not much pivot was needed over the past year, except for an increased understanding of the pressures students (many with full-time jobs and children) were facing.  This past semester though, many students had originally planned to take the in-person seminar in exciting places which were,  of course, canceled.


My courses always involve a group project, where a team of 3-4 works together over the entire semester.  This past semester they worked in teams as "consultants" to ARCH, a non-profit organization working to preserve a synagogue and shrine in Iraq, to develop interpretive plans  Neither the students nor I had much knowledge about this site or about the culture and history of Iraq when we began.  

At the end of every semester, I ask students to write a reflection about their learning path in the course, and how they would use those learnings moving forward.  This semester, students wrote extensively about the process of group work, many admitting that they approached a semester-long group project with a great deal of trepidation.  Wrote one, 

"Reflecting on previous group assignments, during my previous degrees and professional life, I was concerned about potential clashing of personalities, uneven workloads, poor time management, and more. With all of these concerns, I entered into this course rather anxious. Yet, I remained hopeful."

Another student wrote, "My disappointment [of no in-person seminar] turned to concern when I learned that the course replacing the seminar would be largely based on group work, something I have not had a great experience with in this program."

How did teams get over that uncertainty that so many felt? Here are a couple approaches that they found that may be useful to each of you.

What kind of team member are you?

Students were asked to read this article on team member styles. This slightly different approach would work as well. Pre-class, students took then a survey that asked about their team style, along with their backgrounds and interests. I assigned teams primarily on the kind of team player they said they were, building groups with different types. I didn't specifically ask them to discuss the type of team member they were, but sooner or later, they all did.

Consider a contract

Said one student, "I believe that a major contributing factor in this was our group contract. I had never considered creating a contract for a team project before, but I will certainly do so moving forward. The contract allowed us to establish expectations and understand each other’s working style and skillsets early on in the process. Based on this information, our team decided to designate each member as the leader of a project component, with the explicit understanding that all teammates would contribute to all elements. While these roles evolved as we solidified our project format, this exercise encouraged us to address many potential stumbling blocks before they occurred."

Spend time to listen

In the first week, students are assigned readings from Creativity in Museum Practice and asked to respond to a discussion question about their own creative practice. On one team, one team member took the initiative to spend the first week carefully reading over the creativity responses and looking and the teams' likes and dislikes to try to determine who might best fit each role in the project. This resulted in a team member asked to take on a role that she was really unsure about --but, she wrote -- "So it turned out that Samantha had been able to identify a strength of mine that I didn’t even really consider a strength, and she and the rest of the team encouraged me to go out exploring and see what I could find. Because I had this freedom, I was able to really push out of my comfort zone and find things I wasn’t expecting to find."

Be generous (and accountable)


I have never had a group of students write so generously about their fellow team members. But in sum, as one student wrote, "Although we had challenges regarding the assignments and making sure that we were on the right path to success, as a team, we felt confident that no matter what, our team could handle it. We never used ‘inadequacy’ as a framework in challenging each other’s choices or ideas. We were kind, considerate of everyone’s opinions, respectful to allow everyone’s voice heard, and because of this, we worked together exceptionally well. I never felt ‘dread’ to go into a weekly meeting."


One team did struggle a bit, but at the end, one of those team members still wrote, "The course also really reinforced my belief that the depth and quality of what can be achieved when museum colleagues collaborate around common goals will always transcend what can be done by one individual with a singular creative vision."


Make time and have a plan


These students used so many different methods of working together: Zoom calls, What's app, text messages. Groups held weekly meetings and although each team approached the meetings differently, the regular meetings were important unifying forces. One team began meetings by each sharing something about themselves--I can't remember the specific question but I know in one meeting I sat in, one student's answer was The Golden Girls. You need to know people as people before you can work together effectively--particularly important as many of us continue to work virtually.


Look inside


Effective teamwork means that you have to know yourself, and to be open to learning new things--about yourself and others. "Recognizing my own privilege, as a person who researches and writes from the comfort and safety of my home, was an imperative daily ritual task that informed how I approached the intricacies of interpretation on this project," wrote one student. Another observed, about the challenge of working on a site we all knew little about, "While this [a particular topic] was a challenge, I understand that it also reflects real-world circumstances: perfect, deliverable data sets are rare no matter what field you operate in!"


Take Satisfaction and Find Joy  

"Bluntly, what I was craving was action and conversation, and perhaps, personal affirmation that I had not traveled the wrong road.  Having arrived at the conclusion of the course, and simultaneously my degree program, I can say with certainty that the Museum Projects course has been the most beneficial educational experience of my graduate career."

"However, this semester turned out so much better than I ever could have anticipated and now I feel quite silly for spending so much brainpower and time worrying about it."


"It was wonderful being a part of something that felt a lot like that creative museum I’d read about in the first week of class."


I'm far from a perfect teacher: Blackboard bedevils me, I hate formatting, sometimes I make big leaps or assumptions that are hard to follow. But this semester brought much joy as I watched these students find joy as they grew in their personal and professional capabilities. I hope some of you will try out these strategies in the new year--bravo to all my students!


Sunday, December 13, 2020

What a Year! Need a Mentor for 2021?


For seven years, I posted an annual call inviting applications for someone in the museum/archives/preservation fields to work with me in a year-long mentorship.  It was an incredible privilege to get to know one or two new people each year.  The mentees have been graduate students, young professionals, mid-career professionals; educators, curators, directors, archivists, and more.  I'm so happy that I'm still in touch with many of them. This year alone one got back in touch with book publishing news; another to ask a question about approaching a particular job and another to share her own progress at her museums.  During their mentorship year, they lived or worked all over the world:  Cambodia, Denmark, the UK, New Zealand, and of course the United States. (Shout-out to all of you!)

Tania Said, a mentee in 2017, shared her reflections from the perspective of a few years:

Having a year of structured mentoring with Linda Norris was a window into seeing what I didn't know. It was a chance to more closely examine the contrast in the museum field and the many shades of grey in between. She helped me become more intentional in my museum practice while preparing me for my next chapter. Our monthly conversations helped me grow in my work and kept me grounded at the same time; in fact, I attribute my career change to the seeds we sowed. Even today, Linda continues to be a supportive and trusted colleague.

Last year I took the year off.  I didn't have a particular reason but just felt it was time for a break.  2020 had surprises in store for all of us. After some reflection time, I'm happy to announce the return of my small mentorship program for 2021.  It seems like a great time for all of us to expand our networks, think together, and plan for change. I hope a chance to sit down, virtually speaking, with me once a month might be of use to some of you.  It’s a two-way street for me--from mentees I have learned to look at museum work from different perspectives;  I have learned about specific work in different contexts; and about the ways each of us approach challenges and opportunities and think about next chapters.

About Me
I've been a sporadic blogger this year, so for those of you who might be coming here for the first time--here's a bit more about me. I’m a white-cis-gender woman--I use she/her/hers. Currently, I am Senior Specialist, Methodology and Practice at  the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience where I have worked for four years. In addition, I teach in the online Museum Studies and Cultural Heritage Programs at Johns Hopkins University.  Before joining Sites of Conscience, I spent a considerable amount of time as an independent museum professional, working with museums and historic sites in the United States and Canada.  More than a decade ago, I was a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine, a place that continues to engage me on so many levels as history is made and re-thought.   With my dear colleague Rainey Tisdale, I'm a co-author of Creativity in Museum Practice and work to embed creative practice in museum work every day.  If you want to do more than read about me, you can watch my interview with Paul Orselli or listen to me chat about Sites of Conscience with Dan Snow at History Hit.  And of course, check out previous entries here. 

What Does the Mentorship Look Like?
We'll schedule monthly conversations at times convenient for us both. You can apply for the mentorship no matter where you live or work or what stage of your career you're in. I'll expect you to be both a good listener and a good questioner--and be willing to look at yourself deeply. I'll ask for one or two blog posts over the year on deadlines we mutually set and of course, I also expect active participation and questioning when we talk. In addition to the monthly conversations, I'll provide feedback, introductions as I can, and loads and loads of opinions! 

What Makes a Good Mentee?
I'm interested in people who have entered the field from different directions and who bring different perspectives to the work.  I particularly want to encourage BIPOC students and colleagues to apply.  The cultural field has deep work to do to ensure that our work is equitable, inclusive, and just and one of my goals is to contribute.  For colleagues outside the US, sadly, I only speak English, but you can be from anywhere in the world because we can always work out the time zones! I  know that many of you may be out of work and trying to figure out what's next. You do not have to be working in the field right now to apply. Applicants should be curious and willing to engage in conversations that are sometimes challenging (for both of us).  If you want to learn a specific skill--say, how to be a consultant, or how to catalog an object, this is probably not the opportunity for you.  But if you work, or want to work, in any aspect of museums, cultural heritage, archives, historic preservation or memory work, consider applying.   

Okay, I'm In! How do I Apply?
If you're interested, send me an email (linda at lindabnorris.com)  with the subject line "mentorship: [lastname]" by January 6, 2021, that includes two attachments: your resume and answers to the following questions:
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What questions would you like to discuss with me during the year?
  • What was an early creative act? (I mean, not in work, but early, as in childhood)
  • In terms of your work life or studies, what learnings will you take forward from 2020 and what aspect of museum or cultural heritage work could be jettisoned?

How Do I Decide?
Because this is my own individual project, I get to make my own decisions, sometimes with the counsel of a few trusted colleagues. For instance, I'm probably not very interested in you if your key questions are about becoming a consultant.  I want to be challenged and intrigued, I don't care about your Meyers-Briggs type or your grades in graduate school. I appreciate people who don't take themselves too seriously.  I love curious people. I want to get off that Zoom call every month ready to think more about your work and my work and the ways we can make change together. Museums have a larger role to play in this complex world--but only if we dig in and get at it.

Special thanks to Mia Jackson for her thoughts on this post.


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

A Cog in the Process: Election Day, 2020


For the first time, I was an election inspector here in my small town in the Catskills of upstate New York.  In conversations with people, I've discovered that most of us, including me, never gave much thought to the process--we would show up, chat with people behind the table, sign a book, vote and leave.  That's a privilege that white Americans have been able to exercise without much thought.  But this year has taught us all that it's good--and vitally important--that we understand the process, exercise our rights, and ensure that everyone's rights are protected.  So I thought I'd just share my particular experience as an election inspector.   

I'd been interested in serving as an election inspector for a while--but I was often traveling and it didn't seem practical.  But this year I had seen press coverage that many places needed election inspectors as many who usually worked were older and concerned about exposure to Covid-19.  I looked up my county board of elections, called them in September, and participated in the training (mandatory every year).  It was very clear in the training that the goal was to have every vote cast and counted appropriately.  

Election Day is a long day--every inspector works the full time that the polls are open, and in New York, that is 6:00 am-9:00 pm.  I left my house in the dark and arrived at the town hall.  My town has three election districts, but they all vote in the same space.  We all wore masks, and plenty of hand sanitizer was on hand.  Each district had four inspectors, two Democrats and two Republicans (someone asked me about Independents--I don't know!). What this meant is that there is confidentiality about your vote, but that the process of voting is fully transparent, if that makes sense.  You come in, give your name.  A Republican looks it up and you sign; a Democrat asks your name and confirms; a Republican says "she will give you the ballot" and a Democrat hands you your ballot.  And those positions are switched every hour.  

As a voter, head off to your little voting stand (I still miss the voting machines with curtains), mark your ballot, and feed it into the machine.  Sometimes it gets stuck or takes a moment and then one of the election inspectors (often me as I was often closest) gets up and advises you to give it another try.  Upon occasion, we chased people after they'd already gone out the door to have them submit again to make sure it was counted.  My apologies to the woman named Marge who I made come back inside only to find out that it wasn't her ballot that had come back out!

That day, it was a steady stream of voters all day long.  My town has farmers, lawyers, new transplants from New York City, artists, seniors, young people (and a majority Republican town).  My favorite voters were the 18-year-old first-time voters, sometimes pushed forward by a proud parent saying, "It's his first time,"  and sometimes shyly saying, "I've never done this before."  Some provisional ballots were cast, when the voting status was unclear.  Calls were made to the board of elections to clarify voting status or to answer questions.  

It's sad to me that a decreasing number of people distrust the results of elections in this country.  Part of what seemed to make that day work was a level of trust between all of us working, no matter what party we were from.  We were joined together, with our thermoses and our bag lunches, with our masks and conversation, in a collective effort that mattered.  Just after 9:00 PM, with the last voter gone, all of us gathered around while two folks (again, one Republican, one Democrat) opened the machine and ran the total.  While two folks stayed until the machine was picked up, the rest of us headed out into the night.

I know there is not a nation-wide system of voting and that my experience does not represent the whole.  For a clear analysis of the national changes that would make the entire system more accountable read Zeynep Tufecki's piece in the New York Times today.  She writes, "We have well-studied methods that are effective, and there is nothing more urgent than making sure our elections work — everything else a government can try to do depends on that."

And what does this have to do with museum work?  First, I got to participate in a civic, history-making process.  Second, the more museum folk participate in the civic life of the places where we live and work, the more we understand about our communities and the ways museums can actually matter to everyone.

If you worked elections, please share your experiences in the comments below. I'd love to hear them.

Images:  Washington Square Park, New York City, when the election was called and the end of the day at my polling location.





Saturday, October 24, 2020

Blogging, What Blogging?


I last wrote a blog post on May 31st of this year.  That's just about five months ago.  I've blogged for more than a decade and have never gone more than a month without writing a post. My goal used to be a post every week.  But I have struggled to find what it is I want to say.   Travel fueled my thinking about museums--meeting colleagues, visiting museums, and sharing what I learned along the way.  So that's left a hole in my thinking--and writing.

But more importantly, I've struggled to think that I have anything useful to add to the deep and important conversations around museum change happening now.  I am in awe of those bloggers who have continued to write--not just to write but to write important words that we should all be listening to--and acting upon.  Like many of you, I've also been overwhelmed by the amount of great content in terms of webinars and online conversations. 

I wanted to share some of the writing--and watching--that has resonated with me.  Here goes:

Porchia Moore, everywhere she appears:  in particular, Cartography:  A Black Woman's Response to Museums in the Time of Racial Uprising and Reflexive Cartography:  Or a Ritual for the Dhying Museum Landscape--the Socio-Political Impact of Change in Museums, both on the Incluseum.  These posts made me think in entirely new ways.

The ongoing work of Mass Action, in particular the Readiness Assessment.

Joan Baldwin's weekly posts (and I am in awe of that!) at Leadership Matters. where she often takes a broader societal issue that's emerged that week and encourages us to consider in our museum context.

My colleague Braden Paynter at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience facilitates weekly webinar shorts, 30 minutes of great conversation on everything from Definitions of Justice to Finding Joy to Facilitating Digital Dialogue.  The webinars are all recorded--and they are free for all to attend. Check them out!

The Instagram account @changethemuseum, important, heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.  We--particularly us of an older generation in the museum field--have a great deal of reckoning, listening, and changing to do.

Andrea Jones of Peak Experience Lab (and now at the Anacostia Museum) has only written one blog post during the pandemic, but it really mattered:  Empathetic Audience Engagement During the Apocalypse

Death to Museums online presentations and discussions on everything from calling out racism at specific institutions, to exorcising ghosts of the Confederacy.  Also, more of Dr. Moore!

Upcoming, I'll be reading Dan Hicks' new book The Brutish Museums The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Dan was kind enough to respond to a Twitter stranger and meet me for a lively conversation when I was in the UK in February (remember travel?).  For Dan's perspective on the UK culture wars these days, check out his recent piece in the Guardian.

And I would be remiss not to mention the incredible effort of Paula Santos and others for the Museum Workers Relief Fund.  As all of you know, museum workers, particularly front-line workers and museum educators have been devastated by the pandemic and museum closures while, in some cases, billionaire board members have refused to step up and support the museum they ostensibly serve.  In the meantime, almost 1000 donors (including me) have donated $68,000 to support laid-off museum workers.  

What else have I done during the pandemic?  participated in many, many zoom calls, in multiple languages, and appreciated the changing seasons in the place I live, the Catskills of upstate New York.  I can't wait to travel again, but I'll see if this simple post gets me back blogging.  In the meantime, deep gratitude to all of you who write, speak, and inspire.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

If I Ran a Museum in the US Right Now


It's been months since my last blog post--as my Gang of Five told me, "when you're ready to write again, you will."  I had an idea a week or so ago that I never got to, but today I realized that I needed to reflect publicly on the events of the last few days here in the United States.

On December 1, 2013,  I wrote a post called "If I Ran a Museum in Kyiv Right Now." I had (and still have) a deep affection for Ukraine, its people and its possibilities and December 1 was the day that student protests morphed into something bigger and different, leading to many deaths, a revolution and a war in the East of Ukraine with Russia that continues to this day. My dear friend and colleague Ihor Poshyvailo read that post late at night, and he's been generous in saying that it inspired him to go to Maidan and begin collecting the stories and objects.  He's now the director of the Museum of the Revolution of Dignity, the museum that emerged from those days.  But in fact, friends, colleagues and former students immediately began doing so many things:  they were on the barricades, they served as medics, they made and delivered food--they supported each other and their community.

As I watched my social media feeds over the last few days I was struck by what seemed to be a lack of action and support from US museums.  Marilia Bonas, a Brazilian colleague asked on Twitter, "Waiting to see more and more american museums public statements against racism.  EUA (USA) had a strong position in defence of the new museum definition in Kyoto. Where are you guys?" 

So when directors spoke up, it really stood out:

Lori Fogarty of the Oakland Museum wrote, in a museum tweeted signed directly by her not just about support, but about action: "Members of our staff are engaging in brave and authentic dialogue about this moment...We will also be exploring ways for the Muaseum as an organization to respond, continue the vital work of equity and inclusion and insure that we give voice to the cry for an end to violence against black people, people of color and other brothers, sisters and siblings who feel the impact of marginalization and inhumanity."

Jorge Zamanillo, Executive Director of History Miami sent a direct message to his community in the Instagram post below, directly assuming responsibility for the harm that museums have caused in the continuing legacy of racism.  



If I were the director of a US museum right now, I would speak out.  But equally importantly, I would see what actions we, as a museum, could take.  It's no secret that museums are financially hurting right now, just as members of our community are.  

So what can you do?  Begin by asking some of these questions.

  • Can your museum serve as a safe haven for those who feel unsafe from the police?  What kind of direct aid can you give?  I saw somewhere today (who can help find info?) that staff from a museum in New York were outside with masks, milk, and other supplies for protestors.  
  • How can your museum begin dialogues? with whom?
  • Have you looked deeply at your collections, your hiring policies, and the ways in which you welcome visitors?  
  • Have you joined the protests in your city?
  • How are legacies of racism embedded in all of those--and how can you change them?
  • If you're a director, have you had a frank conversation with your board about expectations for their behavior and support of anti-racist work?

In 2013, I suggested that Ukrainians might want to begin collecting objects.  To be honest, I can't decide if that's something museums should be doing right now.  We should not be doing that unless we address the larger systemic issues of society and our institutions at the same time.  The answer to addressing those issues will be different in every community--but every museum--from the smallest historical society to the Smithsonian can play a part (see the National Museum of African American History and Culture's new web portal Talking About Race or check out the work of the many Sites of Conscience in the United States and around the globe addressing the difficult work of reconciliation--we have many lessons to learn from elsewhere).

If you want more suggestions, check out this blog post from Museum Education Roundtable for specific suggestions to support your community and to make change within your organization. It should be no surprise that the quickest professional organization to respond was one comprised of museum educators--hardest hit by Covid-related unemployment yet most connected to community.

A year or so after I published that post about Ukraine, I was one of a number of bloggers who jointly shared the post, #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson.  It's deeply saddening to realize how true that post still rings:
There is hardly a community in the U.S. that is untouched by the reverberations emanating from Ferguson and its aftermath. Therefore we believe that museums everywhere should get involved. What should be our role--as institutions that claim to conduct their activities for the public benefit--in the face of ongoing struggles for greater social justice both at the local and national level? 
We urge museums to consider these questions by first looking within. Is there equity and diversity in your policy and practice regarding staff, volunteers, and Board members? Are staff members talking about Ferguson and the deeper issues it raises? How do these issues relate to the mission and audience of your museum?  Do you have volunteers? What are they thinking and saying? How can the museum help volunteers and partners address their own questions about race, violence, and community?
I wish I had more answers than questions, but I want to end by expressing my particular appreciation for young colleagues who have been far braver than I ever was at the start of my career:  Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, who spearheaded the #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson effort along with Gretchen Jennings, and whose regular tweet chats on the topic gave shape to new approaches;  other bloggers and activists,  and the many colleagues now working for fair and equitable treatment through the formation of unions at their museums.  I am in your debt.

Top photo:  Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr