Monday, December 21, 2015

What Would You Do?

In this post I'm joined by Aleia Brown, reflecting on our joint NEMA session building on #museumsrespondtoFerguson. The session, including all the conversations leading up to and following, were an amazing opportunity to work with a thoughtful, reflective and passionate colleague whose work I had followed. Thank you Aleia!  And of course, please continue to check out the #museumsrespondtoFerguson monthly twitter chats.  Here's the latest Storify.
  • A volunteer at your museum says, “Those kids in this neighborhood, they come in and I know they’re going to steal something, so I keep a really close eye on them.” You’re the volunteer coordinator. What do you do?
  • You are in charge of an annual event and one of your regular vendors shows up selling the Confederate flag. What do you do when you’re a junior staff member?
  • You have photographs of your historic house museum in 1930, including an Aunt Jemima cookie jar in the kitchen. Do you recreate it exactly?
At the New England Museum Association conference, we co-facilitated the session, #MuseumsrespondtoFerguson: Bringing Race Into the Foreground. Our goal for the session was to open up in-person conversations that provide all of us with tools for moving beyond conversation to real change.

How did the session work?
Behind our conversations, we ran a rotating Powerpoint of historic and contemporary images about race and racism in New England. From the Amistad to Henry Louis Gates’ arrest on his front porch, there was much to show. We really wanted conversation and so we began by each sharing, from our own perspectives, experiences with race in a museum. And then we asked participants to share a situation, any situation, where you felt powerful, a time when you felt uncomfortable or out of place. and then a time in a museum, or anywhere else, that you found yourself in a racially charged situation--or an uncomfortable situation.

The questions above are just a sample of the ones we distributed to small groups for conversation, and then circled back to large group discussion. And we got discussion! So much so that almost half an hour after the session ended, folks were still sitting around talking and the hotel staff asked us to leave so they could set up for lunch (see above).

We’ve now had the chance of a month or so of reflection, and wanted to share some of our own learning.

The conversation needs to start now. One participant noted that she felt uncomfortable with having this conversation in a room of mostly white people. We agree that a more diverse group of participants would be great, but we also strongly believe that if we wait for the museum field to be more inclusive to have the conversation, it’s simply too late. Begin now. You can find all our conversation starters here, to begin.

Niceness is overrated.  Many of the thoughts shared by participants showed more of a concern for niceness, and a lack of willingness to rock the boat in any given situation. Nice is overrated. We also encouraged participants to think about who benefited from niceness. Rather than challenging racist remarks, niceness effectively ends the conversation. Niceness is often another form of complicity.

Internal conversations are the hardest.  When we did a debrief together, a week or so after, we both noticed that groups did not volunteer to share certain conversation starters. Some of those conversation starters were the ones that addressed staff dynamics. Ones like:
  • A person of color raises a concern about race in a staff meeting. What do you do if you’re the director? If you’re a peer? If you’re a subordinate?
  • Your museum’s education and outreach department consistently prioritizes white museum studies graduates over African Americans with deep community roots and experiences. What do you do?
  • Your museum’s security staff is African American and the rest of the staff is white. Each group eats lunch in a separate space. What do you do?
We wished we had recognized this in the moment, and encouraged sharing of perspectives. These are tough issues, not involving visitors in the abstract (if there is such a thing) but the people we work with and see every day. 

Get Out There A participant commented that it was difficult to get new groups of people into the museum. Linda was pretty vehement in her response--get out there! The days, if there ever were any, of expecting people to come just because you invite them are over. You--you personally, your museum--you--need to go to community places and meet community leaders in their own places, not in your own, safe to you, place.

Linda: At the end of the session, after some conversation about the risks of speaking out, Aleia spoke passionately from her own perspective about the risks that she takes: that speaking in front of a group of white museum professionals about racism is a risk; that co-leading the #museumsrespondtoFerguson tweet chats is a risk; that writing about the Confederate flag is a risk. She encouraged us all to think about the risks that people take every day to make the world different and to get out of our own, risk-averse heads and step forward.  I'll long remember this.

Aleia: I left the session with so many thoughts swirling through my head, but I will just share a few. First, I want to continue to encourage museum professionals to use specific language. In the session, and in other spaces, I often heard phrases like, “we don’t talk about it.” What is it? Racism, anti-blackness, prejudice, white supremacy…? I don’t think we can expect to solve our race-related issues in the field, if we can’t identify and verbalize them.

Second, I hope museum professionals understand that these sessions are not just mental exercises. Racism, in and outside of the field, is a real thing that has real effects on real people. I always wonder if I effectively communicate the urgency to understand racism as something concrete that negatively impacts every aspect of our society rather than abstract. Thinking about social justice is not enough. We have to act in ways that are timely, and beneficial to people of color- who the field has marginalized for so long.

Finally, our session was one part of our journey toward a field that values race equity and social justice. As Linda mentioned earlier, I always look to other risk takers for encouragement and motivation. Shortly after our session Mizzou students gained attention by risking their bodies, their scholarships and much more for race equity. Their actions should embolden us to not only discuss race, but to also take actions to make our field an inclusive and equitable space.

Be the Change
We asked participants to write postcards to themselves, with 30 day resolutions about addressing racism in museums. Some were personal, some were institutional, some were specific and some were general. But all of them were worth attending to. We’ve mailed them out, but we've shared a few in this post. What change will you be making?  

Monday, December 7, 2015

What Do We Want From Our Professional Organizations?

Over the past month or so, I've had several different conversations, online and in person, with colleagues talking about what we want from our professional organizations.  These discussions ranged from encouraging AAM, AASLH and other organizations to take stronger stands on issues such as diversity and inclusion, unpaid internships, or whether our own professional organizations could embrace the role of museums as the Canadian Museum Association did in their statement (below) welcoming refugees.

In my JHU online course, International Experiments in Community Engagement, my students reflected on what they, as emerging professionals, wanted from AAM and other professional organizations. Here's a bit of what they said (emphases mine).
I think one of the most critical things that AAM needs to address, although maybe not resolve, is the question of what the role of the 21st century museum is? We've discussed this at various points in this course, and I envision the AAM as serving in the role of facilitator of this larger discussion to make sure that it continues to happen. While AAM may not be able to define the answer and impose it on museums, I think that sponsoring a campaign like "Museums Change Lives" could be very effective. Beyond this critical question, I think that the AAM needs to look at where it and museums in general are at in the context of larger social issues as they apply to the work of museums.
I think that museum related professional organizations must be more proactive in pushing for museum staff to be more diverse, phase out unpaid interns, and close the paygap. (Unlikely that this can be accomplished, but I can dream). This can be done through mentorships, funding paid fellowships, and allowing for more opportunities for professional development for young professionals and students from diverse backgrounds. ...For people of color, the statistics of employment for curatorial, and management jobs are appalling and highlight the fact that as a POC the opportunities for actually entering the profession are daunting and nearly impossible. I also think that more needs to be done about changing the practice of using unpaid interns. And professional organizations should take a stand against this practice. 
Many of these organizations, especially AAM are expensive, and if you sign up at a lesser rate, you do not get the benefits of the higher rate such as access to sample documents. For someone like me, that works in a very small underfunded organization, having access to this information is beneificial across the board...Having "tiers" is exactly what we don't want in the museum community- a higher echelon that dictates as opposed to working with -aka in the trenches- for the community it supports.
I would like an organization that provides standards for ethics and advocates for museum and museum workers. It should provide a platform for discussion amongst peers whether it is job search, references, or furthering education. It would also be nice to have some sort of job search help with resume and CV writing.
I think a key part of the AAM's new strategic plan should revolve around community museum relationships...The AAM can play an important role in making these kinds of case studies widely available and encouraging dialogue. Just like AAM has spurred on discussions about evaluation and technology, the AAM can take on the same role when it comes to encouraging museums to pursue community partnerships. The AAM can create the safe space for museum professionals to discuss, brainstorm, and work through how to best going about engaging the community and finding relevancy through relationships. 
I think a vital aspect of a professional organization is to provide a robust community of continued learning.
The second thing I’d like from a professional organization is a more personal need, which is guidance and mentoring. I’m new to the field, as are many of us, and ongoing help, guidance, and coaching would probably reduce my anxiety as I launch myself into whatever awaits. AAM has a good career center, but I didn’t get the impression they were as strong in career guidance as in providing job resources.

Working smarter, not harder could save organizations money, time, and energy. In listing strategies to accomplish sustainability, AAM lists four that include memberships, business opportunities, becoming goal-oriented, and strengthening its brand. However, I think this could be expanded to include other aspects such as ethics or something we’ve been working hard towards in this course: community engagement.

I agree that the those real world case studies is one of my favorite things about AAM. Their conferences especially do an excellent job bringing professionals together to share their stories and experiences.

After the events on Friday and our discussions this semester, maybe they should also address crisis management issues in museums from a collection, a community and global support perspective.

One of the first things that I think (and am hoping) the AAM gets on board with is addressing diversity both internally and externally.

I’d also like to see programs to support employment at small rural museums or institutions that are generally off the radar. It seems like there is a lot of turnover and competitiveness in the field, but most of what is advertised are positions at large reputable museums. It would be nice to see equal enthusiasm as well as grant-supported positions and advocacy for a diverse body of institutions. Maybe something like the Teach America program, in a museum setting. 
I also like the idea of a huge, shared database of national museum collections so museums can share resources and collaborate with their peers in a more streamline manner. 
I think it is essential that the role of the curator be opened up to include the intellectual and social engagement of the museum’s entire community, but I’d like to see the AAM and other professional organizations work toward redefining this role so that specialized or advanced knowledge is still a celebrated aspect of curatorship.

I would personally like to see two things prioritized for AAM members: a regularly updated, well-publicized job board where museums can post open positions and individuals can search for them, and continuing education opportunities.

Professional Development opportunities are sometimes few and far between for smaller museums, and is often the first thing to get cut. AAM has the unique opportunity to help fill that void. However it needs to be accessible and affordable. Online is definitely a viable way to create more affordable programming that doesn't require travel!

I would love to see more museum advocacy aimed at increased awareness in communities of what local and state museums have to offer. I know there is a "National Museum Day" and other days like that, but I would like to see something more tangible. Does AAM have a goal of increasing museum visitor numbers overall?
What are my take-aways from this?  The needs and desires are many, and there's no way any single organization can address all of them.  But that said, there appears to be, from my students and others in the field, the sense that museums need to look internally at our practices; and to be better community partners--and that our professional organizations can take the lead in supporting both of those ideas.   In addition, the affordability of resources including professional development, is a key question for both small organizations and emerging professionals.  Perceived value for money will determine participation. As one of my students said above, "having "tiers" is exactly what we don't want in the museum community."

And finally, there's a need for coaching and mentoring.  Don't forget to apply for my own mentorship program, with applications due December 18.  

What do you want from your professional organizations?