Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Can Museums REALLY Change?

As the New Year starts, in the midst of an ongoing worldwide pandemic, many museum workers are wondering if cultural institutions can make the changes needed to move into the post-COVID era.

An article I wrote entitled, "Can Museums Really Change?" was published in the most recent issue of Informal Learning Review -- a celebration of 28 years of that journal's existence.

You can access my entire article for free here, but I'll touch on some of the key challenges (and possible solutions) in this excerpt below.

I'll begin by posing the same question here that I used to start my article, 

"If someone you knew and cared about (like a relative or mentee) asked whether they should pursue a career in museums right now, what would you say?"

What are the things museums and other cultural institutions need to focus on to become stronger, more equitable, and more community-centered organizations?

Here are five things that I've been thinking about:

1) Staff > Stuff

One of the first ways museums could begin to become more genuinely people-centered (instead of merely talking about it via their social media accounts) is to clearly prioritize staff over “stuff.” This requires museum management and boards and museum organizations to act as if they care more for the people working at a museum than museum collections or buildings. (Of course, you need trained staff to care for collections and facilities properly, but that’s an entirely different story).

Pay continues to be the most significant ongoing issue in the museum world. It is wrong, if not downright immoral, to hire someone for full-time work at a museum and to knowingly pay them less than a living wage. And many museum workers are woefully and deliberately underpaid. Let’s pause here to acknowledge that many museum administrators are master rationalizers and can spin stories to justify some of their staff needing to work one (or more!) jobs in addition to their full-time museum employment to make ends meet. 

So rather than relying on someone’s rosy notion of what a “living wage” means in different parts of the country, why not use a common yardstick? Fortunately, MIT has developed a free Web-based Living Wage Calculator (https://livingwage.mit.edu/) that anyone can use to determine what a living wage means in different parts of the U.S. All museums should commit to offering their employees a living wage. 

2) Flatten the Org Chart!

The traditional “top-down” hierarchical business structures of most museums contribute to the isolation of museum departments and functions. Instead of creating collaborators moving toward common goals, most museum org charts create multi-level “silos” that compete for limited resources – often pulling in different directions. Front-line and public-facing museum workers often feel that decisions handed down from the “higher-ups” are arbitrary or “out of touch” with the operational realities of running the museum.

Worse yet, museum employees facing severe issues such as the reported instances of sexual harassment or even physical abuse(!) from managers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were routinely ignored or dismissed, (https://hyperallergic.com/579531/philadelphia-museum-of-art-concludes-workplace assessment-after-allegations-of-abuse/). The museum management hierarchy simply sought to protect itself. 

Hierarchical structures in museums also contribute to pay inequities across departments. Shouldn’t the roles of Education, Exhibits, and Development departments be viewed as equally important to museums’ purpose and function, and therefore compensated equitably? Museums can systemically change staffing and management approaches by “flattening” their org charts and promoting workers’ and departments’ true interdependency.

What would a museum system built on self-organization principles look like in practice? At its core, “self-management” means knowing what you are responsible for and having the freedom to meet those expectations however you think is best. “Self-organization” is being able to make changes to improve things - beyond what is required of you. Simple in theory, but everyone has to truly commit for it to work!

Examples from the for-profit world include the company Zappos, which details the approach it took in successfully changing to a form of a self-organizing structure called a “Holacracy” in this Web article: https://www.zapposinsights.com/about/holacracy.

3) Communities as True Creative Partners

Whose stories are museums telling, and who is visiting museums to experience the exhibits, programs, and events related to those stories? As researchers like Susie Wilkening have shown (http://www.wilkeningconsulting.com/data-stories.html), museum visitors are concerned about a broad range of issues, but can museums provide what their communities want and need – and in a timely way? There are large groups of people that museums are simply not reaching. Visitors to cultural arts organizations, including museums, continue to trend older and whiter than the demographic directions the U.S. general population is heading.

How can museums counteract the notion that “museums are not for me”? I would contend that rather than trying only to present stories, museums also need to engage with their communities as real creative partners. That way, museums no longer become the only authorities and sole judges of the value of certain stories over others. This systemic shift to co-creation with communities may well upset museums with a “Curators Uber Alles” approach, but the realities of demographics point in a different direction.

An excellent example of a museum that sought to reinvent itself with a more community and visitor-centric approach is the Oakland Museum of California (https://museumca.org/). A free PDF of a book outlining their work, “How Visitors Changed Our Museum” is available through the OMCA website: https://museumca.org/files/HowVisitorsChangedOurMuseumBook.pdf.

Another way museums could become more community-minded is to foster more cooperation and resource-sharing between museums in the same geographic area. A great example of exactly this kind of local cooperation is the Chattanooga Museums Collaborative: https://www.nten.org/article/sharing-back-offices-in-the-cloud-the-case-of-the-chattanooga-museums-collaborative/.

4) Money Changes Everything

Given the continuing mismatch between cultural institutions’ operational needs and the available funding sources; the COVID-19 crisis has made even more evident the weak financial positions of so many museums.

This raises a sort of “museum lifeboat” question – should unsustainable museums be allowed (or even encouraged) to go out of business so they don’t take away limited resources from more vital institutions?

This is a tricky proposition since many museums really can’t survive without constant (if erratic) infusions of cash from both private and governmental sources. The long-term systemic solution here is to create reliable public funding streams for all museums through political pressure, both at the local and national levels. We should support and vote for politicians that view museums as necessary to civic life as libraries, police stations, or garbage trucks. A politician that continually tries to eliminate organizations like IMLS, NEH, and NEA is no friend to museums.

More systemic public funding of cultural organizations would also reduce the dependence of museums on wealthy donors and reduce the systemic and ethical dilemmas caused by balancing selling objects from the collections versus preventing the firing of staff -- which brings us back to “staff versus stuff” again. Although in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, “stuff” seems to be winning the battle -- if you consider examples such as the Museum of Modern Art (with an endowment of over one billion dollars) terminating every single contract of all 85 of its freelance educators in April 2020 or the Royal Academy in the U.K. that is refusing to sell one Michelangelo statue to save the jobs of nearly 150 museum workers in September 2020.

5) Leaving the "Numbers Game" Behind

Ultimately, to change the current museum “system,” we need to leave the “numbers game” behind. The notion that admissions numbers are an accurate measure of a museum’s worth or a way to measure the value of a museum visit to a visitor may be a more severe sickness impacting the museum world than even COVID-19.

Randi Korn’s book, Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact, offers meaningful alternatives to the museum admissions figures “numbers game.” Many museum leaders and boards continue to be deluded by an “edifice complex.” The reckless rush to build larger and grander new museums without considering whether we can sustain those new buildings has to stop. If we cannot sustain (parse that word in as many ways as you like) existing museums worldwide, should we really be adding to the number of new museums?

Final Thoughts

All of the challenges and possible systemic solutions highlighted above bring us back to the original question: Can Museums Really Change?

Can we bring the required sense of urgency and the necessary hard decisions to the tasks ahead? Museums have talked a great game for years (even decades!) about systemic inequities and failings in the museum field – often with little, if any, real change. The current moment requires not just talk but timely, and creative, actions.

Are we prepared to leave people behind (whether directors, board members, or staff) who cannot evolve and adapt to the changes needed in the museum field? No matter how much you like an individual personally, or how well they may have fit their role in the past, sometimes folks just don’t grow along with your organization. And then it only deepens the pain to delay conversations about moving on.

Perhaps everyone in the museum field should take a lesson from the dinosaur skeletons on display in so many of our institutions – if you don’t adapt, you will surely become extinct!

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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