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Change Starts in Our Own Corner

W.carter - Own work, CC0,

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program is that each semester I learn things. This week, one of our students suggested museums aren't a monolith. Specifically, he said, "Unlike Amazon and most companies, museums do not have a blanket statement for organizational culture."

It's a statement I might have skipped right over, and yet when I stopped to think about it, it's startling. Think about all the talk over the last nine months about the ways museums should or must change. We've heard people say museums should be more invested in their communities. The sentence "Museums are not neutral" is practically a meme. We've read that museums must be held accountable, and they should close the gender salary gap, making salaries equitable. We've watched as old and distinguished organizations grapple with their racist and colonial roots. And on and on, each cry for change suggesting that museum culture is a single thing. But is it? Or is it a whole with many distinct parts?

There are rules museums hold in common, ethics and practices they uphold, but there are still an infinite number of differences, as museums sites and heritage organizations, each with its own culture, navigate daily life. Remember the ICOM kerfuffle over a new museum definition and the hackles it raised? And that was what the world's 55,000 museums believe they do, not what they actually do, not the cultures they create, the communities they foster, the many buildings, objects, paintings, or living things they hold in trust.

Those who read this blog regularly know my devotion to NPR. Friday, in a StoryCorps interview, a Massachusetts man described hosting Thanksgiving dinner for strangers for 35 years. As extraordinary as that is, it's not why I bring it up. Instead, it's his philosophy. NPR quotes him saying, "I can't fix the country or the world or even the town, but I can brighten my own corner." Without sounding too Pollyanna-like, maybe this is the solution to the museum world's post-COVID systemic racism/classism issues. Maybe all of us who blog, speak, write, and post should posture a little less and do a little more, not nationally, but in our own corner.

So....if you are a museum leader, here are half a dozen changes you might set in motion, but please add the ones that better fit your museum.

  1. Look for ways your organization makes whiteness the norm. Commit to an end of "othering" non-white humans in language, collections, cataloging, the museum calendar.

  2. If you don't have a DEI Committee, form one. Too small? Gather with other community arts organizations or museums and form one together. Who knows what will flower?

  3. Accept that talking about these issues may make you, your board, staff and volunteers uncomfortable.

  4. Figure out what being "not neutral" looks like for you. Your non-neutrality may be very different from your sister museum's down the road.

  5. Don't make changes in a vacuum. Be transparent. Involve your community.

  6. Create an organizational action statement for 2021. Post it on your web site. If 2020 was a year of pain and disruption, make 2021 the year of change for the good.

And if you are a museum follower, here are five things you might do as an individual:

  1. Understand racism isn't just police brutality that happens outside your workplace. Know how and where it rears its head in your organization.

  2. Speak up when you witness racist issues at work. Ditto for issues of gender or intersectional issues of race and gender.

  3. We all make mistakes. Forgive yourself.

  4. Believe your colleagues when they describe racist, misogynistic or bullying behavior. Be empathetic. Offer your help.

  5. Examine your work, and pledge to change words, policies, and programming that don't uphold an equitable museum.

None of us needs to be reminded we're living through an unbelievably tough time. After a horrific spring, COVID has the country in its clutches again. Many museums that just returned to a new normal may need to close again. And many in the museum world are out of work. About the only thing COVID can't stop is discussion, reflection and planning for a time post-vaccine when heritage organizations, science centers, and museums everywhere open again. Instead of pontificating about change, let's post the ways our own organizations model change, and the ways we as individuals brighten our own corners. After all, when COVID ends, who doesn't want museums that are kind, creative, empathetic, dynamic community partners?

Stay safe,

Joan Baldwin

Leadership Matters will be on hiatus Thanksgiving week. I hope you have a safe, socially-distanced gathering. I'll be catching up on reading, Zooming with family, and walking with my dog Scout.


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