Links of the Week: April 15, 2022: Elite Is As Elite Does

How elite is the museum field, anyway?

a large dining table with opulent place settings, a silver statues, and swith a luxuriously-appointed wall in the background
How elite do you have to be for a seat as this table? (Photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash)

How elite is the museum field, anyway?

If you're reading this and not a subscriber to Museum Human, consider scrolling to the bottom and signing up now—it's free and is the only way to read the site's longer weekly post on the organizational culture of cultural organizations and to learn about upcoming subscriber-only events.

I've written about elites in museums, and I've received some fair criticism that not everyone in the field can exercise power with some degree of impunity.

So I'll ask everyone to consider the privilege they have, even if it's highly relative.

With that, let's check out the links!

  • One: We'll start with this post from Nonprofit AF making the rounds, about how the financially stable in this often-low-paying field have been exercising impunity when it comes to spending socially. The whole piece is a must-read, but I'll call out this part:
… it reminds me of a pervasive phenomenon in nonprofit. I’m calling it “Higher-Income Solipsism Syndrome (HISS).” This is when people who are more financial secure, through a lack of awareness brought on by their privilege, create and endorse philosophies and actions that negatively affect people who are less financially secure.

Ouch! I wonder how much the lack of trust in museum organizations keeps us from knowing—or realizing—the situations of our colleagues, or how much we force the assumption of "I'm not rich, I have friends in finance, now they're rich" upon ourselves. The article asks museum-field readers to keep these in mind:

Assess how your privileges are affecting your positions: If you are against a proposal, for example an increase in compensation for staff, you may come up with all sorts of seemingly valid reasons for your stance. But you may not be considering that your thoughts are affected by your privileges. White privilege, male privilege, etc., but also possibly the privilege of having money and other resources (like healthcare) and not worrying about your family’s basic needs being met.
Notice if people who agree with you are in similar economic situations as you. You may see patterns like everyone who agrees with you on something is a homeowner with a stable job or is a financially secure retiree, while those who disagree may be lower-paid people, single parents, etc. Think about who would be most negatively or positively affected by this decision; you and the people who agree with you will likely be least affected.
Scan to see what voices are missing and why: Because of disparity in privileges, people may be missing from important discussions that affect them. A lower-income person may not be present at a meeting where compensation is being discussed because they might be working at another job. A staff member might miss a vital debate about paid family leave because they have to take care of an aging parent. Our default practice of “whoever is there gets to make the decisions” has concentrated a lot of power into the hands of privileged people. If you don’t have the voices of those who will be most affected, don’t have the meeting.
Take the perspective of someone who doesn’t have your privileges: Try to remember what it was like when you weren’t as secure in your financial situation or career, and the hardships you had to endure. Now imagine that version on you being in the room and what position that version would take. If you don’t have first-hand experience, try to imagine someone else. If you can’t put yourself into the shoes of a person who isn’t in your economic situation, then you shouldn’t partake in making decisions that would affect them at all.
Assume that one or more people are experiencing financial hardship: Just because people put on a brave face doesn’t mean they’re OK. Many are likely facing challenges that you don’t know about, especially if you are financially stable and tend to hang out with other financially stable people. And people shouldn’t have to openly disclose their situations for you to support equitable practices. If you are making decisions about money, whether it’s increasing staff compensation or starting furloughs or even going out to lunch or whatever, work with the assumption that there’s probably at least one person there who is facing hardship.
Be alert and speak up when you see potential inequity: I remember earlier in my career going out with some colleagues to an expensive restaurant for dinner. Everyone ordered cocktails, appetizers, entrees, and dessert. When the check came, someone asked to split it evenly. A colleague piped in and said, “Vu only had grilled asparagus and some water. Let’s just cover his portion. Also, maybe we shouldn’t take a vegan to a steakhouse again!” Everyone laughed. I was grateful for that colleague. No one knew how relieved I was that I could still make rent that month AND have groceries.

I also wonder how hybrid and remote work have impacted these kinds of conversations and revelations.

Two: Speaking of, one of my favorite Medium doomsayers writers Jessica Wildfire has this post on how the very rich (and very white) are never accused of negativity. (Read my post on negativity in the museum field here.) When it comes from their mouths, it's just advice.

Three: Hybrid and remote work are also tied up in elitism. The powerful can impact the working lives of others through choosing to be out—or choosing to make others come in. This Harvard Business Review piece reminds leaders (and other elites) of everything I've said over and over again the past year and a half:

Leaders need to make the office worth the commute.
We used to equate the office with work, but now that we’ve proved work can happen from just about anywhere, what role does the office play? Many organizations have been clear in encouraging employees to come back in, but what’s been less clear is the why. If leaders don’t get this right, they’re going to risk employees giving up on the notion of hybrid completely.
In fact, 51% of employees who are currently working in a hybrid model say they’re considering going fully remote in the year ahead. It seems after a year of an almost-hybrid model, they’re just not convinced hybrid can work for them. Thirty-eight percent of them say their greatest challenge is knowing when or why to come into the office, and only 28% of them have a team agreement that answers those fundamental questions.
It’s not just getting employees into the office — it’s making the most of their time, especially in hybrid meetings. Despite the fact 44% of hybrid employees and 43% of remote attendees don’t feel included in meetings, just 27% of organizations have established new hybrid meeting etiquette to ensure everyone feels included and engaged.
To make the office worth the commute and to create an engaging experience for everyone, leaders need to be intentional about the who, where, and why of in-person gathering and set new meeting etiquette that gives everyone a seat at the table.

If leaders want to accelerate the Great Resignation in museums, they should make sure to drag people in for primarily video meetings, no matter what's happening in the pandemic.

Four: Speaking of the GR, can leaders and managers focus on the workers who are still there? It's the workers who don't have the means to quit who often have the most to lose.  

Five: There's been a rise of "third spaces" for remote work, but are these options more signs of people with elite circumstances? One wonders how this might work for museums; are there places beyond the main campus where groups of workers could gather? How would that work? Or just too much trouble?

Six: I'll keep coming back to crushing workloads, but elites have the ability to impose work on others, and this prevents the kind of resilient practices described in this HBR article. Fewer meetings, more asynchronous communication, more check-ins, and time for caring relationships with each other are some of the hallmarks of resilient organizations.

The publishing field has experienced some of the same elite issues as museums, so we should read this piece about publishing's own Great Resignation.

In addition to detailing her promotion rejection, Mcghee called out upper leadership for overworking her and other junior employees within publishing at large. She argues that many in the executive positions are “technologically illiterate” and so they push the work onto the junior employees “who are expected to perform both full time admin work in addition to their full time jobs.”

Seven: I've been venturing more into data as the next of my "for the rest of us" areas of museum work, so this HBR piece struck a chord:

To take fuller advantage of their data, companies must put regular people front and center in their data programs, get everyone involved, and assign them specific tasks. Doing so will accelerate those programs while simultaneously reducing fear and stress. ...
Leaders and companies need to reboot their outlook and see people as part of the solution. I advise managers to “start small,” asking people where they see opportunity. The vast majority have plenty of ideas — one person wondered if they wasted too much time in meetings, another whether most of the reports the team produced were ever read, a third why it so difficult to reschedule patient appointments. Encourage people to gather some data to test their ideas and propose better ways for their teams to do their work. Then help them implement those better ways.
I’ve seen so many people with no formal data background contribute to better team and company performance in exactly this way. Almost all derive enormous satisfaction from the experience.

Can we avoid data-knowledge being another elite division in museums? (Here's an older piece on digital haves and have-nots in museum work.)

Speaking of data and machine learning, while I've taken some swipes at AI, but I found this news about AI helping to decipher ancient texts interesting and promising.

Eight: Do elites or non-elites have more going on with passion projects outside of museum work? It's a good question (the elites have time and resources, the non-elites may be so frustrated with museum careers that they've lost their in-org passion, or are just doing museum work for the money it can bring in). This HBR article on flexible pursue-your-passion programs is worth reading and hoping for.

Nine: We've heard it's a great time to be a resigning worker, but do workers (read: non-elite) have the leverage they've been hearing about? Check out this Quartz article.

Ten: Finally, here's a trio of articles about the intersection of capitalism and fascism and harm they're doing everyone, but the elites have the ability to coast by. Truthout describes the how inflation might be reflecting the real costs of goods coming home to roost, Cory Doctorow notes the carnage inflicted by the tech titans, and Umair Haque notes the peculiar quasi-spiritual brand of fascism we're experiencing now in the world. Elites, it must be repeated, can elude the worst effects of all this; do they understand that not everyone in museums can?

I hope you find the links interesting reading.


This is pretty simple—for many of us in the museum field, we have to liberate ourselves from the idea that we're not elite—or, if we aren't, that the elites in the museum field are something we should aspire to. And the field as a whole has consider the elite nature of our institutions because of its ties, in many cases, to extreme, exploitative wealth. (Also here.)

The next step is to take that self-knowledge into our organization and build a fair and just museum. Getting away from the rock star system is one way. Making sure conferences are accessible for all is another.

If you're reading this and not a subscriber to Museum Human, consider signing up for a free subscription below—it's the only way to read the site's longer weekly post on the organizational culture of cultural organizations and learn about upcoming special subscriber-only events. Thank you for reading!

cover photo by Annie Spratt / Unsplash [description: a large dining table with opulent place settings, a silver statues, and swith a luxuriously-appointed wall in the background]

Creative Commons License

Links of the Week: April 15, 2022: Elite Is As Elite Does by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.