Are museums really treating racism in the field as a problem requiring transformation?
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I've had recent posts on this subject—with a post-Juneteenth Links of the Week, this one from back in April, and this long post in March—but the topic of race in museums is a constant. Almost every organizational issue of museum culture, and its pervasive power imbalances, requires rethinking through the lens of race. (If only there were a theory that understood this ….)
Barron's had this article on race in light of the reopening of museums for visitors and as workplaces. It's interesting how, as the institutional stakes were raised, the organization gets more defensive (with my emphasis):
… the experience of Kelli Morgan, an independent curator specializing in American Art, who resigned from her job as an associate curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields in July 2020 because of an environment she considered racially toxic, illustrates the barriers arts professionals of color still confront. “When I came in with my critique of whiteness, [and] de-centering white narratives, and I was interrogating complicating narratives of white patriarchy in early American Art—it freaked everybody out,” she says.
Although she received plenty of support from staff, docents, and visitors, when her approach seeped into fundraising, marketing, acquisitions, and elsewhere, it “caused some very fraught situations between myself and the senior leadership,” Morgan recalls. “If you are serious about antiracism work, it doesn’t just begin and end in the galleries...It’s broader than that.”
For those of us in departments outside of curatorial, this is a crucial point, as much as it is with return-to-workplace issues—dismantling hierarchy can both be liberating, by devolving power, but also risks reinforcing silos and defending toxicity. (Department-head power giveth and taketh away ….) This is why combatting racism needs to be pervasive; there are too many entitled people in museums who will not want their views and power questioned.
Non-white museum workers are further put in the position of tokenizing their own oppressed groups for a tiny share of that power. Because when power is threatened … let's just say that "white rage" isn't confined to the denizens of certain right-wing networks (though the author, Umair Haque, discusses the "American right," he's aware of how right-wing, in a global sense, the "center" in the US can be):
That’s why White Rage seems so desperate. Why it’s so angry. Why it comes from a place of such fragility. The whole idea of “race” is a house of cards. In this day and age, you have to resort to really desperate and ignorant mental manoeuvres to go on believing in it — you have to deny science, history, logic, reason, truth, goodness, so, so much, all of which say that entitlement to privilege and power on the basis of a fake, disproven idea is dead wrong. You have to numb your mind and block out more or less all of modernity.
So of course when someone causes you to have a sudden encounter with reality, you react violently and aggressively. You erupt. Who is this person who’s threatening your whole identity? The one crumbling brick on which your whole shaky mental and emotional foundation rests? My God, if you don’t have the inherited entitlement to power that comes with the social construction of “race” — then who are you, and what are you really even worth?
This advice column response from Wired has specific steps that departments should be taking to create a non-white-dominant workplace. I'm quoting at length because of the direction that the advice takes (again with my emphasis):
I bristle a bit when people tell me that hiring people from a diverse range of backgrounds is difficult, because it’s not; it just necessitates effort. When white people say that hiring more Black and brown people for your overwhelmingly white office is hard, the subtext is that it is harder to find qualified Black and brown people than it is white ones. But that’s just patently false. There are plenty of qualified non-white candidates for literally any job, and the only way to end up interviewing only white ones is if you are unwilling to put in the work to get a more diverse pool. …
I’d start by trying to identify the things that might be discouraging people who don’t look like you from applying. At the very least, I’d wager, folks are reluctant to send their résumés because they are well aware that you don’t usually employ people who look like them. Who can blame them? Talk to your current employees of color (you do have some, right?) about how the company could improve their work lives, and make the changes they ask for. (Reassure them that it’s not a trick question, but realize they may not tell you anything, not because you’re genuinely doing a great job but because research shows people of color are actually penalized for advocating diversity at work.) Look at your company’s retention rates for different groups of employees, and if they vary according to race or ethnicity or gender, think critically about why. Reflect on the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion and figure out how to create an inclusive workplace. Then, when you do identify great candidates (more on that below), you can tell them about all the positive steps you’ve taken to fix your own mistakes.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? Maybe some of the crushing activity levels have to be scaled back, right? Read on:
Once you have taken all these steps, and not a second before, focus on active recruiting rather than just filtering through résumés that find their way to you. While publicly posting job openings is an important step toward a diverse workforce, it is not remotely sufficient. You need to use the same networking tools that historically have kept companies overwhelmingly white and male to diversify them. That means asking all your contacts who they recommend. (One big caveat: Do not ask prominent people of color in your field for their recommendations unless you already know them well; you have not earned the benefit of their knowledge, and making people feel put upon absolutely will not help.) It also means scouring LinkedIn, Twitter, message boards, or other places in your field where people gather for prospects. Going to professional conferences and other events in your field can help too, but it is not a replacement for doing this more painstaking work.
This will take a ton of time. I am currently working as a hiring consultant for a couple of media organizations, and because I have to track my hours for billing purposes, I know that I recently spent 25 hours on one search. The only reason it didn’t take a lot longer is that I had already done quite a bit of ground work. I look for people I want to hire even when I don’t have a job opening, precisely so that I’m prepared when I do have one. If you start doing the same, I promise you will feel less overwhelmed next time.
Sit with that for a little bit, and then take it to your department and your institution. Chances are that your organization says it's doing this thing exactly—but what the writer of the above article is proposing is not a set of steps, nor just new positions on the org chart, it's a set of widespread organizational behaviors. It's why any true DEIA has to involve a comprehensive change in how museums allocate Time, Money, People, and Resources. Just as there's a difference between mentoring and sponsoring; the latter means amplifying, boosting, connecting, and defending. It's harder.
Read also how segregation is actually growing in the US, how the revelations of murder at Canadian "residential schools" (there are ample examples in the United States) is a reminder that genocide on this continent has never ended, and how the war on civil rights continues, how racism permeated America's civil defense planning (and who was deemed worth saving). If none of these are museum-specific, think of how institutions are mirrors of their broader societies.
I'm currently reading The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, by Heather McGhee. It's important to see what racism does to most white people while serving the interests of the top white elite—and the role that racist narratives play in enforcing this power. How are white museum workers hurting themselves by continuing to play roles in the racist museum structure, advocating as special and unique the very structure which exploits their labor? This article from HBR makes the point that the exploitative use of race has intruded on other issues of workplace justice.
I'll end with a couple of articles that aren't about race per se but which I think can help inspire the experimental mindset needed to transform cultural organizations. This one from Boston Review about "big meat"—seriously—can help you ask if there such a thing as "big museum," a cultural field, led by highly visible institutions, that's too big to fail. What policies and practices are seen as inviolable because there's no competition in the museum field?
This other piece, also from BR, about the economist/philosopher Albert O. Hirschman, whom I'd never heard of, should also get you thinking about experimentation on ambitiously small, not narrowly big, scales. It's not so much against advance planning (his early career work was in overseas development) as recognizing uncertainty in almost anything and the scarcity of decision-making around this reality.
When Hirschman wrote a report for the World Bank about how huge civic projects were problematic:
Unsurprisingly, the World Bank, which had commissioned the study, was not pleased with these arguments. Hirschman had strayed quite far from economics in any conventional understanding, opening up something like a constructivist theory of social action. “Upon inspection, each project turns out to represent a unique constellation of experiences and consequences, of direct and indirect effects,” he wrote. “This uniqueness in turn results from the varied interplay between the structural characteristics of projects, on the one hand, and the social and political environment, on the other.” One can almost picture the desk officer in D.C. reading the manuscript tearing his hair out. …
So he started "thinking small" instead of big, just when the world was thinking big.
Stick with me here; the article continues, with my emphasis added:
[the] famous argument [in Hirschman's book Loyalty, Exit, and Voice] runs as follows. In cases of deteriorating service—potholes in a road, say—users are presented with only three options. They can choose loyalty by simply sticking it out. They can choose exit, for instance by choosing another road or mode of transportation. Or they can choose voice, by demanding road repair, say. The abstract concept of voice not only introduced a level of complexity not typically captured by standard microeconomic accounts of behavior, which tended instead to model a binary of loyalty or exit, buying or not buying. It also invited wide application: to “the two-party system, divorce and the American character, black power and the failure of ‘unhappy’ top officials to resign over Vietnam,” as Hirschman put it.
The case here for voice as the key element of transformation—and voice "from below"—should not be lost on us in the museum field. We've seen the effect of loyalty in the museum field, and we've seen the exit of many outstanding workers who should have been inspiring the necessary transformation. So, what's left is voice. We may want to consider just how we're speaking up—is it at staff town halls, with the same people who feel brave or entitled enough to stand up at a microphone (pre-pandemic) or put their name to a chat question? What level of psychological safety will be necessary to gain voice from throughout the organization?
I'll end with org culture consultancy NOBL on its change-making model for organizations.
What organizations actually needed was a process to make change. Not another comms plan or additional “change theater,” but a way to truly change collective behaviors and mindsets. … Leaders wanted to spread new practices throughout the organization, and to know when it was time to revisit those practices. In other words, organizations needed a process to ensure change wasn’t just a one-time event driven by a lucky or persistent “rebel,” but rather, a muscle within the organization that could grow stronger with practice.
Org design firms are going to be leader-focused, so I'd only add that not all change practices will come from leaders (we can argue over whether change can happen without leadership; I think it's more complex than that, but I understand and appreciate the point). If museums want to be the kind of place people want to work for and not just work at, then "change" should be a reason that people want to come there. And changing the way that race works in an organization is the most important change one can engineer.
Read the whole NOBL piece, part of a series. I hope you find the links inter.
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Links of the Week: July 8, 2021: The Race Still to Run by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.