Museums' belief in an unchangeable model is blocking the hard work of addressing institutional racism.
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So Juneteenth in the museum field came and went. Whatever museums were doing for visitors and communities, it should be asked how institutions were internally commemorating the end of official slavery. Many studies have cited that mandatory antiracism training is counterproductive, but reading lists for white staff are probably not the extent of the answer, either.
A day off—or a similar recognition of the need for psychological safety—for Black staff, while the institution engaged in an internal review of historical and current anti-Blackness (and no peeking at work emails or other projects), might have been more effective. It certainly would have been controversial, as all measures to recognize the profound and ongoing cost of racism are, but at least it would have mandated a reckoning of what being a Predominantly White Institution means.
This could be a model for recognition of the costs borne by other oppressed groups. Messy? You bet. A lot of work for museums, perhaps impossible at current activity levels? Absolutely.
For more on how museums have to put real action behind their community rhetoric, check out all nine sessions from the Collective Liberation conference on YouTube.
There's more from the website Truthout about museums and the decolonization movement, while Boston Review has an interview about Strike MoMA with an activist and former MoMA educator, Shellyne Rodriguez. I found this answer from Rodriguez interesting:
Well, the problem is that unions cannot solve everything. If we clamor for more unionization in the museum, then what do those contracts look like? I am thinking about how many times public sector unions bailed out New York City. The pensions of teachers and multiple city workers get invested into the bonds that keep the doors of state and federal prisons open. It’s all intertwined. This is something that is addressed in Strike MoMA’s “Post-MoMA Futures” platform. We are not going to fix these big problems by unionizing; that would just get us more of the same. Where does the money come from? Where do the pensions go? Once unions are involved in upholding the structure, because their pensions are on the line, they can actually start working to uphold the very people and structures Strike MoMA is protesting. Yes to collective bargaining power, but the devil is also in the details.
I'm not trying to make an anti-union point here but to emphasize the interconnected nature of museum and societal power structures. It's an important point to make about the overall nature of (white supremacist) museums—how do workers upend the institutional extraction of value from all workers, through Time, Money, People, and Resources? Not just through better bargaining but through institutional transformation.
Here's a story that made an important point about how history museums are often left out of cultural discussions like those in the New York Times's recent special section on museums. Groups like Sites of Conscience need to be considered—and maybe pair up with art and science museums—to expand the reckonings of the current museum model.
I read this Wired story about how a prominent AI researcher was fired from Google and noted similarities with "troublemaking" in museums:
Gebru and Mitchell’s work didn’t fit easily into Google’s culture, either. The women and their team were a relatively new breed of tech worker: the in-house ethical quibbler. ...
Despite those changes, it remained unclear to some of the in-house quibblers how, exactly, they would or could change Google. The Ethical AI team’s primary job was to conduct research, but Mitchell also wanted the group to shape the company’s products, which touched billions of lives. Indifference and a lack of support, however, sometimes stood in their way.
An in-house quibbler? Sign me up! But, jokes aside, the question of how these individuals and teams can change institutions from the inside is a real one. Are power structures just outsourcing (or insourcing?) the troublemaking vibe to a group they can then conveniently sideline or push out all at once?
Check out how the International Rescue Committee, a group supposedly dedicated to an important public good, has been accused of fostering a white supremacist atmosphere of harassment, abuse, and exploitation.
Here's Harvard Business Review on creating a culture of belonging. I thought this was an interesting note:
As a manager, be responsive, appreciative, and empowering. Managers carry the culture of an organization.
I may argue with the idea that managers "carry" the culture; their actions certainly manifest the culture, but I think all staff share in that mindset. I Managers need training, but so does the overall hierarchy. The entire museum model breeds the kinds of power imbalances that make exclusion natural. Of course, workers from historically oppressed groups—and the museum jobs they traditionally fill—will have it the worst, even when they play by the rules (as described in this Medium piece from the publication An Injustice!). After all, institutions protect themselves, just like any group, like a family, based on dynastic wealth. As a Disney family heir wrote:
If you are raised in a deeply conservative family like my own, you are taught some extra bits of doctrine: Philanthropy is good, but too much of it is unseemly and performative. Marry people “of your own class” to save yourself from the complexity and conflict that comes with a broad gulf in income, assets, and, therefore, power.
This story about the recent NCAA-related Supreme Court decision to which seems to open the door to a flood of lawsuits about the exploitation of student-athletes obviously isn't about the museum field (though college athletics are certainly part of the same racist superstructure in American society) but I found an analogy in the argument that just because a sector elicits pride and a sense of dedication and mission doesn't make it right when many people still get abused in the process. How many worker dreams have museums taken advantage of? Will Leitch (whose "get back to normal, you fools!" pieces on Medium have driven me to distraction) makes this case:
[Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh makes it clear that no one should expect the Court to have the NCAA’s back in any future lawsuits against its business model, lawsuits that are surely coming. But he goes even farther by labeling the business model, which has been around for 150 years, absurd and exploitative. These sentiments would have been considered revolutionary had I professed them in this column space a decade ago. To hear them coming from a face of modern conservatism is flabbergasting and speaks to just how quickly the public sentiment on paying athletes — something not disconnected from how many billions television contracts suddenly poured into the sport over the last decade — has changed.
And then the kicker, that just because there's no obvious solution doesn't mean the current model has to remain in place—replace "athletics" and a couple of other words with "museum" or "arts" with my added emphasis:
Whenever one has argued for college athletes to be paid, those who defend the current system have responded with some variation of, “Okay, how would you fix it?” This was a reasonable question. Do you pay some athletes but not all of them? Do colleges have to dig into their non-athletic funds? Do players get traded from one school to another in the middle of the school year? Do they even bother going to school at all? I always struggled to come up with answers to these questions, about how to reconcile the college sports I love with the financial and logistical realities of the situation. It used to frustrate me. But then I realized that throwing the question back at anyone who asked it was simply a way to deflect from complicity with an unjust system. What do you have that’s better? is not a defense of a corrupt model; it is a way to maintain your place in it.
It's amazing what is possible to conceive of when you start conceiving of different ways of doing things. Can racism in museums be next?
Returning more directly on the issue of racism, here's a Medium piece (from last year) on the illusion of white allyship, because racism is a white problem to fix, not one to advise non-white people on. Also, check out this piece in Medium and this one in Boston Review about the white war on critical race theory. Whites need to stop signaling their guilt and shame to oppressed people and start doing the work in their institutions and society. How many elite museum workers, not to mention donors and trustees, think falsely that CRT is on the workplace agenda in museums?
In the museum field, this piece from The Art Newspaper is a roll call of what institutions have done in the past year. Note how museums are always "endowing" diversity positions—is that a good or a bad thing? Can we call these actions progress?
Harvard Business Reviews asks how deep an organization's diversity and inclusion efforts really go towards addressing the internal culture. Some questions asked include:
"Do the spoken and unspoken norms and practices of the organization adequately support inclusive behaviors?"
"Are workers at all levels held accountable for demonstrating decency and respect in their interactions with colleagues, clients, customers, vendors, etc. — without exception?"
"Do all employees understand the impact of the words they use and the behaviors they display to their colleagues?"
This article from The Cut asks about the industrial-scale diversity business (how do we move from consultants telling us what to do to everyone in museums doing the work? it can't be all on Chief Diversity Officers).
Here are pieces from Medium on how we can't yet go back to normal (I would take it farther, that the old normal was killing marginalized groups quickly and whites slowly), how the housing crisis continues to explode (important for underpaid and underemployed museum workers), how elites will gaslight us about the upcoming (fake) economic boom (also here), and how Hispanic families in the US were particularly devastated by the pandemic.
Finally, thanks to everyone who participated in my short survey about flexible/remote/hybrid work policies and museums. Here are the results:
Is your museum offering a work-from-home option?
- Yes: 47.4%
- It's complicated: 52.6%
- No one said outright "no"
Is the option flexible or rigid?
- Flexible, I have a lot of options: 47.4%
- Rigid, I have fewer options than I would like: 52.6%
Will you be able to work at home as much as you would have preferred?
- Yes, my ability to work from home seems to meet my needs: 42.1%
- No, I would like to be able to work from home more or at different times: 57.9%
Does your museum's leadership rhetoric around flexible and/or remote work align with the reality of their policies?
- Yes: 21.1%
- No: 31.6%
- Hard to tell: 47.4%
In space left for (anonymous) additional comments, respondents cited a lack of clarity, a sense that museum workers don't really know what's going on with their institutions, and no sense of consultation with workers even if surveys were taken of worker preferences and needs. It seems like the old "work it out with your manager," whether officially or not, will still be the dominant mode of hybrid and remote arrangements, which puts into question the steps that institutions are taking, in terms of policies and technologies, to create a pervasive flexible-seeming environment.
A more humane field would have that "a lot of options" number closer to 100 percent! It's almost as if the current hierarchical structure makes authentic, worker-centered policies impossible, whether regarding flexible work or racism.
I hope you enjoy the links, thank you to everyone who responded to the survey, and good luck all with the summer's variants and return-to-work plans.
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Links of the Week: June 24, 2021: After Juneteenth by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.