MICHELLE OBAMA, “ACTIVISM”, AND MUSEUM EMPLOYMENT PART III

Over the past several months, a handful of Incluseumers have been reflecting on and unifying three topics that are usually treated as separate–the perception of museums as public white spaces, activism within the museum field, and museum employment. Our goal in unifying these three topics is to highlight how they are already inextricably linked and how continued emphasis on one (e.g., museum employment) over another (e.g., museum as public white spaces) will lead to superficial and ephemeral change. So far, we have discussed the first two topics: 1) the backlash against Michelle Obama’s statement that museums often act as public white spaces and 2) the concept of activism in the museum field. For the last post in this series, Joseph Gonzales, Nicole Ivy, Porchia Moore, Rose Paquet Kinsley, Aletheia Wittman turn to topic of museum employment and labor.

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In the previous two posts in this series, we have explored different angles on the question, “Who are museums for?” This question really asks, for whom (and by whom) are our cultural institution designed and, by extension, whose experiences are acknowledged and reinforced in museums and whose are not? So far, we’ve examined the question “Who are museums for?” in relation to museum visitors. Here, we wish to expand our scope to include those who work in museums. Which “human resources” are implicitly  favored by museums’ current expectations around 1) how museum work should be done, 2) the qualifications required for work, 3) the wages paid for work, 4) the workplace culture and 5)  the networks and internships needed before gaining access to paid work?

These issues, all within the scope of “museum labor and employment,” have recently attracted critical attention and been accompanied by responsive actions in the field. This momentum has been fueled by, for example,  #MuseumWorkersSpeak, the work of Monica Octavia Montgomery of Museum Hue and the Museum of Impact. Recurrent in these examples is the realization that museums are set-up to require that workers experience a number of privileges in order to participate in them as employees or interns. Contributor Joseph Gonzales states:

In my experience as a museum professional and museum studies professor, those who self-select to be in the museum field have access to an economic “safety net” that allows them to take the financial risk of educating themselves and/or taking on volunteer and low-paying skill and social capital building experiences to allow them access to increasingly better (paying) positions in museums. There is a class dynamic to working in museums that both transcends and intersects with racial and ethnic status. A student from a poor or working-class background might feel  dissuaded from choosing a low-paying professional job, especially if they are thinking about supporting their family in the future. Furthermore, if an emerging professional has to think about student loans, middle-class amenities, children, etc., then opting for a museum job without a family, partner, or other means to supplement their income is a conscious decision to struggle financially.

As museums increasingly desire to address aspects of “diversity” and “inclusion” in their institutions, it is key to build awareness for how internal structural barriers have a prohibitive impact on who is able or desires to work in museums. So, what can we do about the pervasive and implicit ways that museums are structured to value some (potential) workers over others?

Recently, a number of projects and initiatives aimed at addressing the above question have emerged and congregated around the idea of reforming or transforming the pipeline to museum work. Programs and initiatives that have been designed to play a role in redistributing opportunities to those who are not currently represented in museum work and museum leadership include:

The Gettys Multicultural Undergraduate Internship Program

The Walker Art Center’s Curatorial Fellowship for Diversity in the Arts

The Mellon Foundation Curatorial Fellow participating museums

  • LACMA
  • Art Institute Chicago
  • Nelson Atkins
  • Museum of Fine Arts Houston
  • High Museum Atlanta

Smithsonian Latino Institute education programs

STAMP (Students at Museums in Philly) Program

Center for Curatorial Leadership – Diversity Mentoring Initiative

Another method for changing the pipeline to museums is developing job descriptions that privilege skills like cultural competency with underserved communities, foreign language skills, and community-organizing and -building. Contributor Porchia Moore puts it this way:

On the one hand we are saying that we acknowledge that the pipeline needs work and yet if someone appears ready and willing to do the work, we penalize them for not possessing a traditional or formalized education and accompanying skillsets or experience when in fact their different skillsets and knowledge base is what makes them uniquely qualified. This is not a lowering of standards but a realistic attempt to recalibrate museums at the same time as leveling the playing field.

A statement often heard in tandem with efforts to exact internal inclusion is, “Such and such person of color was great… but they were just not qualified.” This statement is usually followed by a troubled look of deep concern to express that they wanted to hire the person of color but just could not because they were not qualified. Are statements like these a coded justification for maintaining the status quo? What does “they just were not qualified” really mean if the person was good enough to be interviewed but somehow not strong enough of a candidate to be considered an actual hire?

Contributor Joseph Gonzales helped conceive and institute just such job description changes at the Fleisher Art Memorial:

This can help put non-traditional “arts professional” candidates on equal footing with those who had let’s say, art history or similar privileged educational tracks. Therefore, the “art bone” can be acquired on the job, and what better place to do so then at an arts organization? The other skills needed for building connections and relationships in underserved communities, like knowing people outside of the fine art circles, having community building skills, possessing different problem solving approaches, knowing non-Western creative traditions and so forth would bring added value to the organization, over another person that knew the same Western fine arts history, took similar classes in college and graduate school, and brought more institutionally homogenous ideas to the table.

However, any pipeline program or initiative targeting the uneven distribution of opportunities to enter the museum field will fall short if what is on the other end of the pipeline–the internal museum culture–is unchanged. In other words, pipeline initiatives need to be paired with internal cultural shifts that would help museums become more appealing workplaces to begin with. Cultural transformations are achieved through comprehensive staff training, support networks for staff playing a role in these efforts, and revisiting museum policies and procedures to evaluate their role in perpetuating bias or exclusion. It may even mean experimenting with new ways of being a museum that appear unfamiliar relative to traditional museum functions and form.

Our collective imagination, or understanding of what’s possible in an institution is only limited by the experiences of those who are in it. If the decision makers and influencers in an organization are not diverse (in all aspects) then they will, by their own design, suffer a poverty of imagination and innovative thinking. If we are concerned with reshaping the museum internally to actively address the limitations our current institutions impose on determining who museums are for, then let’s assess the biases built into our understanding of “qualifications” and the intersecting privileges of race and class that play a large role in determining who works and studies in the field. Through this important work museums can become more appealing to a workforce and leadership that is truly representative of the nation.

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Joseph Gonzales is the Director of Museum Communication Program at Philadelphia’s University for the Arts. You can read more about him here.

 Nicole Ivy is a Museum Futurist and ACLS Public Fellow at AAM. You can read more about her here.

Porchia Moore is a regular contributor to the Incluseum and a doctoral candidate dually enrolled in the School of Library and Information Science and McKissick Museum’s Museum Management Program at the University of South Carolina. You can read more about her and her work here.

Rose Paquet Kinsley and Aletheia Wittman are the co-founders of the Incluseum. 

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Further Reading

The following is a sample of recent articles that illustrate how museum employment and fair labor issues have been building momentum and becoming more visible through reporting and research:

Center for the Future of Museums

Museum Workers Speak

Brown Girl Museum Blog

Porchia’s Moore

The Andrew R. Mellon Foundation Report

International Examples:

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5 comments

  1. These are great points, however it’s not just the pipeline to museums that needs work. Bringing people through the museum pipeline is not enough when you get to the end of the tunnel and so many museum jobs are highly competitive, poorly compensated with respect to their markets, and have limited opportunities for growth.

    1. Hi Alli!

      You make great points here. I think we address some of them when we write “…any pipeline program or initiative targeting the uneven distribution of opportunities to enter the museum field will fall short if what is on the other end of the pipeline–the internal museum culture–is unchanged. In other words, pipeline initiatives need to be paired with a internal cultural shifts that would help museums become more appealing workplaces to begin with.” Joseph also shares his thoughts on the topic when he says: “if an emerging professional has to think about student loans, middle-class amenities, children, etc., then opting for a museum job without a family, partner, or other means to supplement their income is a conscious decision to struggle financially.”

      We acknowledge the problems of low wages in making museum jobs unappealing or unsustainable and thus exclusive and are thankful you magnify that. You are so right that these norms are part of the culture of museums that should be challenged. I think the competitiveness of museum jobs and the lack of opportunity to advance are interesting points we didn’t really touch on here. Thanks! –Aletheia

  2. We received this question/comment via email in response to this post: “I loved reading your Incluseum posts about activism and museum employment. I wanted to ask you if you guys had given any thought to other kinds of employment and representation issues? I have had issues with policies against hiring staff (or volunteers) with facial piercings or visible tattoos, etc, and I think that this is not representative of visitors walking in the door. And so again, creates the problem of a part of the community not seeing themselves there. I’m sure this is a relatively common problem. And one that perpetuates a well-established stigma of museums being stuffy places, etc. Just curious if you guys had approached that angle. I find it interesting that that that is one area where actual policy can be put in place to keep a community from being hired and represented, as opposed to other communities that are, (for the most part), protected.” We agree with this comment and would like to explore this topic in a future blogpost.

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