Friday, July 29, 2016

Futurist Friday: Telepathic Theater

What if you could hear what characters in a play were thinking, as well as what they were saying? How would that change how playwrights create and audiences experience performance?

While my main futurist focus is museums, I keep my eye on the rest of the cultural sector as well. Two of my most interesting engagements were with the League of American Orchestras, and Opera America, envisioning how the performing arts might change in coming decades.

So I was delighted to discover Ghosts, Toast and The Things Unsaid, a play with "digital at its core."  It is one of the first cadre of projects incubating in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image's ACMIx accelerator program. Ghosts intrigues me because:

  • What a participant hears depends on which actor he/she is looking at, which gives each member of the audience  control over how they navigate the script. It's kind of a tech-amplified version of "promenade" theater in which audience members wander through a space, seeing controlling the order in which they see segments of the performance. (PunchDrunk theatre's Sleep No More, an adaptation of Macbeth set in a large warehouse in Brooklyn, is one famous  example of this interactive format.)
  • Ghosts takes advantage of the gadgets in a mobile phone (gyroscope, accelerometer) in a way that doesn't involve staring at the device itself. So unlike many augmented reality experiences (including most AR museum apps) it directs the users attention directly out into the world, rather than funneling it through a tiny screen. 
The result is an immersive, personalized experience. 

This made me think about the potential for adapting this approach to the museum visit. What you could "read the mind" of people in portraits, or the animals in a diorama? The result could be funny, informative and engaging. I think it could focus people's attention on what they were seeing, and promote a social experience around comparing what they heard. 

Take a look at this video [4 min 17 sec] about Ghosts, Toast and The Things Unsaid and see what you think.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Blog Committed to Space-Making and Equity

Hi, all! This is Nicole writing to recommend an addition to your summer reading list. I’m excited to share a source from my scanning files, Brown Girls Museum Blog (BGMB). You can check out the full blog here. Co-curated by Ravon Ruffin and Amanda Figueroa, BGMB encourages people from marginalized communities to find space for themselves within the museum field. Both the blog and the BGMB Instagram account feature visual art created by people of color, LGBTQI persons, women, and people who are otherwise part of minority populations.
Brown Girls Museum Blog

Ravon and Amanda utilize photography and the written word as space-making tools to help diverse groups of people envision themselves as part of museum audiences and as museum professionals. Their fresh use of the now-ubiquitous museum selfie helps re-frame stereotypes about who museum visitors are and who they can be. They also create community in the digital space by talking frankly about their experiences as young women of color navigating graduate school, work, and self-care in the DC area.

One of the most striking things about the blog is its insistence on reflecting the vocabulary of young people of color. Slogans like “Bout That Life,” “Wise Latina Hustle,” and “#MuseumBaddies” bring the voices of everyday youth into the rarified world of arts discourse. I find their blending of black and Latin@ vocabulary with images traditionally considered as high art to be extremely powerful. They challenge the neat distinctions between high and low art and between insider and outsider audiences.  

As a good starting point, I recommend their recent post, “AAM: What’s The Feels.” 
In it, they grapple with the size and scale of AAM’s annual meeting while reflecting on the possibilities for space-making inside of it. “AAM is just huge and there’s no way around that,” Ravon notes, “and that’s also not necessarily a bad thing.” The post explores how conversations on diversity and inclusion can be affected by a lack of depth, despite the repetition of the terms throughout a number of sessions. “ ‘Diversity and inclusion’ became a spectacle,” she writes. Amanda expands on this sentiment adding, “It became about the checkmark, being able to say you did your requisite diversity and inclusion panel, along with your skill-building workshop and your keynote.” She elaborates:

Ravon Ruffin (l) and Amanda Figueroa (r)
“Diversity doesn’t work when it’s an entity unto itself, it works when it is included as an element in everything we as museum professionals do, but that doesn’t seem to be the way people want to treat it, maybe because of the emphasis on history and tradition that comes with the museum field.”

As a person who planned a suite of activities during this year’s annual meeting that engaged issues of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the museum workplace, I am compelled by their epistle. I agree, too often D&I is highlighted as a separate project, a field apart from the regular operations of museum education, collections management, curatorial work, development, and administration. One step toward alleviating this division, as they point out, is for museum professionals to consider how inclusion intersects with their work at multiple levels—from the creation of text panels to the work of audience engagement and evaluation.

I also recommend the "Post-GraduateSurvival" piece, in which Ravon talks candidly about her strategies for navigating academia, the job market, and the expectations placed on recent graduates. As a not-so-recent graduate, I found her insights about the “journey of adulting” to be spot on. She urges readers to “determine your skills in your own terms” and to “know your value for yourself.”

BGMB also thoughtfully critiques the trend toward murkiness in current D&I conversations with a two-part meditation on “TheLanguage of Diversity and Inclusion.” I agree with the authors that often, “the cliché of diversity becomes a burden on people of color that only requires the appearance of change.” By explicitly prioritizing equity and working to actively challenge hierarchies and borders that render some communities more marginal than others, museums can ensure that the burden of creating equity doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of minoritized groups.

I encourage you to follow BGMB and to share what inspires you to “find your space” within museums!
Brown Girls Museum Blog Buttons

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Wordless Wednesday: Safe Space

Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What Museums Can Learn from Amanda Palmer

 On the way to New Zealand in May I started reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help). I thought of it as “me time” reading, and as such it was relegated to snippets of time before bed.

When I finished the book last weekend, though, I realized that it was work-reading after all. Amanda Palmer has a lot to teach museums about the art of the ask.

For those of you who don’t know Amanda, she’s the artist/musician who famously broke the million dollar mark with her 2011 Kickstarter campaign to fund production of her next album. Having split with her record label over irreconcilable differences regarding cultivating her audience, she turned to crowdfunding as an alternative method of producing & distributing her work. While the book isn’t written as a “how to” manual for Kickstarter (leaning more towards angst-ridden personal memoir), it’s the best guide I’ve found to understanding the dynamics of using social media to ask a bunch of people to support your work.

I’m not claiming everything that works for Amanda will work for you, my nonprofit peers. I’m not going to encourage you to strip naked and let your visitors decorate your body with Sharpies. But here are some things she “gets” that museums need to understand:
  • How to cultivate a fan base you can trust to catch you when you leap into the unknown
  • The difference between a transactional relationship between a vendor and customer, and the kind of emotional relationship that leads people to support a person, or a cause
  • The strength in being vulnerable, imperfect and open to people who care about your work

Amanda tapped the power of social media just as it began to be a thing that could be tapped. Starting in the early 2000s, she amassed an emailing list of everyone who came to her concerts, and was an early adopter of Twitter (where she now has over 1.142M followers) and blogging. She split with her label in part because the marketers didn’t understand this dynamic—why, for example, she needed a web site year-round to communicate with her base. Her use of all these social platforms is (as Brene Brown puts in in her introduction to the book) “a study in intimacy and connection.”

But social media just amplifies what Amanda does really, really well: building deep, long-term, mutually supportive relationships with people who love her work. She does this by seeing and recognizing them as individuals—not just as a collective mass of “fans.” She is generous in sharing her time, attention, support and networks to help them with their work and support their needs. She is transparent (painfully so) about the process behind her music, rather than just handing over the resulting albums.

I think this translates rather well to the kinds of relationships museums can build with our communities, with our potential fans. Think a bit on how museums can:
  • Recognize people as individuals, not just demographic categories: “teens,” “Millennials,” “retirees.” When a security guard gets down on her knees and asks a toddler what she’s looking at (instead of delivering a stern warning to “not touch”)? That’s a win.
  • Use museum resources—space, time, expertise, social media reach—to help people achieve their own goals. You’re staging your own pop-up exhibit? Beauty! I’ll tweet about that.
  • Is the new exhibit/renovation/wing running behind schedule and over budget? Share why. People mess up, things go wrong—we all know that. It’s ok to tell your base what’s keeping you up at night. And who knows? Maybe someone will be able to help.

I do suspect some of Amanda’s lessons are unnecessary for museumers. She devotes a lot of text to encouraging artists to be comfortable asking, urging them to feel worthy of funding, whether charging for their work or asking for capital up front. In my experience, this is not a problem in our field. Nonprofits take their 501(c)3 status as official validation of their right to ask for money without the stigma of sponging. And museum workers are more likely to feel righteous indignation over being underpaid and undervalued than angst over whether they are worth their salary. But if you are shy about asking for support (for your museum or for yourself) Amanda’s stories might help you get over your inhibitions.

So, give it a read, see what you think and blog (or tweet) your comments tagged #ArtofAsking. Or hey, tell @AmandaPalmer what her work means to you. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she tweeted you back.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Monday Musing: Solving Social Problems

Today's brief "musing" looks at a story from Pew Research Center I featured in Dispatches from the Future of Museums last week: Are churches key to solving social problems? Fewer Americans now think so.

Summary of the trend: Since 2001, there has been a 17% decline in the percent of US adults who say churches, synagogues and other houses of worship contribute "some" or "a great deal" to solving important social problems, and an 18% rise in the percent who feel these institutions contribute "not much" or "nothing."

This is tied in part to the rise of the percent of the population who identify as religious "nones" (not affiliated with any organized religions), but the erosion in confidence in religious institutions as key problem-solvers is reflected in religiously-affiliated adults as well. 

Why did this story catch my attention? This trend bears on the future of nonprofits, and nonprofit status as a whole. If trust in religious organizations as agents of social change continues to decline, along with the number of people who identify with particular religions, the sacrosanct status of churches as nonprofit institutions may come into question. These questions are also fueled by the backlash to our recent advance in civil rights (such as the legalization of gay marriage), as some conservative religious institutions to request exemptions from compliance with such laws. Such requests highlight the inherent tension in asking the government to determine what constitutes a valid religion

What does it mean for museums? This trend is both a threat and an opportunity. 

  • On one hand, a decline in confidence in organized religion as agents of social good is one more force that may push the US to reexamine tax exempt status--who gets it, what it means--more generally.
  • On the other hand, this decline is an opportunity for museums, as trusted public institutions, to step up and fill the gap. I suspect that a similar survey asking about what museums, collectively, contribute to solving important social problems would reveal that we have a lot of room for growth--room that we can and (in my opinion) should fill!
Read the Pew report and see what you think.

Monday musings are my way of sharing "brain blorts": brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read (or in this case, heard) recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Futurist Friday: Cognitive Museum Buildings

Here's a short video from Jonathan Strickland of Forward Thinking on the emergence of "cognitive buildings": structures that use the internet of things (IoT) to analyze performance and anticipate our needs.  

Jonathan's only direct mention of museums is a poke at the Louvre's AC, but much of what he says is directly applicable to our field. Cognitive energy conservation? Approve.  Automatically turning off the lights when people aren't in storage or galleries--also a conservation win. 

But the applications that intrigue me most are touched on at the very end of the video. Could a cognitive computing program (like IBM Watson, cited here) monitor visitor tweets from museums around the world and, comparing that to a database on museum architecture, draw some higher level conclusions about what works and doesn't work in museum design? 

Or imagine a critical mass of museums hooked into the IoT, tracking visitors through the galleries and amenities, monitoring route and dwell times, even using facial recognition software or the MAC address of phones to monitor the patterns and experiences of individuals. That network would generate incredibly valuable information, not only for the individual museums, but for the field as a whole. Reporting attendance? Pssssh, not a problem. How about global A/B testing on various components of exhibit design, wayfinding or retail? 

Your Futurist Friday assignment: take four minutes to hear what Jonathan has to say, and come up with your own ideas for what a cognitive building might "think about" for museums. Share your thoughts below, or with a tweet tagging both Jonathan (@jonstrickland) and @futureofmuseums.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Moving Primary Schools into the Museum

The museum school movement in the US is gaining steam, and now our colleagues in the UK are jumping on the bandwagon. The "My Primary School is at the Museum" Project, conceived of by architect Wendy James, pairs two primary and one nursery school with three museums: the Tate Liverpool, the Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum and the National Waterfront Museum.

Following the students for one school term (plus a follow-up project next spring), researchers from Kings College London will "test the hypothesis that there may be beneficial learning, social and cultural outcomes for primary school children and their families when they receive their full time education in a museum setting, as well as benefits for museums." 

These student's daily classes will take place in the museums, and this video shows you a bit of what their school days look like:

Some of my favorite quotes:

From students:

"I don't actually like museums, but this one turned out to be different."

"I'll remember this forever!"

and from a school administrator:

"I'd be very interested to move the whole school into a museum.

I've played with projections about how many school children could get all or part of their education through museum schools and museum apprenticeships. I hope research projects like this help shape policy and direct funding that brings museums into the educational mainstream. 

The findings from the project will be published this fall--meanwhile you can follow the project on Twitter using #museumschool. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A New AR Invasion: Pokemon Go!

If you haven’t heard the buzz about Pokémon Go—the new augmented reality game taking the world by storm—well, you must have been locked in collections storage, with no internet access, for the last few weeks.

This new game was born from the collision of numerous trends, notably increasing sophistication of augmented reality, the ubiquity of internet connected hand-held devices, and continued growth of gaming—especially so called “serious games” with real world objectives. (The “serious” objectives for Pokémon Go and its sister game, Ingress, are encouraging people to be physically active, to get to know their neighborhoods and to socialize with other players.)

There have been dozens of articles and blog posts on Pokémon Go, already (I link to a few particularly interesting examples below), so I’m not going to go over the basics of the game. I do want to point your attention to how Pokémon Go illustrates the transformative power of another trend I’ve written about: how entrepreneurs are making use of museum resources to build their own products and services.

The digital landscapes of Pokémon Go and its older sibling, Ingress are built around real world landmarks—including historic markers, public art, museums, zoos, botanic gardens and historic houses. Niantic Labs, the creator of both games, started with Google Maps data (Niantic itself was born inside Google) and pulled in public data sets to prepopulate Ingress with “portals,” including public buildings like libraries, police and fire stations. In the early years of the game, it also encouraged players to nominate and annotate additional portals, encouraging them to focus on public art, historic buildings and notable community landmarks. Niantic imported many of the Ingress sites into Pokémon Go, as well as using geodata from crowdsourced sites such as the Historical Marker Data Base.

Hence the crowds of people huddled over their smart phones in museum buildings and on museum grounds.

Now, scavenger hunts in and around museums are nothing new. Nor are apps that introduce virtual elements into our galleries even without permission. But the growth of open data sets and social media facilitate taking such use to scale. Estimates range from 9.5 million to 21 million active users of Pokémon Go per day in the US (which would put it well ahead of the ubiquitous Candy Crush). Though the app is free, players can buy virtual items to improve their game play. At that scale, even these micro-purchases add up to real money. Last month Forbes reported that the app, which is a free download, was bringing in $1.6 million a day through the Apple store alone (and the game also plays on Android devices). Pokémon Go is also credited with boosting the stock price of Nintendo, co-owner of Niantic Labs, by over 50%. Ingress offers in-app purchases, too, and has partnered with various companies to incorporate their brands into the game. So these games, built in and around public data and public space, are generating considerable private profit.

Maybe museums can profit from the mania for this game as well. Indeed there have been some reports of increased attendance: a 50% bump at the McNay Art Museum San Antonio  (8 Pokéstops, 4 gyms); 30% at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas—not counting increase in foot traffic on their grounds; a 25% increase at the Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens Boca Raton (25 Pokéstops) on one day.

Skrelp is a Weedy sea dragon!
Courtesy Ocean Portal
And some organizations are tying the game to their mission. One blogger, noting that Pokémon drives people to explore historic sites and markers, coined the term “archaeogaming” and hails it as a boon to public archaeology. Ocean Portal parses the real-life taxonomic analogs to Pokémon creatures, and I imagine many aquariums could incorporate that into their interpretation. The attendance figures I quoted above are from a Bloomberg News article which also notes how appropriate it is for there to be Pokéstops at the British Museum, given its extensive collection of Japanese netsuke carvings—direct antecedents of the digital “pocket monsters.”

But the game isn’t always museum-compatible. The Worcester Art Museum, while celebrating their two Pokéstops, gently offers safety tips (i.e., please don’t run into collections objects while you’re staring at your phone.) There have been protests over the impropriety of playing the game at all in places like cemeteries, memorials and, here in DC, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Echoes of the past—when Ingress launched it included portals in historic sites of German concentration camps, prompting a similar outcry. Google apologized and removed the offending portals from the Ingress landscape. If your museum has similar concerns you may be relieved to hear that Niantic does provide a way to request removal of a Pokéstop or Gym. (I haven’t heard how many such requests are granted, or how fast. If your museum does opt out, and it works, please share the news?)

This last point—what entities can opt in or out of being used in the game—raises an interesting legal issue. In the future, who will be able to control what augmented reality (AR) gets layered over “your” space? As the Guardian asked in a thoughtful commentary, “I can’t put a billboard on your house without asking you; but is it so obvious that I should be allowed to put a virtual billboard ’on‘ your house without giving you any say in the matter?” That story suggests that just as airplanes created the need for laws governing airspace, augmented reality games like Pokémon Go may result in laws concerning “AR” space. Add this to the list of emerging concerns for museums as we struggle to control, adapt to or partner with people who make us part of their digital worlds.

Braviary Pokémon
Eagle netsuke from British Museum Collection

Friday, July 15, 2016

Futurist Friday: A View of the Future Curated by Women

Usually I select small snips for your Friday assignment: videos that are less than 10 minutes long; short reads; sometimes just a mind-blowing picture.

This week I'm strongly recommending a long read as well worth your while: The Future According to Women, a special issue of MISC Magazine. (Available as a free download.) I mentioned this volume when it first came out last month, but I just finished the reading the closing essay, and that inspired me to nudge you again it its direction. 

This project was spawned by a sense of frustration in the futurist community about the image of our field as largely male. As the editors note in the introduction, "the future we read about is made up of recycled bits of interviews curated from the minds of a few great men innovating in Silicon Valley."

To counter this perception, the editors compiled this collection of extended essays, short fiction and brief interviews by and with over forty women young and old--futurists, writers, scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs and students. They address topics that might be considered stereotypically female, such as child-rearing, relationships, PMS and girlhood, but also encompass war, space exploration, law, labor, gender identity and global sustainability. 

I admit that when I first heard about the project, I was skeptical that foresight is gendered. Do women approach thinking about the world in general, and the future specifically, differently than men? However, after reading the collection, I think it is sometimes true. For example, Dr. Gillian Einstein notes, in an essay on the future of women's health, that our biomedical systems revolve around diagnosis and treatment of acute conditions such as heart attacks. But, she notes, as we become better at keeping people from dying right away from heart disease or cancer, they turn into chronic conditions, and "women tend to bear the burden of chronic disease." (She lists heart conditions in old age, fibromyalgia, chronic pain and autoimmune disorders as examples). By shifting focus to these chronic conditions in women, she hopes we will reshape our healthcare system, broadening its focus from immediate heroics to give proper attention to long-term care. 

Whether or not the ideas presented in these essays are influenced by the chromosomal makeup of the authors, I agree with the editors that it is important to demonstrate that the future is not solely the provenance of (old, white) men.

And as a bonus, scattered through out the issue are mentions of truly mind-blowing organizations of which I was unaware, such as the Modern Widows Club (a "widow mentoring organization), Make Love Not Porn ("pro-sex, pro-porn and pro-knowing the difference), and Manservants (which promises to match any lady with the manservant of her dreams. Check out their promotional video).

In a closing note, the editors declare: "We have the ability to democratize the future that we see, hear and read about. Conversations can, and should, include more women as well as other untapped perspectives that exist outside of Silicon Valley, Hollywood or the field of professional foresight." Nor, I would add, should our vision of the future be exclusively white, Western, and fostered in a climate of economic privilege. You, as museum people, can contribute to our collective futuring, and encourage people in the communities you serve to do so as well. 

The MISC website hosts additional interviews related to the project on the web (including one with me, on the future of museums, 'natch). You can also follow the continued conversation on social media where it is tagged #femalefutures.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Talking About Museums and Internships

Hi, Nicole here! Throughout the course of my work on museums and labor at CFM this past year, I have had the pleasure of talking with—and learning from—colleagues across the US in various stages of their careers. Time and again, I’ve heard from museum professionals about the importance of fostering equitable access along the pathway to museum employment. Students, new professionals, and people with long-standing experience in the field have repeatedly, and often passionately, expressed their desire to make museum work more inclusive of our country’s ever-diversifying demographics. 

In these discussions, the subject of internships has emerged as one primary place in the museum employment pipeline where opportunities are narrowed and diversity is compromised. As Ford Foundation president Darren Walker observed in a recent New York Times piece, internships--and the networking that often secures them—can “reinforce the dynamics that create inequality.” He writes, “We often hear that success is ‘all about the people you know’—as if it’s just a matter of equal-opportunity relationship building. We rarely talk about...the privilege that has become a prerequisite to knowing the right people.” Internships, Walker argues, often function as vehicles where privilege gets “multiplied by privilege.”

Source: University of North Carolina at Pembroke
This spring, I was honored to organize a team of colleagues to facilitate a candid conversation among museum professionals, educators, students, activists and thought leaders from the DC metro area and near-surrounding regions about the state of internships. Seventeen museum professionals joined us in the Alliance's offices in Arlington, Virginia for a local and intimate half-day dialogue. The convening focused on the topic of museums and internships and was designed to explore the kinds of questions about privilege and equity that Walker’s article raises. CFM’s founding director Elizabeth Merritt moderated the convening with exceptional skill and thoughtfulness. AAM’s President and CEO Laura Lott gave opening remarks and also helped foster a spirit of openness and dialogue throughout the meeting.

The purpose of the dialogue was neither to reach conclusive resolutions about the topic nor provoke total consensus among the attendees. The issue of museum internships touches our entire field. It involves many moving parts and many, many invested perspectives—it’s an issue far too complex and wide-reaching to be exhaustively unpacked in four hours by a handful of people from one region in the country. (I, for one, am too much of a contrarian to believe that that was even possible to accomplish in a single afternoon.) The purpose of the dialogue was to:    
  • Identify the stakeholder groups in the internships conversation (e.g. interns, academic departments, emerging professionals, museum leadership)  
  • Develop language to discuss the implications of internships on diversity, equity, access and inclusion 
  • Establish the groundwork for further engagement with this issue
In this post, I want to share some things I learned from a rich, engaged dialogue on the topic. (I’ll be sharing more of the insights from the convening and next steps on the Blog in the coming months.) Here are some of the key things I learned about how museums can begin the work of discussing the ethical, financial, and labor dimensions of internships:

  • The Importance of Diverse Perspectives,
  • The Importance of Disagreement, and the fact that 
  • Sometimes the Question Isn’t Really the Question

The Importance of Diverse Perspectives

In putting together the list of invited participants, our team wanted to make sure we assembled a diverse sample of museum professionals. We reached out to interns and people who run internship programs; students and professors; members of Museum Workers Speak; bloggers; leaders of regional and national museum organizations; and emerging professionals. The participants in attendance were:

Diane Barber, Development Assistant, Ford’s Theatre Society
Karen Daly, Executive Director, Dumbarton House
Omar Eaton-Martinez, Program Manager, Smithsonian National 
Museum of American History
Amanda Figueroa, Co-founder, Brown Girls Museum Blog
Brittany Fiocca, Curatorial Intern, Phillips Collection
Teresa Martinez, Manager, The Octagon
Alli Hartley, Coordinator, Smithsonian Nat'l Museum of African Art
Judith Landau, Museum Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Kym Rice, Director, Chair, Museum Studies, George Washington University
Ravon Ruffin, Brown Girls Museum Blog
Mattie Schloetzer, Program Administrator, Nat'l Gallery of Art
Kristen Sheldon, Volunteer Manager, The National Building Museum
Carol Stapp, Dir., Museum Ed. Program, George Washington University
Jennifer Thomas, Director, Virginia Association of Museums
Emily Weeks, Contractor, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
John Wetenhall, George Washington Univ. Museum 
                and Textile Museum; AAM Board Member
Eric Woodard, Dir., Office of Fellowships and Internships, Smithsonian

Many, many thanks and much heartfelt appreciation to each of the participants for their time, their candor, and their willingness to share!

With such a range of positions represented, we wanted to make sure that we, as the conveners, were upfront about the potential challenges related to the power dynamics in the room. Although we couldn't guarantee that everyone would reach consensus, we could--and did--take steps to acknowledge the breadth of attendees' professional experience. In their opening remarks, both Laura Lott and Elizabeth Merritt reiterated the importance of empathy and listening. Elizabeth, as moderator, was deeply attentive to how long speakers held the floor and ensured that people got a chance to reflect and connect with one another.

Prior to the day of the meeting, we established guidelines about creating a safe space for the dialogue to occur. We shared these ground rules with participants before and during the meeting. We asked participants to:
  • Practice active listening and ask questions as any time
  • Remain fully present by resisting social media and texting during the event
  • Not attribute specific quotes to specific people in their social media sharing following the meeting
Our team allotted the bulk of the time for laying out the issues to make space for just that. Participants spent some 90 minutes thinking through how museums should define internships, reviewing the Department of Labor’s Guidelines, and identifying ethical and financial dimensions of the internship process. There were moments of intense debate. For instance, a discussion of the distinctions between jobs and internships opened up into a broader discussion about the perceived stigma of taking a job outside of the museum field. Several participants shared stories about feeling marginalized because they’d chosen paid work in other sectors over unpaid work in museums at earlier moments in their careers. Although I’d been thinking about the economics of museum work—and unpaid internships especially—I had never considered how paid employment outside of the field could be a target for unconscious bias for some employers. And I wasn’t the only one for whom this was a revelation. Having a multiplicity of voices at the table (literally) created space for un-told stories about the realities of museum labor.    

The Importance of Disagreement

The process of assessing and improving the state of museum internships requires vulnerability, flexibility and dialogue. Official definitions of what constitutes an internship resist permanence. Even the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has had to revise their criteria for what constitutes a legal internship, and the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has offered recommended revisions of that criteria. Some attendees agreed with the definition of an internship as a “guided learning opportunity” with a more didactic function. Others preferred to think of this guided learning as experience-based. Still others disagreed with this definition altogether, preferring to define internships as “professional training” over the popular university-based model.  

Opinions also varied around the language of compensation. Some in attendance preferred “stipend” and “scholarship” to the term “salary.” Others asked probing questions about the value of these labels. Importantly, participants raised the question, “What does each tell us, really?” Some participants voiced concerns that the use of terms like “stipend” and “scholarship” are used to obscure when an internship functions more like an entry-level job, with the result that entry-level jobs in the field actually become jobs that require a good deal more experience and education than is signaled by the term “entry-level.”

There was no universal agreement on any of these definitions and criteria beyond the understanding that internships should be “for the benefit of the intern.” But, inside of this discussion, participants suggested several powerful changes to current practices. Attendees asked:
  • Can the field move towards an alternative credentialing model that bypasses internships altogether?
  • Are apprenticeships a possibility?
  • Can internships be administered through museums’ education departments instead of through HR managers?
Another lightbulb moment included the suggestion that small museums could share HR staff (which participants dubbed "HR shares") in order to help make the process of administering internships much more even and transparent. These suggestions resulted not from consensus, but from respectful back-and-forth about the issues. The very act of engaging internship practices invites an opportunity to envision future alternatives.

Sometimes the Question Isn’t Really the Question

The conversation regularly flowed from internships into a larger dialogue about the viability of the field. Participants were deeply interested in addressing the whole environment of museums' needs around internships. This includes retention, the economy of museums, financial sustainability of museums, and the need to begin the pipeline to museum employment much earlier. Internships operate in a wider museum environment and their equitable application has implications beyond any individual museum’s specific operation. Addressing internships alone will not, in fact, completely get us toward a larger vision of diversity, access, equity, and inclusion. Better retention programs, increased cultural competencies, and re-thinking of the criteria for employment credentialing (e.g. the cost of museum studies programs) all came up in conversation as suggested “better practices” for the field. Recommended steps that moved beyond the purview of the internship included:
  • Museum studies programs’ offering career counseling to students about the economics of museum work
  • Museum professionals—and our organizations—sharing information about the specifics of contract labor, including taxes
  • Increased collaboration with related federal initiatives for professional development and youth programming
  • The production of a field-wide tool that helps students evaluate what programs are best for them.
In reflecting on these suggestions, it becomes clear to me that, ultimately, the vision for success in addressing museums and internships is a linked to a larger vision of sustainability and increased access in the field. The problems of privilege that cause bottlenecks in the pipeline to museum employment require coordinated interventions that both include and exceed the form of the internship itself. The issue of museums and internships is future-facing—a subject that benefits from our creative, disruptive, and sometimes-contradictory efforts. Together.

What questions would you add to a dialogue on museums and internships? Have you or your museum held similar conversations? If so, what's worked and what hasn't? I'd love to hear from you at nivy (at)