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Film: Expanding Museum People Through Social Media Practice

Monica O. Montgomery spoke at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016 about how independent collectives of self directed museum workers are forming communities of practice. These self directed peer groups band together online as cohorts journeying through social media platforms, internet back channels and web based technologies to glean insights on topics as vast as labor, equity, audience evaluations and work life balance. 

Monica: Hi, everybody, how are you doing? The party has started – Monica’s here. I’m Monica Montgomery from Brooklyn, New York, excited to be here with you, and I’m going to talk about working with people in museums. I have a whole bunch of different titles – I know you’re probably confused at this point, like, where does she work? I work at about five different places, or maybe five projects is a better way to say it.

Today, I’m going to be speaking about Museum Hue, which is a collective that champions diversity in arts, culture and museums, and Museum Workers Speak, another collective looking at labour, museums and social justice. This presentation includes thought leadership and ideas from one of my mentees, Ms Raven Ruffin who is a graduate of George Washington’s American Studies programme, and I’d like to read this quote that really struck me, that’s going to influence the tenor of what we’re talking about today.

‘We continue to struggle with issues of inclusion, diversity and equity in the non-profit arts and culture sector, because our society continues to struggle with them’.

So, I want to talk about breaking boundaries, and collective museum practice, but first I’d love to touch on something my colleague Eleanor said in her piece. She said, ‘One day, you’re going to be the boss’. I think that day is today. What I mean is that you are a free agent. You’re working with institutions to connect communities to art, culture, science, history, ideas, children’s museum spaces, but you’re the boss of yourself; you’re the CEO of you, and it’s important that you advocate for yourself.

So often, people that work in museums sacrifice themselves on the altar of the institution, and that’s fine, to a degree, but I would encourage you to advocate for yourself, your sector, and your colleagues, the workers in this room.

So, collective power in museum practice, it’s about building these grassroots alliances, and centring diverse workers and groups in critical reflection, discussion, and actions.

So, how can audiences within the museum give the agency and have the power to pursue skills, career attainment within those institutions? What are the non-traditional ways that workers insert themselves into the conversations that are happening? And, how are museums creating spaces for workers to have a voice beyond the approved channels?

So, for instance, there’s a museum in New York that I am consulting with, familiar with, and they’re starting a diversity and inclusion initiative. This wasn’t formally approved by the institution, but it’s something that the workers, the museum educators in particular, felt very strongly about, and they’ve had to really fight and really push back to get the go ahead to come together and organise, and have discussions, and read articles.

It was unfortunate that, from the top down, that conversation wasn’t welcome, that the museum was like, ‘Oh, we don’t have a problem. Why do you need to talk about this?’ But, the workers felt strongly enough that they pushed back, and they advocated for themselves, and now they have diversity and inclusion committees, and they’re reading articles every month, and it’s like a skills sharing, knowledge platform, but sometimes you have to do that pushback to advocate for progressive steps to take things forward, especially things that you’re passionate about.

So, in the museum sector, there’s definitely room for improvement. Who speaks for whom is often asked. Slowly, museums are sharing authority with audiences, and inviting co-curation, public programmes and collaborations, but internally, among museum workers, there’s definitely room for improvement, for the exchange of ideas, taking corrective action on inequities, and gaining insights into workers’ needs, as well as the D word, diversity, promoting diverse perspectives, experiences, and hiring diverse people. These are all ways to build collective power in museum practice.

Blogging – blogging is so key, and bloggers are like the scribes and the storytellers of our time. Blogs are where I learn a lot of what’s happening in the states, of the cutting edge of museum practice, whether it’s regarding workers, or what’s happening in exhibits, blogs are definitely where these conversations are happening.

Two blogs that I am a fan of – one is my mentee’s blog, Brown Girls Museum Blog – I would encourage everyone to read it. It’s Raven and Amanda, and they’re both students. They’re both just talking about what it means to be black and Latina in the museum sector, visiting museums, how welcome of unwelcome they feel, and it’s a really dynamic platform with a lot of great visuals.

Another blog that I think everyone should be reading is called Visitors of Colour. It’s on Tumblr, and this is done by two friends of mine, Porchia Moore and Nikhil Trivedi, and they basically have interviewed people, friends of theirs that are going to museums, and as soon as they go through exhibits, they ask them, how did you feel about what happened today, or how do you feel coming into this space, and getting that honest, raw feedback, and then just posting it on the Tumblr account. It’s really dynamic to hear what museums are always asking – how do we engage our audiences? What do they think?

So, one of the posts that was on Visitors of Colour reads: formal cultural institutions often talk about lofty concepts, instead of conveying true meaning, to the point of missing real opportunities to teach and engage. This is from a woman who’s a civil rights attorney, a person of colour, and this is just her feeling of coming into the museum, what’s the perception of what should be happening, versus what’s really happening.

So, what’s happening is this shift among the workers, among the generalists, as you spoke of, that’s moving from dialogue to action. During last year’s AAM conference, the Museum Workers Speak collective was born, and what happened in that case was, Museum Workers Speak was supposed to be the title of a session that was pitched to AAM, and it was rejected from the conference, as well as, a note was written about how unwelcome conversations about labour and museum work were in that space.

So, myself and the other organisers decided, we’re not going to let it end here. We’re not going to cower in fear from the museum powers that be. We’re going to keep this conversation going, because it needs to happen. So, we organised a rogue session outside of the conference, in a gallery in Atlanta, a few miles down the road, and about 100 people came out and joined us at that session. We talked about unpaid internships; we talked about the lack of diversity; we talked about the ways that it’s hard to find a fulltime, thriving wage job in the museum space, and from this convening, we realised there were so many issues that were pressing on the hearts of museum workers, and this is what needed to happen – we have to keep advocating and organising.

So, Museum Workers Speak, officially, we’re a collective of activist museum workers interrogating the relationship between museums’ commitment to social value, and their internal labour practices. If we believe in the power of cultural institutions to impact communities and engage authentically with social justice issues, if we believe museums’ capacity to bring about social change and transform the world, then we have to also believe that our internal practices have an impact, and we have to act according to those changes that we seek.

The value of Museum Workers Speak is that it amplified the knowledge held by everyday museum workers that don’t otherwise have a platform. So, we have online and offline engagement. Every month, we do a monthly Tweet chat called Museum Workers Speak. It’s on the first Wednesday, two PM eastern and eight PM eastern, and we talk about a variety of issues. Since I do social media, I am usually the one hosting, but often, other people in the collective will host.

We’ve talked about things like negotiation, how to fight back against workplace inequality, unpaid internships, diversity, a whole field of things, and getting this crowdsourced brilliance is what keeps us going and doing this work, hearing from everyday museum workers, we’re then able to package this and move that conversation forward.

Oftentimes, everyday rank and file museum workers don’t have access to conferences like this beautiful conference, so we also do things in the real world, in person. We have chapters in about eight different cities across America – New York, Miami, Seattle, DC, Boston, and other spaces. I lead the New York chapter, and we meet up and talk about what’s happening in our spaces; we skill build, and we strategize how to organise for the better treatment of museum workers across the nation.

There are a number of testimonials that have emerged from these Tweet chats and from these in person gatherings, around social justice and museum labour. I would like to read a few of them, anonymously of course, from people throughout the chapters, across the country. These comments, they demonstrate this wide-reaching concern regarding labour, and the broader impact this has on the status of equity.

So, Museum Workers Speak New York members have said, ‘Sometimes I feel good enough to work with families, but not to get paid well’. ‘I feel like I have to flee my organisation to grow’. ‘Internships in New York are indentured servitude’. ‘Unpaid work devalues the work that we do, and we all work really hard’. ‘Museums often take advantage of staff’s goodwill’. ‘I’m not a minority, underrepresented, and minority, and lesser – that’s terminology we use for grants; I don’t like to be referred to that way’.

Museum Workers Speak in Miami have said, ‘There needs to be more support for aspiring museum professionals struggling to advance their careers’. There’s a lack of availability of middle management positions, and they don’t include the Miami workforce’. ‘Miami museums prefer candidates from larger cities outside of Miami’. ‘Independent experience isn’t valued, and racial discrimination discourages independent experience’. There are more of these testimonials on the screen, that you’ll see.

So, we are really collecting all of this data; we’re kind of still mulling over how we’re going to share it. We’re in the process of writing a few whitepapers, writing for a few journals, but it’s important that we really hear out how museum workers are feeling.

I am an educator by trade, and I like to do interactive activities, because I just feel like it just breaks up the stiffness of this convening, so I would love to give you three questions that are reflected here on the slide, that you can think about, and turn and talk to your neighbour about for three minutes.

For the first, being a reflective practitioner question, it’s about noticing your own behaviour and realising how it influences others. So, think about, what are my privileges? Is it my career? Is it citizenship? Is it language? What are my privileges, and what are the perceptions around those privileges?

For the second question, how can we make museum work more open and accessible?

And, for the third question, how could we create pipelines for diverse workers? I’m going to give three minutes for that. Go crazy. Yes, for real – talk.

All right. I’m so glad we’re starting these conversations. You’re going to make a lot of future friends over the happy hour tonight. So, as we come back to the centre in five, four, three, three-and-a-half, two, and one … You all are so obedient – I love it. As a former preschool teacher, that makes me really happy.

So, as you can see, there’s a lot of room for discussions around privilege, around power, about how to cast a wider net to make this sector more equitable, and these are the kinds of conversations we can have every day in our institutions, with our peers, without fear from remuneration from museum bosses.

Well, that’s Museum Workers Speak, and I’m going to talk about my other organisation, Museum Hue, and the work that we do and have been doing. So, we’re a network of 5,000+ people of colour around the US, and somewhat internationally, championing efforts around diversity, inclusion, cultural appreciation, but most of all, advancing people of colour in arts, culture and museums.

We’re doing a lot. We’re filling all the gaps and all the voids that the sector has, that no one else is willing to tackle, and in our own way, building collective power from the grassroots up.

The reason that I founded Museum Hue was because, coming from another career, coming from being a classroom teacher, trying to get my foot in the door of a museum, no one would give me a chance. Like, no one. I’m a pretty nice person – I don’t understand that. So, I applied 20, 30, 40 museums – everyone’s like, ‘You’re a classroom teacher; why are you here?’ I’m like, well, I want to educate in a different space. But, it took a lot, and a long time, for me to get access to a quality museum job, any museum job, for that matter.

I didn’t want any other person of colour, or anyone for that matter, to struggle the way I did, to find a toehold in the museum sector. So, we are advancing people of colour in arts, culture and museums. We have these folks that follow us, primarily in the New York area, but like I said, internationally and nationally as well.

We’re helping people get jobs; we’re talking about these issues; we’re consulting with museums and talking to their administration about how they can do better; we host mentoring events, seminars, professional development mixers all the time; we take trips to a different museum each month and get a curator or a museum director, or a museum education director to give us a tour, to give us the VIP access so that we can hold space for ourselves as people of colour who belong in museum spaces.

There’s a lot that goes into this, and this is very much a labour of love. We’re not funded by any foundations, any municipalities, but a lot of folks are aware of us and love our work, and to that effect, give us opportunities; museums give us free space all the time.

In this past year and a half that we’ve been operating, I’m very proud to say that we have gotten 15 people of colour jobs in the museum sector. Let’s clap it up for that. We’re just really passionate about increasing access and equity, especially through multicultural diversity.

We believe people of colour are not hard to find. Everyone’s, like, where do I find people of colour? Believe it or not, they’re all around you. I can introduce you to some. If you have a job or an opportunity that you would like to get to a diverse audience, reach out to me, hit me up – I will send it to the 5,000, we’ll descend upon it, and we’ll apply immediately, I promise you.

But, to this end, later next month I’m going to be keynoting the EdCom lunch at AAM, the American Alliance of Museums Conference, and I’m also on a panel called We’re Not Hard to Find. So, myself and other museum leaders of colour are going to be speaking about, how can you recruit, retain and attract diverse candidates, and make your museum institution or your cultural institution as diverse as you want it to be, as you claim that it is, how to really reflect that in the numbers.

That’s an image of us at the Museum of the City of New York. Our tours average anywhere from 20 to 30 people per tour. Everyone is welcome; no one’s ever turned away, and many of the folks that we’re bringing in are unemployed people, are students, are people with disabilities, folks that everyone else would consider marginalised, that have never been personally invited to a museum space. So, we definitely don’t want them to feel that they’re not welcome, and we’re rolling out the welcoming red carpet for them.

Some testimonials of the work that we’ve done – I’ll read two of them; there’re several. ‘I love the positivity and commitment to cultural and social change. I love Museum Hue because I always come away with inspiring and tangible ideas to enact my own work in my workplace’.

One of the challenging conversations that we are championing is something else that’s going to be happening during AAM called the Museums and Race Convening, which is a number of our allies that’ve come together to have this discussion, this un-conference about race and museums, and privilege, and white supremacy, and institutional inequities, and this is going to be happening right across the street from the convention centre. Museum Hue is a proud partner, as well as Brown Girls Museum Blog, Visitors of Colour, [Div Com], all of these institutions that are coming together for this discussion.

So far we have 200 people that’ve registered, and most of those people are not going to AAM, which means we’re really tackling those audiences that we want to get, and we’re always welcoming more people to come to this. So, look at museums and race online, if you’d like to learn more about that.

One of the ways that we are building collective power in museum practices grassroots folks, like I mentioned earlier, is Tweeting, is Twitter, social media democratising the flow of ideas, challenging conservatism and convention. So, Museum Hue, we do a monthly Tweet chat called Huesday – it’s on a Tuesday – get it? Huesday, Tuesday. We talk about a variety of different things. We do these either with creative practitioners, innovators, disruptors, or collectives.

We did our first chat, shown here, with Create Equity. This was back in February, and it was about how to increase diversity staffing to create a health arts ecosystem, a very lively chat. If anyone’s familiar with the Create Equity blog, they’re kind of like a think tank/blog, and they have a lot of data that they’ve gathered over the years. So, we really have been doing some great work with that, and we’re a part of other Tweet chats, like Museums Respond to Ferguson, Museum Workers Speak, Culture Fix, all these Tweet chats that are happening.

These are some feedback of people that are talking during these Tweet chats about how they feel about a variety of different things, that you can read at your leisure, and more, more Twitter fun. You just get a sense that people are dying to talk about this stuff, and it seems like Twitter is the way to go, the only way that people can currently express themselves uninhibited.

So, in terms of remapping community museum practice, building power, we feel that the intersectionality is the key, and often, some of the issues that we’re speaking about, and we speak about with our partners in terms of community engagement, labour, social justice, diversity, inclusion, access and beyond, they’re important topics, and we’re not going to wait for institutions or associations, or anyone, to give us permission to talk about this. We’re going to start in a grassroots way, in an intentional way, to make these discussions come alive, and take action around them, and enrich the communities of the audiences coming to museums, but the museum workers.

Another thing that we’ll be partnering on is with the Centre for the Future of Museums – we’re going to be doing an interactive seminar around hiring bias, and how to combat hiring bias, and this’ll be in the museum expo hall during AAM.

So, back to the theme around solidarity, and thinking about what you can do, and talking to your neighbour – I have three small things. Name one small thing you’re going to do in service of turning that social justice lens inward in your organisation to empower people working in museums. Go.

All right – that’s our time. Keep the conversations going. Thank you very much.

Monica O. Montgomery spoke at MuseumNext Dublin in April 2016 about how independent collectives of self directed museum workers are forming communities of practice. These self directed peer groups band together online as cohorts journeying through social media platforms, internet back channels and web based technologies to glean insights on topics as vast as labor, equity, audience evaluations and work life balance.

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