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Museum Professionals Living Through the Disruption of Covid 19

Monica O. Montgomery, Gretchen Wilson-Prangley and Tony Butler us for this panel discussion looking at the impact of Covid-19 on museums, how has it disrupted plans and forced innovations.

We’ll also talk about resilience and how our panel have kept moving forward in these uncertain times.

This panel was part of MuseumNext Disrupt in 2020

Transcript

Jim:

Welcome to day two of MuseumNext Disrupt. Today, I’m joined by a fantastic international panel, and we’re going to be talking about this year, this incredible year, and how it’s played out for them. Panel are all old friends of MuseumNext. We have Monica O. Montgomery, who is a museum leader, a consultant, and one of the founders of Museum Hue. She’s based in Washington DC in the United States. Monica’s joined by Gretchen Wilson-Prangley, who is the director and founder of Play Africa, the children’s museum in Johannesburg. And finally, we have Tony Butler, who is the director of Derby Museums in the UK. So, thank you all for joining me.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Thank you.

Jim:

So, I want to start by going back to when the pandemic first hit, to find out how it played out for you. So, I guess, Tony, because I know the time scale in the UK it was March that the pandemic really hit us. So, can you talk us through what’s happened in March where you are and how it affected you?

Tony Butler:

So, we shut down on March the 18th and it took us two days to close, and meaning two days to get everybody with IT so they could go and work at home. I think we did really well to set 50-odd people up with remote working in two days. So, in our experience of reopening, it’s much harder to reopen than it is to close, which was a big, steep learning curve for us. So, we shut down, we shut our doors. Staff were dispersed to their homes, but we still had a core of people that were coming in on a daily basis to check the buildings and to do some little bit of onsite work, so the buildings and the collections were safe.

Tony Butler:

So, we operate our three museums in Derby, which is a city in the Midlands of about 250,000 people. We were all, as I said, dispersed to our homes and we spent three months intensively on Zoom calls, catching up with each other, but also looking at ways both to engage with our community remotely, but also to try and sustain the organisation. And I seemed to spend an ordinate amount of time bidding for funding and trying to raise money to ensure that all the losses that we have incurred during lockdown are made good.

Jim:

And Monica, how about you? In the States, you were maybe a couple of weeks behind us here in the UK?

Monica O. Montgomery:

More or less. It’s interesting, because I started noticing people wearing more masks in late February, and I was on a trip to LA to do some consulting out there with a client and when I got on the plane, everyone had on masks and I’m like, “Oh, interesting”. In my mind, it was in my peripheral awareness, it’s like, “Oh, something’s happening in Asia.” And then they’re like, “It’s getting closer, but we’re safe.” You know, the mixed messages that our government gives. And then when I came on the plane back, the plane was virtually empty, airline stewardesses had on masks, and I’m like, “Oh, this is significant.” And that’s when I started realising the world is changing and the States were changing and we had to be mindful, and it wasn’t just over there anymore. It had come to our doorstep.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Many of the museums here closed in early to mid-March or stopped doing as many things, public programmes were cancelled. And it had ultimately, a ripple effect, which I will speak about in future questions. But I would say that it’s changed the nature of my work. I went from full-time executive director to having the site that I was at have to close and not be able to sustain me on payroll. And I had to come out of that space and go into consulting again and pivot to that full-time. So, I’ve switched hats again.

Jim:

So, a significant change. Yeah.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Mm-hmm.

Jim:

And Gretchen, what about Johannesburg?

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Well, in Johannesburg, we closed our doors the day after the president declared a national disaster, which was on the 16th of March. And so from the 16th, we had to shut our doors. We had a lot of momentum coming into this year, where we had run several different, exciting new programmes and building off the momentum over the last few years. We had just come out of a programme with 1,300 children in informal settlements, outside of Johannesburg. And on the 16th, the day that we had to close, we were about to start a new programme in the inner city of Johannesburg and had just identified a flagship location for an indoor/outdoor children’s museum facility in the heart of the city. So, for us, it really meant we came to a screeching halt and it was really a terrifying time.

Jim:

That was similar for you, Tony, you had a building project which was happening and this all impacted that.

Tony Butler:

That’s right. Well, we should open a new museum, the Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill, which is to open in this September. It’s a 18 million pound project to restore Derby Silk Mill, which is the site of the world’s first factory, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And transform it into a Museum of Making, which is celebrating creativity and craft and manufacturing.

Tony Butler:

So, this has been a long time coming. The building work’s been going on for the last two-and-half years. And we had to shut the site down in March, and for about eight weeks, there’s no activity on site. So, as you can imagine, costs began to go up and so construction and programme become delayed. So, as I alluded to, as I said in my first answer, I spent quite a lot of this time trying to marshal supporters and arguments to funders to bridge that gap. And it was only at the end of June that we managed to do that. So, building work’s now back on track, they’ve been on site since the end of May. And we’re now looking to complete the building by the end of December and open to the public in March or April. So, quite a stressful time in a project that was more or less done and dusted, and up until then was fully funded, it was on time and on budget.

Jim:

So, some parallels there, Gretchen, in terms of disruption and the troubles of actual physical buildings.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Yeah. I mean, I think we were not as far along. We’d identified the site and we were making all of our initial plays to make this a reality. So, in some ways it was a bit of a blessing, because we didn’t have the financial cost that we might have incurred just a month later, however, and that kept our overheads low, which allowed us to be a lot more flexible in how we re-imagined ourselves going forward. But that is something that’s back on track in terms of those opening conversations, thinking about how we’re going to look at that again. Yeah.

Jim:

So, everyone’s been massively affected by the events of this year, unsurprisingly. How have you adapted, Gretchen, to everything that’s happening?

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Yeah. Well, like I mentioned, we came to a screeching halt and we were terrified, but immediately we knew we wanted to pivot. We wanted to really continue to think about, how can we continue to serve our mission remotely, from home? And so, that very first week, in those first few days, I was giving my team assignments of, how do we take this content and use our cellphones and shoot videos and share this using adaptable technology, using low-cost, low data solutions to serve the people that we serve in Johannesburg?

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

What I found was that we wanted to use these WhatsApps and use mobile services. And a lot of the things that were coming back, I was finding that people were really struggling at home. They were struggling first of all, to find time and in the midst of childcare duties and other things, they were trying to struggle with their own cellphones to take these videos and then try to edit them using really poor technology.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

And what we realised was that we were getting frustrated because we just couldn’t compete with mobile technology and the kind of technology that exists out there, especially in the Global North or much more well-resourced museums. And so, we really took a second to stop and breathe and started to think about what were we really trying to do. And we started to reimagine our solution entirely. So, we took a break and we said, “Let’s call our audience.” And we decided to pick up the phone and start calling people who come to Play Africa and saying, “How are you doing? What do you need?” And that really was the defining moment of what really preempted our later success, is that we started hearing from our audience that they were at home, terrified, overwhelmed, lonely.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

We had one woman who we called and she burst into tears and said, “You’re the first person who’s given me a call in 10 days. And I’ve been in my home,” which is a small backyard unit in Soweto, “there’s a dog outside that my child who has autism is afraid of, and I cannot leave the house and no one’s remembered that we existed.” So, for us, this idea of using design thinking and empathy, to call our audience and ask them what they really needed, helped set us on a track for really, later success, by really remembering that what people have come to us for is human connection, to feel respected, to feel like they’re treated with dignity. And that allowed us to reimagine the kinds of digital programmes that we could provide, which really were about using technology to enable human connection for children and for families and for parents. And to think about how to support parents as they’re home, facing a lot of insecurities and challenges as parents of young children.

Jim:

That’s fantastic. Does that ring a bell for other people here?

Monica O. Montgomery:

Yeah. I’d love to, just to echo what Gretchen is saying. It’s been really heartening to witness how museums and cultural sites and history sites have turned into almost human service organisations. Certainly, many would argue that goes beyond the mission, the vision and the scope, but it meets us at our point of need. And I think if anything has come out of this disruption to our lives, it’s realising that what happens in the larger world impacts the arts culture museum’s ecosystem. And we have to be better neighbours, better humans, more empathetic institutions, to be who our audiences need us to be. It can’t just be about collections anymore. It can’t just be about, “Come see our building.” We’ve had to bend over backwards and reach out.

Monica O. Montgomery:

I mean, here in the States, I’ve seen so many cultural orgs and museums stepping up to the charge by becoming food banks and distribution sites for people who are food insecure, you can pick up boxes of food. People are making masks. I know that there are often, in the States, waves of protests due to a variety of things, certainly, Black Lives Matter related and adjacent to that. And so, protesters who hit the streets in just pure grief and agony, wanting to get out and to protest the state of affairs, are able to be welcomed into cultural institutions that are adjacent to those protest routes.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Institutions have been opening up their lobbies, giving out water, letting people use the bathroom, get a moment of respite. I think that’s really key to how it’s going to have to be in the future. I think we’re going to have to really reimagine what we can do for our audiences to serve them more holistically. And it goes back to that theory that I mentioned in MuseumNext in Indianapolis, or no, was it Portland? One of your MuseumNexts, I talked about community care, right? How do we have this architecture of practise, centering advocacy and social responsibility and empathy? How can our institutions almost act like individuals and really love up on our audiences? So, that’s been happening here and it’s been great to see Gretchen doing and extending that work in South Africa, where that need is just as prevalent.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

I guess, I just would want to add that I think you’re right, that some museums have taken a decision they’d like to survive this crisis. And I think one of the decisions that I was making in those first days as a leader, is that I knew that I didn’t want Play Africa to be destroyed by this crisis and I knew that I didn’t want us to be just surviving this crisis. We wanted Play Africa to be defined by this crisis and to grow and to fight for growth, to be more and more relevant to our audience in this crisis.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

And I believe that as museums around the world are fighting for relevance, they need to look at how they can continue to answer those questions that Monica posed. For us, what we’re seeing is that people are feeling that they need to be seen. They need to be heard. They need to be valued. And I think museums provide a unique space to bring together people around shared ideas, shared identities and create the sense of possibility and potential that is most needed in a time of crisis.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

So, I would really encourage those museums that have shuttered their doors and are hoping this thing will go away, to really reimagine what’s possible. One of the things that I feel like I’ve been struck by in the museum sector is some people who just seem to want to get back to the way it was. And I think what this crisis has proven is that the inequalities of the world are going nowhere. The realities of people in our communities are under strain and under stress, and we can play a role in helping illuminate ideas and possibilities for them. And we have perhaps, even a greater role now, as the inequalities of the world are coming even more and more to the fore and the broader ecological, technological, and other revolutions are at our doorstep well beyond this pandemic.

Jim:

Tony, do you want to add?

Tony Butler:

Yeah. And I think what the crisis has done is laid bare all those inequalities in neighbourhoods. It’s not just about inequality in a global sense. So, people in your neighbourhood are more at risk than others. And certainly the experience in the UK has been that if you are in a minority ethnic group, you are more likely to suffer adversely in this pandemic, for whole loads of other reasons, as well as COVID related. So, I think that’s laid bare all those inequalities. And it’s accelerated a lot of the conversations and discussions around how museums could be more equitable organisations.

Tony Butler:

I mean, some really good examples in the UK have been somewhere like the Museum of Homelessness, which is a very small operation, but one that has absolutely come to the fore in the crisis. When the crisis struck, local authorities in the UK, housed homeless people in hotels. They bought up block bookings in the hotels and everybody that was on the streets was put in a hotel, on the basis that if people are not on the streets, then COVID won’t spread.

Tony Butler:

And the Museum of Homelessness has been doing brilliant work just to raise the public consciousness around homelessness in the UK, and to challenge the government and local counsellors to ensure that something good comes from this, rather than going back to the status quo, before the crisis. So, it’s both laid bare things, it has accelerated some of these issues and there’s no going back. There’s no going back to what it was before. And the challenge for museums and any cultural organisation is to adapt to this new cultural and social and political normal. Which is very disruptive, as MuseumNext is themeing.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Jim, I wanted to say one thing to piggyback on that. I think the social responsivity of museums, museums that are socially responsive is becoming mainstream. It’s no longer at the edges. It’s no longer like, oh, maybe we’ll talk about what’s happening in the world. It is demanded. It’s almost like now the audience has as much agency and even more, to demand certain things from our institutions. So, if your museum hasn’t addressed what’s happening in the world, you’re probably going to be obsolete. It’s like you have to pivot or perish. And I think to that end, socially responsive practise across humanities, I see theatres that are changing their practise, I see libraries changing their practise, literary organisations. I see all manner of civic infrastructure coming outside of what they used to do to say, “How can we help? What do you need from us? How can we meet you at your point of need?”

Monica O. Montgomery:

And there’s this really poignant quote I just want to insert in the conversation. I’ve been following the shift in the magazine and publishing sectors. There are a lot of magazines here in the States that are starting to present more social justice, socially relevant content. The Oprah Magazine feature of Breonna Taylor, who was a young, Black woman who was ruthlessly murdered by a SWAT team in her sleep. And Oprah put her face on the cover of the magazine. And Oprah’s usually on the cover of all her magazines for the last few decades, but she wanted to shine a light on Breonna Taylor. Vanity Fair is doing the same. They commissioned Amy Sherald, legendary African American portrait artist to do a image of her as well. I see Vogue is doing some different things. Time Magazine just featured some really powerful artists on their cover. And then this month, Pharrell is curating a discussion about civics and life.

Monica O. Montgomery:

And so, I see even those sectors that have been so entrenched and has so much systemic injustice, pivoting. But one thing I will say with this quote, the editor of Vanity Fair, her name is Radhika Jones, and she’s the first woman of colour to hold that role. And she said a quote that’s just continuing to inform my practise and thinking, she said, “We’re not bound to continue the cultural hierarchies we inherit. We’re not bound to continue the cultural hierarchies we inherit.” So, if you’re a museum leader, a rank and file staff, a middle manager, a board member, a volunteer, if it always was a certain way, we don’t have to continue that way. This is the moment for disruption, for pivoting, for rethinking and remedy. And so, I think that’s a message we can all resonate with.

Jim:

And you sound quite optimistic about the way that things are moving after the Black Lives Matter protests in the States. You think that this is really the time it’s going to shift the needle and that’s happening right now?

Monica O. Montgomery:

Humanity is really unpredictable. I think also, the news cycle brings a lot to bear. What’s really front and centre in the news tends to inform our thinking, if you’re someone who consumes news actively. I think if nothing else, this is going to disrupt, there’s that word again, people from thinking everything is okay, from thinking the American dream is being shared by all. From feeling like, “Oh, I’m in my little town, I have my gated community. There’s nothing wrong with the world. We live in a utopia. It’s a free economy.”

Monica O. Montgomery:

Even just looking at the roots of capitalism and how that goes back to the transatlantic slave trade, and there are many corporations and businesses that have made money off the backs of enslaved Africans and Black people, and that has to be addressed and that has to look at repair and look at reparations. And so, all of these things are now coming to the forefront. It’s like hidden histories and dark secrets are being revealed in society at large. And it’s causing people to think, and it’s causing people who were in a relative state of comfort and psychological safety to be unsettled, to be disrupted, to say, “Oh my gosh, what am I consuming? Where am I buying? Who am I supporting? Who do I like on social media.” That counts, right? That currency counts.

Monica O. Montgomery:

So, I think if anything, the revelation is happening, not biblical, well, maybe, but I think it’s more a social revolution, revelation, that’s going to lead to us being better humans and institutions being more enlightened and accountable. I think that to the credit of Black Lives Matter organisers, protesters, and those who allied with that movement, that things are going to improve for Black people and people of the Black and brown diaspora, if for no other reason that I’m seeing just a resurging energy in terms of hiring and bringing people’s perspectives to bear.

Monica O. Montgomery:

There are a lot of headhunters that have reached out to me saying, “Monica, you’re a Black woman. You’re a leader. You’ve always been outspoken. We want that now.” Whereas before they were like, “Are you still talking that social justice?” Now, that is very much in demand and I’m happy. It’s like, oh my moment in the sun has come, and others like me who have been preaching this stuff for years. So, I see that shifting in terms of bringing people in on boards, in hiring, considering their opinions, centering the experiences and the lived experience of those who have been marginalised. I think it’s going to take more pushing, more disrupting to get true equity, right? So, everyone is having a fair shot. But I do think if anything, no one can ignore the realities anymore, and that gives me happiness. I’m happy at that disruption, because we’ve been ignored for far too long.

Jim:

It’s just amazing work that you’ve been doing over the past few years and it’s fantastic to see that it’s coming to the fore right now. Gretchen, Tony, what are your reflections on Black Lives Matter? Has the movement impacted your work in the UK and in South Africa?

Tony Butler:

Well, I think it’s unstoppable now. I mean, when you have the director of the British Museum lead a 15 minute segment on national radio last Friday, talking about the fact that the founder of the British Museum profited from slavery, from being an investor in the British Africa Company, that would not have happened prior to this. Or, if it had happened, it would’ve been not in reaction to the growth of Black Lives Matter.

Tony Butler:

Now, whether you see this as an end point or the beginning, I think that has been a big change, but I think the movement is unstoppable. I’ve been working in museums for 20 years now, and I look at the next generation of museum workers coming through and living their personal values through their work in a much deeper sense than say, our generation, I think the change becomes inevitable. Now, whether that change happens gradually or peacefully, that’s up to those with power to assist and to give that leg up. So, someone in my position’s responsibility is to create that space for people to make change and to use the power that I have in a responsible and equitable way. But I think that change is unstoppable and our duty now is to ensure that it happens in a positive and peaceful way.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Yeah, I think from my side, the Black Lives Matter movement has been something that has been followed by South Africans very closely. And especially because our own journey in South Africa was a journey towards democracy that was, as everyone knows, very hardly fought and trying to fight against a brutal Apartheid regime, and before that, colonialism. So, in many ways, I think the story about Black Lives Matter is something that, it resonates in South Africa in part, because of the parallels with South Africa’s own journey.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

And I think that the museum sector, its crisis really began in the beginning of democracy as the museums had to redefine themselves and reimagine themselves in a democratic state, when previously they had been state resources under an Apartheid regime. And so, that process is ongoing and I think the Black Lives Matter movement helps amplify some of the questions that were raised even 20, 25 years ago, that are still ongoing here in South Africa, as museums struggle to identify how to respond and in which way to respond, particularly if they’re associated with very big and bureaucratic decision-making teams.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

What I think we’re seeing here is new and exciting spaces opening up outside of the museum sector for people playing in the space that tend to be occupied by museums, where people are reimagining, what is a cultural institution? I love this definition that I’ve seen, and it’s attributed to Linda Goode Bryant of the Just Uptown Gallery in New York. And she says that, “Cultural institutions should be in the business of turning can’ts into cans.” And I think where we’re seeing, in South Africa and elsewhere around the world, cultural institutions, even outside of the museum sector, imagining what’s possible and turning those can’ts into cans.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Again, like Monica mentioned, I think there’s a moment where institutions will perish if they don’t readjust their thinking. We’re in a moment where I believe we will look back and say, “Which side were you on?” And if you can’t answer that question in a way to speak to the values and the dignity of every person in your community and the ways in which you have truly transformed your staff, your policies, your procedures, to reflect the realities of the community around you, you run the risk of becoming a small club that will fade out in due course.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Jim, I’d love to jump in to echo something that Gretchen said. This moment has really been a turning point, almost like a lightning spark for labour movements. And that is almost adjacent and just as important as Black Lives Matter movements for dignity, humanity, freedom from oppression and violence, for Black persons. All of the museum folks that I know are attuned to the fact that labour is ultimately perilous and precarious for those in the museum sector.

Monica O. Montgomery:

I’ve had dozens, maybe hundreds of friends and colleagues be laid off, furloughed, unceremoniously fired from institutions that said, “Oh, we’re closed right now. Frontline staff, the first to go.” Education, community outreach, all of those “touchy-feely departments”, are the first to go. And that affects people, right? And already it was precarious for people who were coming into the work as recent graduates, unpaid interns, others who were trying to get their foot in the door, career changers, but now, many of the people that relied on having a solid, stable job, that have been working in this field for decades, are out of work.

Monica O. Montgomery:

And it’s unsettling, again, that disruption, shining a wider light on what is wrong there. And I think that a lot of these organisations who have done this kind of unceremonious firing or harsh, massive layoffs, understanding that finance is a real concern and that you can’t afford to sustain everyone, but then there are organisations that have endowments that aren’t tapping into them. And so, it makes you question, how are they really allotting their funds?

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Yeah.

Monica O. Montgomery:

But I like how individual collectives of workers have started writing letters of demand, open letters. There’s a million of them. I’ve been speaking about this in various spaces and advising clients that when you get a letter of demand, lean into it, don’t be afraid, don’t try to get a crisis PR team, “How do we get rid of this? How do we make it go away?” That is your accountability statement and strategy, right there. People who are wanting apologies, people who are talking about the toxic, harmful workplace culture, people who were saying they never felt safe in the space or they were never regarded, their ideas were co-opted. And all of those kind of things that need redress and remedy are coming to the fore and it’s making the whole sector nervous, but it’s making the whole sector rethink, “How do we treat the workers who sustain our organisations?”

Monica O. Montgomery:

And I know that right now, with those labour collectives, the alternate, beautiful part of that is that there’s a lot of mutual aid funds that are springing up to meet the needs of workers who have been laid off, who are out of work. And so, workers are self-organising, saying, “We are going to all chip in small money, so we can sustain ourselves. We’re going to speak truth to power to the institutions, and we’re going to make sure the next job has better values aligned than the last.”

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Can I speak to that?

Jim:

Yeah.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Because I feel like first of all, the one thing I want to say is that I’m incredibly inspired by the kind of museum conversations that I’m seeing on social media of museum workers who have been laid off, who have been furloughed. And I wish there was a way I could harness their energy as a low-cost, small museum, and to say, “We have space. If you are a person who wants to work with meaning and passion in a small project and make some type of contribution that you can use in terms of your rebuilding, showcase your portfolio, we’re a place that is open for those kinds of collaborations.”

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

But I think more than that, I think there’s a really exciting possibility that if policy could be directed at the cultural sector to reimagine ways in which we can reignite some of the economic losses that have come to bear under COVID-19, by activating that talent and that capacity, and that drive in the museum sector, through employment initiatives, re-placing people, activating those unemployed sector workers through employment drives. I think that there’s a lot of excitement that could happen there.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

In South Africa, we’re in a situation where the official unemployment rate is 30% and that doesn’t include the people who’ve just simply given up looking for work. So, one of the partnerships that we’ve developed in this last little while has been partnering with some corporates to say, “If you can help give stipends to formerly unemployed youth, who’ve never had a job before, we want to help nurture them with a very first, entry-level job in the cultural sector.” And those are the folks who we’re training to give psychological first aid, which is, it’s a proven and tested and respected way of reaching out to communities and asking how people are doing.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

That’s what we’re doing as a museum right now, is training those workers to say, “Can you help do outreach with our community? Can you help distribute packets with information about how to play and engage with your child, to give information about self-care and how to take care of yourself and your mental health at this time?” That’s the role that we’re playing as a museum with people for whom they’ve never had a job before, and they’re supported by partnerships with government and business in our society. So, I think that there’s so many creative ways that we can harness the energy and excitement of people who want to work in the museum sector right now, in ways that can be boundary shattering,

Tony Butler:

Slightly different context in the UK, because, well, there has been government interventions. The furlough scheme has meant that a large proportion of the workforce would’ve been on furlough and most of them have been paid 100% of their salary, even though government assistance is only 80% percent. So, I think lots of museums, ours included, made damn sure that you would treat your furlough staff just the same as people that were still working.

Tony Butler:

The 1.15 billion package for the cultural sector will go some way to alleviate some of those losses. And I think that the rules around redundancy in consultation, that there are a number of organisations that are undergoing that process at the moment, means that there’s much less noise about that on social media than say in other parts of the world. So, people haven’t been immediately made redundant as soon as poor numbers come in.

Tony Butler:

That said, it’s been really interesting and quite encouraging to see a growth in union membership. So, people are joining the unions, unions are mobilising more, and especially, you can see that around the layoff to the commercial that the Tate have had to do. So, there has been more assertiveness on people whose jobs are vulnerable, but because of government intervention at this stage, it does appear to have alleviated some of the problems that otherwise would’ve happened. And I think, you’re seeing fewer people being made redundant, fewer organisations that might be really vulnerable.

Tony Butler:

The biggest challenge is going to be, in our case, next financial year and going into next year, to seeing how far those organisations can recover financially to ensure that they can carry out their social mission. The fact that I’m running an institution that’s 180 years old, does weigh quite heavily on me in wanting to keep the organisation intact in some way, so that we can continue to do social good into the future. And part of my role is to ensure that financially and structurally, we stay cohesive, so that when a new normal appears in the next couple of years, we have enough social and economic capital to do all the things that can benefit our community, in the way that we’ve been doing for the last five or six years.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

It seems like, Tony, you positioned the Derby Museums in a really exciting way, just based on what I know, having visited your website and taken a look at the Museum of Making, I think is one of those examples of how can you reimagine what you’re doing and for a 21st century, in a lot of ways. So, in terms of that legacy, I think it’s really exciting just as an admirer from afar, we’re in a different continent, but we look to you in terms of the ways in which you’re reimagining as an institution that is 180 years old, but very, very future looking and very exciting in terms of the innovative ways you’ve rethought to reinterpret the mission and vision of the institution.

Tony Butler:

Thank you for that. That’s very kind of you to say. I think the big challenge for what you would term as legacy organisations, ones that have a long history, in our case, 180-odd years or so, is how they change and adapt to a new circumstance. Change is happening, it’s happening a lot faster, and there is different kind of change that has been accelerated by crisis. And the biggest calls from the outside world to change in museums, certainly as I see it in the UK, are for legacy organisations. The British Museum, the V&A, civic museums in cities and communities that were founded during the Victorian era.

Tony Butler:

And the challenge for those organisations, and I hope we have begun to address those, is to confront their history, confront and develop new narratives with their community, but to not put that history in somewhere aside. The legacy of that organisation is, your organisation is there forever, and the need now is to accelerate participatory work, more democratic work, work where we’re opening buildings for more voices. That’s the challenge.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

What it sounds like you’re talking about is that idea of integration, the integration of the history with what you described as developing new narratives with the community, which I think is quite exciting. And I think is very interesting, particularly for those regional museums who are redefining what the region may mean going forward. I’m curious to know, how did you go through that process or how do you go through that process yourself?

Tony Butler:

Well, I suppose, there are intellectual currents that influence thinking. So, my colleague, Hannah Fox, who’s the product director of the Silk Mill was in the organisation before I was, and absolutely centred things around human-centred design. So, for her, human-centred design was the way that you create new narratives, new spaces, new experiences.

Tony Butler:

I’ve been involved in community museums before I came here and my, I suppose, my intellectual [inaudible 00:37:19] was around asset-based community development. So, looking at what you have in your community, physical, financial, but also social assets. There’s networks created by people coming into contact with a museum and the museum being a part of the rhythm and muddle of the community. So, we talk about our museum as being asset-based and human-centred. So, you draw on all those assets of the community that aren’t necessarily physical, but you design with people in mind, and all our activities and programmes are human-centred by involving those people in the design of that. And, Gretchen, when you talked about taking a human-centred approach to your work and you’re clearly doing it, you’re taking it in a fantastic direction, it’s brilliant to see how those ideas are adapted for different circumstances, in different communities.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Well, out of interest, we’re just embarking on an expansion right now of our Heal and Connect programme, which is really that outreach and engaging with families where they’re at. And we’re expanding that work now in different sectors across the city, including with refugees and migrants and children with disabilities as groups where we’re hosting different kinds of engagement with social workers, with outreach teams, and really connecting people through that work. So, it’d be interesting to see how that does adapt over time.

Tony Butler:

Fantastic. One thing that has revealed itself to me, I think, through the crisis, is this idea of knowing your place and knowing how you can be a useful organisation. I think one of the things that there was a big rush towards at the beginning was to try and prove how useful you could be to your community, and especially in a country like the UK, which is quite small, with lots of people, and very intricate levels of local government and civil society. And that space sometimes is quite contested and busy, so there’s a judgement to make as to of where you can be most useful. To step back when you see civil society groups and community groups doing much better job than you can do, and to support and to be a facilitator for them, but also to acknowledge and support your local council.

Tony Butler:

So, one of the things that I’ve been really, really inspired by is our local council, and local authorities do get loads of grief and get slagged off a lot by residents, but our Derby City Council really rose to the challenge with this. They quickly developed neighbourhood action groups. They mobilised the voluntary sector and the community sector, and they worked in partnership with them more or less immediately. So, death rates are infection rates in our city have been a lot lower than those nearby. So, as much as anything else, it’s got me to think really carefully about how useful my organisation can be and it’s restored my faith in local government and democracy.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Curious about something, and Tony, you brought this up. I just wonder about how much more often the frequency of museum public-private partnerships might be happening now. Since you said you’ve been inspired by the council, have you or has the museum formally partnered with them in any ways? Or Jim, have you seen across the continents, museums and governments working together on initiatives, is that a trend?

Tony Butler:

I think in the UK, it’s again, a different context, because lots of our city museums are either owned or managed or funded by their local council. So, there’s the kind of umbilical link to the local authorities. What excites me is those really interesting links between civil society organisations and museums as institutions. So, many museums in the UK have operated in the civic sphere because they are civic institutions, so the sphere of local government or the sphere of national government.

Tony Butler:

And what I’m excited by is new relationships that are being built with civil society organisations. And museums saying, “Well, we can’t do everything and you are better placed because of your networks, because of your social capital, to deliver really positive outcomes, using cultural heritage as an inspiration for that.” Well, I would hope that we continue to show the humility, to do things, to step back and acknowledge that other people can do this better, but knowing your place, and knowing your place as a catalyst for civil society.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

I was just thinking that in our context in South Africa, there is such a vacuum, there is such a great inequality, a great history of exclusion, of disenfranchisement. And I think in that sense, we are in a very different kind of context, as was clear, my earlier comment that was so different in terms of the UK where furloughed staff are getting a salary for the time being. I think here there’s a sense that we’re in a society where so many people are at the margins.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

One of the statistics that came out a few weeks ago was that by the end of June, I believe, 47% of South Africans reported that they had run out of money for food. And so, we have a situation in which nearly half the country is facing hunger, acute hunger. And what does a museum play in that context? And I think those are the kinds of questions that we’re dealing with here, which does mean that we bleed a lot, I think, in a way that might not be appropriate in other contexts, where there are social services to step in and fill those roles with better capacity and skills certainly than we have.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

So, in a lot of cases, I think we try to take that approach where we’re humbly seeing work that needs to be done and when we don’t see other institutions stepping in, we ask ourselves whether or not we might be able to play that role. And I think, again, coming back to this idea that we’re a children’s museum, about igniting ideas in children and the idea of possibility and potential inside of themselves for their futures and connecting children with parents and connecting families with one another.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

And as much as that’s about STEM learning and about STEAM learning and creative learning, we’re really about a place about human connections. So, when we think about what we’re doing, we’re constantly bringing it back to, in what way can we be an institution that is about treating people with dignity and respect? And I think ultimately, if we can stay focused on that, as much as it might involve us stepping into other spaces, hopefully we are doing so in a way that is done with the right intentions and the integrity that we want to create as an organisation.

Jim:

There’s been lots which has been said there about positive things which have come out the crisis. And I wondered, what you will personally take forward from the past six months? Has it changed how you think about museums and your work?

Monica O. Montgomery:

I think for me, it’s let me know that nothing has to stay the way it was, right? Definitely societal things, institutions, laws, rules, all of it can change, should change. We should constantly be evolving and iterating and striving for our highest and best selves and our highest and best institutions. The usefulness that you spoke about, Tony, and the way that you were saying, Gretchen, you want to do more, you want to meet the needs of the community, especially when you hear those sobering statistics. I think that is the energy of the day and the prevailing notion.

Monica O. Montgomery:

So, I’ve learned, number one, as I endeavour to be a good professor, a good consultant, a good person, that I want to always be encouraging a spirit of innovation and iteration, and that we should never get too comfortable, too entrenched in how things are. I’ve also learned, just because things can go off the rails at any time, not to plan too far in advance. So, anyone who’s planning for 2022, God bless you. I don’t know how you’re going about that, but I think you can make a plan, but then you also need that plan B, the way it might pivot, what’s the contingency? Even that plan could go to plan C, D, E, and F.

Monica O. Montgomery:

But I think being nimble, being flexible is also the energy of the day. It’s given me incredible humility to know that I can’t control my circumstances, just in general, and with my country and all of the political back and forth and the social upheaval and just the daily struggles, that I shouldn’t internalise that. A lot of times, I think as an American, when things go wrong in society, we bring that anxiety, that worry, that sadness inwards, and it manifests in many ways and it impacts our mental health.

Monica O. Montgomery:

But that we have to just find joy in the journey, in the small things, in the nature walks that I take or in the savoury, like, “Oh, this is such a great dish that I made for dinner and I used a new spice.” And I’m going to be happy about that if everything else is going to hell. So, I think it’s also created the mindfulness, the happiness, the joy, but wanting better for the sector is not a bad premise. It’s not a dirty word.

Monica O. Montgomery:

I think I’ve talked to, ugh, so many people since the pandemic, because Zoom is the medium, right? So also, it made us realise, what used to be an in-person could easily be a digital meeting, and that’s okay. But it’s also made me more just outward focused on other people and their circumstance. When I know that a friend has been furloughed or laid off, I try to schedule a call, schedule a Zoom meeting, smile at them, look at them face-to-face, offer a listening ear, an empathetic spirit. And I think that ultimately, we will get through this, things will never be as it was, but hopefully it can be better.

Tony Butler:

Hopefully it can be better. That’s brilliant. I think in the UK, we’re quite a stroppy little country and I think we’re going through a period of real stroppiness, nationally and internationally, and that kind of ferment is quite powerful, but also can be quite debilitating. And separating noise from what matters, I think has been a challenge when you’re not physically open, you’re not on the streets, let’s say. So, I think that, that will be a challenge. And I hope the activism that exists online or has been amplified online can be translated into the real-time world, within our institutions.

Tony Butler:

On a personal basis, I’ve learned much more about my locality. For the first two months, I live in rural Suffolk when I’m not working, and I’ve learned so much about owls, badgers, hares, and the seasons, because walking around our place where I live, it’s been a fabulous thing to be able to do and to really appreciate my environment and the surroundings. So, that’s a really self-indulgent thing that I have enjoyed through lockdown and one that I do remind myself every time I’m faced with an awkward challenge.

Tony Butler:

But I think fundamentally, I’ve learned, it’s the realisation that change is going to happen really quickly and you got to be part of it, and you have to be part of the change. You also have to be mindful that there will be people who have privilege, that will try and stop that. And it’s something, if you’re committed to social change, you’ll come up against that every day, every hour of every day, there’ll be people that for whom change is not in their interest, and they’ll put everything in your way to stop you, and you’ve got to try and be clever and cute and smart and work your way around.

Jim:

Gretchen?

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

I think for me, I’m going to come away with a tremendous amount of gratitude for my team, and a lot of humility. I think, I’ve been really inspired by the commitment that my team has shown. We haven’t seen each other in person in nearly six months and we’re showing up every single day to try to reimagine what we’re doing. And it’s through their dedication that we’ve started actually nine new programmes since March. And our reach has grown by 300%, our budget has grown by at least 50%.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

So, we’re really finding that this is a point where we are defining who we are and building a workplace culture and building a new reality despite this very, very challenging time. And I know that my team has been doing that with young children at home, with competing challenges, with spouses that are looking for work. It’s a really, really tough time. And I think we’re living and breathing the daily challenges of this reality in a way that is still resulting in greater human connection, new programmes that inspire children and inspire parents and inspire teachers. And I’m just really humbled by that and grateful to be part of a team that’s working so hard to do this and to try to create a more dignified and better South Africa, really.

Jim:

Brilliant. You mentioned there some of the challenges which everyone’s had to face, and I wondered, one of the things we’ll touch on later this week is resilience, and I wondered what personal things you’ve all found to help you get through this? What’s been the tools, the techniques, the things that have got you through these tough days?

Monica O. Montgomery:

There’s nothing. No, I’m joking. I think you build resilience over your life cycle, right? So, as you shift from being a teenager to a college student, to a working adult, to a middle aged adult, you adapt in stages and phases. I think, as I mentioned earlier, realising that you can plan, but you can’t control things. That revelatory knowledge, ancient wisdom, has been helpful in helping me go with the flow. I’ve been doing a lot of nature walks and just observing nature. Nature, I think, is the ultimate teacher, and it’s been through everything, right? And mostly still here, despite the ways we destroy the planet. So, I think it’s been really great to observe the animals and the flora and the fauna.

Monica O. Montgomery:

I also just, I like to consume other stories. I’m a avid reader and voracious watcher of movies and science fiction. So, seeing other people’s stories and what is happening historically, what’s happening in the Afro future. That also really inspires me. But I think, just the essence of being resilient is knowing, this too shall pass. Things might be crazy, everything might be out of whack, but time and sleep is the ultimate healer, and tomorrow we try again and we have to keep trying every day we have breath.

Tony Butler:

Balance. I think, understanding the balance that you require in your life does make you resilient. And for me, the music of Brian Eno enables me just to sit and drift into a different space and I just feel at ease and recovered after I finish.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

I’ve got to be honest, I’ve been reading a lot of British literature actually. When you were talking, Tony, about the walks you would take, I actually think part of my resilience is thinking about taking walks in the English countryside as I’m trapped in my home. We’re in winter here and it’s been a cold winter, South African homes are notoriously under insulated, and it gets very cold here. And we’ve had one of the strictest lockdown regulations in the world. So, for weeks at a time, we couldn’t leave our house unless to go to the grocery store, or to go to the chemist, or to go to the hospital. We couldn’t go outside to walk dogs or go on a walk or exercise, you had to stay in your home.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

And so, in a lot of ways that I think that was very successful in delaying the surge of the spread of coronavirus and I was 100% into complying with those regulations, but it forced the life of the mind to be especially resilient at this time. And so for me, reading books, I’ve been voraciously reading even in the middle of the night. And I guess, I would credit just family time, my kids bringing me down to earth after work hours and trying to do whatever I can to keep it simple.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

I think I’ll be looking back at this time and being like, I remember I’d wake up and have that first cup of coffee and it would be like the best thing of my day and my eggs that I’d be having, then I’d have the call with the team and we’d all get to work. There’s that rhythm of this lockdown period that I think I’m going to relish the ways in which I tried to keep it as positive and nourishing as possible and trying to limit the wolves at the door. But overall, I think, myself and members of our team, we felt this feeling that if we have a roof of our head and we have food in the cupboard, we’re really lucky and really blessed, and as long as we can stay healthy and our families could stay healthy.

Tony Butler:

I have markedly improved the relationship with our dog. It’s been a real plus point. The family dog, it was not my dog, it was my partner’s dog. She wanted a dog. I found him a pest. He’s a very sweet cocker spaniel, but I found him really annoying. And then lockdown happened and I’m stuck at home. I have to walk the dog first thing in the morning. So, he would habitually, probably five or six days a week go for either a run around the fields or a much longer walk. And it’s vastly improved my relationship with the dog, with Linus. So, if nothing else, lockdown has helped me improve my relationship with our pets.

Jim:

It’s been worth it.

Tony Butler:

Yeah.

Jim:

So, other than looking back at this time and thinking about your improved relationship with your dog, say in 10 years time, when you look back at 2020, what’s the change that you hope that this year of crisis has provoked?

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

I think for us, moving this very much interactive, in-person children’s museum experiences about bridging divides and bringing people together and shared spaces, taking this time to really pivot and think about, how can we create ways to connect through technology and serve the same mission and same vision using technology to support that, is something that I wouldn’t have been able to imagine us doing as successfully as we have, especially on a dime and especially so quickly.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

So, I think for us, it’s really opened up entirely new possibilities of the future of Play Africa as a digital experience that can extend well beyond Johannesburg. We have had our African Storytelling series where we’ve had people tuning in to a live experience and engaging in comments with the storyteller and with the other people in the audience from four continents and nine countries, which is something that we wouldn’t have been able to do or wouldn’t have imagined doing in January of this year.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

We were focused on our flagship facility, bringing people together and crossing divides in our city and in our province, by bringing people together in a shared space, but we’ve been trying to do that now through technology. And I think what it’s done is really unlock this new possibility, what if we look at other kinds of possibilities to stream and experience and share and connect and offer rooms where people can meet together? So, for me, I think in many ways, 2020 will be about that turning point for our organisation and reimagining the future of children’s museums in Africa with that innovation.

Jim:

Brilliant.

Monica O. Montgomery:

I would say that, 20 years when I walk through the community or browse through the internet, I hope that all museums continue this robust engagement, the centering the audience and their needs and the channels that they look at and where we can meet them at their point of need. I hope that community engagement, community outreach literally becomes core to operations and there’s a director of community outreach in every museum and every cultural space. I think that this is what the audience has always needed, but now we’re forced to give it and change up our delivery model. And so, I want to keep seeing that being front and centre.

Monica O. Montgomery:

I hope that museums keep prioritising repair and remedy with their communities, with their workforce, with their stakeholders, with the people that were never welcomed and never invited, with the people that always were. Equalising how everyone can be treated well in a museum, by a museum, throughout a museum. And just thinking of that remedy and that engagement, like how that can, again, transform museum practise. So, right now, there are college programmes dedicated to curation or collections, or art administration. I’d love to see engagement and repair and remedy be a college course, which I’ll happily teach, or others can. And just becoming part of the museum studies tracks of the future.

Monica O. Montgomery:

I also really hope that the next generation, the kids that are now growing up doing, learning online, taking Zoom classes, all of the change that is happening in education, I hope that those children that will grow to be adults, that will grow to be stewards of our cultural institutions, will also come with some innovative ideas, fresh thinking, things people haven’t heard before. That somehow the ways they are learning will transform to the ways they can be leading our cultural institutions. And while we might say, “Oh, we wish they still had the classroom environment.” And that may return one day. That some part of this innovation will affect them when they step into professional roles as leaders.

Jim:

Great.

Tony Butler:

I hope in 10 years’ time that environmental care and ecology and community wellbeing are seen as two sides of the same coin and are as embedded in museums as learning and education. I was quite optimistic about the sector in the UK before COVID, and I hope as much of the good bits of it are retained and can continue beyond it.

Tony Butler:

I would hope that what this has done is start a reckoning in our museums, with our past, and that there is a real sense of understanding as to the origins and the histories of our institutions, in a way that helps us broaden the narratives, the stories we tell and the voices we have in our spaces. And that people running museums don’t look like me anymore.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Yes.

Tony Butler:

There’s one person of colour on the National Museum Directors Council, and there are 60 members of that council.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Wow.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Tony, amen to that. I have to clap and I have to echo, I would love to see more Black and brown people leading all manner of museums. I’m a Black woman, I’ve led two Black historic sites and that’s good and that’s a start, but next time I could be leading a Jewish museum or an art museum or a science museum. And there should be more of that and that shouldn’t be considered innovative, novel, and new. That, that should be a standard that anyone from any background, especially backgrounds that have been marginalised, people of colour, people of socioeconomic difference, people who have gender identities, can become the leaders that this new world needs and demands.

Monica O. Montgomery:

I think that is integral, that’s everything. And I hope that museums keep responding to Black Lives Matter in meaningful ways, not just making a statement and walking away and saying, “Well, we made the statement.” Right? But really infusing it through exhibitions, collections, curations, outreach, having truth and reconciliation commissions, that definitely needs to become a standard. So, yes to all of that.

Jim:

Well, let’s hope that we don’t have to wait 10 years to see that. I want to thank you all for your time today. You’ve all been fantastic. It’s really meant a lot to me to see three friends who I’ve met through MuseumNext, today, and sit and talk to you after so long on my own. So, thank you.

Monica O. Montgomery:

We’re just a Zoom call away, Jim.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

Can I just add one more thing, Jim? For me, about this idea of resilience, the main thing, it was when I heard about the walks that I thought to myself about the walks that you guys were taking, in my mind, but the truth is for me, talking to Monica on a weekly basis has been really just a wonderful injection of energy. And for me, this talk, these are the kinds of things that really energise me, that fuel me, that allow me to bring new energy and ideas and excitement back to my team. And so, that we can share that excitement.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

So, for me, it’s just a really big blessing to be part of this call and I’m really inspired by the work that everybody here on this panel’s doing through all of this. So, I feel really honoured and humbled to be here and grateful for the conversations that I’m able to have. And Monica is somebody that I’ve been speaking to. We met at the Oxford Cultural Leaders Programme last year and just engaged in this lovely series of conversations, that’s for me, been an injection of amazing energy. So, I’m so grateful for my conversations with her on a regular basis. So, thank you so much.

Monica O. Montgomery:

Thank you, Gretchen.

Gretchen Wilson-Prangley:

And thanks to both of you. And I’d love to keep the conversation going. I find it very, very valuable and meaningful. So, thank you very much.

Jim:

Thank you. And of course, we want to keep the conversation going for everybody here on Mighty Networks’ network. So, tell us what you think of what has been said today, what positives you’re going to take away from the COVID crisis, and what things you think you’ll look back in 10 years’ time and think, “COVID changed that in terms of museums.” So, thanks for your attention today. Thanks again to all our speakers. And I will see you tomorrow with more from MuseumNext Disrupt.

 

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