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The Structures of Museum Revolutions

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Lāth Carlson
Executive Director, 
Living Computers: Museum+Labs

Museums can make truly structural changes in order to effect real progress in terms of inclusiveness. At Living Computers: Museum + Labs the principles of inclusion are infused throughout the organization. Shortly after opening in 2012 the entire museum experience and structures were reimagined through building strong community partnerships, more than doubling staff, remodelling the building, doubling public space, adding events and programs, expanding outreach, creating a whole floor of current technology exhibits, building three computer science learning labs, and adding significantly to the collections.

In this process they positioned inclusivity as core to their policies and procedures with: no degree requirements for any position, every internship is paid at a living wage, all staff positions include full benefits, flexible employment options, flexible hours, a viable career ladder, internal promotions, hiring only local contractors and, hiring diverse contractors, a non-hierarchical and open workspace, a high degree of autonomy for all staff, and collaborative work processes.

Excellent, so probably [unintelligible 00:00:14]. Starting with this slightly provocative question here, and the question is what if we have been doing diversity all wrong? I have been in the field for over 25 years, I have spent a lot of time in conferences, a lot of time talking about initiatives to diversify the field and yet I keep going to conferences and seeing an audience that looks very similar, year after year.  

A lot of what we have been working on in the field is thinking about values in organisations for instance. So, this is fairly random collection of value statements from a whole bunch of museums of all different sizes. There’s a lot of in common. These exercises that have come up with value statements, within themselves, would be really good for organisations, but often they’re left there. I know they call this the Kaepernick paradox. So, all these NFL owners saying they support his right to free expression and to lean the general population awareness about police brutality, yet you still have a job, and that’s very similar to what we do in our museums.  

We come up with these value statements but then we don’t hire maybe based [on that thought]. Another thing over this long career I’ve had is talking about the word of diversity. It comes up all the time, we talk about it and yet all the board members look pretty much the same. So, this is also very random sampling things, little images, boards of all different sizes and all different types of museums. So, this is very broad, it looked pretty similar.

Then I started thinking about this, looking at the data, and I look at a lot of data. I happened to be at an AAM meeting in Seattle where they presented research from a current study that was done on boards and directors of museums, and I really give [unintelligible 00:02:04] a lot of credit. AM is actually doing a lot of fantastic work and really facing up to some truths and fact-driven decision making. One of the things that came out of this research was that over 80% of board directors see the primary role of board members as being fundraising. The board members themselves didn’t share this quite [unintelligible 0:02:24], but then looking at some data, in particular this data.

And it doesn’t get much better when we look at the median. The median actually is worse. So, the average is driven up a few very wealthy individuals. So, when we look at the median, there is this massive disparity in wealth racially in this country, particularly among black and white Americans. So, then I started thinking how do we reconcile all of this. We’re saying we want more diverse boards¸ we’re hearing directors saying the primary role of a board is fundraising, and yet when we look at the capacity of individuals because of structural racism in particular in this country, there is a huge gap. How do we reconcile that? Frankly, I have no idea how to do that. So, I’ve got something very different, and I’m going to admit my board is not a fundraising board.

So, while I have an opportunity to diversify my board, I’m not stuck in this conundrum of being fundraising-driven. So, that’s given me better opportunity there, but really, I’ve had opportunity to focus on other ways of getting at this problem and not just getting back to the same old thing we talked about year after year in these conferences. So, what I’d look at more is what are the structures of our institutions and how might we change the structures. When we talk about structures, are there science geeks out there that caught the reference in my title? Thomas Kuhns, The structural nature of scientific revolutions. It is a fantastic book. It is where paradigm shift comes from, by the way, which I heard mentioned earlier today.  

So, when I think about structures, I think about structures in two different ways. One type of structure is the organising principles of your organisation. So, here’s a board chart for an institution. I think about this, actually going back to this morning’s fantastic framing for today about this is the dinner party, this is the idea of the dinner party, that structure. Also, when we talk about structures, like the table. So, the physical embodiment of those organising principles. So, those are the two types of structures I’m going to talk about and all of our institutions have both of things in play. They have organising principles but then they have the physical embodiment of those principles as well.

I’m going to start off talking about one piece of this. I’m going to talk about people. Often in museums, we get stuck on the stuff but really, it’s people that make the organisations what they are. If all the people left and it was just the stuff, it wouldn’t really last very long and we’ve seen this unfortunately in areas that have experienced war, where the staff disappeared and all the objects were looted in institutions and disappear. It’s the people that build it together. If you want a more diverse staff, the first thing I’m going to say, pay them. I can almost end there. There’s been a lot of discussion in our field about this. It’s a critical issue.

In my institution, we have no volunteer, we have 100% paid staff and 100% paid interns, and this is something we’ve very dedicated to. So, there’s a need to do this. We also actually offer all other staff benefits as well. Part-time staff can get full benefits as well, it’s full-time staff and this is very intentional. The decisions, we actually put together a volunteer programme. We have decided not to implement that for the time being because we would rather give paid opportunities to people, and this included for an organisation, resourceful computers. Imagine, there are many people out there interested in helping do that, that are retired computer engineers.

We have them as contractors. We’ve had some issues sometimes where they have benefits they’re getting from retirements [unintelligible 00:06:31] a problem. So, we work within that but we want to pay them something in value with the work that they’re contributing. So, that’s part of our philosophy. We also really think differently about employment requirements. Paul G Allen, the founder of Microsoft, and Bill Gates, neither of them graduated from college.   These are their resumes, we have them on display museum and people are fascinated by their resumes, partially because they list their height and weight and things like that.  

The important thing here is how much experience they had and how they highlight all of their experience and what they can do, and not their education. That’s really important, I think, when we’re hiring staff, what people can do, what they demonstrate they can do. Don’t get caught up on degrees. I’m director of a museum, I have a Bachelors degree, I’m lucky to have that. I’m one of probably, I haven’t actually met any directors of institutions that don’t have advanced degrees. That is a problem, if you look at Silicon Valley where I worked previously, if you look at tech companies, it’s like oh, everybody that’s leading a tech company has to have an advanced degree, that rule [unintelligible 00:07:42] most of the tech companies. Most of the tech companies, [unintelligible 00:07:44] dropped out of college and had a great idea and did something with it. So, we’ve got to get over this hang-up about advanced degrees and those kinds of requirements.

We also make the application process less intimidating. The whole way that we set up and promote the positions all the time makes them inaccessible, and the other thing that we do a lot of is over [unintelligible 00:08:05].   We hire these incredibly over-qualified candidates and they were surprised when they were not content in the position that we put them in, right. That is ridiculous, and I lay a lot blame at the grad schools. They’re graduating way more Museum Studies graduates than there are jobs for, and that’s frankly disgraceful, especially the fee-based programmes. They need to look at themselves, what are you really doing to the field by doing that. It’s not fair, frankly. 

Another thing that we look is really changing policies around clothing for instance, and what staff can look like. This is actually Molly on the left, she’s one of our part-time staff. We also have, we developed staffing policies where people, for their [unintelligible 00:08:51] requirements, need to work odd hours, come in the evening, only work on weekends, we accommodate that.   So, Molly only works special events, she doesn’t usually deliver Barbie cakes but sometimes she does. Then she’s wearing event attire.   I mean this is appropriate to the crazy Barbie event that we did with drag queens and things, and that’s something we’ve really worked hard on building, let’s make it approachable and actually, I dress very intentionally.

This is what I call my urban camouflage, [unintelligible 00:09:23] anywhere but also set a tone with our staff. If you over-dress as the leadership and then you pay your staff poorly and expect them to dress well, you’re setting a really tough expectation to follow. Also, you’re doing something weird with your guests because your guests are not coming dressed like that.  

 So, then you have this differential power, because dress is power. So, thinking about like how we present ourselves, how we convey our power in a situation. Also, one of the things we really look at is benefits. So, we actually offer benefits, so we actually offer benefits to partners, regards of gender and that kind of matter of course as far as family leave policies are very fair. Another thing we really strive to is we’re transparent about hiring practices and we’re transparent about promotion opportunities and how we make decisions.   As well as taking those over-qualified staff and giving them greater opportunities.

So, here you see of our tour guides, KC and Jamika and they’re out at an event.   Well, KC is actually now running all of our outreach events because there’s great opportunity to build on his resume, build his skill set by doing that. Jamika really lead a lot of our efforts around physical access, our physical accessibility to the museum, for long-sighted individuals with mobility issues and things like that. So, she took on that project, was able to do that in addition to her normal duties. It’ll make her more employable in the future.   So, really thinking about how can you give the staff those opportunities.

This is a [unintelligible 00:10:48] here working on an exhibits project.   So, we generally give a [unintelligible 00:10:53] staff, they can come on any level and work on other projects. So, here they are working on something for a robotics exhibit. So, they’re very painstakingly laying out these individual robot parts [unintelligible 00:11:03] is fascinated, but here they are working together on this. So, this gives them an opportunity to show something more than what they’re doing as a tour guide with this other work that they’re providing.

Another thing we’ve looked at is active house spaces. So, actually honouring our space. How many of you have like horribly messy, cramped awful offices, you’re working in a basement, I’ve been for most of my career, something like that.   Hands? Who loves their office, anyone, love their office? Okay, cool, so we have some good offices. So, we actually did a survey of our staff and asked them what they really wanted in their work spaces, and we completely re-configured our work spaces and on a zero cost to accommodate that.

 The biggest thing they wanted was windows. Our whole office space had two.   One was in an office, so we moved the wall, so that window was exposed and we put everyone not near the window, everyone back in a circle. So, everyone gets a little light and our interns and front-line staff [unintelligible 00:11:56] the windows. So, we prioritise them because they’re in those spaces all the time, we wanted to get them the best possible space.   We also have a really non-merit work space, that’s me there in my cubicle, and my cubicle is the same as everybody else’s.

So, we purposefully create a very open office environment, and those signals are important as well, how we set up our physical spaces like that. We also have a decompression room, so one of our staff [unintelligible 00:12:24] stressful positions, we have a room they can go into and actual relax on the couch, even sleep if they need to if they really need to take a break. We also provide our staff with very high-quality tools and we want to honour the work that they’re doing and not making work un-junky, all the technology and things, they’re always a struggle. Give them a good stuff, it can’t be much work.

So, really thinking about all of those signals that you can send to actually honour the staff that you have. So, institutions don’t exist without the staff they have. It is really about people and that’s how you can bring together a really nice [unintelligible 00:13:00] who do the incredible work that’s really meaningful. So, I’m now at the second type of structure. So, I was just talking about spaces and the importance of our office spaces and work spaces.

So, now we’re going to talk now about the public side of our spaces and how important the signalling is that we send with the public side of our spaces. You’ll notice that my language is very intentional. So, I talk about users in our museums and not visitors or guests. That’s whole other talk I’ve given before, but [unintelligible 00:13:30] language really influences then the expectations of who you’re serving. 

The number one thing when you’re trying to reach a broader audience [unintelligible 00:13:41] of Americans do not go to museums. Three quarters do not go to museums. So, when you were talking about being inclusive and welcoming to a broad population, most people [unintelligible 00:13:53] come to your institutions. So, what you look like really matters.   We had the opportunity to move our entire museum from our 1932 warehouse building in an interesting part of Seattle.

We’re in an industrially zoned, with no housing, a lot of marijuana shops, a lot of colourful businesses at times, also [unintelligible 00:14:11] headquarters behind us and Home Depot down the street. So, it’s interesting [unintelligible 00:14:16] for a museum. We had the opportunity to move and we said no. We had someone who’s going to [unintelligible 00:14:21] building downtown, I said no, we liked where we were. Part of the reason we liked where we were in the building was that we could more accurately represent the kinds of experiences that the visitors, the users, were interested in bringing or familiar with. 

Our building right now looks like the Home Depot down the street. It’s obvious we’re [unintelligible 00:14:42] it’s an obvious way go in. We very strategically use things that look like movie posters on the outside to advertise things that people are familiar with are not familiar with museum conventions, but they’re familiar with going to the Home Depot, they’re familiar with going to Target, to Walmart. So, trying to play all of those familiarities. Our operations manager formally managed the downtown Target store in Seattle and has a great experience in understanding how broad populations access retail environments and we leverage that a lot.

So, it’s not the prettiest thing to look at but it is accessible. We also think about the way our graphics and text come off. We use lower-case key a lot, so it does not have voice of God, authoritative, capital-case in our text. We go with lower-case [unintelligible 00:15:24]. We don’t know everything, like this is who we are, come hang out with us which is a different approach to take and a lot of institutions take. Same goes for, although we’ve actually [unintelligible 00:15:34] jointly working on things together and welcoming that comes across.

We carry this through. So, we re-designed the whole space last year. So, that is the context. I had a blank slate on this whole first floor. So, really thinking about entry experience as well. So, we moved a lot of things, we needed something immediately understandable.   You need to walk in the door, know where to go. If I’m just been seeing a little, if I were coming here, I would have no idea where the front door is, and I’m sure [unintelligible 00:16:03] a lot and I’ve worked in similar institutions.   [Unintelligible 00:16:06] where the front door is or where you come in, where you pay and what it costs.  

So, we took a huge menu of options down to essentially two. Either $12 [unintelligible 00:16:15] or $10 for any kind of discount and then $1 is fund money is an issue for access, that’s it those are the options. So, really simplifying it and making it super clear when people come in and having somebody like [unintelligible 00:16:27] here at the front desk who’s incredibly approachable and talks at every guest on the way in and on the way out and all of our staff [unintelligible 00:16:34] every person when they’re thinking about their experience. 

So, welcome them and then we also say goodbye when they leave. As a result, our admission to membership conversation ratio is about 15%, which is the highest [unintelligible 00:16:49]. Also making navigation easier. People who haven’t come to a museum before, they can easily get the [unintelligible 00:16:54]. We don’t make it a mystery how to navigate. You don’t see it well here but we use light projection onto our floor to give [unintelligible 00:17:01] people do not look up but people look down a lot.  

So, it tells you where to go, but on the floor, we have very clear indications of where things are. So, we call things exactly what they are, we don’t use any cute puns or any alliteration or anything like that, no call it what it is, make it simple to navigate, give multiple opportunities to see what there is to get to. The other really really important thing is making basic human needs accessible. So, in our case, as soon as you come in, we actually designed the space. So, first thing straight ahead of you is the rest rooms, literally staring at you and a lot of [unintelligible 00:17:39] right there as well.

The café is just to your left as you can see, so actually that spot, like a fat one here [unintelligible 00:17:47] end really where all these graphics are from that spot [unintelligible 00:17:53] and you can see every important human need from standing on one spot. Very intentionally, so using [unintelligible 00:18:00] was really important as we designed the space. We were not able to do generalist rest rooms due to space and physical infrastructure and budget issues.  

So, what we do, our concession is the little slider graphic there [unintelligible 00:18:13] slide it more on one side than the other, that’s the idea. We would love a generalist rest room, we just could not do that but making them immediately accessible.   We also have free Wi-Fi and power everywhere including cell-phone charging stations everywhere freely available. So, dealing with those basic human needs as much as we possibly can is really important to us.

Making our spaces safe is also really important.   So, here and I’m obviously standing in as a regular visitor there [unintelligible 00:18:39] pathway space is set up with a [unintelligible 00:18:43] in the back and we exit. So, the same way as they’re coming in and putting their kids in one of our workshops or another family member in the workshop, that kid cannot leave through the exit without you seeing where they’re going. They also can’t leave the [unintelligible 00:18:57] without seeing where they’re going. You can sit here in our [unintelligible 00:18:59] free Wi-Fi on your phone, do whatever you need to do while your kids, or whoever you’re with doing that.  

So, making the environment where safety is really [unintelligible 00:19:09] where you feel safe being in the space. This has gone so far that we had a meme for a while. I had shut it down, which exposed people sleeping in our museum. It happened every day, people feel so safe in the museum they do fall asleep. My favourite was a couple, a guy fell asleep [unintelligible 00:19:25] lap and then came down a half an hour later and she was asleep too. So, they were [unintelligible 00:19:32] and that’s fine. That’s just they’re comfortable and feeling safe in our space.

 We also think a lot about space experience, so one that isn’t too overwhelming. So, spaces where people can relax a little bit and contemplate. So, here a couple of users playing chess on [unintelligible 00:19:48] Microsoft surface table.   They might have spent half an hour there playing this game, totally different state than they would have been consuming exhibit content in a more traditional sense.

 So, we’re building opportunities with that, opportunities for physical movement, opportunities for contemplations. So, really thinking about how do we pace an experience. Same way with [unintelligible 00:20:08] so having no puns, no clichés.   Also understanding that a lot of times when you use metaphors in an exhibit, it doesn’t [unintelligible 00:20:15] as well. So, say what you mean, so here’s actually a graphic from the new space we just opened, what makes a museum [unintelligible 00:20:20] what works for people. So, [unintelligible 00:20:24] and everything else, and he understands the importance of clear, concise language.

 We also do something interesting. We do not do multiple languages in our text, but we made local devices available at the front desk, they’re pre-loaded with Google Translate and other accessibility tools and we test all our graphics readability in Google Translate.   Google Translate can do hundreds of languages, works brilliantly, I use it a lot.   So, why try to do one or two or three languages when you can do hundreds. So, that was the conscious decision that we’ve had. We also have tools for people with low sightedness and other things that can help them that they can take from our front desk.

We also do some interesting nudging through design. Here’s a conversation table, so we have these little cue cards they can pick up. They give them cues to start conversations. I think the most controversial was would you rather give up your smart phone or sex? So, it’s getting good conversations. And many other cards, that one we only use for adult events. And looking at the postures, there’s a great book I recommend called Make Space by [unintelligible 00:21:31] Stanford, all about posture and things.

 So, here it’s very much posture, so this is a very [unintelligible 00:21:38] kind of posture. So, the height of the stool and the way it is configured, it really minimises hierarchy and puts people on the same plane whilst there was some really good conversation there.   We also do things like varied textures of carpet. So, the thicker the carpet, you can slow people down. Casinos, airports do this all the time. So, exhibit spaces have thicker carpet in circulation spaces. So, interesting little nudging that you can do. Also for people that aren’t used to museums that much, they’re maybe confused with where you got your information from

So, you’ve heard data facts, right and museums are really horrible about telling people where their facts come from. We have got this voice of God that we know all of this stuff. You know much we’ve been wrong, you know how many exhibits about first peoples and things have been wrong historically, right. We don’t do so well with facts actually and we should do better at exposing what we know than what we don’t know.   So, we did a temporary exhibit, it just closed Barbie gets with the programme. It was all around gender and computing to the lens of Barbie playsets.   Margaret Middleton was our exhibit designer. This was actually based on a conversation I had, this woman, Rachel Simone-Wheel, who runs an online museum called FEMICOM. So, we have this panel at the end of our exhibit that talked about just where the idea came from, here’s the person behind it.   That’s Rachel there being interviewed by Robbie Turner, who calls [unintelligible 00:23:03].  

So, she was the interviewer for our big opening event there, but having the voice behind the exhibition be front and centre, and we’re experimenting with other ways we can do this really exposing how we know what we know or don’t know in our exhibitions. Also, working really hard to make your images within your exhibitions representational. We’re a museum of old computers. That’s something that historically [unintelligible 00:23:36], right. We just opened an exhibit on microchips. We really wanted to have a balanced voice.

So, we talked about a lot about the white guys who invented microchip technology [unintelligible 00:23:46] exhibition with absolutely equal spaces given to mostly women, mostly women of colour and immigrants that actually make the microchips.   So, the exhibition covers both sides of that with equal space. My list just keeps going on.

Making your staff visible. Another thing, [unintelligible 00:24:10] what is a museum, putting your staff out there as examples. If we just open this space. This is Cindy [Moriarty] our collections manager acquisition something. So, we had a space that couldn’t technically because of zoning reasons be an exhibition, so we made it open, storage, what is a museum working space for our staff, that people happened to be able to walk through.

So, people could walk in here, talk to Cindy or Amelia or any of our other staff about what they are doing, engage people, talk to them when they are not there. Cindy talks about what she does and uses very clear language and actually breaking down the dialogue, saying well, what is an artefact? What do we mean when we talk about acquisitioning? What is that process and are we making it transparent? What is going on? We try and do that as much as possible in the museum. It is putting your staff out there, and anyone asks we give a little behind the scenes tour of the museum too, and it happens regularly.

It is really interesting to see what happens when you start building that culture of access and putting the staff out there and it is once again really important how you present yourself too and how you connect. When I work on the floor of the museum, I was just there Saturday for an event. I wear a t-shirt just like everybody else. I am indistinguishable, we all are out there to work with our fellow [unintelligible 00:25:37]. So, how we present yourself and the way we design spaces and the way we work with people makes us successful and I think we need to pay more attention what all that signalling does.

So, to close things a little bit, this has got the insight that I have used. Something that we think about sometime, but maybe not being as opening and welcoming; structures. Structures are actually currently important for [unintelligible 00:26:02]. We don’t have structures, we’re just kind of ad-hocing it all the time and that doesn’t hold us very accountable and we have structures and we have processes and things that we follow; we can actually do a better job in exhibiting.

This was really well-illustrated on this particular day. We had an event for [unintelligible 00:26:21], so she is arguably the world first computer programmer. We had a birthday party, hence the hats and these two from the community came to the front door. They couldn’t understand that there was a fee to come into this birthday party and they started to flee. We have an access policy, $1 admission for anybody who is on public assistance, but we hadn’t really realised that that is really uncomfortable thing to talk about to our staff.

So, I happened to be right at front. I was working the event and I saw them turnaround and I could read the body language and the girl is very upset about not being able to go to this party and so I just made her read, and I said hey, would a dollar be fine and she said yes, fine. So, I bought them over and then we got them into the museum. So, we had a structure in place that was close but not quite right. So, now our staff actually all know that if anyone ever starts to leave the museum due to a cost issue, they [unintelligible 00:27:17] just bring them in. Whether it is a dollar the front or even three, we never [unintelligible 00:27:23].

 That is a structural thing, that is something we have had to put in place. The other structural part of this is the fact that Casey there who is working with these new individuals, Casey is just no different than they are. She is in a t-shirt wearing a birthday hat and it makes it incredibly accessible, right. Like these people, I have no idea their background. They may have never been to a museum, I really don’t know anything about them, but just on their [unintelligible 00:27:50], engaging in a way that is really approachable, so important that signalling that is happening there. So, that is the story I am going to close with. Thank you.

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