It all started with this tweet from Louise Cohen, recapping something Douglas Hegley said in a session at Museums and the Web 2019:
“Museum professionals are too risk averse. Try things. You might get a hand slap. You’ll survive a hand slap.” - @dhegley on how to innovate #mw19 @museweb— Louise Cohen (@LouiseACohen) April 4, 2019
Which is a great sentiment (more on this below), but it was Emily Lytle-Painter’s response to this question (and Tracey Berg-Fulton’s follow-up) that really hit me hard:
So, @dhegley, I understand what you are saying. But it was the *constant* hand slaps that I couldn't take. Also, it's rarely just that. It's a slow but pernicious sidelining of your authority.— Emily LP (@MuseumofEmily) April 5, 2019
In retrospect, easy to identify as unhealthy. But while in-situ, it's professional gaslighting that makes progress near impossible.— Emily LP (@MuseumofEmily) April 5, 2019
This. Exactly this. And for folks in precarious positions a hand slap could === a pink slip. Which, for me, job loss means the loss of medication needed to keep me alive. The constant slapping, the precarity, the lack of GAF? That's hard to survive. #MW19— Tracey Berg-Fulton (@BergFulton) April 5, 2019
Has to be said that some (esp. devs) earn multiples of what their colleagues do and will have far fewer challenges finding a new job, so risk taking is easier. For many others, just as passionate and creative, the cost of losing that museum gig can be enormous.— Roger Howard (@rogerhoward) April 5, 2019
Being in such a precarious position sounds really, really hard. It does sound hard to survive in that kind of environment. Is there any kind of alternative? I feel the need to apologize on behalf of the sector. We *must* express our values through the way we treat our staff.— Douglas Hegley (Staying Home) (@dhegley) April 5, 2019
Suse makes a really important and terrifying point:
(Ah, but what if we already do express our values in the way we treat our staff?!)— suse anderson (@shineslike) April 5, 2019
I keep coming back to this thought myself. Seems like an awful lot of museum discussion these days (labor, donors/capitalism, collections/colonialism, etc.) boils down to “We're still fighting against who we were to figure out who we are, and who we're going to be.”— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) April 5, 2019
Outside of some whimsical holocracy somewhere doesn't that describe every job, museum or otherwise?— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) April 5, 2019
Your company culture/values are defined by what you punish, reward and ignore. The question is whether those decisions are made intentionally or thoughtlessly.
I kept chewing on Emily’s and Tracey’s responses throughout the day. Everything about them felt so familiar, yet so rarely expressed so openly in our sector.
This idea of *constant* hand slaps has stuck with me all day today, because I think it feels so familiar to so many of us. There are the rare moments of true bravery in our work where we do stand up and say "damn the consequences, this is right!". /1— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) April 5, 2019
I suspect (I unfortunately wasn’t there) that this was the context of Douglas’ original statement. Museum technology has for so long been framed as an ongoing fight against conservatism, and in that context, there were (and still are, if perhaps less often) these moments of bravery where we find ourselves forcing our museums to face the future, as it were. Unfortunately, the daily reality for many museum workers looks more like the one that Emily and Tracey describe:
Unfortunately, the reality is that on a daily basis we make small decisions that don't reflect our expertise or our values simply because we don't want to get yelled at *today*. Stack up hundreds of those days and evaluate them in hindsight, it looks like risk aversion. /2— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) April 5, 2019
It's, as @MuseumofEmily says, this slow, pernicious erosion of expertise and authority that's the big problem. Because this spreads through the organization easily and quickly. #mw19 #musetech /end— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) April 5, 2019
Postscript: One big reason this is so depressing is that in my experience in museums, "you did that wrong" is a more common critique than "maybe you shouldn't do that." You don't even realize you're "taking a risk" until you're told so after the fact. #mw19— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) April 5, 2019
This conversation seemed to strike a chord with a few people:
Christ, this thread slapped me in the face and punched me in the nethers 💔— Russell Dornan (@RussellDornan) April 5, 2019
Less hand-slapping leads to fewer nether punches! Save the nethers!— Emily LP (@MuseumofEmily) April 5, 2019
Louise focuses us, and starts thinking about constructive ways to address it all:
Hearing everyone’s experiences makes me wonder how we collectively influence this. What can we do to address a wide-spread culture of handslapping and worse? Ideas?— Louise Cohen (@LouiseACohen) April 5, 2019
I won't pretend to have all of the answers. For starters, I hold myself accountable to never "hand slap" and to lead with generosity and empathy. Second: do my best to spread the word about better leadership models for our sector. I know I'm not alone in that. Will keep at it.— Douglas Hegley (Staying Home) (@dhegley) April 5, 2019
And no matter your intentions, some of it will always be thoughtless because constant 100% always on mindfulness just doesn't happen.— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) April 5, 2019
That's why habit is so important because you fall back to your default when you're tired on a Wednesday afternoon and just want to go home.
Culture deserves more than slogans and one-off training sessions. It is deliberate, concerted efforts to create a space that feels safe and inclusive enough for thoughtful experimentation to occur.— the fold in the square (@mimosaishere) April 5, 2019
A few ideas to limit a punative culture:— Emily LP (@MuseumofEmily) April 5, 2019
- staff labor unions
- 360 reviews
- encode experimentation in org policy
- increase front end eval budgets
- make it easier to *cancel* unsuccessful initiatives
- org-wide celebration of "failures"
- formalize internal advisory groups
I’m ashamed that I haven’t picked up my copy of “Humanizing the Digital” yet, but this approach sounds extremely interesting and constructive. If part of the problem is that we don’t understand each others’ work, and therefore can’t respond to it in an organizationally constructive manner, something like this might work:
The Design Studio (incl. me & @thenewpopup) at @amhistorymuseum have done 70ish interviews w/staff, using a "personal journey map" format, to build understanding & empathy w/ our colleagues. Now considering how to use findings to effect strategic change in organizational culture.— Clare Brown (@clareonthego) April 6, 2019
read more about our approach in this book, Humanizing the Digital: https://t.co/7SGjNiSrvq— Isabella Bruno (@thenewpopup) April 6, 2019
Related to this issue, I started wondering if the diversity of expertise present on our staffs, which is part of what makes them such interesting places to work, is partially at fault for some of this.
I wonder if the lack of core organizational success metrics are actually a liability for museums in promoting positive organizational cultures. Without an obvious "bottom line" to define a staff member's performance against, performance is open to interpreted opinion. #mw19— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) April 5, 2019
Worth reading from @mulegirl. A proposed approach to your metrics question. https://t.co/6bwfBOHuhI— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) April 6, 2019
Like, how often have I done something that I believed to be critically important to the museum (informed by my experience and knowledge) only to later be told that I was working on the wrong thing?— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) April 5, 2019
Because museums have such a diversity of expertise on staff, this often means that staff do what they believe is right within their specific role ("I contribute to the museum's success by being the best educator I can be" or similar).— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) April 5, 2019
But if everyone is interpreting "contributing to the museum's success" in a personal way, there's going to be a ton of hand-slapping.— Koven J. Smith (@5easypieces) April 5, 2019
And at the same time, there needs to be enough flexibility in what such contributions look like so that an organization remains dynamic.— the fold in the square (@mimosaishere) April 5, 2019
I think more emphasis can be given to soft skills: collaboration, training, mentoring - helping someone understand the backgrounds we have.
Agreed with all these, tho to get at Mimosa's point about recognizing the spectrum of POVs in the org, it feels like there'd also need to be a carved out intention to regularly review leadership's ideas of what the org culture should be and change that to include emerging ideas.— Rachel Ropeik (@TheArtRopeik) April 6, 2019
Even without the hand-slapping, if everyone interprets their contributions on a solely personal level, there will be no coordination. It ends up being a weak organization because you're not using the power of collective action.— Matt Popke 🎲 (@Polackio) April 5, 2019
I think this encompasses most of what we discussed. It’s hard to always follow branching Twitter threads, so if I missed something, please let me know!
Of possible further interest:
- At what cost? - February 12, 2019
- Musetech at cruising altitude - May 16, 2018
- Is the museum technology sector shrinking? - April 19, 2018
- The conference backchannel and the ‘right on’ - April 18, 2018